Ignoring Beijing’s warning, U.S. warship challenges China’s claim to artificial island in strategic waters

by WorldTribune Staff, May 25, 2017

In the first such freedom of navigation operation under President Donald Trump, a U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said on May 24.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey sailed close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, which China claims in a territorial dispute with its neighbors, Reuters reported.

The USS Dewey transits the South China Sea on May 6. / U.S. Navy via Reuters

China, which said it continues to oppose the freedom of navigation operations, said its warships warned the U.S. ship and Beijing lodged “stern representations” with the United States.

Territorial waters are generally defined by UN convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline.

A U.S. official said it was the first naval operation near a land feature which was included in a ruling last year against China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea.

Last month, Adm. Harry Harris, U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, said the United States would likely carry out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea soon.

The United States has criticized China’s construction and militarization of the artificial islands.

“We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in a statement. The Pentagon gave no details of the latest mission.

U.S.-based South China Sea expert Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the operation was the first conducted by the United States close to an artificial feature built by China that is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.

Previous freedom of navigation operations have gone within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, two other features in the Spratlys built up by China, but both of those features are entitled to a territorial sea.

Mischief Reef was not entitled to a territorial sea as it was underwater at high tide before it was built up by China and was not close enough to another feature entitled to such a territorial sea, said Poling.

Poling said the key question was whether the USS Dewey had engaged in a real challenge to the Chinese claims by turning on radar or launching a helicopter or boat – actions not permitted in a territorial sea under international law.