Trump just checked Beijing in the South China Sea for the first time -- and it's a risky bet

President Donald Trump has apparently issued his long-awaited first challenge to Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea.

The USS Dewey, a guided-missile destroyer, reportedly sailed just a few miles off the coast of the Mischief Reef on Wednesday, an artificial island built and militarised by China.

On the US side, there was silence — not a single press release and US Navy officials refused to comment on the specifics of the challenge.

From China, there was outrage.

“Stop taking further provocative actions that hurt China’s sovereignty and maritime interests, so as to avoid hurting peace and security of the region and long-term cooperation between the two countries,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, according to the AFP.

The Chinese official went on to say that the US had entered Chinese waters “without permission,” that the ship “trespassed” in violation of the law, and was “warned” to leave.

But according Lawrence Brennan, a former US Navy Captain and an expert of maritime law, the US doesn’t need and would never ask for permission for the type of mission the Dewey carried out on Thursday.

The Dewey engaged in a Freedom of Navigation Operation, or FONOP as they are known within the military. Essentially, the US respects the maritime borders of all legitimate nations on earth, and gives them their internationally recognised space.

Mischief skitchCSIS/AMTI/DigitalGlobe/Amanda Macias/Business InsiderA photo highlighting Chinese military infrastructure on Mischief reef, like runways and possible radar outposts.

But when a country makes excessive, unlawful maritime claims, as the UN ruled China has done, the US sends a Navy ship, usually a destroyer, to sail within 12 miles of its coast as a way of demonstrating that their extrajudicial claims won’t be respected by the world’s most powerful Navy.

US Navy spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross told Business Insider that the US Navy challenged excessive claims from 22 nations in 2016. Of those 22 nations checked by the US, he said, only challenges to China make headlines.

FONOPs against Chinese claims in the South China Sea — once a semi-regular occurrence — had taken a hiatus under Trump, despite a presidential campaign filled with fiery rhetoric against Beijing, as he has since warmed its leader and sought to work together against North Korea’s military provocations.

Andrew Shearer, a senior adviser on Asia-Pacific Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former national security adviser to Australian Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, told Business Insider that Trump’s FONOP was “better late than never.”

Shearer said that it’s “imperative to have these things happen routinely and without fanfare,” as a FONOP represents standard procedure for the US Navy. But not all FONOPS are created equal.

Shearer questioned if the Dewey made an “innocent passage” which would entail simply sailing along, or if it “was conducted using normal military prerogatives, which would be a proper assertion of FONOPs,” meaning that the Dewey would do a bit of flexing — firing up its radars, emitting signals, maybe even flying armed helicopters around the ship to make a point.

But the problem here is that China, without international law or precedent on its side, threatened to escalate the conflict not vertically, in terms of sending their burgeoning navy to confront the full might of the US Navy, but horizontally, in terms of slowing down cooperation in other, vital areas like on North Korea.

“What the US has done is cause severe disruptions to this process of dialogue and consultation,” the Chinese official told AFP.

Indeed Trump didn’t discuss the South China Sea, human rights, or climate change when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago. Instead, they discussed North Korea, according to reports.

Donald Trump and Xi JinpingCarlos Barria/Getty ImagesDonald Trump and Xi Jinping.

China, North Korea’s biggest backer, has been distancing itself from Pyongyang while Trump has repeatedly stressed the strength of his personal relationship with Xi. But if Trump bargains away the US’s totally legal and historically consistent right to sail the open seas for a little help with North Korea, the US could be in for hard times at the negotiating table in the future.

“There’s this attempt to trade Chinese support in the form of more pressure on North Korea for US acquiescence in the South China Sea,” said Shearer. “But it’s really important that the US take a principled, continuous position on the South China Sea.”

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