The United States is preparing to call China’s bluff in the South China Sea. According to U.S. officials, the navy will soon be conducting naval patrols within the 12-mile territorial zone of the Spratly Islands that the Chinese military has fortified. The decision to up the ante in the high-stakes international poker game in the South China Sea has been made, the officials note, but the exact timing of the patrols has not yet been determined.
Analysts point out that U.S. navy patrols will test Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surprise pledge during his recent visit that his country does not plan to “militarize” the islands.
President Xi made the commitment during a news conference with President Obama at the White House during his visit in late September.
U.S. naval patrols in South China Sea to start soon
Although the officials with knowledge of the matter who spoke to the Wall Street Journal say exactly when the first patrol will be sent has not been decided, “It’s just a matter of time when it happens,” one commented. Another source suggested that the initial patrol operation could come within a few days.
More on planned “freedom of navigation” operations
Defense Department sources note that the U.S. Pacific Fleet has been prepared to undertake “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops) around China’s artificial islands for months after preparing options at the request of U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter. However, the decision to actually start the patrols was apparently delayed to prevent any kind of disruption of the Xi-Obama summit, according to administration sources.
“A U.S. Fonop gives China an opportunity to assert that the United States is the country ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea and, if China chooses, such a Fonop provides a rationale for China to further militarize or develop the features it occupies,” noted Taylor Fravel, a scholar who studies the Chinese military at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
President Xi made no such pledge regarding not militarizing the contested Spratly Islands in his private discussions with President Obama, according to knowledgeable sources, and efforts to get much clarity about what Xi meant by “militarize” met with minimal success.
U.S. diplomats have been trying to get specifios from their Beijing counterparts since the summit, and emphasize they do not do not believe Xi misspoke. The surprising remarks on a very sensitive issue in China – U.S. relations does help illustrate how. Xi’s top-down leadership style can lead to confusion.
China has dramatically increased the size and scale of iots efforts to build up land around rocks and reefs it controls in the Spratly Island area of the South China Sea over the last year or so. These steps, including building airfield and artillery emplacements, are a major concern to the U.S. and regional partners, who are worried that the Middle Kingdom plans to make claims to the area using military force.
China has claimed full sovereignty over all the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters for some time now. The Chinese government says its artificial islands are largely reserved for civilian operations such as weather monitoring and search and rescue, but some will be used for military purposes.
The U.S. and other nations in the area argue that China threatens freedom of navigation through one a very busy trade route in the South China Sea, and is trying to use its military to intimidate neighbors with various claims including Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Of note, before the recent summit, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry had convinced the other nations with claims to develop the land features they control in the disputed Spratly Islands if China promised to end any more land reclamation, major construction or other militarization.
China “concerned” about U.S. naval patrols in South China Sea
China’s foreign ministry has not responded to media requests for comment about what President Xi meant by militarization and if he had followed up on the topic in private sessions with President Obama.
Of note, at the regular Friday press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the leadership was “severely concerned” regarding media reports claiming the U.S. would soon begin patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys.
She also noted that while China respects freedom of navigation, “we are firmly opposed to other countries’ intrusion into China’s and airspace of the Nansha Islands under the name of safeguarding freedom of navigation and overflight.”