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U.S. Navy Destroyer Sails Through Contested Waters In South China Sea


Now let's talk about international politics, also known as diplomacy. Late yesterday, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer sailed through waters that are claimed by Beijing, by China, in the South China Sea. The USS Lassen drew within 12 nautical miles of coral reefs that China has built up into islands and claimed as sovereign territory. The United States rejects that claim, as do its allies around the South China Sea. And now China has responded to the voyage of that American ship by summoning to U.S. ambassador to talk about the incident. We're going to talk with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who's in Beijing. Hi there, Anthony.


INSKEEP: What have the Chinese said?

KUHN: A fairly senior official, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, summoned U.S. ambassador Max Baucus. And he launched a pretty strong protest. He said that the U.S. destroyer had illegally entered waters near China's islands and threatened China's sovereignty and also threatened the safety of Chinese personnel on the islands. He called it a serious provocation. And he added that China would respond to any provocation by any means necessary.

INSKEEP: What does that mean?

KUHN: Well, basically, China is saying that it will not take any violation of its sovereignty lightly. It has a different interpretation of international law than the U.S. It does not welcome military ships close to its shoreline. It does welcome civilian ships. What the U.S. is trying to send is, first of all, a legal message that China's claims to waters around the islands are invalid and that U.S. military and civilian ships have a right to be there and also a political message. And that is that the U.S. intends to do what it has been doing since the end of World War II to maintain order in the Asian Pacific, including freedom of navigation in the area. And what will be interesting to see is if the U.S. goes on to conduct more similar operations but around islands that are claimed by other countries in the area, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

INSKEEP: Oh, you remind us that there are other countries involved here - rather directly involved. Would you remind us what's at stake here? What is this waterway? What does it look like? Why is it strategically important?

KUHN: Well, a lot of the world's trade passes through this area. And the territorial claims of the nations around, bordering the South China Sea, are also very complicated. So while the U.S. doesn't take sides, it's concerned that China is using force to squeeze the other claimants out and essentially make this a Chinese ocean, so to speak.

INSKEEP: Now, nobody's actually talking about this escalating into a war. But we're talking about sending warships around and building airbases on the part of the Chinese. Is there some fear in Beijing that this could, at some point in the future, get out of hand?

KUHN: Well, I think the fear right now is that because the U.S. has not conducted these freedom of operation – freedom of navigation operations in the area, it has allowed Chinese to build on these islands. Other people say that's not true, and China is going to build those no matter what the U.S. does. The only way the U.S. could stop them from doing it would be through an act of war or to violate international law.

INSKEEP: OK, so a lot of pressure still to be applied. Anthony, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.