Tensions in the South China Sea look set to escalate following a direct challenge by the United States to China’s recent build-up in the disputed Spratly Islands.
The US said its aim was to assert “freedom of navigation” by sailing one of its destroyers past two man-made islands where China is suspected of building military bases.
China responded angrily, saying it had monitored, followed and warned the vessel, the USS Lassen, as it “illegally” entered what China sees as its own territorial waters.
The US move marks a significant change of policy by Washington, which has been reluctant to confront Beijing physically over its growing assertiveness in the area.
There was no immediate response from the Vietnamese government, which has also challenged the legality of China’s construction work in waters also claimed by Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.
Vietnamese commentators, however, were quick to welcome the move, saying that only the US has the power to restrain China’s territorial ambitions and its efforts to assert sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
Dr Nguyen Ngoc Truong, Chairman of the Centre for Strategic Studies and International Relations, was quoted as saying the move would expose the absurd position of Beijing, which is claiming 12 miles of territorial waters around its man-made islands, in clear violation of the law of the sea.
The Pentagon said more such naval missions would follow, as the US underlines its rejection of China’s claim to the
Analysts say the move could prompt China to send in its own naval forces to challenge the US presence, in a step that would increase the risk of clashes.
Beijing has until now only used vessels from its various coast guard agencies to patrol the disputed waters.
China’s Foreign Ministry said that it would respond resolutely to what it called deliberate provocations.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, warned that China might have to “increase and strengthen the building up of our relevant abilities” if the United States continued to increase tension.
Pentagon spokesmen said the destroyer had sailed past Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, which were recently partially submerged reefs, but have been built into islands since last year in a major construction drive by China.
Satellite pictures have shown air-strips under construction on the islands, and on one other Chinese occupied outcrop.
President Obama and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, discussed tensions in the South China Sea during their recent talks in Washington.
Analysts say the long planned intervention by the US navy indicates that the White House was not satisfied with the verbal assurances offered by President Xi.
The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, described the American move as a blatant provocation and a show of force under the guise of testing freedom of navigation.
It said China had always respected freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea.
Xinhua said the waters of the South China Sea were becoming militarised because some countries, meaning the US, flexed their military muscles and held frequent large scale drills with their allies in the area.
The United States has repeatedly said that it takes no position on the various territorial claims in the South China Sea.
It has indicated that it will also send naval patrols past military outposts maintained by Vietnam and the Philippines, two of the other claimants to territory in the hotly contested Spratlys.
There is no mistaking the US intention, however, in dispatching a powerful warship to territorial waters claimed by the Chinese.
It is sending a message that Beijing will have to pay a price, and take significant risks, if it intends to continue asserting itself in the South China Sea at the expense of its Asian neighbours.
The dispute is increasingly seen as the most dangerous potential flash point in a much larger strategic contest between China and the United States.
Beijing is still unable to challenge American naval might in the western Pacific and will be reluctant to risk a direct confrontation.
It is, however, rapidly building up its navy and has developed ballistic missiles that could pose a significant threat to US aircraft carriers.