China’s Defense Ministry has vowed to bolster its “combat readiness” to defend against what it said was a “serious infringement” of the country’s sovereignty after the U.S. Navy dispatched two warships for an apparent “freedom of navigation” operation (FONOP) in disputed South China Sea waters.
The ministry said late Sunday that the Chinese military had warned the two U.S. warships to leave after they entered waters near the contested Paracel Islands in the strategic waterway.
The two warships, the USS Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser home-ported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the USS Higgins, a destroyer, had “arbitrarily entered China’s territorial waters around the Xisha Islands without permission of the Chinese government,” spokesman Wu Qian said, using the Chinese name for the Paracels.
The patrol was apparently the first time the U.S. had sent warships two simultaneously conduct a FONOP in the area.
The Chinese military dispatched naval vessels and aircraft “to conduct legal identification and verification of the U.S. warships and warn them off,” Wu said, according to a statement posted to the ministry’s website.
“The U.S. has seriously violated China’s sovereignty, undermined strategic mutual trust, and undermined peace and security in the South China Sea,” Wu added.
The Chinese military “is unshakeably determined to strengthen its naval and air combat readiness, raise defense level, safeguard national sovereignty and security and maintain regional peace and stability,” he said.
Both vessels reportedly came within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the Paracels, carrying out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands, Reuters quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying.
The U.S. Defense Department refused to confirm the operation took place.
“U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan told The Japan Times in a statement. “All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Logan said that the U.S. military will continue “regular FONOPS, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future.”
Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the area as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
It has also built seven man-made islets in the Spratlys, with three — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs — all boasting military-grade airfields, despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further militarize them.
Woody Island, in the Paracel chain, has seen a number of stark developments including the deployment of truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles, according to satellite photos taken May 12. Earlier this month, China’s air force landed heavy bombers on the island — the first time it had done so in the South China Sea — as part of “a simulated strike against sea targets before landing on an island in the South China Sea,” according to the military.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for the moves, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted several FONOPs in the area.
While Sunday’s operation had likely been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it was conducted at a particularly sensitive time as Washington battles Beijing over trade and seeks its help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It also came just days after the Pentagon uninvited China from a major U.S.-hosted naval drill.
Critics of the operations have said that they have little impact on Chinese behavior and are largely symbolic, but Collin Koh, a specialist in regional naval affairs at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Sunday’s patrol appeared different.
“I had the sense that the U.S. Department of Defense wants to up the ante to match the scale of what the People’s Liberation Army has been doing,” Koh said in an email. “Sticking to the ‘status quo’ with just one warship to do (the) FONOP could no longer be seen as a tenable situation since obviously the previous approach doesn’t work in reining in Chinese behavior.”
Still, Koh said he had “serious doubts as to the efficacy” of such operations.
“Sending two ships . . . could be part of the recent policy moves in reprisal against Chinese South China Sea activities,” Koh said. “But whether that all forms part of a shaping up, coherent U.S. strategy for the South China Sea remains anyone’s guess until D.C. clarifies it in detail.”
Rather, he said, the move could instead “harden Beijing’s resolve and lead to it further militarizing” the waterway.