Over the weekend, the United States Navy sailed a destroyer within 12 miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, a series of islands that China considers its territory and that it has fortified. Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to the territory, but they were largely quiet after the U.S. operation. Beijing, predictably, protested loudly. The New York Times reports:
In a statement on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman, said, “The U.S. warship’s arbitrary entrance of China’s territorial water has violated the relevant Chinese law, and the Chinese side has taken relevant measures in accordance with the law including monitoring and warning.“We urge the U.S. side to respect and abide by the relevant Chinese law, and do more things that may contribute to the mutual trust between China and the U.S., as well as regional peace,” the statement added [. . .]
In a harsher reaction, the Chinese Defense Ministry said a garrison on the island, as well as navy ships and planes, had “immediately” identified the American warship and warned it to leave.
The U.S. conducted a similar operation in the disputed Spratly Islands last October, but U.S. officials sent mixed signals afterwards about whether the Navy had conducted a Freedom of Navigation operation or a less assertive “innocent passage” operation. This time, there appears to be more clarity.
Beijing was scrambling to spin a face-saving narrative over the weekend. Although the Pentagon’s spokesman said there were no Chinese ships in the area throughout the duration of the operation, Chinese officials told domestic media that a PLA garrison had successfully repulsed the U.S. destroyer. The apparently false comments underscore the importance of the South China Sea as a propaganda tool to appease Chinese nationalists, for whom Chinese sovereignty in the Spratlys and the Paracels is a paramount concern.
American observers who feel compelled to combat Beijing’s falsehoods should pause and consider: The dynamic that played out this weekend, thought not ideal, might not be such a bad thing. As long as the United States can continue to patrol the South China Sea and protect freedom of navigation, it might be best to let Beijing tell its citizens what they want to hear.