Ongoing tensions in the disputed South China Sea have seen the U.S. and China engaged in increasingly frequent interactions.
China claims sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea, and has been building artificial islands in order to reinforce its claims. The U.S. and its regional allies are concerned about Chinese intentions, and U.S. military assets have engaged in patrols designed to maintain freedom of navigation in the area. Following recent incidents China claims that it does respect freedom of navigation in the area, according to The Associated Press.
China claims to respect freedom of navigation after warning U.S. planes away
During a recent flyover by U.S. B-52 bombers, Chinese ground controllers warned the planes to stay away from the artificial islands. Now Beijing claims that it respects freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
However Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei maintained Chinese opposition to flights which abuse these freedoms as legal cover, an implication that China believes the B-52 flights were a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims.
China “firmly opposes violating international law and undermining China’s sovereignty and security interests under the pretext of navigation and overflight freedom,” Hong told the press during a news conference.
Pentagon says flyover did not violate sovereign airspace
Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Pentagon, confirmed that two B-52 bombers flew in international airspace near the Spratly Islands, a series of reefs which are claimed by China. The planes received two verbal warnings from Chinese ground control. According to Urban neither plane flew inside the territorial airspace of any maritime feature and the mission was completed safely.
Beijing lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea and the island groups contained in it. The area is a vital international shipping lane and handles trillions of dollars of trade each year, while it also contains rich fishing grounds and potential deposits of oil and natural gas.
China has protested against continued U.S. activity in the region, but looks increasingly powerless to stop U.S. ships and planes navigating freely. A U.S. missile frigate, the USS Lassen, sailed inside the territorial limit of an artificial Chinese island last month, inciting protests from Beijing.
Geopolitical situation tense in Asia-Pacific
Short of engaging U.S. military assets in armed combat and sparking a major conflict, Beijing has few options when it comes to preventing foreign ships and planes from patrolling the area. The risk for China is that continued weak protests could end up harming its claims as the world realizes they have no legal basis.
While the U.S. officially takes no position on the sovereignty of the sea, it does insist on freedom of navigation for any nation. The area is subject to competing territorial claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, and the Philippines has successfully convinced a UN court to rule on its conflicting claim with China.
The South China Sea has become a key issue between China and the U.S., and the Obama administration has recently taken a tougher stance against Beijing. For a long time the U.S. government was criticized by the Republican opposition for a lack of action, but the presence of military assets near Chinese artificial islands has underlined the fact that the U.S. does not respect China’s claims.
Discussions ongoing over South China Sea
It is thought that the issue may be up for discussion at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippines next week. President Obama will be in attendance before heading to Malaysia for a further round of meetings with Southeast Asian leaders.
For a while it looked as though China had the U.S. backed into a corner in the South China Sea, with few options to prevent China from continuing its island building program. Although China may yet build more islands, the tide may be turning in the South China Sea thanks to a newly assertive strategy from the U.S. which aims to strip Chinese claims of any legitimacy by demonstrating continued freedom of movement.
The strategy has now led to China officially recognizing continued freedom of movement, although its continued warnings to U.S. military assets would appear to contradict that statement. The South China Sea looks set to present a unique set of geopolitical challenges for the foreseeable future, but the Obama administration has forced China onto the back foot thanks to continued demonstrations of freedom of movement.
Obama’s visit to the Philippines and Malaysia could provide us further insight into what will happen next in the South China Sea, but U.S. regional allies must surely be pleased with the latest developments.