US Secretary for Defense, Jim Mattis in a November 10, 2017 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Simon Dawson

The United States kicked off 2018 by sending an unmistakable signal to China’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea. The moves appear to be the first salvo in President Donald Trump’s new National Defense Strategy, which identifies China as a “strategic competitor.”

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is making visits this week to two key Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia and Vietnam, both of which are at loggerheads with Beijing over festering territorial disputes in the maritime region.

On Wednesday, Mattis praised Indonesia as the “maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific”, while stating that the US supported Jakarta’s decision last year to rename Chinese-claimed maritime areas near the Natuna islands as the “North Natuna Sea.”

The energy-rich maritime zone lies in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but also overlaps with China’s expansive claim staked in its controversial nine-dash-line map.

Mattis met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, while Indonesia forces put on a lively display of force, including a demonstration that involved beheading live snakes and drinking their blood.

The US and Indonesia underlined their growing maritime security cooperation during the three-day visit, which Mattis characterized as “very successful” in a US Defense Department statement.

Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and visiting US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at a welcome ceremony in Jakarta, Indonesia January 23, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Mattis’ visit to Vietnam also aimed at underlining America’s commitment to deeper defense cooperation with another key Southeast Asian claimant in the South China Sea. Today, Mattis thanked Vietnam for its support of United Nations sanctions on North Korea, which he acknowledged has cost Hanoi in bilateral trade, namely cheap coal imports.

Hanoi increasingly views America as a crucial counterbalance to Chinese maritime ambitions in adjacent waters, particularly as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has failed to take a tougher collective position on the disputes.

The two sides also reportedly discussed freedom of navigation issues in the South China Sea, with a US emphasis on international rule of law and national sovereignty.

Just before Mattis’ arrival in the region, the US sent a strong signal in that direction. On January 20, the United States Navy deployed its guided missile destroyer USS Hopper within the 12-nautical mile radius of the Scarborough Shoal, a contested land feature in the South China Sea which has been under de facto control of China since 2012.

The shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ 200 nautical EEZ, is viewed by security analysts as a potential new flashpoint in the maritime area. The deployment was part of US’ Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), which are aimed at challenging China’s maritime claims in the area.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy handout via Reuters

In response, China accused the US of violating its “sovereignty” over the land feature, which has been declared as a “common fishing ground” by an Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague in mid-2016. China contends that the shoal is a full-fledged island capable of generating its own maritime jurisdictional zones.

A commentary in the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily sought to portray the FONOPs as a justified pretext for further Chinese consolidation of control over disputed land features in the area. In particular, it called for further reclamation activities and establishment of military facilities across various contested land features.

“Against this backdrop of peace and cooperation, a US ship wantonly provoking trouble is single-minded to the point of recklessness,” warned the commentary.

“If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: in order to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there,” the commentary said.

The Philippines, which claims the shoal as part of its national territory, has accused China of unlawfully occupying the feature and denying Filipino fishermen from accessing its maritime resources.

The Philippines, historically a key US ally, claims it has exercised effective sovereignty over the land feature for the past century. Back in mid-2012, China and the Philippines were locked in a months-long naval standoff over the shoal which sparked a dramatic deterioration in bilateral relations.

President Rodrigo Duterte has shifted Manila towards more accommodation with China while downgrading certain bilateral military exchanges with the US. It is somewhat notable that Mattis did not visit Manila in his first symbolic tour to promote his new National Defense Strategy, which makes mention of the Philippines’ strategic importance.

Washington is clearly concerned about China’s growing military footprint in the area, fearing the Scarborough Shoal in particular could soon be incorporated into a sprawling network of military installations across the South China Sea that allows it to establish Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

The Pentagon is also reportedly concerned about the long-term implications of possible Chinese construction activities on the shoal, which lies just above 100 nautical miles from the Subic and Clark bases, key forward deployment bases for the US Navy in the region.

Though the US has claimed neutrality on territorial disputes and equivocated on whether its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines could apply in the event of a conflict over the Scarborough Shoal, it has nonetheless steadily stepped up its patrols and surveillance operations in the area in recent years.

Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Under the Trump administration, the Pentagon has been empowered to expand and regularize activities aimed at countering Beijing’s claims. Trump’s White House, unlike the preceding Barack Obama administration, no longer requires the US Navy’s Pacific Command to seek prior approval for conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea.

This has given the Pentagon greater leeway to challenge China’s activities in the area – and more room to maneuver is likely on the way.

In its newly-released National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon described China as a principal priority and “strategic competitor”, which is “using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.”

The NDS also accuses China of “seek[ing] Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future”

As such, great power rivalry, instead of transnational terrorism, has apparently become America’s primary strategic concern in the region. As the Trump administration enters its second year in office and with a tougher defense strategy in hand, expect more turbulence in the South China Sea.

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