As soon as the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen breached 12-nautical-mile territorial limits around one of China’s man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea last week, a Chinese warship shadowing its movements began demanding answers.
“‘Hey, you are in Chinese waters. What is your intention?’,” it asked, as recounted to reporters on Thursday by Commander Robert Francis, commanding officer of the Lassen.
His crew replied that they were operating in accordance with international law, and intended to transit past the island, carrying out what U.S. officials have called a freedom-of-navigation exercise designed to challenge China’s claims to the strategic waterway.
The response from the Chinese destroyer?
“The same query, over and over,” said Francis, speaking onboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it sailed 150 to 200 nautical miles from the southern tip of the Spratly archipelago, a chain of contested islands where China’s seven artificial outposts have taken shape in barely two years.
The Lassen had joined the carrier strike group the night before, ahead of a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who while on board blamed China for rising tension in the region.
Beijing has rebuked Washington over the Lassen’s patrol, the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits China claims around its new islands.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
In comments that underscore the frequency with which U.S. warships now…