The new year is barely three weeks old and already the US Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations are eliciting furious threats of retaliation from the Chinese military.
Since President Donald Trump took office one year ago, the Navy and Air Force have increasingly sought to test the Chinese military response in the Pacific by sailing or flying within a certain perimeter - usually 12 miles - of one of China’s disputed territorial holdings in the South China Sea, according to RT.
In the latest clash, the USS Hopper missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Huangyan Dao, a tiny island claimed by China, on Jan. 17.
As is common during US "Freeops," the US destroyer didn’t solicit Beijing’s permission for entering the waters and was subsequently intercepted by the Chinese Navy, with China’s Foreign Ministry accusing the US of violating “sovereignty and security interests” as well as posing a “grave threat” to its forces stationed in the area.
"China is strongly dissatisfied with that and will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in a statement on Saturday. He also warned US forces against further "provocative moves” for the sake of“China-US relations and regional peace and stability."
The spokesman added that China has “indisputable” control over the territory, which is also claimed by Taiwan (itself the subject of a sovereignty dispute with the mainland) and the Philippines.
China’s Defense ministry echoed Lu’s tone in a separate statement on Saturday, stressing that the military will step up vigilance against air and sea patrols to defend national and regional peace and stability.
The US and Chinese militaries have had frequent standoffs in the South China Sea. Despite Washington having no territorial claims in the area – unlike China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei – it has always stressed the necessity for freedom of navigation in the area and opposed China’s claims.
Short of directly challenging Beijing in the highly-contested, resource-rich region, the US has been increasingly flexing its muscles there, staging joint drills with Japan and South Korea amid growing tensions with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, China has carried out threatening exercises of its own, sending squadrons of fighter jets flying through Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese airspace without warning.
In the first year of his presidency Donald Trump took a soft line on China, belying his strident “China, China, China” rhetoric on the campaign trail. But a flurry of recent reports suggest that in 2018 Trump’s bromance with Chinese leader Xi Jinping is headed for a breakup.
At long last, we’re told, Trump has had enough. He’s ready to seize the Chinese dragon by its whiskers on a host of issues ranging from North Korea and the South China Sea, to intellectual property rights and immigration. Some signs of a shift:
On Friday, the U.S. Defense Department released an 11 page unclassified summary of its 2018 National Defense Strategy identifying competition with China and Russia as “principal priorities” for the US military.
The report, distilled from a more detailed classified document submitted to Congress last year, warned that the two U.S. rivals are actively seeking to “co-opt or replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity in since World War II.”
Henceforth, “great-power competition,” not terrorism, must be the primary focus of U.S. national security, the report declared: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term strategic competition,” primarily from China and Russia.
That same day my old Wall Street Journal colleague Jake Schlesinger reported that the Trump administration intends to be “more focused in the coming year on countering China” than it was last year, when it sparred with a broad range of allies in North America, Europe and Asia. From here on, Jake reported, quoting unnamed officials “designated by the White House to speak about coming trade enforcement decisions and negotiations,” the Trump administration will emphasize “enforcement over negotiations” when dealing with China, and give up on trying to resolve disputes through the World Trade Organization.
Journal columnist Andrew Browne, similarly, says the White House is readying “a mix of tariffs and quotas” to deter Chinese imports of “everything from steel to solar panels and washing machines.” Last year’s record Chinese trade surplus with the US Browne notes, is a “potential catalyst for hostilities after a year of bluster.”
Rhodium Group founding partner Daniel Rosen, a veteran China expert, argues in an essay this week that the US-China relationship has entered a “post-engagement” phase. After a year of empty fulmination, Rosen writes, Trump’s China threats have grown “real teeth…Many in China think this is a rough patch and will blow over. It won’t.”
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