On Jan. 30, the U.S. Navy sent a warship within 12 nautical miles of a disputed islands in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. China, which claims broad rights over much of the South China Sea, has called it an incursion into its territory, a needless provocation, and an attempt at causing trouble amongst China’s neighbors. What precedent is there for these close calls in disputed maritime territories to escalate? How close was this close call? Had things in fact calmed down in recent weeks, as the Chinese official press claimed, only to be stirred up again needlessly by this latest move?

China has criticized the recent U.S. Navy operation sailing within what it considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea as needlessly provocative. In China’s view, the U.S. Navy has purposely inflamed tensions in the region in order to stir up opposition to China. While it is true that tensions have risen, and probably will continue to increase, in the South China Sea region over the past few years, the “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) that the United States has conducted cannot fairly be blamed for either creating or increasing these tensions. Why?

First, it is important to keep in mind that the FONOPs like the one China recently protested are part of a U.S. Navy policy that has been carried out all around the world since at least 1979. China is hardly the only country that has been the target of these operations. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2014 the U.S. conducted similar FONOPs challenging excessive maritime claims by countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Nicaragua, Oman, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. During that same year, the U.S. also conducted numerous FONOPs targeting excessive Chinese maritime claims along China’s mainland coast. But China’s Foreign Ministry did not condemn those FONOPs with the same heated language it is using today. Nor did Chinese state media attack the U.S. actions “provocative.” It is China, and not the U.S., that has transformed these relatively routine operations into a source of bilateral and regional tension.

Second, the U.S. FONOPs do not in any way challenge China’s territorial claims in the region. Rather, as the U.S. has stated repeatedly that the FONOPs are intended only to protect the “freedom of navigation” guaranteed under international law. Thus, the U.S. made clear that when its naval ships recently sailed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-claimed island or land feature, those ships operated under the rules of “innocent passage.” This phrase, codified under Articles 17 and 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, guarantees “ships of all States” the right to pass through a territorial sea as long as that passage is not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.” In practical terms, this means the U.S. naval ships conducted a transit with all of its military capabilities (such as fire control radars and other weapons systems) shut down. Indeed, by limiting its transit to “innocent passage,” the U.S. is actually giving a great deal of respect to Chinese territorial claims (perhaps more than they actually deserve).