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Mischief Reef, a Chinese-made artificial island in the South China Sea.   © Reuters
Shangri-La Asia Security Dialogue

US sail-by in South China Sea puts heat back on Beijing

First operation near man-made island under Trump a nod to China hawks

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- The U.S. Navy conducted its first freedom of navigation exercise near a Chinese-built artificial island in the South China Sea since President Donald Trump's inauguration, apparently in response to calls at home for the commander in chief to challenge Beijing's territorial claims in the waters.

The USS Dewey, a missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, U.S. military officials told multiple American news outlets Wednesday. This patrol questions China's claim that the waters surrounding the landmass, which is constructed from dredged-up sand, constitute a territorial sea. The last freedom of navigation operation took place in October, under then-President Barack Obama.

Washington and Beijing had been growing closer of late, particularly after Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for talks in April. The leaders agreed then that the U.S. would let up criticism on matters such as the country's sizable trade imbalance with China if Beijing would use its influence over North Korea to help rein in Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile development.

According to American media reports, the Trump administration thrice turned down proposals from the Navy to hold freedom of navigation operations, apparently to avoid riling Beijing. But many in the U.S. have protested that stopping these sail-bys would let China continue its military buildup in the South China Sea unabated. The country has already installed airstrips, radar facilities and defenses against missiles and aircraft on multiple artificial islands, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank.

Concerns over construction of military facilities

Adm. Harry Harris, the top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, told a House of Representatives committee on April 26 that the U.S. probably would hold freedom of navigation operations "soon." Seven senators from Trump's Republican Party pressed the president for such a patrol in a letter in early May, apparently to some effect.

Beijing's heavy-handed approach in the South China Sea may also have forced the Trump administration's hand. China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations convened high-level talks in mid-May to hash out a code of conduct for the waterway. But the resulting framework for such a code did not even establish whether the rules will be legally binding, much less set a schedule for them to take effect.

The Philippines, previously a leading adversary of China within the regional bloc, has softened its position considerably since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year. Meanwhile, powers including the U.S. and Japan have turned their attention toward North Korea of late, creating a temporary power vacuum in the sea that has let China consolidate its dominance.

Two Chinese vessels warned the American ship to leave China's territorial waters, and Beijing has taken the matter up with Washington, according to Lu Kang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

"The relevant action of the U.S. vessel undermined China's sovereignty and security interests and is highly likely to cause untoward incidents in the waters and airspace," he said in a news conference Thursday. "China is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed to this."

Both sides have reasons to compromise

But now is not the time for China to pick a fight with the U.S. The Communist Party's twice-a-decade National Congress is coming up in the fall. Xi and his circle are looking to avoid any disruption that could affect the leadership changes that will be made there.

Trump, for his part, still needs Beijing's cooperation to restrain North Korea as provocations continue, and so cannot risk prodding China too hard. Washington seems aware of this fact: The Department of Defense did not publicly announce the latest operation, saying only that such maneuvers are being conducted regularly. This is a markedly more subdued approach than that taken under Obama, when the Pentagon announced each of four operations held starting in the fall of 2015. Further operations are certain to be weighed carefully, taking into account the state of domestic politics and China's likely reaction.

Events in the South China Sea will be a key point of debate when military and national security figures from the U.S., China, Japan and other Asia-Pacific powers meet in Singapore in early June for the annual Asia Security Summit, commonly known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. Observers in the region are eager to see how the U.S. and China address the matter -- including the latest wrinkle. 

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