US navy plans major show of strength in South China Sea as warning to Beijing
Freedom of navigation operation will take place amid rising tensions and near-collision between USS Decatur and Chinese vessel
The United States Pacific Fleet has drawn up a plan for a major show of force as a warning to China that will indicate its determination to counter Beijing’s military activity, it was reported on Thursday amid rising tension over the disputed South China Sea.
The plan would see planes and ships passing close to Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in a freedom of navigation operation, CNN reported, citing several unnamed US defence officials.
The proposal means US ships and aircraft will be operating close to Chinese forces and is expected to trigger a strong reaction from Beijing.
China’s defence ministry did not immediately comment on the report, but a Chinese diplomatic observer said that by expanding its operations from the South China Sea to the Taiwan Strait the US was escalating the confrontation.
The observer also predicted that China would step up its military presence in both areas.
The proposal is being driven by the military but CNN noted that carrying it out it in early November when the US midterm elections are taking place could have political implications for the Trump administration if the US troops are challenged by China.
Beijing has previously criticised freedom of navigation operations by the US in the South China Sea as an infringement of its territorial sovereignty.
Tensions are running high between the US and Chinese militaries over the disputed waters, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
On Sunday, a Chinese destroyer nearly collided with the USS Decatur, which was carrying out a freedom of navigation operation and sailing close to the China-claimed Gaven Reef.
The Chinese destroyer came within 41 metres (135 feet) of the American warship, the US navy said, describing the Chinese move as “unsafe and unprofessional”.
US Vice-President Mike Pence will give China a blunt warning on Thursday that the United States will not back down from what Washington sees as Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea.
Pence will address the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington and excerpts released in advance suggest he will draw attention to the incident.
“Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated. We will not stand down,” the speech will say.
Su Hao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said recent incidents were a sign that the South China Sea had become an arena for the US and China to confront each, rather than simply being a territorial dispute between Beijing and the other claimants.
“Relations between China and the other claimants have been relatively calm recently, but the conflict in the South China Sea has been intensified by the involvement of the US,” he said.
“When two big nations are confronting each other, it is necessary to maintain a proper military balance to avoid the conflict from getting out of control,” he said. “The other nations in Southeast Asia will find it very difficult being sandwiched between the two big powers.”
By expanding its area of operations to the Taiwan Strait, Su continued, the US was linking the South China Sea and Taiwan and was prepared to confront China across a wider front.
Additional reporting by Reuters