China reacted more harshly than expected to the passage last week of the warship USS Lassen that skirted within 12 miles of one of Beijing’s newly-created and increasingly militarized South China Sea islands.

Admiral Wu Shengli recently warned the US that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its "provocative acts" in the disputed waterway
Admiral Wu Shengli recently warned the US that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if it did not stop its “provocative acts” in the disputed waterway

Chinese spokesmen issued sharp and threatening statements in response to the ship passage, unlike statement expressing less heated “serious concerns” of the impending passage of a ship through the sea in a US show of force designed to bolster regional allies and undermine Beijing’s questionable claim to most of the waters as its maritime domain.

The harshest statements came Oct. 29 when Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, warned US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in a teleconference of dire consequences from the Navy warship conducting a freedom of navigation operation three days earlier.

Contrary to Chinese warnings in advance of the navigation operation, the Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, passed through the sea and within 12 miles of Subi Reef in the Spratlys, that China calls the Nansha islands and is claiming as its territory. It had earlier passed through the 12-mile limit of a Vietnamese-claimed island.

US defense officials have said the reef is one of three locations in the sea where China is building military airstrips that the Pentagon believes will be used for Chinese fighter jets and military transports as part of plans to control the strategic waterway.

China’s vibrant Internet social media also lit up with activity and discussion, much of it critical of both the US Navy for sailing in the sea, and the Chinese government for not taking a harder line. The Sina Weibo headline news topic under the hashtag “US Navy Warship Patrols South China Sea” was viewed nearly 14 million times — until authorities removed it on Oct. 28.

According to state-run Xinhua, Wu told Richardson the warship passage “threatened China’s sovereignty and security and damaged regional peace and stability, which is highly dangerous and provocative.”

The admiral’s use of the term “highly-dangerous” represents a more intense level of rhetoric than is commonly used by the Communist Party-ruled military in expressing official opposition.

“If the US side continues to carry out this kind of dangerous and provocative action, it is extremely possible to result in a severe and urgent situation between the frontline naval and air force troops of the two sides and even an unexpected incident,” Wu said.

Wu noted that construction on the islands was legal, and he added that China will “take all necessary measures to safeguard sovereignty and security” if there are additional ship transits.

US Naval War College professor Andrew S. Erickson said that despite the admiral’s tough rhetoric, dire consequences should not be expected. The United States, he says, should continue to push back hard against Chinese maritime claims, Erickson says.

“In its current blustering, China is on the wrong side of both law and history but is unlikely to initiate open conflict despite Adm. Wu Shengli’s dire predictions,” Erickson said in a blog post.

“The United States should keep calm and press on. It enjoys extensive, if often quiet, support throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond. It should continue [freedom of navigation operations] and other legal activities to continually demonstrate that Beijing cannot carve out the ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East, and South China seas) into a zone of exceptionalism where Beijing’s parochial priorities supersede vital international laws and norms,” he added.

In contrast to Chinese reactions, US defense and military officials were nearly silent about the Lassen’s much-anticipated activities in the sea. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at first declined any comment on the ship visit until pressed during a US Senate hearing to comment. He then reluctantly confirmed the ship passage. The defense secretary earlier had said the United State would not be restricted from activities in and over the sea and would sail, fly and travel unimpeded in all international air space and waters.

US allies and other supporters of a more muscular military presence in the sea applauded the Lassen’s operation, the first by a US warship within 12 miles of a disputed island there since 2012.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to cooperate with the United States in ensuring “the free, open and peaceful sea.” Philippines President Benigno Aquino also supported the ship transit as operating under international law.

Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai appeared on CNN to denounce the Lassen’s activity. “I think what the United States is doing is a very serious provocation politically and militarily,” Cui said. “It’s a clear attempt to escalate the situation and to militarize the region. So we’re very concerned about that.”

Cui and other Chinese officials have suggested that China may step up military capabilities in the region as one response.

Pentagon intelligence analysts are watching very carefully to see what China actually does in response, beyond the use of overly heated rhetoric.

Possible next steps could include increasing the number of PLA navy ships in the region; speeding up the militarization on the reclaimed islands; and declaring an air defense identification zone over the sea.

Former Chinese military commentators also weighed in on the dispute. Retired PLA Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, a noted hardline unofficial spokesman for the PLA, took to Sina Weibo to denounce the Lassen passage as a US “act of provocation.” He accused Washington of militarizing the South China Sea dispute with the transit. Luo urged China to respond by bolstering construction of military facilities on the islands.

Former PLA Col. Yue Gang, also on Sina Weibo, said the freedom of navigation operation was part of US efforts to negate China’s Nine-Dash Line claim over some 90% of the South China Sea. Additionally, US warship operations are aimed at subverting China’s right to “fish, drill for oil and gas, and navigate” the sea.

Yue also criticized China for not taking a more aggressive posture in response and warned that the failure means “more serious troubles” will arise for Beijing. The former colonel also said the successful US Navy operation provided the United States with “great face” in the dispute.

The Chinese propaganda operation to chastise the United States and seek to prevent a repeat will continue this week during the visit to China by the new commander of US Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris.

Harris begins the three-day visit to China Nov. 2 and is scheduled to meet senior PLA leaders.

The four-star admiral is the most outspoken critic of China to head the Pacific Command in years. He bluntly told to a US House hearing recently that the South China Sea is no more China’s domain than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico’s.

The overly heated rhetoric from the Chinese military on the South China Sea reflects what analysts say is a carefully orchestrated information warfare operation. The goal is to force the seemingly weak administration of President Obama to back down from providing high-profile US military support to regional allies and others opposed to increasing Chinese hegemony.

Additional US warship incursions – sooner than the most recent three-year interval – are needed if Washington hopes to send a louder message of support of open seas.

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