Despite rebuking accusations of attempting to militarize the South China Sea by way of their artificial island program, China responded harshly to the presence of a U.S. Navy warship traveling near to one of their claimed islands over the weekend.

The USS Stethem, an Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer, sailed to within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, which is part of the larger island chain known as the Paracel Islands, on Sunday in what the U.S. Navy refers to as a “freedom-of-navigation operation,” or “FONOP.”  This FONOP was intended specifically to challenge the competing claims on the island chain of three nations, Taiwan, Vietnam, and China.

Despite China claiming this area of the waterway as their own territorial waters, the United States has made it clear that they do not acknowledge Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the Islands, and as such, will travel through it as they see fit.

“I believe the Chinese are building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in the South China,” Adm. Harry Harris, Commander of PACOM, said on Wednesday.

He added, “Fake islands should not be believed by real people.”

China responded to the ship’s presence by releasing a statement accusing the United States of violating their territorial waters, calling it a “serious political and military provocation.”  They also indicated that Chinese naval ships and fighter jets have been dispatched to warn the Stathem out of their claimed waters.

“China strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop this kind of provocative action which seriously violates China’s sovereignty and puts at risk China’s security,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said. China would “take all necessary measures to defend itself,” he said.

China’s Defense Ministry also posted a similar statement on social media, accusing the United States of damaging the peace and stability in the South China Sea with their actions.

“The U.S. conduct seriously damages strategic trust between the two sides and seriously damages the political atmosphere of the development of China-U.S. military relations,” the ministry said in the statement.

Although the United States has publicly criticized the creation of new, artificial islands China has been building and equipping with radar installations, barracks, runways, and surface to air missile emplacements in the South China Sea, the Paracel Islands have been under Chinese control, more or less, since 1974.  Despite that, Vietnam and Taiwan both have overlapping claims over portions of the archipelago.

In 1974, the Chinese military effectively forced the-then South Vietnamese military off of its claimed territory, leaving the region uncontested physically since, despite diplomatic efforts to regain their holdings.

China’s claims over the South China Sea are not relegated to sporadic island chains with dubious ownership claims, but rather engulfs the vast majority of the high-trafficked waterway.  The construction of new islands, and the ensuing fortification of said islands are only one part of China’s growing military presence in the region intended to physically establish their sovereignty where their public claims have failed.  In the last year, China has launched no less than 18 new warships into the Pacific, including their latest destroyer, thought to be a match with American destroyers like the Stethem, and their first domestically built aircraft carrier, which are both currently undergoing testing.

The United States and China, despite these tensions, have been attempting to find a common ground in their loosely joint effort to convince Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime to do away with his nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  President Donald Trump has assumed a friendlier posture toward the Chinese government in discussions about sanctions intended to pressure Kim, though many in the United States have accused China of failing to sufficiently enforce existing sanctions, let alone turning up the pressure on Kim.

The decision to sail this warship through waters claimed by China may serve not only as a reminder that the United States does not acknowledge their claims, but may also be intended as a message from the U.S.’ Commander in Chief: despite being polite in the press, the U.S. is not getting soft in the Pacific.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons