A U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, drawing an angry response from Beijing, which said it had tracked and warned the ship and called in the U.S. ambassador to protest. The USS Lassen’s patrol was the most significant and latest U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits China claims around artificial islands it has built up in the Spratly archipelago as Beijing exercises its growing maritime power.
Washington’s move followed months of deliberation by the administration of President Barack Obama and could spark tension in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and increase strains in U.S.-China relations. A U.S. defense official said the Lassen also went within 12-mile limits of features in the disputed sea claimed by Vietnam and U.S. treaty ally, the Philippines. They said such “freedom-of-navigation” patrols were expected to become more frequent.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus, telling him that the patrol was “extremely irresponsible,” the Foreign Ministry said. It earlier said the USS Lassen “illegally” entered waters near islands and reefs in the Spratlys without the Chinese government’s permission.
While in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby downplayed the latest move and emphasized the importance of US-China relations “Setting this aside, the U.S.-China relationship is vitally important and one we want to see continue to improve and to grow for the benefit of both our countries, not to mention the region.”
The White House says Washington has made clear to Beijing, even during last month’s visit by President Xi Jinping, that the United States would fly or sail anywhere that international law allows and stressed the importance of the South China Sea for commerce.
The latest development in SCS has also sparked comments from across the Atlantic.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern on Thursday about a territorial dispute between the Chinese and U.S. navies in the South China Sea and suggested China go to international courts to resolve the row. On a two-day visit to China, Merkel said it was essential that sea trade routes remain open despite the dispute, which flared up after a U.S. warship challenged China’s territorial assertions in the disputed waters this week.