LONDON – The sailing of a US warship within 12 miles of one of China’s new artificial islands in the South China Sea represents the most daring American military intervention in years. Not since President Bill Clinton sent a naval group through the Taiwan Strait in 1996 as a supportive gesture to the then-beleaguered Taiwanese has the United States so boldly defied China’s unlawful territorial claims.
As a symbolic gesture, the move is welcome. But it is not enough. If China’s interpretations of international law – which invariably serve its expansionist ambitions –are truly to be countered, challenges of its territorial claims will need to be repeated regularly and coordinated with others.
China’s response to the intervention was to feign outrage, describing it as an illegal intrusion into its sovereign waters and a sign of American hypocrisy; the United States cares when China builds artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Chinese argue, but not when Vietnam or the Philippines do the same. But neither argument holds water, as the Chinese know perfectly well.
Neither Vietnam nor the Philippines has laid claim to the whole of the South China Sea, as China does through the notorious “nine-dash line” – a huge tongue-shaped territorial claim first put forward after World War II by the Chinese Nationalist government and later embraced by the Communists.