Posted on Beijing Bulletin – Thursday 25th May, 2017

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In what became America’s first conflict under Donald Trump’s leadership in the disputed South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China, a U.S. navy warship made its way to the region, irking Beijing on Thursday.

The South China Sea, that includes some of the world’s most important sea routes with about $5 trillion in trade passing through the region annually – China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have competing territorial claims in the waters.

However, the U.S., citing ‘freedom of navigation’ often conducts operations in the disputed waters, as a signal to assert its intention to keep critical sea lanes open.

Previously, the United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement.

U.S. allies and partners in the region had grown anxious earlier this year, as the Trump administration held off on carrying out South China Sea operations during its first few months in office.

Under the Obama administration, the American Navy conducted several such voyages through the South China Sea.

The previous freedom of navigation operations have gone within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, two other features in the Spratlys built up by China.

As the USS Dewey was sent near an artificial island in the strategic waterway, it became the first ‘freedom of navigation’ operation under Trump’s Presidency – threatening to put a rift between the new found friendship between Jinping’s China and the Trump administration, that have engaged in friendly talks to settle trade issues.

Both the nations have also vowed to cooperate to contain the nuclear programme of North Korea, a Chinese ally.

The U.S. action left Beijing infuriated, prompting the Chinese government to say that the «provocative action» violated its sovereignty.

According to reports, the USS Dewey, a guided-missile destroyer conducted a patrol within 20 kilometres (within 12 nautical miles) of Mischeef reef, part of the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals.

The last such exercise was conducted in October.

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said, «We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law. The patrols are not about any one country, or any one body of water.”

In a prompt reaction, China said the U.S. warship had entered the South China Sea «without permission.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing, “The relevant action taken by the US vessel undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests. We urge the U.S. to correct this mistake. 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.»

Further, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said at a monthly briefing that, “The U.S. side’s errant ways have caused damage to the improving situation in the South China Sea, and are not conducive to peace and stability. We urge the American side to take concrete efforts to correct its wrongdoings and add more positive energy to the military-to-military relationship.”

Experts were quoted as saying, “In conducting the freedom of navigation patrol, President Trump is likely to anger China at a time when the U.S. is seeking increased cooperation with the country to help rein in North Korea.”

A Pentagon official argued that since 1979, the freedom of navigation programme has demonstrated non-acquiescence to excessive maritime claims by coastal states all around the world.

It reportedly includes consultations and representation by American diplomats and operational activities by the U.S. military forces.

Earlier, in February this year, USS Carl Vinson Strike Group arrived in the South China Sea but did not conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) against Chinese maritime claims around its artificial island bases in the Spratly and Paracel islands.

Then, earlier this month, Pentagon spokesman Davis said that the FONOPS is a «routine activity» carried out by the U.S. around the world.

He further added, “We did it last year, freedom of navigation assertions against 22 different countries all over the world. Many of those countries are friends and allies. Unfortunately, I think the public narrative has made it about China and the South China Sea. It’s not that. It’s about asserting international rights to navigate in waters that international law accepts, and these are rights and benefits that benefit all countries on Earth, to include China. We will continue to do them.”

In February, the Pentagon also released an annual FNOPS report in which the department of defence said that in 2016 it carried out freedom of navigation operations against 22 countries, including India.

Other major countries included Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.


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