U.S. Makes Most Defiant Drill Yet in South China Sea

The USS Dewy on Thursday conducted a maneuvering drill within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island constructed by Beijing in the contested South China Sea.

Although the previous Administration often sent warships into the South China Sea to uphold freedom of navigation and challenge China’s claim to virtually the entire region, some analysts say this move went a step further.

Beforehand, these exercises involved a warship undergoing “innocent passage” and passing the sea without stopping – effectively recognizing territorial waters, much to the disappointment of regional allies that also lay claims to parts of the South China Sea.

In particular, the USS Dewy conducted a “man overboard” exercise, specifically to show that its passage within 12 nautical miles was not innocent passage, U.S. officials said. China says that in response, it sent two guided-missile warships warning the U.S. ship to leave the area.

Greg Poling of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank told Reuters: “The previous two freedom-of-navigation operations only challenged China’s demand for prior notification for innocent passage through the territorial sea; this one asserted that there is no territorial sea at all.”

However, U.S. Commander Gary Ross maintained the drill was not specific to one country.

The South China Sea is a strategic waterway by which $5 trillion in ship-borne goods pass through each year. It is contested by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines — the latter of which took the case to an international court and won. China refused to recognize the ruling. Beijing continues to build and militarize artificial islands in the region claiming it’s only building defenses legally in its own territory.

The United States’ latest drill comes ahead of a visit between U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and regional counterparts in Singapore. At the same time, the U.S. is urging — and to some degree succeeding — in pushing China to take a stronger stance against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The latest incursion, of course, may further complicate the matter.