On Thursday, the Chinese media criticized the U.S. for “ceaseless provocations” in the South China Sea, as Washington gets ready to send warships close to the artificial islands that have been built by Beijing in the disputed Spratly archipelago.
An editorial in the Global Times condemned the U.S., saying it had adopted coercive tactics and asking the government to take measures to counter rampant U.S. violations in “China’s adjacent waters and the skies over those expanding islands”.
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The editorial went as far as suggesting that Chinese military must be ready to launch countermeasures depending on the level of provocation shown by Washington.
Ever since China transformed reefs in the area claimed by several neighboring states into small islands capable of supporting military facilities, tensions have simmered, with the U.S. saying that the Chinese actions violate international laws on the freedom of navigation.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has warned Beijing that Washington will continue sending its military anywhere international law allows, and that includes navigation in the South China Sea. This was stated again last Tuesday after a meeting between American and Australian officials.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop backed those remarks and stated that both countries are on the same page regarding this topic.
Naval maneuvers right around the corner
According to senior officials in Washington, the U.S. military could be set to sail by these controversial islands in the coming days or weeks, heightening tensions further. American navy vessels are already preparing to set sail through a 12-nautical mile zone around the Spratly Islands despite the fact that officials in Beijing have voiced their concerns.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said: “We hope the United States can look upon the current situation of the South China Sea from an objective and fair perspective and play a constructive role together with China in keeping the peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
This makes it pretty clear that U.S. and Chinese officials have failed to find any kind of resolution to the standoff in South China Sea during Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington last month. Relations between the two countries are relatively low right now, and if issues such as cyberespionage, currency manipulation and human rights violations were not enough, military activities in the South China Sea ratchets up tensions even further.
A confrontation in South China Sea?
The Global Times suggests that the recent moves planned by the US military could be a clear breach of China’s bottom line. The editorial further added that Chinese military will not hesitate to use coercive measures in a bid to stop the U.S. from challenging Chinese sovereignty.
The editorial was published soon after Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman blamed certain countries for flexing their military muscles in the South China Sea. “That is the biggest cause of ‘militarization’ in the South China Sea,” she added at a briefing on Wednesday.
However, despite the fact that U.S. naval maneuvers are just right around the corner, China is not stopping its shoring up of its defenses in the South China Sea. Beijing has already finished building two lighthouses in the disputed waters and is going to build more facilities that will be serving both civil and military needs.
However, the U.S. argues that most of the runways built in recent weeks are designed to be used by military air force jets.
Of note, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all lay claim to parts of the South China Sea. It also appears that China is trying to use a soft power strategy to meet its objectives. Beijing has already invited Asean defense ministers for a two-day informal summit in China despite the fact that most of the claimants of the disputed waters feel their sovereignty being challenged by the Chinese activity.
A few days ago, Vietnam accused China of sinking one of its fishing boats near the disputed islands. This isn’t the first time Vietnam has accused China of sinking its fishing boats. In past, more than 20 Vietnamese fishing boats have been attacked by Chinese vessels according to Phan Huy Hoang, an official in central Quang Ngai province.
US in a muddle regarding South China Sea
It is quite clear that Washington is coming to a tipping point with China and intends to draw a line in South China Sea. However, one cannot rule out the fact that both nations cannot afford to enter an armed conflict over the disputed waters given the effects will resonate around the region and could trigger an all out war – something both nations clearly want to avoid.
However, it is interesting to see what the maneuvers in South China Sea seeks to achieve after both Obama and Xi held discussions on the subject over the last month.
It is clear that U.S. is currently faced with two less than ideal options. While the U.S. cannot afford an armed conflict with Beijing, it also cannot concede to China since that will impact its credibility in Asia and across the globe.