A U.S. destroyer has sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea, the latest salvo in an escalating freedom of navigation dispute between Washington and Beijing.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Russell sailed by the Spratly Islands, claimed by China, earlier this week. The Russell belong to the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which stated that the destroyer “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law,” adding that “this freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.” Commissioned in 1995, the Russell’s System Mk 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) accepts a wide range of armaments that include Tomahawk cruise missiles, RIM-67 surface-to-air missiles, and RUM-139 ASROC anti-submarine missiles. The aging Arleigh Burke class was scheduled to be replaced by the new Zumwalt line of guided missile destroyers starting as early as 2020, but extreme cost overruns, design complications, and persistent technical issues have pushed back the Navy’s procurement plans until at least the mid 2020s.
Without naming China as the sole or primary culprit, the statement noted that “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.”
China is locked in an ongoing territorial dispute with a slew of east and southeast Asian states that have claimed all or part of the islands in question; these include Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei. Washington has long challenged Beijing’s “excessive maritime claims” in the South China Sea, signaling its intent to enforce what it calls the “right of innocent passage through the territorial sea” through freedom of navigation operations (FONOP); these typically involve sailing military vessels through contested or otherwise illegitimately regulated waters. U.S. destroyers have undertaken a steady stream of FONOP’s around the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in recent years. China has laid the groundwork for the militarization of the Spratly Islands with a series of man-made fortifications, including runways and other military infrastructure, strewn throughout the island group.
The dispute over the South China Sea comes amid a broader downturn in relations between Washington and Beijing. During his Senate Armed Forces Committee confirmation hearing late last month, Defense Secretary Loyd Austin identified China as possibly America’s most threatening long-term competitor: “clearly the strategy will be arrayed against the threat and China presents the most significant threat going forward because China is ascending,” he said. “Russia is also a threat, but it’s in decline. It can still do a great deal of damage as we’ve seen here in recent days. And it’s a country that we have to maintain some degree of focus on, but China is the pacing threat.”
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.