US analysts hail naval manoeuvre as key step in ensuring security

The USS Lassen in 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS

Even as Beijing voiced strong objections, Washington analysts almost unanimously praised the decision by the US Navy to challenge Chinese actions in the South China Sea by sending a warship close to two man-made islands claimed by China.

The day after the USS Lassen guided-missile destroyer made the controversial run near Subi and Mischief reefs, the reaction in Washington was in sharp contrast to that of the Chinese.

Pundits hailed the move as an important step for ensuring security in the South China Sea and most agreed that the mission was long overdue.

"It should have been done years ago because of what China has done; building up those islands goes beyond reclamation," said Professor Zachary Abuza, an Asia expert at the National War College. "Constructed islands on low tide elevations under international law clearly do not have territorial seas. I think the operation is very important. If we do not stand up to China and we do not maintain the freedom of navigation, then it gives China's claims legitimacy. We can't do that. It's bad for security in South-east Asia."

Similarly, Mr Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the voyage effectively puts on record what the United States thinks of the reclaimed islands.

"Everything is on the table now and the US views are now out there," he told The Straits Times.

And while many felt the naval manoeuvre spoke volumes about the US position, American officials chose to spend the day after avoiding the subject of the South China Sea.

Defence Secretary Ash Carter went so far as to try and dodge a direct question during a hearing in Congress over whether the voyage actually took place.

The Obama administration had reportedly given specific orders to officials not to make public statements about the mission in order not to stoke further tensions.

The lack of official information leaves several questions about the mission unanswered - for instance, why conduct the mission now, just shortly before the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit?

The exact timing of the operation was apparently the subject of much internal debate in the Obama administration. Defence officials had been publicly advocating such missions since the middle of the year, but the White House wanted to wait until after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the US last month.

During the visit, the two leaders made no headway on the South China Sea issue and US President Barack Obama reportedly gave the green light shortly after the Chinese leader's trip.

"This involved, no kidding, years of intense lobbying and debates within the Pacific Command, the Department of Defence and the executive branch," said Prof Abuza.

And while tensions have been raised for the two summits due to take place next month, Dr Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security said that he expects the US and China to still be able to maintain a functional, if not cordial, diplomatic relationship.

He said: "China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea is alarming neighbours, and the United States is seeking to reassure them that order will be based on regional and international norms, not one country's unilateral changes to the status quo.

"I expect FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) around excessive claims by China and other claimants in the South China Sea to be a regular if periodic feature of US engagement. But these operations are means to larger political ends, and are not ends in themselves. The relationship with China and the hard diplomatic work will continue."

An early test of the relationship comes next week when the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, goes on a scheduled trip to Beijing to meet senior Chinese officials.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline US analysts hail naval manoeuvre as key step in ensuring security. Subscribe