Wed, Jan 24, 2018 - Page 6 News List

China speaks out as US downplays patrols

Reuters, HONG KONG and BEIJING

While the Pentagon plays down patrols close to Chinese-controlled reefs and islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is sounding the alarm about them, seeking to justify what experts say will be an even greater presence in the disputed region.

Chinese officials publicized the latest US “freedom of navigation patrol,” protesting the deployment last week of the destroyer USS Hopper to within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), an atoll west of the Philippines that Taiwan and China also claim.

It was the second time in recent months that confirmation of a patrol came from Beijing, not Washington, which had previously announced or leaked details.

Bonnie Glaser, a security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the administration of US President Donald Trump had a policy of keeping the patrols regular, but low key, China was willing to publicly exploit them to further their military ends.

“It is difficult to conclude otherwise,” she said. “Even as it pushes ahead with these [patrols], I don’t think the Trump administration has really come to terms with what it will tolerate from China in the South China Sea, and what it simply won’t accept, and Beijing seems to grasp this.”

In official statements, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang (陸慷) said that China would take “necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty” in the resource-rich sea.

Some regional diplomats and security analysts believe that will involve increased Chinese deployments and the quicker militarization of China’s expanded facilities across the Spratlys archipelago (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).

While US officials did not target China in their comments, couching freedom-of-navigation patrols as a “routine” assertions of international law, Beijing was quick to cast Washington as the provocateur.

The Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper on Monday accused the US of upsetting recent peace and co-operation, and “wantonly provoking trouble,” saying China must now strengthen its presence in the strategic waterway.

In recent years, China has built up several reefs and islets into large-scale airstrips and bases as it seeks to assert and enforce its claims to much of the sea, through which about US$3 trillion in trade passes annually. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei hold rival claims.

Chinese coastguard and People’s Liberation Army navy ships patrol vast swathes of the South China Sea, routinely shadowing US and other international naval deployments, regional naval officers say.

Zhang Baohui (張寶輝), a security expert at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said he believed Beijing was rattled by Trump’s sharpening Asia strategy and might be tempted to react in the South China Sea, even after months of relative calm.

“We can perhaps expect the Chinese to push ahead with militarization as retaliation,” he said.

A new US national defense strategy unveiled last week stressed the need to counter the rising authoritarian powers of China and Russia, outlining a need to better support allies and newer partners against coercion.

While most analysts and regional envoys believe China remains keen to avoid an actual conflict with the significantly more powerful US navy in the South China Sea, it is working to close the gap.

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