Chinese media criticised the US on Thursday for “ceaseless provocations” in the South China Sea, with Washington expected to soon send warships close to artificial islands Beijing has built in disputed waters.An editorial in the Global Times, which is close to China’s ruling Communist party, condemned US “coercion”, adding: “China mustn’t tolerate rampant US violations of China’s adjacent waters and the skies over those expanding islands.”It said China’s military should “be ready to launch countermeasures according to Washington’s level of provocation”.Tensions have mounted since China transformed reefs in the area – also claimed by several neighbouring countries – into small islands capable of supporting military facilities, a move the US says threatens freedom of navigation.
International law is quite explicit that artificial islands have no sovereignty, and thus no territorial waters.
On the other hand, international law is only true as long as the US is willing to exercise its rights under that law to Freedom of Navigation (FoN). And in this case, the Obama administration basically had to be shamed into planning these Freedom of Navigation exercises by the Congress.
China is unlikely to counter these voyages with lethal force. But they’ll surely react in some manner. My best bet is they’ll have fishing vessels putting nets in the water to make navigation more difficult, and possibly having their coast guard vessels maneuvering obnoxiously to harass any US vessel.
They’ll also blather on the radio warning our vessel to steer clear. Ironically, for a society that worries about losing face, this is the wrong reaction. Should they simply ignore any US FoN exercise, and minimize the attention it receives, they’d save face, and still have the practical benefit of physically holding the islands. And since the US isn’t going to park a warship in those waters permanently, they would also still be able to continue to coerce their neighbors, particularly Vietnam. But by making noise, they’re convincing Japan that maybe they too need to conduct FoN ops in the area.