Trump signs off on plan to allow US Navy more freedom to patrol in South China Sea, report says

Operations in disputed waters could become ‘very regular, very routine’, Breitbart News quotes US official as saying

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 3:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 8:38pm

US President Donald Trump has ­reportedly approved a plan to give the United States Navy more freedom to carry out patrols in the South China Sea – a move analysts say will add to uncertainties over Sino-US relations and regional security issues.

US patrols challenging Beijing in South China Sea will continue, says US Navy commander

The plan, submitted to the White House in April by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, outlines a full-year schedule of when US navy ships will sail through contested waters in the South China Sea, the far-right Breitbart News website cited a US official as ­saying yesterday.

Such a move could be seen as a challenge to China’s maritime claims in the disputed waters.

The White House would be aware of all planned “freedom of navigation operations” so it would not be “a surprise” when requests came up the chain of command, and they would be approved faster than before, the official said.

The faster approval process would mean operations could be conducted on a “very routine, very regular” basis, as part of a programme to keep the waters open, rather than as a “one-off event”, the person said.

It is not yet clear if the plan is part of a larger Asia-Pacific strategy or whether it is simply designed to make freedom of navigation operations more routine in the South China Sea.

US Navy carrier group begins South China Sea patrols

The US regularly undertook freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea under the previous Obama administration, but there have been suggestions that Trump was putting them off to avoid antagonising Beijing. China’s defence ministry did not reply to requests for comment.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said the move would worsen the situation in the disputed waters, where patrols by US ­naval ships to within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China have been met with protest from Beijing.

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“If this report is true, I can’t see the patrols being any more regular given that they were routine under Obama,” Shi said. “But they could be stepped up – they could stay longer or they could involve military drills.”

In the first freedom of navigation operation by the US Navy under the Trump administration, the USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, in the Spratly Island chain, in May, staying for more than an hour and carrying out a “man overboard” rescue drill as it passed the island.

Mischief Reef is controlled by Beijing, which has built airstrips in the area, but is also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In April, during a hearing ­before a House Armed Services Committee, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, suggested that the US would likely carry out new freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, citing “direction and guidance from the secretary of defence and the ­national command authority”.

China’s coastguard staking claim to contested reefs in South China Sea

Li Jie, a Beijing-based military analyst, said he would not be surprised if such patrols became a regular occurrence under Trump, who was being advised by hawkish military officials such as ­Mattis.

“At the same time, the US could gain leverage to contain China in terms of its maritime ­affairs by ­increasing its military presence in the region,” Li said.

On Thursday, the US asked China to provide more support in monitoring North Korea’s military activities, as tensions rise over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme. The call came during a rare one-hour video conference between Admiral John Richardson, US chief of naval operations, and Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, the PLA Navy commander.

A CNN report the same day said Pentagon intelligence suggested Pyongyang could be planning to launch a nuclear missile from a submarine. It cited two US ­defence officials as saying a North Korean submarine had been engaged in “unusual ­deployment activity” in the previous 48 hours.

It said the vessel had sailed about 100km into international waters in the East China Sea, further than it had ever gone before, prompting the US and South Korea to raise their alert level slightly.