US warship returns to South China Sea

The USS Lassen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The US says it plans to return to disputed areas of the South China Sea, with a naval commander saying it has conducted such operations globally “for decades”.

The sailing of a US naval vessel within an area claimed by China last week angered Beijing, which issued an ultimatum.

Admiral Harry Harris, speaking in Beijing, said such action should not surprise anyone.

An unnamed US official told Reuters similar patrols would take place at least “twice a quarter”.

The guided-missile destroyer  reportedly breached the 12-nautical mile zone that China claims around the Subi and Mischief reefs in the disputed Spratly archipelago.

Admiral Harris, of the US Pacific Command, said during a speech at Peking University: “We’ve been conducting freedom of navigation operations all over the world for decades, so no-one should be surprised by them.

“Our military will continue to fly, sail and operate whenever and wherever international law allows. The South China Sea is not … an exception.” But he also added that the operations, which he described as “routine”, should “never be construed as a threat to any nation”.

His comments came a day after US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the sea was in the US national interest.

US and China naval commanders have spoken by video link after the USS Lassen’s expedition.

China reportedly told the US that an insignificant incident could trigger conflict in the South China Sea if the US did not stop its “provocative acts”.

Tensions have increased in the resource-rich South China Sea in recent years, where several countries have overlapping maritime claims, as China has expanded and consolidated its claim.

China, which most of the sea, has been reclaiming land around reefs and constructing artificial islands for airstrips and buildings.

The US and other countries have called for a halt to such activities, accusing China of militarisation, but Beijing says the building work is for civilian purposes.

The US planned to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about US rights under international law, a US defence official said.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said there would be more demonstrations of the US military’s commitment to the right to freely navigate in the region.

“That’s our interest there … It’s to demonstrate that we will uphold the principle of freedom of navigation,” Rhodes told an event hosted by the Defense One media outlet.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion of world trade transits every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan all have rival claims.


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