Washington and Beijing in ‘contest of wills’ in South China Sea

Zhenhua Lu
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Washington and Beijing in ‘contest of wills’ in South China Sea

China and the United States have entered a “contest of wills” in the South China Sea, according to analysts.

The assessment follows the latest passage of a US warship through disputed waters near the Scarborough Shoal on Sunday.

It was the second such incident this month and follows a number of missions earlier this year, as the US seeks to challenge China’s activities in the South China Sea.

But analysts predicted that China would step up its countermeasures to show that it would not compromise on sovereignty. However, Beijing and Washington appear to have kept communication channels open to avoid military miscalculations.

Lieutenant Commander Tim Gorman of the US Pacific Fleet defended Sunday’s mission, which saw the USS Preble passing within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both China and the Philippines.

Gorman said the mission was designed “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law”.

“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he continued.

“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

The US is known to have conducted four freedom of navigation operations this year – one in the Paracel Islands and three in the Spratley chain. It carried out seven last year and six in 2016, according to the Pentagon.

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China’s Southern Theatre Command issued a strong response to the latest incident, saying it endangered the ships and personnel of both sides, undermined China’s sovereignty and security, violated basic norms and undermined regional peace and stability.

Senior Colonel Li Huamin, a spokesman for Southern Theatre Command, said its troops would be kept on high alert and take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty and security.

Washington has also urged its allies to help it to counter China’s activities in the region, where it is accused of building up its military infrastructure, and so far this year the US has conducted join exercises with Britain, the Philippines, Japan and India.

The past 12 months have also seen French and British warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait and Paracel Islands respectively.

Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the US and China were now engaged in a “contest of wills” but “weren’t keen to come to blows considering their mutual interdependence”.

He also said the US military was keen to publicise its operations to “normalise them”, adding: “My sense is that the US side seeks to enhance strategic communication to the wider international community about these operations, and which would also become ‘visible’ to the regional governments as a form of strategic assurance.”

Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military analyst, agreed that “the US has normalised the FONOPs to repeatedly provoke China, which won’t stop”.

He continued: “China should step up its countermeasures to let the US know that Beijing won’t make any concessions on its maritime sovereign claims.”

Song also argued that China also needed to strengthen its coastguard’s capability and the navy and air force’s ability to fight away from China’s coastline.

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Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor specialising in US studies, said US President Donald Trump’s administration “has already greatly increased the frequency and intensity of US FONOPs in the past two years”.

Shi added that this situation “had become or was becoming the new normal” and China was “having to restrain itself a little” to prevent the risk of conflict.

However, he said the country’s programme to reclaim land and step up its military capabilities in the waters had given it “real military advantages” that the US “cannot change by an inch”.

But the US and China have continued their mutual dialogue.

Koh noted that both Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe would be attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an event senior Chinese officials have skipped in recent years.

Wei’s US counterpart, Patrick Shanahan, will also be there and “this could mean that both sides wish to maintain channels of communications to manage their rivalry”, Koh said.

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