There's a need for care in the disputed waters of the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 2015, 1:20am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

A worrying game is under way in the South China Sea, with the US seemingly determined to test China's territorial claims. Washington has made clear that sooner or later, in the name of freedom of navigation, it will send warships to within 12 nautical miles of islands Beijing has built. Understandably, Chinese officials, who see violations of waters and air space as a provocation, have reacted angrily. There is every need for cool heads to prevail.

American military officials have for months been suggesting a warship will sail through the waters around the contested Spratly Islands, but the White House has been silent. Now that President Xi Jinping's US state visit has ended, there has been less reticence, although no details have been given. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter last Tuesday said planes and ships would go wherever international law permitted, while Secretary of State John Kerry on September 30 told the UN his country "will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea". UN rules were drafted with commercial shipping primarily in mind, but the US also has a long record of using them as cover for spying.

Those activities have led to several incidents involving China, the most serious being in 2001 when a Chinese pilot was killed when two planes collided off Hainan Island. Most recently, there was a near-collision between ships in 2013. Such events, involving Chinese challenges to American naval intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft, inevitably lead to a worsening of diplomatic relations. Agreements were signed during Xi's trip last month and in 2014 setting rules to try to prevent air and sea mishaps, but they provide no certainty.

China's rise and its growing assertiveness over disputed territories has prompted the US to rebalance its military to the region. The US has been stepping up military cooperation with allies; China played its hand yesterday at an informal meeting of Southeast Asian defence ministers, with Defence Minister Chang Wanquan raising the prospect of his country and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations holding humanitarian military drills in the disputed waters.

The agreements will be put to the test if the US goes ahead with sending a warship to the disputed area, as seems inevitable. While neither China nor the US wants a military conflict, there is the risk of matters spinning out of control. There is every need for care in what is said and done.