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Will We See Brinkmanship on the South China Sea?

Washington says the U.S. Navy will continue to operate wherever international law allows, which includes the Spratly archipelago. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)
Washington says the U.S. Navy will continue to operate wherever international law allows, which includes the Spratly archipelago. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

It’s been a few years since the U.S. Navy has been in the hotly disputed areas of the South China Sea. The ones I’m referring to are those that Beijing claims as its own territory in the Spratly archipelago.

The last time any U.S. patrols were within 12 miles of the Chinese-claimed islands in that area was in 2012, said David Shear, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, reported Reuters.

Since then, the Chinese have been busy dredging and doing land reclamation at three sites in the Spratlys that are geographically closest to The Philippines.

“Military experts say the island building is aimed at furthering China’s goal of building a ‘blue-water navy’ that can operate far from shore, particularly beyond the so-called ‘first island chain’ that encloses the South China, East China and Yellow Seas, and separates them from the Pacific,” wrote the Financial Times this week.

More broadly, Beijing claims 90 percent of the resource-rich South China Sea as its own territory, despite it being considered international waters by the rest of the world. The South China Sea is also a vital transit route for international shipping.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have contesting claims in the area, but what Beijing is doing, and its military buildup, dwarfs all of their efforts combined.

U.S. President Barack Obama with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping at the White House on September 25. (Image: Michael Buchanan/flickr)

U.S. President Barack Obama with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping at the White House on September 25. (Image:US Department of State via Compfight cc)

The U.S. says that Beijing’s claims are not consistent with international law.

The resulting friction about the South China Sea between Beijing and Washington was part of talks between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who visited the U.S. late last month.

“We did have candid discussions on the East and South China Seas, and I reiterated the right of all countries to freedom of navigation and overflight and to unimpeded commerce,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Xi at the White House on September 25.

“As such, I indicated that the United States will continue to sail, fly, and operate anywhere that international law allows,” said Obama.

“I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction, and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully.”

Xi told the press that the islands in the South China Sea have been a part of China’s territory since ancient times, while adding that Beijing’s activities in the area were peaceful and considerate of its neighbors (not that they would agree with that point).

With this week’s media being full of reports that the U.S. Navy is now preparing to go the contested area, it seems that not much was resolved by the talks.

American officials told Foreign Policy this week that they’re poised to send naval ships and aircraft to the area to contest Beijing’s territorial claims over the man-made islands.

While the White House has yet to make a final decision, a U.S. Defense Department official told Foreign Policy: “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

The Financial Times also reported that a senior U.S. official said they would send the U.S. Navy inside the 12-nautical mile zones that Beijing claims as territory around some of the man-made islands in the Spratlys.

See more about that below:

Beijing’s response to these reports has been that they would not tolerate violations of “its territorial waters” in the name of freedom of navigation.

Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, told The Guardian that the Obama administration was losing patience with Beijing’s “very forceful, even sometimes belligerent” behavior.

“I think Washington is probably at something of a tipping point moment with both China and Xi,” Schell said. “I think they are definitely toying with taking a much harder line.”

Beijing also has conflicting claims against Japan in the East China Sea and against India on the eastern sector of the Himalayas.

See former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis talk about the threat that China may pose to global stability in the below video:

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