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Report: USS Lassen sails near disputed reef claimed by China

In a 2010 file photo, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen departs Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan.

U.S. NAVY

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2015

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – The USS Lassen sailed within waters surrounding a reef claimed by China in a demonstration of rights claimed by the United States to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, according to reports Tuesday.

The Yokosuka-based destroyer sailed within a 12-nautical-mile territorial water limit claimed by China at Subi Reef, according to China’s foreign ministry and an unnamed U.S. defense official quoted by The Associated Press.

The ship was expected to be joinedby at least one Navy surveillance aircraft, according to a Reuters report Monday.

U.S. 7th Fleet officials deferred questions about the operation to the Pentagon, which declined comment.

The reef is at the northern part of the Spratly Islands, a collection of hundreds of reefs, rocks and islets whose ownership is disputed by several nations.

In recent years, Chinese vessels have held showdowns at sea with Vietnamese and Philippine commercial ships, and attempted to regulate fishing and other activities.

Although no shots were fired, Vietnam and the Philippines have claimed damage to fishing vessels.

In May, China also told a Navy surveillance plane flying over international airspace, farther than 12 miles from Fiery Cross Reef, to “go away,” according to a report from an onboard CNN crew.

China maintains a broad, ambiguous claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea. More than $5 trillion in global sea trade and $1.2 billion in U.S. trade transits there annually, according to U.S. government statistics.

A foreign ministry statement Tuesday stated that China holds “indisputable sovereignty” to several islands, including Subi Reef, and their adjacent waters. The Chinese statement accused Lassen of illegally entering its waters without permission, and endangering the safety of its personnel and facilities.

“The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” the statement said.

The U.S. views China’s position on the sea as a claim on the global commons that clashes with international law.

“It should not be a surprise to anybody that we will exercise freedom of navigation wherever international law will allow,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said Oct. 15 during a visit to Tokyo. “We do this all over the world. We’re present in the South China Sea routinely.”

However, Lassen’s operation Tuesday took a step further than most recent operations.
The U.S. routinely conducts “freedom of navigation” operations globally but hadn’t conducted one near the disputed islands since 2012, according to congressional testimony in September. Since then, China has artificially added more than 2,000 acres of landfill to the territories it claims.

China has added 976 acres of landfill to Subi Reef since July 2014, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a branch of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Satellite photos show a helipad, a clearing for a potential military-grade airstrip, a dredged channel and a multilevel structure, among other improvements.

The reef is submerged at high tide in its natural state, according to AMTI.

If it had so much as a rock peeking above the high-tide water mark, it could generate a 12-nautical-mile territorial limit for its owner, according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified and the U.S. adheres to unofficially.

If the natural reef is entirely submerged, at Subi’s distance from other islands, UNCLOS states it would have no territorial sea. Landfill on top of a submerged reef doesn’t change that.

“Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands,” according to UNCLOS. “They have no territorial sea of their own.”

A patrol near Subi Reef also put Lassen about 40-50 miles from Mischief Reef, where satellite photos show extensive landfill construction began earlier this year.

Asked for comment about the U.S. move on Monday, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Zhu Haiquan, told AP that China respects freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“Freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries' sovereignty and security,” he said. “We urge the United States to refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability.”

China "watched, followed and warned the American ship according to the relevant law," the foreign ministry statement said. A media report stated that a Chinese Kunming-class destroyer watched Lassen, but Chinese officials had not yet confirmed that Tuesday afternoon.

The U.S. and China established the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in 2014, giving the two navies a standard mechanism for communication. The U.S. does not have a similar agreement with the Chinese coast guard, which has been used often during disputes arising with other nations in the South China Sea.

In recent years, Chinese coast guard vessels have fired water cannons on Vietnamese fishing boats near the disputed Paracel Islands, and each side has accused the other of ramming ships, though the coast guard vessels are significantly larger.

It also is unknown whether the U.S. notified China of Lassen’s plans. State Department spokesman and retired Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Monday that notification isn’t necessary.

“You don’t need to consult with any nation when you are exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters,” Kirby said, according to a transcript. “The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters, and you don’t need to consult with anybody to do that. That’s the idea.”

slavin.erik@stripes.com

Twitter:@eslavin_stripes

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