The US is considering intensified naval patrols in the South China Sea in a bid to challenge China’s growing militarization of the waterway, actions that could further raise the stakes in one of the world’s most volatile areas.
The US Department of Defense is weighing a more assertive program of freedom-of-navigation operations close to Chinese installations on disputed reefs, two US officials and Western and Asian diplomats close to discussions said.
The officials declined to say how close they were to finalizing a decision.
Such moves could involve longer patrols, ones involving larger numbers of ships or operations involving closer surveillance of Chinese facilities in the area, which now include electronic jamming equipment and advanced military radars.
US officials are also pushing international allies and partners to increase their own naval deployments through the vital trade route as China strengthens its military capabilities on both the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), the diplomats said, even if they stopped short of directly challenging Chinese holdings.
Taiwan also lays claim to both island groups and administers Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the Spratlys’ largest island, which houses an airstrip.
“What we have seen in the last few weeks is just the start, significantly more is being planned,” one Western diplomat said, referring to a freedom-of-navigation patrol late last month that involved two US ships for the first time. “There is a real sense more needs to be done.”
The Pentagon does not comment on planned operations, but US defense department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan said: “We will continue to work with our friends, partners and allies to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
A more assertive Pentagon approach already appears to have started. Reuters was the first to report the patrol last month in which two US Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China, even as US President Donald Trump sought Chinese cooperation on North Korea.
While the operation had been planned months in advance and similar operations have become routine, it is believed to be the first time that two US warships have been used for a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea.
Critics have said that the patrols have little impact on Chinese behavior and mask the lack of a broader strategy to deal with China’s growing dominance in the area.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Saturday told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore that China’s militarization of the South China Sea has become a “reality,” but that Beijing would face unspecified consequences.
Last month, the Chinese air force landed bombers on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) in the Paracel Islands as part of a training exercise, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines.
Satellite photographs taken on May 12 showed that China appears to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles on Woody Island, while anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air missiles were also placed on its largest bases in the Spratlys.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore conference, PLA Academy of Military Sciences Vice President Lieutenant General He Lei (何雷) said that China has every right to continue to militarize its South China Sea holdings.
“It is China’s sovereign and legal right for China to place our army and military weapons there. We see any other country that tries to make noise about this as interfering in our internal affairs,” He said.
Regional military attaches have said that they are now bracing for China’s next moves, which some fear could be the first deployment of jet fighters to the Spratlys or an attempt to enforce an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) similar to one that Beijing created off its eastern coast in 2013.
Vietnamese military officers said they are particularly concerned by the prospect of an ADIZ, saying it could threaten the integrity of Vietnamese airspace.
While Vietnam has long sought peaceful settlements to disputes, “all options are on the table from our side to safeguard our sovereignty and territory,” Vietnamese People’s Army Institute of Strategic Studies Director Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Hai said.
“The ADIZ establishment is one option we have thought of and also have plans to deal with,” Nguyen said.
While increased pressure might slow China’s militarization efforts, they would be difficult to stop, International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia executive director Tim Huxley said
“China has created a new reality down there, and it is not going to be rolled back,” Huxley said. “They are not doing this to poke America or their neighbors in the eye, but they are almost certainly doing this to serve their long-term strategic objectives, whether that is projecting their military power or securing energy supplies.”
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