US manoeuvre in South China Sea leaves little wiggle room with China

US warship’s presence in disputed waters sure to draw Beijing retaliation, which could worsen ties and spread to other regional rows

Barack Obama’s decision to send a US guided missile destroyer into disputed waters off the Spratly islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday has provoked predictable outpourings of rage and veiled threats from Beijing – but nothing, yet, in the way of a military response. The worry now is that the confrontation will catch fire, escalate and spread.

Both China, which claims the Spratlys as its own, and the US, which does not recognise Beijing’s sovereignty, have boxed themselves into a rhetorical and tactical corner. With the Pentagon insisting it will repeat and extend such naval patrols at will, and with the People’s Liberation Army Navy determined to stop them, it is feared a head-on collision cannot be far away.

China’s heated response to Tuesday’s manoeuvre by the USS Lassen off the Spratlys’ Mischief and Subi reefs, where Beijing is controversially building military airstrips and lighthouses on reclaimed land, left it little wiggle room. The American warship had been tracked and warned off, officials said, adding that what it termed an illegal incursion was a “threat to national sovereignty” and a deliberate provocation that could backfire.

Anticipating the US move earlier this month, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “China will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the South China Sea.” If ever a government has publicly laid down a red line, this is it. And Obama just crossed it.

Having personally failed to find a compromise in White House talks with Xi Jinping, China’s president, last month, Obama has upped the ante. As is also the case with Xi, it is now all but impossible to envisage an American climbdown without enormous loss of face and prestige.

By deploying a powerful warship, by declining to inform China in advance, and by insisting the US is upholding the universal principle of free navigation in international waters and will do so again whenever and wherever it wishes, Obama has deliberately challenged Beijing to do its worst.

Chinese retaliation, when it comes, and it surely must, may not centre specifically on the Spratlys. There are plenty of other potential troublespots and flashpoints where Beijing might seek to give the Americans pause. In prospect is a sort of geopolitical chain reaction.

A spokesman, Lu Kang, hinted at this on Tuesday: “China hopes to use peaceful means to resolve all the disputes, but if China has to make a response then the timing, method and tempo of the response will be made in accordance with China’s wishes and needs.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang warns the US over military moves in South China Sea

China is in dispute over other South China Sea islands and reefs with several countries that are all more or less at one with the US on the issue, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Renewed trouble could flare up in any of these places. One possibility is the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by Manila, where clashes have continued on and off since 2012.

Another obvious pressure point is the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea, claimed by both Japan and China. In 2013 Beijing upped the ante, unilaterally declaring an air exclusion, or identification, zone in the area, which the US promptly breached with B52 bombers.

This dispute forms part of the background to the military buildup ordered by Japan’s hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who set a record £27bn defence budget this year. (China’s military budget is roughly £90bn; that of the US is about £378bn).

Reacting to the perceived China threat, Abe is extending Okinawa’s defences and getting involved in South China Sea patrols in support of Washington. Japan also strengthened defence and security ties with Britain – a development that now makes David Cameron’s courtship of Beijing seem all the more incongruous.

Taiwan is another powder keg that could be ignited by widening US-China confrontation. While Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and seeks its return, the present-day status quo is underwritten by US military might.

Tensions with the mainland have eased under the island’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou. But elections in January are expected to bring the more pro-independence Democratic Progressive party to power. This could provoke Beijing, where Xi has warned his patience is wearing thin.

US-China naval and aerial rivalry could expand even further afield. China is busy building a blue water fleet (a maritime force capable of operating across the deep waters of open oceans) including aircraft carriers, with the aim of challenging US dominance in the eastern Pacific.

Chinese naval ships recently showed up off the Aleutian islands during an Obama visit to Alaska, the mineral-rich Arctic being another possible theatre. Meanwhile, regional western allies such as Australia have serious cause for concern that escalating superpower friction could draw them in.

If Beijing and Washington cannot find a way of stepping back, cooperation on key international issues such as reviving the global economy, fair and sustainable trade, climate change, terrorism and cybercrime may suffer.

The latest developments on the high seas are not encouraging. Right now, the clear and present danger is of deteriorating bilateral relations across the board.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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