US, China sea tensions hot and getting hotter

Richard Javad Heydarian

The US-China “New Cold War” is heating up at sea, raising the risk of an armed conflict that seemed highly unlikely just months ago amid unprecedented global health and economic crises.

During its latest drills in the South China Sea on August 18, the US Navy’s USS Mustin destroyer upped the ante by reportedly piercing through for the first time the western side of the median line dividing mainland China and Taiwan. China has lashed back by describing the move as “extremely dangerous”, and vowing to defend its interests and claims in the area, including the eventual integration of Taiwan with the mainland. Although the move was consistent with international law since it was well beyond China’s 12 nautical miles territorial sea, it represented a direct challenge to Beijing’s opposition to any foreign military presence in its 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone. It also coincided with reports of a US surveillance aircraft, US Navy Lockheed EP-3E ARIES II, making a rare visit to Taiwan following a major bilateral defense deal and an unprecedented visit by an American cabinet official to the self-governed island. In response to China’s rising incursions in Japan-claimed waters, the US has also deployed stealth bombers for major exercises in the Sea of Japan in a show of support to another key regional ally.

Referring to America’s expanding naval presence in its adjacent waters and burgeoning defense ties with Taiwan, which Beijing Beijing considers a renegade province, China has recently described its superpower rival’s actions as “a real threat to peace.”

Senior Colonel Zhang Chunhui, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command warned the US’ actions will embolden forces supporting “Taiwan independence” and, accordingly, raise the risk of armed confrontation. “We sternly warn related parties that any statement and act that sabotages the one-China principle and stirs up trouble in the Taiwan Straits does not fit the fundamental interests of China and the US, and damages the well-being of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, as it brings a real threat to peace and stability in the region, which is very dangerous,” warned the Chinese commander.

The US has conducted at least 10 naval deployments across the Taiwan Straits so far this year, underscoring Washington’s commitment to preventing any Chinese unilateral action against Taipei. Last month, Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, another top Chinese military official, warned the US against “attempts to contain China with Taiwan [and] interfere in China’s internal affairs and undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

“They are completely wrong and extremely dangerous,” said the Chinese official, warning, “The US should realize that China must and will be reunified, and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation must and will be achieved.”

The US Indo-Pacific command, however, has quickly dismissed China’s accusations, maintaining that its deployments are consistent with international law and its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategic doctrine.

“Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Aug. 18 in accordance with international law,” said a statement by US 7th Fleet, which primarily operates in the hotly contested South China Sea. “The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

The US destroyer passed through China’s waters following military exercises with Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces.

During its exercises with Japan, the US deployed Four B-1 Lancers, four F-15C Eagles and two B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers, underscoring growing coordination with allies in both air and naval interoperability and joint operations as China expands its own drills and military footprint in East and South China Seas. The American aerial assets were deployed from Andersen Air Force Base in nearby Guam and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. The US Pacific Air Forces maintained that it “routinely conducts Bomber Task Force operations to show the United States’ commitment to allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility.”

There are growing indications that the US’ ramped up aerial and naval deployments reflect growing bipartisan consensus in Washington, a trend that will likely continue regardless of who becomes America’s next leader after November elections. A report released by the Washington-based Congressional Research Service on August 6 warned that “China is gaining effective control of the [South China Sea], an area of strategic, political, and economic importance to the United States and its allies and partners.”

The report, which prods the US Congress to provide increased support for American military policy in the Indo-Pacific, reiterated the importance of “fulfilling US security commitments in the Western Pacific, including treaty commitments to Japan and the Philippines” and “preventing China from becoming a regional hegemon in East Asia.”

Specifically, it called on the US government to step up efforts at “dissuading China from carrying out additional base-construction activities in the [South China Sea], moving additional military personnel, equipment, and supplies to bases at sites that it occupies in the [South China Sea], initiating island-building or base-construction activities at Scarborough Shoal in the [South China Sea], declaring straight baselines around land features it claims in the [South China Sea], or declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ)” over the contested area. “The Trump Administration has taken various actions for competing strategically with China in the SCS and ECS. The issue for Congress is whether the Trump Administration’s strategy for competing strategically with China in the SCS and ECS is appropriate and correctly resourced, and whether Congress should approve, reject, or modify the strategy, the level of resources for implementing it, or both,” the report said.