US intrusions should end to allow for talks

The sailing of a US warship close to an artificial Chinese island in the South China Sea marks the return of a dangerous game that could lead to confrontation and conflict

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 1:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 1:17am

Diplomacy and negotiations are the only way to deal with the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The right path has been set by China and Southeast Asian nations through bilateral talks and the drafting of a framework for a code of conduct to be completed by the middle of the year. But US leader Donald Trump, despite following the right approach during the first months of his presidency, has now opted for provocation. The sailing of a US warship close to an artificial Chinese island marks the return of a dangerous game that could lead to confrontation and conflict.

Beijing was understandably outraged by the destroyer the USS Dewey passing within 12 nautical miles of Meiji Reef in the Nansha Islands, known internationally as Mischief Reef and the Spratly Islands. The US vessel entered the waters without permission and ignored warnings. It was the fifth such intrusion since September 2015, when Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, began challenging China’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea. The operations were in the name of protecting “freedom of navigation”, which Beijing has never questioned when commercial shipping is involved, but has every right to make a stand on when there is an uninvited foreign military dimension.

US accused of sabotaging peace and stability in South China Sea

Too often, the US has used waters and air space off China’s coast for spying and reconnaissance. As the world’s only superpower, it has long held the view that its navy should be able to go virtually anywhere without prior approval. But China’s growing might and confidence and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea have made this position unacceptable.

Trump’s rhetoric while campaigning for the presidency, an ill-judged phone conversation with Taiwan’s leader and early tough talk by his defence and foreign secretaries caused uncertainty for relations with China. A more aggressive approach towards the South China Sea than that adopted by Obama was anticipated. But Trump’s talks with President Xi Jinping in Florida last month and a pledge to abide by the one-China principle calmed concerns and set ties on a positive course. The US reaching out to China for help in halting North Korea’s weapons programmes further improved bonds.

Beijing did not comment earlier this month when fighter jets intercepted a US military plane that was allegedly checking on radiation levels in international airspace. There was also no comment from Beijing when two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a US Navy surveillance aircraft on Wednesday, just 240km southeast of Hong Kong in international airspace. Trump’s decision to resume US navy operations in the disputed waters is a setback. Only by ending the intrusions and negotiating matters like freedom of navigation can ties move in the right direction.