TOKYO -- Tensions in the South China Sea reached a new high on Oct. 27, when the U.S. Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built and claimed by China. Recent moves by the Navy and statements by its highest-ranking officers show that preparations for the exercise -- and for an eventual showdown over the West Pacific -- had been in the works for months.
The "freedom of navigation" exercise is Washington's most significant challenge to China to date and can be taken as a blunt statement to the world that the U.S. does not recognize Beijing's territorial claims. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman issued an angry rebuke, saying "relevant authorities" monitored, followed and warned the USS Lassen as it "illegally" entered waters without the Chinese government's permission.
Under international law, a country's territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its shore. Technically, however, the recent U.S. exercise does not infringe upon the sovereignty of the maritime features. The two reefs that the Lassen approached -- Subi and Mischief -- are completely man-made, as opposed to some of the other artificial islands that have some rocks above water. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, low-tide elevations -- land that is above water at low tide but submerged at high tide -- cannot be used as a basis to claim maritime space.
Despite the legal tiptoeing, the intent of the mission is clear. The Obama administration wants China to halt construction of the seven artificial islands in disputed waters. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in August that the construction had stopped. Satellite images, however, show significant activity going on in the area, particularly to add finishing touches to the surface of the islands. The U.S. is expected to intensify its navigation exercises if these activities continue.
While the U.S. typically does not take sides on territorial disputes, American officials have been making it clear that they do not recognize China's claims to the area. In mid-October, the Navy's highest-ranking officer in uniform, Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, told reporters in Tokyo that Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea were "just steaming in international waters."
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, was even more explicit during a recent congressional testimony, where he said, "The South China Sea is no more China's than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico's."
For the U.S., preventing China from flexing its muscles and doing as it pleases in the South China Sea is a "curtain-raiser to the main battleground, the West Pacific," according to professor Zhu Jianrong of Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo.
U.S. skepticism toward China's maritime ambitions in the West Pacific goes back to 2007, when a top Chinese navy officer proposed to then-Pacific Command chief Adm. Timothy Keating a deal to divide the Pacific.
"You, the U.S., take Hawaii East and we, China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean. Then you will not need to come to the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean and we will not need to go to the eastern Pacific. If anything happens there, you can let us know, and if something happens here, we will let you know," Keating later recalled the Chinese official as saying.
Zhu said the offer was not official policy and that Chinese President Xi Jinping does not share the view of the official who proposed it. The U.S. Navy, however, did not take the incident lightly. In the years since, it has been realigning its assets with a focus on the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
In the lead-up to the Oct. 27 exercise, Navy officials made repeated references to a new policy put in place by the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift. That policy is to blur the boundary line separating the field of operations of the Seventh Fleet and the Third Fleet.
The Seventh Fleet is responsible for an area from the west of Hawaii to the India-Pakistan border, while the Third Fleet is tasked with protecting the homeland, with ships between Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast. Until now, the international date line has marked the boundary between the two fleets. Making the demarcation less rigid means the powerful Third Fleet -- which has 115 ships, including four aircraft carriers -- can more easily come to the aid of the Seventh Fleet, including in the South China Sea.
"Our boss, Adm. Swift, would like to blur the international date line and ensure that the Third Fleet and Seventh Fleet can work seamlessly together," Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander of the Third Fleet, said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.
"We are both Pacific fleets. Very easily I can come to be a force multiplier," she added.
Tyson, who is based in San Diego, California, was in Japan in mid-October to represent the U.S. Navy at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet review. Her presence there, rather than that of her Seventh Fleet counterpart, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who is based in Yokosuka, Japan, was unconventional and deliberate.
Tyson said the new policy will allow more flexibility in command and control. "We don't have a line in the sand that says when you go across this longitudinal line that you automatically have to report to me or to Adm. Aucoin," she said. "Depending on the circumstances or scenario, we have more flexibility over who has command and control of the forces. We have flexibility to move forces around and report to different commanders."
Theoretically, it could mean many more naval vessels operating in the West Pacific, with two commanding officers simultaneously running the show.
Another development in the West Pacific is the expansion of the Navy's forward presence in Yokosuka, already its largest base overseas. On Oct. 19, the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold quietly arrived at the port to assume its new role as protector of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which is based there.
The Benfold follows the USS Chancellorsville, a guided-missile cruiser that joined the Yokosuka team in June. It is the first time in 23 years that the Navy has increased the number of vessels at Yokosuka. The two join 11 other ships -- including the Seventh Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge -- that are based there, and they are to be followed by a further addition in 2017.
According to professor Zhu, the Chinese were under the impression that the two sides had reached an implicit understanding about how to handle the South China Sea in June, when China's top man in uniform, Gen. Fan Changlong, visited Washington.
The understanding was apparently that China would refrain from demarcating the area -- like it did with the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu -- and halt further reclamation of land. The U.S., in return, would not send ships within 12 nautical miles of the islands.
"There may have been some miscommunication," Zhu said. "When China said it would halt construction, it meant no new landfills. It didn't mean that China would stop construction on the surface of the islands already reclaimed."
Xi's visit to Washington in September may have added fuel to President Barack Obama's doubts toward China. "When pressed by Obama on the issue of the South China Sea, Xi may have said very little because he was under the impression that the issue had already been settled in June," Zhu said.
Whatever understanding may have been reached in June, it seems to have been lost in translation, and the two countries are now in significantly riskier territory.