With tensions rising between two of the world’s great superpowers over a key maritime region, our Special Correspondent looks at the reasons and possible repercussions.
History will prove who is the visitor and who is the genuine host. ‘China was the earliest to explore, name, develop and administer various South China Sea islands. Our ancestors worked diligently here for generations’. With those words China has set down an immutable claim to the islands of the South China Sea as the dispute again threatens to boil into conflict.
An annual $5 trillion worth of trade passes through the region, which is vital to both the US and China, and to other trading nations.
The classic Chinese manoeuvre of trying to put the ‘younger brother’, the United States, in its place came after the more aggressive stance being set by the new the commander of the US Pacific Command (Pacom) Admiral Harry Harris and the appearance of a US Navy battle group in the area led by the carrier the USS John C Stennis.
The history lesson came from no less than the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He was backed up by a front page commentary in the communist party-affiliated Global Times, accusing Pacom of ‘China bashing’ and ‘making waves in the South China Sea’ for comments accusing China of regional hegemony, made during recent speeches and congressional testimony.
The paper then issued a veiled threat that harsh comments from the admiral were creating stepped-up competition between the United States and China and could lead to conflict.
‘If two nuclear powerhouses engage in a competition to test each other’s willpower, the whole world will face the repercussions.’
The propaganda organ said ‘Harris’ words and deeds keep reminding us that we have to put more efforts into the building of islands in the South China Sea and deploying more weaponry.’
The same day the unusually harsh attack was published, the Navy announced the Stennis was sailing in the South China Sea on ‘routine operations’ in a major show of force.
Harris has recently finished a world tour and announced in Delhi that naval forces from the United States, India and Japan would take part in military exercises in the Philippines Sea, close to disputed waters of the South China and East China Seas where China claims maritime sovereignty.
‘We are ready for you. We need you. Let’s be ambitious together,’ he said.
The Japan-born admiral who took over the Hawaii-based command in May 2015 has not shied away from using blunt language to criticise China. Last month, he testified to the US Congress that China is seeking ‘hegemony’ in the region and is bullying its less powerful neighbours.
Harris says his views on China have been consistent since he was head of the US Pacific Fleet.
‘If you go back to my early statements, in even my change of command to assume the Pacific Fleet back in 2013, I’ve been consistent in my articulation of my concerns in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, including China,’ he said. ‘With regard to what China is doing differently, over the past few years, what they’ve done is reclaimed almost 3,000 acres of bases—military bases, in my opinion—in the South China Sea.’
But there is no mistaking the change in tone from Harris’ immediate predecessor at the command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, who surprised many by adopting policies and statements that appeared designed to play down or minimise aggressive Chinese actions.
Locklear was ridiculed after telling a reporter in 2013 that his biggest concern in the Pacific was not Chinese aggression but climate change and rising sea levels.
Harris drew the ire of the Chinese by reversing Locklear’s policy of halting all freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea because he was concerned the close-in naval manoeuvres would upset China.
The Chinese navy closely shadowed the US carrier group for the three days they were in the area.
Global Times dismissed plans for joint US-Indian-Japanese military operations as a bluff, stating that India will be difficult to persuade, and Japan and Australia ‘have no guts’ for joint operations in the South China Sea.
‘We are afraid Harris and his troops will have to go it alone if he wants to make choppy waves in the South China Sea.’
The US Navy carrier group’s appearance in the region came amid rising tensions over China’s decision to deploy HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to the disputed Woody Island in the Paracel Island chain, a move that US officials have described as militarisation of the region against international policy, though in the past the missiles have gone unremarked.
A spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, told Military.com he did not believe any ships in the strike group came within 12 nautical miles of contested islands, which would have signalled a formal freedom of navigation operation within territorial seas.
The Navy conducted two ‘innocent passage’ operations within the last six months. Last October, the guided-missile destroyer Lassen passed near the contested Subi reef and other regions within the Spratly islands. And in January, the guided-missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur passed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels.
Admiral Harry Harris has said that he supports continued freedom of navigation operations in order to assert US rights and discredit territorial overreach in the region.
Lt. Cmdr. Knight insisted the transit of the Stennis and other ships in the strike group through the South China Sea was not linked to rising tensions in the region.
‘This is a routine patrol of a US carrier strike group,’ he said. ‘Our ships and aircraft operate routinely throughout the Western Pacific, including the South China Sea, and have for decades. This patrol was conducted in accordance with international law, and the United States will fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.’
Knight added that Pacific Fleet ships had sailed a total of 700 days in the South China Sea over the course of 2015. ‘We do have a fairly continuous presence there,’ he said. ‘We’ve been doing this for decades.’
Other ships, including the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser Antietam and amphibious dock landing ship Ashland, have also conducted recent routine operations within the South China Sea, according to official Navy releases.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s freest and safest shipping lanes, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, arguing that Beijing’s control over the disputed waters was justified because it was the first to ‘discover’ them.
He has said the US military was increasing deployments to the Asia-Pacific region and would spend $425 million through to 2020 to pay for more exercises and training with countries in the region that were unnerved by China’s actions.
At this point it’s hard to know who is responsible for the rising tensions but the US would do well not to make things worse.