Beijing warned Washington on Wednesday not to challenge its sovereignty in the South China Sea amid reports that the U.S. Navy was gearing up to sail more warships near China’s man-made islands in the contested waters.
On Sunday, the Navy Times reported that U.S. naval leaders were hoping to ratchet up so-called freedom of navigation operations in the strategic waterway, citing unnamed officials. The report said that the operations could be carried out by warships with the San Diego-based Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which is currently sailing in the Western Pacific.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, responding to a question about the report Wednesday, said Beijing has backed freedom of navigation in the waters, but opposes any U.S. actions that challenge its sovereignty and security.
“At present, through the joint efforts of China and ASEAN nations, the situation in the South China Sea is stabilizing and developing in a positive direction,” Geng said, according to the ministry’s website. “We hope that foreign countries will respect the efforts of China and ASEAN to jointly maintain and consolidate the current positive momentum.”
China’s Defense Ministry announced Monday that a task force of naval battleships had left Sanya, in southern China’s Hainan Province, on Friday for so-called confrontation drills in the South China Sea that included aviation forces of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s South Sea Fleet and garrison troops in the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.
Wednesday’s warning comes as the administration of President Donald Trump works to form a coherent strategy on the South China Sea issue.
China claims most of the strategic waters, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
It has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratly chain, with some boasting military-grade airfields and anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to “militarize” the islands.
During his confirmation hearings, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had appeared to advocate a naval blockade of the man-made islands — a move observers said would be tantamount to an act of war. Written testimony later emerged that saw Tillerson tone down his position on the issue.
Trump’s defense chief, James Mattis, has also reportedly taken a strong stance on Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, the Nikkei Asian Review, citing multiple unnamed sources, said that Mattis had suggested the new administraiton would take a more aggressive stance than its predecessor in an effort to restrain China’s military buildup there.
Meanwhile, past comments by Steve Bannon, the former head of far-right news website Breitbart who now has Trump’s ear in his role as chief strategist at the White House, have added to fears that the U.S. may be hurtling toward a collision course with China over the waterway.
“We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years,” Bannon said last March. “There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”
These tough stances and remarks have led some to conclude that the potential for U.S. conflict with China has surged under Trump.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, believes “it is already clear that the Trump administration aims to inject deliberate uncertainty about U.S. strategic intentions in Asia, and towards China especially.”
Writing on the Lowy Institute’s influential Interpreter blog earlier this month, he noted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s most recent remarks on the South China Sea, that there is now a greater willingness on the part of Washington to “‘accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms.'”
According to Graham, “such willingness is likely to be one of the major contrasts with the Obama Administration’s risk-averse approach, in which conflict avoidance appeared to be the overriding priority.”