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Trading  | May 25, 2017

In the first unofficial challenge to Beijing over China’s domination of disputed waters in the South China Sea since President Trump took office, a US navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea according to the WSJ.  The navy vessel, the USS Dewey, traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The USS Dewey

The “freedom of navigation” operation which in the past has infuriated Beijing, comes as Trump is seeking Beijing’s cooperation to rein in ally North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline. China’s claims to the South China Sea, which sees about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade pass every year, are challenged by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.

Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea

The U.S. patrol, the first of its kind since October, marks the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. One official said it was the first operation near a land feature which was included in a ruling last year against China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea.

As is well-known, the United States has criticized China’s construction of the man-made islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free movement, while China largely ignores all foreign complaints on the matter, and in the most recent case of the Philippines, Xi even told Duterete that Beijing would be ready to go to war if the Philippino president tried to drill for oil in the disputed territory.

Airfield being constructed on China’s Mischief Reef

The move was not without warning: last month the U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Harry Harris, said the United States would likely carry out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea soon, without offering any details: the U.S. military has a long-standing position that these operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

The Pentagon said in a statement it was continuing regular freedom of navigation operations and would do more in the future but gave no details of the latest mission.

“We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in the statement.

While a first under Trump, the U.S. Navy conducted numerous such voyages through the South China Sea under the Obama administration, and they were a chronic cause of diplomatic confrontation between the two nations. The latest US patrol was expected to exacerbate U.S.-China tensions that had eased since Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit at the U.S. leader’s Florida resort last month, and sure enough, on Thursday morning, China’s foreign ministry urged the US to stop such “procovative acts.” According to Bloomberg, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that U.S. actions cause severe disruption to negotiation and dialogue over South China Sea.

Additionally, Lu said the US warship, which China’s navy tracker, was “trespassing” and warned it to “leave immediately” as the U.S. act “undermined Chinese sovereignty and security” and was very likely to “cause sea and air accidents.”

Finally, China urged the U.S. to “correct its wrong behavior which is breaking good momentum in South China Sea, and to take steps to improve military relations.”

Having yielded to Xi on virtually every item in the past, we doubt Trump will put up anything more than a token defense of the US action, and we will likely not hear about any more such “freedom of navigation” incidents for a long time.

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