The US and China navies are sabre rattling in the South China Sea over disputed waters around island reefs.
Beijing has warned the US over ‘provocation’ in international waters around several small island groups claimed by China – a claim hotly denied by Taiwan, Vietnam, The Philippines and Malaysia.
Tensions have arisen as several nations have overlapping claims to the area, which is rich in mineral and maritime resources.
After China recently conducted a naval exercise in the area, the US stepped up the pressure by sending guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen through the 12-mile limit set up by China around the Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
The Chinese voiced a diplomatic protest with Washington over the action.
South China Sea claims
Washington responded with a ‘hands off’ warning, claiming the waters were subject to international maritime law and belonged to no country.
US Admiral Harry Harris told the Chinese the warship’s patrol should not come as a surprise and that the US Navy intends to sail through the waters at least eight or nine times a year as part of routine exercises.
“Our ships patrol international waters around the world in a similar way and will continue to do so,” said the admiral.
“We have done so for decades. These are freedom of navigation patrols and present no threat to anyone.
“The US will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and the South China Sea is not and will not become any exception.”
Expect regular warship visits, says US
Now Harris has thrown down the gauntlet and added insult to injury by speaking in Beijing, the next move is China’s.
As yet, the Chinese Navy has not replied to his comments nor sent more ships to the area.
Neighbouring states claim the Chinese are building a military presence on the islands by laying down airstrips and constructing buildings on artificial islands deliberately built on reefs t lay claim to the area.
The Chinese deny this, alleging the construction is for civilian purposes.
Meanwhile, an unnamed US official told news agency Reuters that the US wanted to reinforce international rights to sail in the disputed zone, but did not want to escalate a minor disagreement into a source of conflict between the nations.