The U.S. is poised to deploy its warships close to China’s disputed islands in the South China Sea in what it appears to be a signal to Beijing that Washington does not recognize Chinese territorial claims over the disputed islands.
The U.S. warships would sail inside the 12-nautical mile zones that China claims its territory around some of the disputed islands in the Spratly chain, according to a senior U.S. official.
The ships will be deployed within the next two weeks, the official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Financial Times.
The move is likely to escalate tensions between Washington and Beijing and comes at a time when the U.S. accuses China of cyber espionage against Washington’s government networks, including an attack that compromised personal data of 21 million individuals in a database maintained by the Office Of Personnel Management.
China has been increasing its military presence in the South China Sea over recent years, while conducting naval activities that Washington claims to be threatening to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Since 2013, Beijing has boosted its maritime activities, reclaiming vast areas of land for airstrips and other military facilities in order to show off its might in the Pacific.
According to U.S. military experts, by claiming the disputed islands, China is aimed at building a blue-water navy that can operate far away from the shore, with a particular interest to operating beyond the so-called ‘first island chain’ that encloses the South China, Yellow Seas, and East China and divides them from the Pacific.
No progress in Xi-Obama talks leads to warship maneuvers
The move to deploy the U.S. warships comes as a response to Chinese warships operating in waters close to the U.S. soil last month.
At the beginning of September, as many as five Chinese vessels sailed off the coast of Alaska while U.S. President Barack Obama was visiting the arctic region, becoming the first U.S. President to enter the Arctic. It was the closest the Chines navy had ever come to the U.S. soil.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been repeatedly requesting the White House to take bolder maritime actions to deter the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. But the Obama administration had refused to listen to Mr. Carter, explaining that such moves would only escalate the tensions between the countries.
However, now that the talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to the U.S. failed to bring any progress on the issue, the White House has agreed to make a move.
During the press conference with the Chinese President last month, Obama said he had “significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas,” and pointed out that the U.S. would “continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows.”
Even though the U.S. has routinely deployed its ships through international waters in the South China Sea, it has not sent them inside the 12-nautical mile zone claimed by China since 2012. But ever since China stepped up its construction activities around the disputed islands, the possibility of deploying warships to the area were widely discussed in Washington.
By deploying its ships to the disputed area, the U.S. shows that China’s claims do not comply with international law, including the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
U.S. vs China: New Cold War?
Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, referred to China by saying that “some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs” as well as something that could be “redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law.”
“Some nations in this region continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with UNCLOS,” Adm. Swift said, speaking in Australia this week. “This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters.”
The moves to deploy the U.S. warships indicate the failure of Xi-Obama talks during Xi’s recent visit to Washington. On the contrary, not seeing progress with the diplomatic approach to settle the conflict, the White House has opted out to use force.
There are growing concerns that if the Americans step up their naval patrolling in the region, which is claimed by Beijing, the tensions could reach the level of the Cold War between the USSR and the U.S.
China is unlikely to concede to the U.S.
Seeing the growing global prestige of Russia for its ongoing military operation in Syria, the Chinese will unlikely concede to the Americans.
The Chinese have already constructed artificial islands in the China South Sea and declared the area in the 12-mile radius around each of the island to be sovereign Chinese territory. Moreover, just a few days before Xi’s visit to Washington, a Chinese fighter jet came close to an American surveillance plane.
The U.S. feels the need to give a military response, or they will lose the remains of their authority over their Asian allies. Not hoping for only the military response, the White House wants to press on Beijing with economic measures as well. Especially given the fact that the Americans could seize the moment now that the Chinese economy experiences some difficulties.
On October 5, the U.S. and 11 Pacific countries agreed to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership after 8 years of negotiations. The agreement was signed by Australia, Brunei, Chili, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Washington does not conceal the fact that the agreement is called to weaken China’s economic expansion in the region.