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China-US:  Naval Confrontation Imminent in South China Sea?; By D. S. Rajan

 C3S Paper No. 0191/2015

Personalities, authorities and the media in the US have of late given indications on the possible   dispatch soon under the country’s “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations,  of one or more US surface ships to  within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands in South China Sea (SCS) created by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China’s reaction to such indications so far remains mixed; officially it generally looks measured and conciliatory (e.g the latest speech in Beijing  of  Vice-Chairman of China’s  Central Military Commission, at the Xiangshan forum, conveying the PRC’s stand against ‘reckless use of force’, more details in the Annexure  below). On the other hand,  the state controlled media are full of high level rhetoric against the US with stress on Chinese ‘counter measures’. In such conditions, it will be crucial to watch for signs of any naval maneuver on the part of the two sides in the region.  Given below in the Annexure, is a chronological compilation of US indicators and the Chinese responses which can help in correctly assessing the developing situation.

US researchers[1] have found that since March 2014, China is building artificial islands atop 7 reefs and atolls in the Spratly archipelago of the SCS, the sovereignty of which is being disputed by   Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam. The seven identified by them are – Subi reef, Hughes reef, Garen islands, Jhonson South reef, Cuarteron reef, Fiery Cross reef and Mischief reef. The US analysts have further revealed that the PRC in this way could create about 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory[2] and felt that once these artificial islands become operational , China can assert its sovereignty over the territorial airspace and waters. On its part, China is denying that it is claiming such sovereignty. The PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi said (ASEAN Regional Forum, Kuala Lampur, August 5, 2015) that “China’s construction of the islands, mainly to improve the working and living conditions of personnel there and for public good purposes, has already stopped.” Despite this, recent US satellite images taken on September  3 and 8, 2015, have shown that China is fast completing construction of an  air strip each in Subi and  Fiery Cross reefs and possibly a naval base in the Mischief reef.[3]

It has to be recognized that the Chinese and US perceptions of the freedom of navigation principle in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, not yet ratified by it, are different.  Washington believes that the US ships can sail in both the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and the 12-nautical mile territorial seas without obtaining the permission of the coastal states. The PRC’s stand is that foreign navies will have to obey rules of “innocent passage” even in the 200-nautical mile EEZ, and require prior permission to enter the 12-nautical mile territorial sea. This being so, there seems to be no unanimity among the ASEAN nations on the freedom of navigation principle.  Malaysia agrees with the Chinese view on the EEZ and Vietnam   shares the PRC’s definition of the territorial sea.

Evaluating broadly the likely shape of the current China-US tussle on the artificial islands issue, it can be said, that the final picture may not be pessimistic one. It needs to be admitted at the same time that any misjudgment or miscalculation by the two powers may result in unexpected scenario.  US scholars have assessed that President Xi Jumping’s visit to US in September 2015 was not only very smooth, but it also contributed to building by the two countries of   a strong strategic framework, and that the two are now embarking on a path of cooperation instead of one of confrontation[4]. Their Chinese counter parts seem to think on the same lines. The PRC State media opinions see Xi’s US visit as having contributed to a series of “early harvest” in many aspects, such as the expansion of pragmatic cooperation and effective control of divergences[5]. Thus becoming clear is the keenness of each side to sustain the improvement in bilateral relations; in such atmosphere, there are chances of China and the US agreeing on a face saving formula, in order to deescalate tensions on the islands issue. It may not come as surprise if the two reach an understanding on the ‘innocent passage’ of their  naval vessels close to their respective territories; the PRC in particular may  stop  insisting on its condition that foreign vessels need prior permission to enter its perceived territories.

Looking beyond the current China-US tussle on the artificial islands issue, it can be said that though the region is getting benefits from multilateral efforts towards achieving  economic integration  , its instability seems certain as   there may be no quick end to the territorial contest taking place in the SCS.  The implications for the future shape of  geopolitics in East Asia can  thus be clearly understood.


Given below in chronological order are 9 notable indicators to the possible entry of US naval vessels within  12 nautical miles of artificial islands created by China:

  1. The first was given by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. He said during congressional testimony (Washington, Sept. 17, 2015) that the U.S. should challenge China’s claim to territory in the South China Sea by patrolling close to the artificial islands[6].

  2. As second, John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at the Committee’s hearing on September 25, 2015 that “the U.S. needs to go within the 12-mile limit to make it clear that the U.S. does not recognize China’s claim that the islands are its territory. This is a dangerous mistake that grants de facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereignty claims,”

  3. The third indication was from a top US naval commander Admiral Scott Shift (speech at Pacific 2015 Maritime Conference, Sydney, October 6,2015) who  claimed that “some countries appeared to view freedom of the seas as up for grabs in the South China Sea, that they are  behaving in a manner inconsistent with international law and that the US Navy  is as committed as ever to protect freedom of navigation in the Pacific region”.[7]

  4. The fourth was in a report of the US journal “Navy Times” (October 7, 2015). It quoted unnamed Pentagon officials of saying that the US Navy may soon receive approval to sail a ship inside the 12-nautical mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit surrounding China’s man-made islands and that action could take place within days but awaits final approval from the Obama administration. If approved, it would be the first time since 2012 that the U.S. Navy has directly challenged China’s claims to the islands’ territorial limits[8].

  5. The fifth came from US spokesman Josh Earnest said (October 8, 2015) that U.S. warships patrolling close to artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea “should not provoke significant reaction from the Chinese.”

  6. The sixth were observations made by the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter (Boston, October 13, 2015) at the end of ministerial talks with Australia. He said that “the US  and Australia share an interest in upholding basic international norms such as freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce. Together, our nations favor peaceful resolutions to disputes and oppose coercion and infringement on well-established international norms, especially in the face of rising tensions in the East and South China Sea. The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. The South China Sea is not and will not be an exception.[9]

  7. The seventh was in a dispatch of the New York Times (October 13,2015) which quoted unnamed U.S. and Asian officials of telling that the US allies were being briefed on plans, which reportedly involve traveling near one or more of China’s recently constructed or expanded outposts.

  8. The eighth indication (New York Times, October 13, 2015) was given by Daniel Kritenbrink, a senior official of the S. National Security Council, who told a closed-door meeting the decision to go ahead was already made.

  9. The ninth and last indication  was from  Admiral Gary Roughead, retired US chief of naval operations (Xiangshan Forum, Beijing, October 16,2015), who remarked  that  “the rapid expansion of land features in the vital sea lanes of the South China Sea heightens suspicion and presents the potential for miscalculation and  that the construction raises legitimate questions regarding militarization”. [10]

The following are responses from the PRC, listed chronologically:

  1. The PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson said (September 18, 2015) that China opposes any country’s challenge in name of freedom of navigation to its sovereignty and security in South China Sea. China will adopt counter measures against the US.

  2. The spokesperson Hua Chunying again  said (October 9, 2015) that “We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and over flight, We urge the related parties not to take any provocative actions, and genuinely take a responsible stance on regional peace and stability”.

  3. The Global Times (October 15, 2015) in its editorial entitled “China Says Military Will Stand up and Use Force If US Sends Warships to Islands” blamed the US for “ceaseless provocations” in the South China Sea. It pointed out that  “China has not made any statement about the expansion of its sovereignty due to the construction work, and that it has no intention of claiming more sovereignty. China mustn’t tolerate rampant US violations of China’s adjacent waters and the skies over these expanding islands. The Chinese military should be ready to launch countermeasures according to Washington’s level of provocation. The US must have known that China’s reclamation work does not contravene international law, so Washington has no sufficient reason to stop China. Despite the legitimacy of China’s construction work and the public good it can provide, if the US adopts an aggressive approach, it will be a breach of China’s bottom line, and China will not sit idly by. China has remained calm with self-restraint even in the face of Washington’s escalating provocations, but if the US encroaches on China’s core interests, the Chinese military will stand up and use force to stop it[11].

  4. A Xinhua commentary (October 15, 2015) said that the US could shoot itself in the foot if it patrols the islands, risking creating miscalculation and destabilization of the region.

  5. Rear Admiral Yang Yi (Global Times, October 16,2015) warned the US that the People’s Liberation Army would deliver a “head-on blow” to any foreign forces “violating” China’s sovereignty. Safeguarding maritime rights calls for force and power.”

  6. At an informal meeting of ASEAN defense ministers , China’s Defence minister Chang Wanquan said (Beijing, October 16,2015) that the aim of the meeting is to “promote strategic trust and pragmatic cooperation China wants stability and good ties with Southeast Asia”.  He added that “forces from outside the region are using the internet, social media and other means to carry out incitements against countries in this region, threatening social stability. All needed to work hard to maintain peace and stability against such threats. Chang stressed that the biggest common need is to maintain stability and expressed his country’s willingness to work with ASEAN to boost military cooperation and jointly maintain regional peace and stability[12]. He further stated that at present the regional situation is generally stable, but there are obvious downward economic pressures and non-traditional security challenges are increasing, During the meeting, the  Chinese officials submitted a series of proposals, including a joint exercise with ASEAN nations in the South China Sea in 2016. [13]

  7. A Xinhua (October 17.2015) dispatch entitled “Planned US provocative move in S.China sea risks destabilizing region”, commented that “the US provocations threaten to militarise the South China Sea. China’s sovereignty claims over Nansha (Spratlys) and adjacent waters in the South China Sea are formed over long course of history and has adequate and solid historical legal China’s construction of islands not only serves it, but also the coastal nations in the South China Sea.

  8. Speaking at the Xiangshan regional defense forum in Beijing, Fan Changlong, Vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, pledged ( October 17,2015) that the country would “never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues bearing on sovereignty[14].” He added that the projects were mainly intended for civilian use and “will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Instead, they will enable us to provide better public services to aid navigation and production in the South China Sea.” Fan said that China would accelerate the establishment of an 8,000-member standby force for UN peacekeeping missions as promised by the PRC President Xi Jinping at the United Nations in September 2015 besides expressing China’s commitment to train 2,000 foreign peacekeepers over the next five years.

  9. Global Times (Chinese, huanqiu shi bao,October 18,2015) in its commentary captioned “China will not submit to threats[15]”, quoted Major General Luo Yuan of the PLA Aademy of Military Science as saying that the US has betrayed China’s faith in a New Type of Major Country relations and violated its promise to the PRC  that it will not  take a stand on Spratlys; he described as  a US military  blackmail of C



[1]J. Ashley Roach, “China’s Shifting Sands in the Spratlys”,  American Society of International Law, July 15, 2015,

2  Tyler Durden, “Beijing’s South China Sea Military Buildup Continues: The Dramatic Visual Evidence”, September 16,2015,

[3] “Spratly airstrip update Potential New Runway Presents New Headaches”, Gregory B. Poling , September 16,2015,   ;

[4] Cheng Li, “Xi’s U.S. visit aims at cooperation”, Interview | September 18, 2015

[5] “The time is always right to do the right thing – Building a new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States”, China Daily, September 27 , 2015, (

[6]  “ Pentagon set to send U.S. warships to China’s artificial islands”,  World Tribune, October 8,2015, Andrew Greene, “ South China Sea: US Admiral Scott Swift takes swipe at China during Sydney speech”,

[7] David Larter,  “Navy will challenge Chinese territorial claims in South China Sea”, October 8,2015,

[8]  “Carter says U.S. will sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows”, Reuters, October 13,2015,

[9] “US’ logic back to front”, China Daily USA, October 19,2015,

[10] “Firm reaction for US sea provocation”, Global Times, October 15, 2015, also

[11] “China Proposes Joint Exercise in South China Sea with ASEAN Countries”,   CRI Online, October 17, 2015,

[12] Ibid

 [13] “ Defense official reveals China’s plans to boost international peace”,   China Daily, October 17, 2015,


(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Contributing date – October 23, 2015. Email:

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