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Are U.S. and China headed for a showdown in the South China Sea?

The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen arrives at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit on April 8, 2008. The USS Lassen sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged U.S.-China relations and regional peace.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen arrives at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit on April 8, 2008. The USS Lassen sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged U.S.-China relations and regional peace. AP

China issued strong words but took no immediate military action after the United States sent a guided-missile destroyer through waters Beijing claims in the South China Sea.

China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said that Chinese ships followed and warned the USS Lassen as it maneuvered within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one area where China has been building an artificial island capable of serving as a military airstrip.

The Obama administration has accused China of threatening freedom of navigation by constructing artificial islands and restricting vessels from coming within 12 nautical miles of them. But China continues to insist it has “indisputable sovereignty” over more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, and it hinted Tuesday that any further U.S. incursions would trigger a more muscular response.

“If relevant parties insist on creating tensions in the region and making trouble out of nothing, it may force China to draw the conclusion that we need to strengthen and hasten the buildup of our capabilities,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “I would advise the United States not to create such a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

While China says the United States is being provocative by sending a warship into disputed waters, several Asian countries, including U.S. allies, see China as the ultimate source of conflict. Over the last two years, China has embarked on an island construction spree in the South China Sea, home to shipping lanes where trillions of dollar in trade is transported annually.

Several countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan, have condemned China’s “Great Wall of Sand” and encouraged Obama to challenge Beijing’s claims and construction activities.

Obama now has done so, sending the USS Lassen – a guided-missile destroyer – close to Subi Reef late Monday. The operation lasted a few hours, apparently without incident. Although China says its ships followed the U.S. warship and warned it to stay away, it was not immediately clear how many Chinese ships tracked the USS Lassen, or how closely they maneuvered.

U.S. officials said they gave their Chinese counterparts no advance notice of the exercise.

“You don’t need to consult with any nation when you are exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference on Monday. “The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters, and you don’t need to consult with anybody to do that.”

Some independent analysts say the Obama administration waited inordinately long to challenge China and its attempts to expand territorial control in the region. Carl Thayer, an Australia-based security analyst, said the dispatch of a U.S. ship will grab headlines but was too little, too late.

“The United States should have acted in 2014 when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands,” Thayer, a U.S.-born emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, told McClatchy. Freedom of navigation patrols, he added, “will not prevent China from consolidating its infrastructure on its artificial islands. In the fullness of time China will militarize these artificial islands when it suits its purposes.”

China’s intentions in the region are anything but clear. Subi Reef and other parts of the Spratly Islands (which China calls the Nansha Islands) are thought to sit above significant deposits of oil and natural gas, one reason they have been claimed by the Philippines and several other countries. Some experts say China may be asserting control over these waters to more easily avoid detection of its expanding submarine fleet in the region.

For its part, China contends it is engaged in island reclamation for peaceful purposes, such as improving search-and-rescue response in the sea lanes. On Tuesday, Chinese officials questioned why the United States deliberately sent one of its warships on what it called an illegal incursion into Chinese waters.

“The nature of it is totally different from (innocent) transit passage,” said Lu Kang. “It doesn’t fit into the category of conducting freedom of navigation at all. It’s a threat to China’s sovereignty.”

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry repeatedly ducked questions on how China might respond if the United States were to repeat Monday’s actions and send other military ships within the 12-mile exclusionary zone that China claims around its artificial islands.

Thayer said he doubted that more assertive U.S. actions would lead to military conflict with China. Two years ago, he noted, Beijing declared an “air defense identification zone” over the East China Sea but then backed down when the United States dispatched a B-52 bomber to fly over the zone.

“China does not have the wherewithal – naval warships and aircraft – to directly respond to the U.S. if it became more assertive in supporting the Philippines,” said Thayer. “China is not in a position to use the threat of force.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Spratly Islands.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.

Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth

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