MANILA –The United States and China are coming dangerously close to a collision in the South China Sea, a clash that could easily turn rhetoric and threats of a “New Cold War” into actual armed conflict.
The sea moves come against the background of a rising war of words, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying over the weekend that, “Some US political forces are taking hostage of China-US relations, attempting to push the ties to the brink of a so-called New Cold War. This is dangerous and will endanger global peace.”
US military officials, on the other hand, say China has been endangering that peace for months. There have been “at least nine” incidents of “unsafe” encounters between the the two sides’ armed forces in the South China Sea since March, according to Reed Werner, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Southeast Asia.
“We do find the current trend line very worrisome,” Werner told Fox News last week, warning that “China continues to push forward” just “[a]s countries are focused inward” to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We continue to see Chinese destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic,” the top American official added, describing Beijing’s expanding military and para-military activities in the area as part of a broader campaign to “intimidate and bully others.”
The Pentagon official said that US warnings are “definitely not overblown” while highlighting what he characterized as China’s “continued risky and escalatory behavior” against US forces in the sea.
Last month, a Chinese vessel escorting the Liaoning aircraft carrier during “mock battles” in the South China Sea reportedly maneuvered in an “unsafe and unprofessional way” against the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin on a routine operation in the area, according to the Pentagon.
The last time the US and China came this close to a clash on the high seas was in late 2018, when a Chinese warship maneuvered within less than 50 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur, which was conducting a routine Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the sea’s contested Spratly island chain.
With the US now struggling to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has taken nearly 100,000 lives, China has bid to impose its will on rivals and neighbors, seen in the harassment of Malaysian energy exploration activities and a Philippine warship in recent weeks.
US President Donald Trump’s administration is signaling a tougher stance in response, raising the risk of armed clashes on the high seas.
In a recent report to the US Congress entitled “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, Trump’s White House argues that “Beijing contradicts its rhetoric and flouts its commitments to its neighbours by engaging in provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and Sino-Indian border areas.”
Submitted in compliance with the National Defense Authorization Act 2019, which mandates a comprehensive approach to dealing with China’s perceived threat, the report warned that China has shown “the willingness and capacity…to employ intimidation and coercion in its attempts to eliminate perceived threats to its interests and advance its strategic objectives globally.”
Portraying Beijing as a expansionist power, the report also argues that China’s recent behavior in the South China Sea and other contested waters “belie Chinese leaders’ proclamations that they oppose the threat or use of force, do not intervene in other countries’ internal affairs, or are committed to resolving disputes through peaceful dialogue.”
As part of a broader containment strategy, the US is also seeking the support of other regional powers including India to ringfence China’s naval ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond.
During a recent public talk in Washington, Alice Wells, the outgoing Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, called on regional partners to resist China’s “constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo.”
“That has to be resisted, whether it’s in the South China Sea where we’ve done a group sail with India, or whether it’s in India’s own backyard, both on land as well as in the Indian Ocean,” America’s top South Asia official said, pushing for greater US-Indian strategic and military coordination.
“For anyone under any illusions about that Chinese aggression was only rhetorical and I think they need to speak to India, where India, on a weekly, monthly, but certainly a very regular basis, has to experience the pinpricks of a Chinese military,” she added.
In its report to Congress, the White House underscored a growing alignment between the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy on one hand and India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region policy, Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific vision, Australia’s Indo-Pacific concept, South Korea’s New Southern Policy, and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy.
Concern over an increasingly assertive and expanisionist China is ostensibly driving these new US-aligned foreign policy initiatives of major US partners in the Indo-Pacific. They also jibe with the notion the US is building a Cold War-type containment strategy against China, even if it raises the risks of military escalation.
“Guided by a return to principled realism, the United States is responding to the CCP’s [China Communist Party] direct challenge by acknowledging that we are in a strategic competition and protecting our interests appropriately,” the White House report said.
The Trump administration’s toughening all-of-government stance builds on an increasingly anti-China mood on Capitol Hill, especially among fellow Republicans but also rising within the Democrat opposition. Both Trump and rival Joe Biden are set to campaign for election on strongly anti-China tickets.
House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry (Texas, Republican) has praised the White House report, which he said provides an overview of how to “effectively compete with China and deter China’s malign activity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.”
“The strategy also reinforces the need to invest in the military elements of that strategy, as well as increased engagement with our allies and partners,” the top congressional leader said.
Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in turn, praised the Trump administration’s “principled realism” vis-à-vis China, underscoring what he views as the futility of previous administrations’ engagement policies.
Congressman Mike Rogers (Albama, Republican), House Homeland Security Committee ranking member, went a step further in describing China as an existential threat to the US that should be dealt with accordingly.
“Their [China] totalitarian rule crushes human rights, undermines democratic institutions, and threatens our way of life,” he said, evoking old Cold War rhetoric but with a new sense of urgency and ire.