China offered threatening comments and warnings a day after the passage of a U.S. guided missile destroyer to within 12 miles of a disputed reef in the South China Sea where Beijing is building a military airstrip.
The destroyer USS Lassen made the pass close to Subi Reef in the Spratlys, an area where China has done the most to construct some 3,000 acres of reclaimed islands that are now being militarized for what U.S. officials say will likely be future deployments of Chinese military forces.
China denounced what the Pentagon called a freedom of navigation operation as a provocation and threatened to build up its forces in the region in response.
The Pentagon sought to minimize the significance of the ship’s passage. Defense Secretary Ash Carter initially refused to comment on the Lassen during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, but when pressed by senators he confirmed that the transit took place.
At the State Department on Wednesday, spokesman John Kirby dismissed Chinese claims that the United States is militarizing the region through the warship’s operations.
"I've seen the comments," Kirby said of remarks by China’s ambassador to the United States.
"We would just flatly disagree," he said. "To sail a ship through international waters is not a provocative act in anyway whatsoever."
"Freedom of the seas is a fundamental principle which must be protected, and that's one of the reasons why the U.S. Navy exists," said Kirby, a former Navy officer.
The United States has treaty commitments with five nations in the Asia Pacific and the alliances are "not aimed at China," Kirby said.
"They’re aimed at trying to decrease tensions and preserve stability because that region is so vital to the rest of the world economically alone, but on other levels as well," he said.
Chinese Rear Adm. Yang Yi was quoted in the official People’s Liberation Army newspaper Oct. 27 warning that China would not submit to U.S. pressure over its alleged maritime sovereignty claims.
"We shall never stop our pace, nor shall we submit to humiliation. If the U.S succeeds through this attempt, the South China Sea will be caught in a vicious cycle," Adm. Yang said.
The Communist Party organ Global Times, a frequent outlet for jingoistic Chinese commentary, criticized the warship transit as a major military provocation.
"If the U.S. wants innocent passage through these waters, it should apply for China’s permission and be in accordance with China’s law on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone," wrote Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"The U.S.’ bold military provocation will not only damage Sino-US relations, but also could result in the risk of conflicts in the waters if it persists," he added.
Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, who has a reputation as an anti-U.S. hardliner, also criticized the Lassen’s passage.
"I think what the United States is doing is a very serious provocation politically and militarily," Cui said, according to state-run Xinhua.
"It's a clear attempt to escalate the situation and to militarize the region. So we're very concerned about that," he added.
The ambassador then warned that in response to the ship transit China could build up military capabilities in the region.
Military analysts say China may seize on the ship passage, the first by a warship within 12 miles of a disputed islet, to impose an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea.
Beijing imposed a similar zone over the East China Sea as part of its dispute with Japan over the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea said they do not recognize the East China Sea zone.
A Xinhua commentary included a veiled threat: "Decision makers in Washington need to be reminded that China has little room for compromise when it comes to matters regarding its sovereignty, and it will take whatever means at whatever cost to safeguard its sovereign interests," Xinhua stated.
Another Global Times report urged China to "stay calm" and avoid allowing the United States to "achieve its goal of irritating us."
The Global Times report also made clear China will continue the military buildup on the islands.
"Completing building the islands still remains as a major task for China in the future," the report said. "At present, no country, the U.S. included, is able to obstruct Beijing's island reclamation in the region."
Satellite images taken in recent months reveal that China’s island-building is nearly complete and the militarization of the islands could be the next step The militarization includes building three airstrips that could support military aircraft, including one on Subi Reef, and construction of garrisons, harbors, intelligence, and surveillance infrastructure.
Additional armaments in the future could include surface-to-air missiles and radar that would enable China to take control of the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion worth of trade transits each year.
In Beijing, U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus was called in to hear a protest from Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui on Tuesday.
"This action by the United States threatens China's sovereignty and security interests and endangers the safety of personnel and facilities on the reef, which is a serious provocation," Zhang said.
Zhang also warned that China would "resolutely safeguard territorial sovereignty and legal sea interests, and China will do whatever necessary to oppose deliberate provocation from any country."
America’s Asian allies were supportive of the warship passage, with the Philippines government voicing the most open backing.
"I see no issue as to this U.S. Navy ship traversing under international law in waters that should be free to be traveled upon by any country," Philippines President Benigno Aquino told reporters, the Manila Times reported.
"The American passage through these contentious waters is meant precisely to say that there are norms as to what freedom of navigation entails and they intend to exercise, so that there is no de facto changing of the reality on the ground," he added.
Philippines is claiming the Spratlys as its own territory.
Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne also voiced support for the Lassen deployment.
"It is important to recognize that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights," she said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
She added: "Australia is not involved in the current United States activity in the South China Sea."
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also supported the naval operation.
"In order to protect the free, open, and peaceful sea, we will cooperate with the international community, including the United States, our ally," Abe told reporters in Astana, Kazakhstan, where he is traveling.
Abe also said China’s efforts to change the status quo and raise tensions are sharing concerns of the international community.
In South Korea, a presidential spokesman called for a peaceful resolution of disputes between the United States and China.
"Korea has strategic interests in the South China Sea and we've been strongly calling for restraint of any action that can affect peace and stability in the region," a senior presidential official told reporters, South Korean news outlets reported.
The official said 30 percent of South Korea’s exports and 90 percent of its energy imports transit South China Sea waters claimed by Beijing but viewed as international water by Washington.
"We urge the settling of the dispute peacefully in accordance with international norms," the official said.
The muted South Korean government response is a further indication Seoul is moving closer to China, a major trading partner that has been pressuring South Korea not to permit deployment of U.S. advanced missile defenses.