China is angry about a US warship passing near a reef that lies more than 750 miles from the Chinese mainland. The US says such claims are excessive and violate international agreements.
A US navy warship's passage within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef (photo) has reignited tensions in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the US vessel illegally entered Chinese waters and was tracked and warned.
"This action by the US side threatened China's sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability," he told a daily news briefing.
US Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban defended the maneuver, which the US considers a freedom of navigation operation. Urban said the passage is necessary not only to "challenge excessive maritime claims" by China, but also by Taiwan and Vietnam, he said.
"These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise," he said.
Claims on South China Sea
Washington's chief concern is that China may deploy military aircraft in the disputed Spratly Islands.
"Fiery Cross is sensitive because it is presumed to be the future hub of Chinese military operations in the South China Sea, given its already extensive infrastructure," said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert in Singapore.
Daniel Russel, a State Department expert for East Asia and the Pacific, said freedom of navigation operations were important for navigational rights of smaller countries.
"If our warships can't exercise legitimate rights under international law at sea, then what about the fishermen, what about the cargo ships? How will they prevent themselves from being blocked by stronger nations?"
Indeed, fear of China's military ambitions is prompting the Obama administration to consider lifting a decades-old arms embargo against Vietnam. China vehemently opposes such a move, but Washington's biggest concern is Hanoi's consistently bad human rights record.
Obama is scheduled to visit Vietnam later this month, and lifting the arms embargo is a topic of intense debate inside the administration.
bik/jm (Reuters, AFP)