The USS Lassen, a United States guided-missile destroyer, navigated through the South China Sea in an area known worldwide as international waters, but claimed as Chinese waters by the country’s communist government.
China responded to the sail-by by denouncing the action. However, China’s regional rivals outwardly supported the action taken by the United States.
The Philippines regarded the sail-by as an action that could restore the region’s “balance of power” and to check China’s self-proclaimed rights to the area. President Benigno Aquino III said the move was “meant precisely to say that there are norms as to what freedom of navigation entails.” He hoped the sail-by would correct China’s improper infringement of international waters.
In addition to Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam, the Philippines has claims to the South China Sea. The area is one of the world’s busiest routes.
Australia also expressed support for the United States’ action. Australian Defense Minister Maris Payne announced that, “Australia continues to cooperate closely with the United States and other regional partners on maritime security.”
Almost 60% of Australia's exports travel through the South China Sea.
One day after the sail-by by the American ship, the Chinese government announced that it had issued a warning to the United States government before the ship “illegally” sailed into the area. A Chinese ship followed the American ship as it traveled.
A statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that, “China will resolutely respond to any country’s deliberate provocations.”
The area where the USS Lassen sailed is within 12 nautical miles of a part of the Spratley archipelago. China claims this is Chinese waters because the country is building artificial islands in the area. China alleges that these islands will be capable of housing military facilities.
A United States defense official referred to the passage the “first foray in freedom-of-navigation exercises challenging China’s territorial claims.”
The United States government has challenged China’s attempts for control of the area calling it an “excessive claim” of Chinese sovereignty. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently stated that the United States “will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows…and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception.”