THE United States sent its warship, the USS Lessen, within 12 miles of the artificial island China has constructed on the Subi Reef. The event has been talked about repeatedly in the local media.
The discussion has revolved around the issue of whether this was a case of “freedom of navigation” or “innocent passage.” Freedom of navigation takes place in international waters; innocent passage means traveling through some other country’s territory without malicious intent.
The Filipino public has been educated as to the difference. Statements by both the US and Philippine governments have stated that the Lassen traveled through the area on a “freedom of navigation” exercise. However, reports are now surfacing to the specifics and intent, and it appears that, in a strict sense, this was not a freedom of navigation exercise.
Government statements and press reports, notwithstanding, this is the reality, as reported in the US press.
A ship in open and international waters does pretty much whatever it wants to, as if it were in “blue water” hundreds of miles from any coastline. However, that was apparently not the case with the Lassen. With pressure from the White House not to “upset” the Chinese government too much, this operation fell under the legal classification as “innocent passage” and not freedom of navigation.
Josh Rogin, reporting for Bloomberg View, writes that “the White House insisted that the Pentagon refrain from carrying out more robust aspects of the FON [freedom of navigation] operation.” The Lassen was not allowed to “turn on sensors or fly its helicopters, actions that military experts say would have made clearer that the US was conducting a freedom of navigation operation.” Further, Reuters says that, while carrying out the operation, the surveillance planes trailing the US ship stayed outside of China’s declared 12-mile nautical boundary.
As a result, if this was “innocent passage,” it might actually bolster China’s territorial claims, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The fact that the Lassen may have legally conducted only an innocent passage through the area might be attested to by the fact that the US flew one of its B-52 nuclear-equipped bombers over the same area supposedly this past weekend. However—and this is most disturbing—(from http://www.news.com.au/) “Pentagon Spokesman Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban said the B-52s were conducting ‘routine operations’ and did not breach the 12-mile [22-kilometer] territorial claim China has made on the man-made islands.”
Reuters also reports a few days ago that “Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the Philippines’s case against China at an arbitration tribunal over rival claims in the South China Sea had strained relations, and that it was up to the Philippines to heal the rift.”
While we all take offense at that remark, perhaps, this is in reaction to the knowledge that the US bark is much worse than its bite.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano