The cat-and-mouse game over who controls one of the world’s most strategic waterways escalated again Tuesday as China scrambled a team of fighter jets to track a U.S. warship as it sailed by a disputed patch of ground in the heart of the South China Sea.
Chinese commanders ordered a team of fighter jets into the skies above the Fiery Cross reef near the Spratly Islands after the USS William P. Lawrence conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” close to the reef, which is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The William P. Lawrence, a U.S. destroyer armed with a suite of guided missiles, steamed within 12 nautical miles of the reef when the fighters were launched, Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday.
The U.S. Navy has made similar missions to challenge Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to the vast bulk of the waterway, a critical global commercial trade path, but the Chinese response this time was particularly sharp. Before the arrival of the pair of Chinese fighters, three Chinese warships reportedly shadowed the U.S. destroyer as it made its patrol in and around the reef.
The U.S. ship’s course near the Fiery Cross, which Beijing maintains falls within Chinese territorial waters in the South China Sea, was also part of a suspected surveillance mission to observe the 10,000-foot runway newly constructed on the reef, according to Chinese officials.
“The action by the U.S. threatens China’s sovereignty and security, endangers the safety of people and facilities on the reef and harms regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told the state-run Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday.
China “will continue to take measures to safeguard our sovereignty and security,” Mr. Lu said.
The U.S. warship’s mission was a “simple act of provocation” designed to further inflame regional rivalries and embolden U.S. allies to take action against China, he said.
Cmdr. Urban said the ship’s mission was undertaken to “challenge excessive maritime claims” by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, which were seeking to restrict navigation rights in the South China Sea, according to the Reuters news agency.
Top Obama administration officials have tried to downplay the drama of the Navy missions through the South China Sea, insisting that they are simply passing through widely recognized international waters.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry waved aside a question as to whether the U.S. government was trying to send a message ahead of a visit to Asia by President Obama this month for the Group of Seven summit in Japan.
“This is not a pointed strategy calculated to do anything except keep a regular process of freedom of navigation operations underway,” he told reporters in London.
Defense officials in Washington argue that the runway on the Fiery Cross reef was one of several military installations China had built up on artificial “islands” in the South China Sea, designed as launching pads to deter challenges to its territorial claims by the United States and other regional powers and to bolster its case to ownership under international maritime law.
The Philippines has filed a challenge with the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, but Beijing has said it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
Chinese officials claim the installations are simply “defensive facilities on the relevant reefs in the [Spratly] Islands,” and Beijing’s ongoing efforts to militarize the South China Sea “is completely reasonable and totally necessary” to maintain the country’s national security in the region.
China, along with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and other Pacific powers have all participated in the steady militarization of the region over the past several years, with advancing clashes over who controls large expanses of the sea.
Along with the installation at Fiery Cross, Chinese engineers have been constructing a military installation at Scarborough Shoal, an ocean reef 124 nautical miles west from the Philippine costal province of Zambales.
In April, Navy commanders deployed the Stennis Carrier Strike Group to the waters around the shoal, conducting maritime and aerial operations in one of the largest shows of U.S. naval power near the shoal in recent memory.
Manila has begun construction work on its own seaport and adjoining aircraft runway on Pagasa Island, one of several islands that make up the Spratly chain.
The Philippine government says the effort is designed strictly to support commercial business and tourism to the island, but many in China and elsewhere see it as a prospective miniature naval base for U.S. and Philippine troops.
In March, the outgoing Philippine President Benigno Aquino administration announced a deal with Washington to allow a rotating U.S. military presence at five Philippine bases.
Under the security pact signed that month, Antonio Bautista Air Base, close to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Basa Air Base north of Manila, Fort Magsaysay in Palayan, Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Reuters reported.
China’s Mr. Lu said Beijing was not trying to “bully” the smaller countries that ring its border but would also not submit to “blackmail” through the threat of an international court decision.
But Manila is entering a period of uncertainty after elections Monday in which the winning candidate has sent mixed signals about whether he will confront or cooperate with China on trying to resolve the territorial issue.
Rodrigo Duterte, the outspoken provincial mayor dubbed the Filipino Donald Trump for his pugnacious, off-the-cuff style, won the race to succeed Mr. Aquino.
Mr. Duterte at one point in the campaign colorfully said he would be willing to ride a personal watercraft to the Spratly Islands and plant a flag to underscore his country’s claims. But he also said he would make the trip in lieu of sending Philippine troops into an open conflict with China.
That said, Mr. Duterte will likely adhere to the national security policies of the outgoing Mr. Aquino, including support for continued U.S. presence patrols in the South China Sea, regional national security analysts said Tuesday.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.