China condemns U.S. warship’s route in South China Sea

Beijing said it tracked and warned the U.S. vessel when it passed through the waters Tuesday local time.

A U.S. Defense Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the movement of the ship said the Lassen moved through the area without incident.

China claims territorial sovereignty to virtually all of the South China Sea, which includes some of the world’s busiest trade routes. Five other countries have competing claims in the same region.

Although the U.S. does not take a position on competing territorial claims, Washington has said that international law does not give China any territorial rights around the new islands.

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific, said earlier this year he was concerned that China could use the islands to hinder sea or air navigation.

U.S. officials have hinted for months that they would send U.S. ships into waters immediately surrounding one or more of China’s new islands to demonstrate U.S. commitment to “freedom of navigation.”

“Make no mistake: The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech in Boston on Oct. 13.

Analysts in the region said the U.S. move was no surprise.

“The Subi and Mischief reefs are low-tide elevations which no state can claim as territories. To deny Chinese illegitimate territorial claims, the U.S. Navy needed to physically challenge it. Otherwise, China establishes no-go zones in the high seas and hinders freedom of navigation,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

The U.S. move was long overdue, and likely will continue, Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, in Sydney, Australia, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

“The South China Sea has already become a symbolic U.S.-China sparring ground, raising the temperature for what should have been a routine operation conducted months ago,” Graham wrote. “The operation is unlikely to end here and will probably usher in a sustained U.S. naval and air presence in the weeks ahead.”

Ken Jimbo, senior research fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo said the next move is up to China.

“China’s military responses are muted at this moment. But there will be a demonstration by other means, most likely through the forms of military exercise in South China Sea in the near future, to counter-demonstrate China’s claims,” Jimbo said.

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and Gregory Korte in Washington

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