SOUTH CHINA SEA – Guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG) 105, transited through the Spratly Islands, Tuesday, while conducting routine and transparent operations in the South China Sea.
The Spratly Islands are comprised of more than 30,000 islands and reefs off the coasts of the Republic of the Philippines and Malaysia.
Disputes over the ownership of the islands have been at the center of attention, internationally, with stakes claimed by: the Peoples Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Republic of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
“It’s a politically-sensitive area,” said Lt. j.g. Jason Dawson, navigator for USS Dewey. “Several countries have overlapping territorial claims, and the main concern for us as a surface unit is where we are in respect to the territorial waters of foreign nations.”
The islands are important to several countries for their significant reserves of oil and natural gas, the regions role as one of the world’s most productive areas for commercial fishing and shipping, and for coastal countries that would get an extended continental shelf.
“Where this falls into a potential issue for us is if those nations claim a group or groups of islands, those nations’ territorial seas would extend out to twelve nautical-miles from all of their baseline claims,” said Dawson. “So operationally, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15 has planned tracks through the Spratly’s. We are given coordinates to navigate through, and we lay our tracks in accordance with those coordinates. The waters are still considered international waters which, by right, all ships have the right to transit through without being harassed.”
USS Dewey spent 19-hours navigating through the islands and took a proactive approach to any possible encounters with foreign navies.
“We had to keep our heads on a swivel while going through so many islands in such a small area,” said Chief Operations Specialist Nicolas Vandyke, Operations Intelligence division’s leading chief petty officer. “We conducted Codes for Un-alerted Encounters at Sea (CUES) training in case we came across any foreign military vessels at sea. In that training, we practice communicating with foreign military vessels effectively and safely while maintaining an overall situational awareness.”
In November 2002, a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed, reducing tensions but falling short of a legally binding code of conduct. The signatory countries pledged to resolve their disputes peacefully and agreed to exercise self-restraint with actions that would compromise peace and stability.
“If we come across a foreign military vessel, we are trained in responding appropriately to their bridge-to-bridge calls, but also take the opportunity to see if they’ll work with us on international signals,” said Dawson. “We are not going to avoid the Spratly Islands simply due to their nature.”
USS Dewey is transiting through the islands as part of a larger forward presence based on IAW international law and routine maritime security operations.