China ‘warns off’ US destroyer near South China Sea’s strategic Scarborough Shoal

Beijing insists on its claim over the islets as USS Hopper enters area, foreign ministry says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 4:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 11:58pm

China says it warned off a US Navy destroyer near a group of disputed islets in the South China Sea last week.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Saturday that the USS Hopper missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoal, called Huangyan Island in China, on Wednesday night.

“The Chinese navy carried out identification and verification procedures in accordance with the law and warned the US vessel to leave,” Lu said.

“China is strongly dissatisfied with the [US action] and will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.”

Duterte’s defence chief signals Scarborough Shoal is off-limits for Chinese rigs

The encounter between the two navies adds to long-standing tension between the United States and China in waters contested by at least six nations.

Just over a year ago, a US Navy plane and a Chinese surveillance aircraft flew within 300 metres (1,000 feet) of each other near the Scarborough Shoal.

The shoal off the western coast of the Philippines is seen as a strategic point among the claimants because it is within easy striking distance of US forces stationed in the Philippines. A military outpost there could also stop other navies from using a northeast gateway to the area.

Beijing and Manila have tussled over the shoal on and off since 2013, when Manila took its case to an international tribunal in The Hague. The tribunal ruled in 2016 that the “nine-dash line” which underpins Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea had no legal basis.

Nevertheless, China has built artificial islands and facilities on other disputed parts of the waters, according to satellite images.

The US does not claim sovereignty of the waters but says it has the right to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the area.

Manila expects China to build on Scarborough Shoal

Zhang Jie, a Southeast Asian affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the incident on Wednesday would have been the first time a US Navy destroyer had gone so close the islets, which she described as a “very sensitive region”. Beijing considers any US patrols within 12 nautical miles of the islands as an intrusion into its territorial waters.

In June 2016, the US sent a total of three destroyers to conduct patrols within 14 to 20 nautical miles of the shoal and the Spratly Islands.

Zhang said the shoal was the Philippines’ unspoken bottom line in its quiet diplomacy with China on the South China Sea.

“The current diplomatic approach of the Philippines is to make the sovereignty [over the shoal] ambiguous,” she said.

“It has asked China not to build on the shoal, which China has not. The mutual preference of both the Philippines and China over this particular [shoal] is stability.”

Zhang said she expected to see more frequent confrontations between the US and Chinese militaries in the South China Sea, with Washington putting China and Russia at the centre of its new national defence strategy.

“The South China Sea will be the ground on which the two powers will wrestle for military power. It has become a long-term conflict,” she said.