A U.S. Navy destroyer has sailed within 12 miles of an artificial island that China built in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The transit by the USS Lassen through what the United States says are international waters was planned as a challenge to China's claims that the waters around seven artificial islands in the chain are Chinese territory.
The transit by the USS Lassen was conducted 12 nautical miles off Subi Reef, which is located in the northwest quadrant of the Spratly Islands, a grouping of small reefs and islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia and the western Philippine island of Palawan. The transit occurred late Monday evening east coast time, early Tuesday morning in Asia.
A U.S. official said there were Chinese vessels in the vicinity as the destroyer made its journey, but that there was nothing untoward in their behavior. The Chinese vessels reportedly trailed the destroyer, much as they had as it sailed through other areas of the South China Sea in the days prior.
For months Pentagon officials have signaled that the U.S. Navy was planning to make transit, either by sea or air, through the 12-mile territorial limit China has claimed around the islands.
Another official said that the USS Lassen’s transit would be the first of what would become regular trips through the area in the future.
Subi Reef is one of seven reefs that has undergone massive dredging and land reclamation over the past two years as China creates artificial islands to grow its territory. The U.S. estimates that more than 2,000 acres of land have been reclaimed by Chinese dredging ships.
The land reclamation has included the construction of a runway that U.S. officials believe is intended to project China’s military power to the region. China has denied that it intends to militarize its development of the islands.
The largest of the Spratly Islands have been claimed by multiple countries in the region antagonized by China’s build-up. The waters around the island chain are believed to contain significant oil and natural gas reserves.
The United States says it has no stake in the territorial claims made around the islands, but that the waters around the artificial reefs remain international.
At a stop in Singapore this past May, Defense Secretary Ash Carter laid out the Pentagon’s position that U.S. forces in the region would continue to “fly, sail and operate” in the region to demonstrate freedom of navigation and “will not be deterred from exercising these rights.”
“Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” Carter said.
"We are conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” a defense official said. “U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We conduct Freedom of Navigation operations on a regular basis around the world, and they are distinct from the question of sovereignty over these islands.”
The official said the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations around the world.
“We have been clear that we take no position on competing territorial sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea,” the official said. “We will fly, sail, and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows.”
China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang discussed the situation at a daily briefing.
"We are opposed to all actions that undermine China's sovereignty and security,” he said. “We oppose any action that puts the security of the personnel and facilities at risk; our position is firm.”