27 October 2015

Wall Street Journal Article—USS Lassen’s Patrol Near Subi Reef—Detailed Data Points & Quotes

Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong, “U.S. Warship’s Patrol Escalates Dispute Over Islands in South China Sea,” Wall Street Journal, 27 October 2015.

U.S. officials say operation was first of several to assert ‘freedom of navigation’ around the Spratly islands

A U.S. navy patrol off China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea was the strongest challenge yet to President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to enforce Chinese territorial claims—and to alter Asia’s geopolitical status quo. …

“We can’t let [the U.S.] throw its weight around!” wrote one verified user of the Weibo microblogging service—one of many similar comments on Chinese social media. “Ten verbal protests can’t compare to one follow-up confrontation!” …

One possibility is that China would use the U.S. patrols as an excuse to install further weaponry, backing away from Mr. Xi’s pledge during a U.S. visit last month that Beijing didn’t “intend to militarize” the islands.

China is highly unlikely to scale back its construction work on the islands and could respond by sending civilian ships, rather than military ones, to track or confront U.S. navy vessels, analysts said.

“This way, China can issue a firm response to the U.S. while signaling that they don’t want to escalate the situation militarily,” said Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. …

China has long been reluctant to clarify its precise claims, in a sign it fears they cannot all be justified under international law. …

Tuesday’s patrol was a “risky action” that would likely set off a series of moves and counter-moves, said Zhu Feng, executive director of Nanjing University’s China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea.

Even so, he said both sides were likely to “act with restraint” and that the discord “is likely to remain a legal and diplomatic fight. This wouldn’t escalate into a full-blown military confrontation in the South China Sea.”

The U.S., while sending a strong signal, chose one of its less provocative options, and will likely continue to do so, analysts said.

It was careful to conduct its patrol around one of the artificial islands China has built on a reef that was previously submerged at high tide.

That is significant because under international law, nations can claim territorial seas of up to 12 nautical miles from their coastline, including natural islands and rocks. But they cannot make such claims around reefs submerged at high tide—“low-tide elevations”—even if they have been turned into islands through land reclamation.

“Subi Reef was almost certainly selected because it is a low-tide elevation,” said Andrew Erickson, an expert on China’s military at the U.S. Naval War College.

To try to demonstrate impartiality in the territorial dispute, the U.S. is also expected to conduct similar operations around Spratlys features controlled by other claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. …

Further thoughts from Andrew Erickson:

Beyond 500 meters of low-tide elevations (LTEs)—features naturally below water at high tide—foreign ships and aircraft are free to operate at will without consultation or permission, as USS Lassen has just done near Subi Reef. Unlike rocks or islands, under international law, LTEs such as Subi are not entitled to the 12 nautical miles’ territorial waters or airspace that rocks or islands are. Rather, beyond a 500-meter safety zone, all high seas freedoms apply. These are the freedoms that USS Lassen has just exercised.

The USS Lassen’s positive action underscores U.S. commitment to maintaining an open global system with global commons that are free for all to use to the maximum extent permitted by international law, without favor, fear, or obstruction. Freedom of the Seas is a key element of this vital equation.

As can be seen from the peaceful, unimpeded nature of the USS Lassen’s operation, China and the U.S. share an interest in keeping the South China Sea’s vital sea lanes of stable and open.

For related analysis, see:

Jane Perlez, “Beijing Calls U.S. Warship’s Route in South China Sea a ‘Provocation’,”New York Times, 27 October 2015.

Simon DenyerCraig Whitlock and Steven Mufson, “U.S. Warship Sails within 12 Miles of Chinese-Built Island in South China Sea,” Washington Post, 26 October 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Main Mission: South China Sea, Not Syria,” The National Interest, 5 October 2015.

Dan De Luce and Paul Mcleary, “In South China Sea, a Tougher U.S. Stance,” Foreign Policy, 2 October 2015.

James Hardy and Sean O’Connor, “China Completes Runway on Fiery Cross Reef,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 25 September 2015.

Christina Larson, “China’s Island Building Is Destroying Reefs,” Science 349.6255 (25 September 2015): 1434.

Andrew Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Essay: China’s Island Building Campaign Could Hint toward Further Expansions in Indian Ocean,” USNI News, 17 September 2015.

Ronald O’Rourke, Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 7 August 2015), R42784.

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Dredging Under the Radar: China Expands South Sea Foothold,” The National Interest, 26 August 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “New U.S. Security Strategy Doesn’t Go Far Enough on South China Sea,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2015.

Andrew Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Dredging Fleet Shores up Beijing’s Position in South China Sea and Beyond,” Lowy Interpreter, 12 August 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Keeping the South China Sea a Peaceful Part of the Global Commons,” The National Interest, 27 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Follow the Dragon Tracks: China’s Emerging Presence From the South China Sea to Facilities Access in the Indian Ocean,” keynote address to Congressional Defense and Foreign Policy Forum, Defense Forum Foundation, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 24 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Hearing on “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 23 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Archaeology and the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 20 July 2015.

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Djibouti Likely to Become China’s First Indian Ocean Outpost,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 91 (11 July 2015).

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “Dragon Tracks: Emerging Chinese Access Points in the Indian Ocean Region,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 18 June 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Lengthening Chinese Airstrips May Pave Way for South China Sea ADIZ,” The National Interest, 27 April 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson, “See China’s Secret Ocean Airbase,” Live interview on “Today Asia” Program, CNN International, 17 April 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Pandora’s Sandbox: China’s Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs, 13 July 2014.