Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) - A US Navy warship sailed near an artificial island recently built by Beijing in the South China Sea. The area has long been the focus of a bitter territorial dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam . The missile destroyer USS Lassen came within the 12 nautical mile limit placed by Beijing around the Subi and Mischief atolls, off the Spratly archipelago. Moreover, the freedom of navigation is the main challenge to the territorial claims made by the Chinese government in the Asia-Pacific.
The Chinese government sent a "warning" to the United States and launched an investigation on the matter, to ensure that the vessel had indeed "violated" their waters. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that if the offense is confirmed, "I would invite the United States to think twice before doing it again" and avoid "acting blindly or making trouble out of nothing." Even the official Xinhua news agency has been mobilized publishing a strongly critical editorial.
The atolls, once submerged, have been transformed into islands by Beijing with an impressive work of dredging and reclamation, which started at the end of 2013. The government says that the works are legal; during a meeting with US President Barack Obama last month Xi Jinping stated that China "is not going to militarize" the islands. However, the White House believes that the outposts actually have a military purpose, that is to strengthen China’s hegemony in the area.
The theme of the construction of airstrips and artificial atolls in contested areas by China has been the focus of the meeting between the ASEAN defense ministers and Beijing in mid-October; a "imperialist" policy which has registered an increasing acceleration in the last two years. For the United States and the Philippines islands represent a new threat in the region and in the past Washington had not ruled out the navigation of its ships within the area claimed by China, ratcheting up already high tensions in the area.
In recent years the United States has promoted a program called "Freedom of navigation", to challenge what it considers "excessive claims" in the oceans and in the airspace around the world. It was developed to promote adhesion to the international UN Convention on the seas, though the Americans themselves have never ratified the treaty.
The US Navy has already completed several operations of this type against China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, each of which has an outpost in the South China Sea. A Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington said that freedom of navigation "should not be used as an excuse to flex muscle and undermine the sovereignty and security of other countries."
In the coming days other US Navy ships will be placed follow the USS Lassen into the area. Moreover, in the coming weeks the arrival of more boats and means of naval and air control has not been ruled out.
In recent years, Vietnam and the Philippines - which has taken its case to a UN court - have shown growing concern over China's "imperialism" in the South and East China Seas. The Chinese government claims most of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line is both "illegal" and "irrational".
Anyone with a hegemonic sway over the region would have a strategic advantage, in terms of seabed (oil and gas) development, but also in trade since two thirds of the world's maritime trade transit through it, with a total value of at least $ 5 trillion.