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The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng transits close behind May 11, 2015.

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng transits close behind May 11, 2015. (Conor Minto/U.S. Navy)

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng transits close behind May 11, 2015.

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng transits close behind May 11, 2015. (Conor Minto/U.S. Navy)

In a 2013 file photo, the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 88) is shown underway in the Philippine Sea.

In a 2013 file photo, the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 88) is shown underway in the Philippine Sea. (Declan Barnes/U.S. Navy)

TOKYO — The United States made a long-awaited statement about its commitment to freedom of navigation by sailing the Navy destroyer USS Lassen through international waters claimed by China. But then the U.S. didn’t talk about it.

The situation with China’s aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea — along with a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — has been festering for years. It has prompted allies such as Japan and the Philippines to draw closer to the U.S., as demonstrated by a cooperation deal signed by Manila and Washington last year, and has helped encourage Vietnam, which President Barack Obama will visit next month, to also cozy up.

But China’s refusal to back down on its “indisputable sovereignty” claim, and its continued construction efforts to legitimize it by turning rocks and reefs into islands with military-capable runways and fortifications, left countries around Asia wondering when the U.S. would finally do something other than talk about freedom of navigation.

It appears that Subi Reef was carefully chosen for a close cruise-by from the Lassen on Tuesday because it’s at the extreme end of what China has done. It’s coral that analysts say wasn’t above water at high tide until China brought in construction equipment and started building it up; maritime law says it doesn’t qualify as an island with a 12-mile exclusion zone.

So it was ideal for drawing a fine-line-in-the-sand scenario: something that would make clear to China that Washington has limits without too much risk of a miscalculation that could set off something bigger.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday the U.S. has a right to freedom of navigation in international waters, and such maneuvers “should not be construed as a threat by anybody.” He said the U.S. wants relations with China — which have been improving and have included military-to-military exchanges — to continue to deepen.

Lassen’s cruise demonstrated a theme that Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Navy leaders have talked repeatedly about all year: that the U.S. will operate in international waters whenever it wants, regardless of territorial claims made by China that most nations reject under their interpretations of international law.

Calling attention to the conflict For much of the year, the military had actually been increasing publicity about its actions in the South China Sea, as it reassured its allies that the foreign policy “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific wouldn’t take a backseat to the Middle East.

In May, the Navy published photos of the USS Blue Ridge, 7th Fleet’s flagship, transiting near Scarborough Shoal, with two Chinese navy ships nearby. Scarborough Shoal is also claimed by the Philippines and was the site of a standoff between it and China in 2012.

Days later, the Navy released photos of the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth with a Chinese missile frigate tailing it.

The same month, a Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft with a CNN crew onboard captured audio of a Chinese dispatcher warning the aircraft away as it flew over international airspace near Fiery Cross Reef, an artificial island where China has built another airstrip and fielded military improvements.

But when the U.S. finally did what it said it would do and sailed within the 12 nautical-mile limit surrounding China’s artificial island on Tuesday, it appeared that Washington didn’t want to rile China any more than it already had. Pentagon officials would not publicly comment on or acknowledge the move, with Carter under heat from Congress to discuss it and only confirming that “what you read in the newspaper is accurate.”

Meanwhile, Chinese officials had already confirmed and denounced the operation.

“The actions of the American ship threaten Chinese sovereignty and safety, as well as the people who live on the island and their facilities, and damage the area’s peace and stability,” a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry read Tuesday.

The Foreign Ministry added Wednesday that it had summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus and told him that the U.S. had threatened China’s sovereignty and security.

The collective response from Western security analysts is that the United States did no such thing.

The legal view of China’s actions China’s claim on the Spratly Islands is disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. Brunei and Indonesia have had conflict over sea boundaries as well.

Instead of seeking arbitration, China has added thousands of acres of landfill to its claims and built three additional military-grade airstrips in the past year.

“While other claimants have done small bits of reclamation over the last 40 years, China has done 17 times as much in the last 20 months,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.,-based think tank. “When the [Chinese military] declares, as it did today, that their claims are not excessive, that’s a lie.”

China’s artificial island construction includes 976 acres of landfill dumped on Subi Reef, where Lassen sailed Tuesday.

If Subi Reef is entirely submerged at high tide — which most analysts think — then under international law, it cannot claim the sea around it as belonging to its territorial waters. Artificial enhancements don’t change that, according to international maritime law, adopted by China and followed unofficially by the United States.

Even if Subi were an above-water rock with a territorial sea, the U.S. could sail through those waters, with some restrictions, under right of “innocent passage.”

The U.S. last sailed past the disputed South China Sea islands in 2012, years before China began building artificial islands. Although the Navy regularly patrols the sea, it avoided close-in, “freedom of navigation” operations until Tuesday.

Several analysts said Tuesday it was well past time the Navy got back to them.

“I regret it took us so long to do it, but I’m happy to see that the operations were finally accomplished,” said Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.

One of the biggest remaining questions is whether the U.S. will continue sailing within China’s purported territorial seas.

If they don’t, Sen. John McCain and other lawmakers say it represents a tacit acceptance of China’s ambiguous claim on almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area critical to the global economy. More than $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade alone passes through the sea annually.

Lassen’s cruise was an encouraging sign that the U.S. wouldn’t stand by any longer, analysts said, even if the Pentagon is willing to let others control the public narrative of its operations.

The Navy operation “sends a message that the United States is willing to accept a little bit of risk to demonstrate that freedom of navigation is important and that Chinese construction on disputed features will not change the U.S.’s stance,” said Zack Cooper, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “That demonstration of resolve is critical.”

slavin.erik@stripes.com Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

olson.wyatt@stripes.com Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.
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