US Navy warships are back in the South China Sea for the first time since Donald Trump became president in a surprise move that has led to protests from Beijing.
Starting in 2015, the United States began to conduct regular “freedom of navigation operations” near the artificial islands that China has built up to reinforce its claim over the vast majority of the South China Sea where Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia also hold competing claims. Accusing China of trying to limit freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the US Navy sent warships to within 12 miles of various reefs-turned-islands in the strategically significant body of water.
However, since Donald Trump took office in January these patrols have ceased, leaving neighboring nations to worry that the new president plans to give China free reign in the South China Sea. As president, Trump has been reluctant to antagonize Beijing, explaining that Xi Jinping and the Chinese government are taking an active role in helping to calm down the nuclear crisis in North Korea.
But on Wednesday, US officials said that the USS Dewey traveled close to the aptly-named Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands where China has built yet another airfield.
According to CNN, China’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday that the USS Dewey had been “warned and dispelled” by two Chinese frigates after entering China’s territorial waters “without permission.”
“We are firmly opposed to the US behavior of showing force and boosting regional militarization, and have made solemn representation to the US side,” Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in response to the patrol.
Last summer an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s vast sovereignty claims over the South China Sea. Beijing swiftly dismissed the ruling and has continued to build up its artificial islands with tourist infrastructure and military weapons.
Prior to this patrol, the Trump administration made no moves to check Beijing’s South China expansion, but did offer some harsh rhetoric. In his first press conference back in January, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the US would defend international territories from being taken over by China in the South China Sea. Spicer’s comments followed those made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing earlier that month.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” the 64-year-old former Exxon CEO said when asked if he supported a more aggressive posture toward China, adding that China’s island-building was “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”
Perhaps most forebodingly, last year, Trump’s chief strategist Steven Bannon said that he had “no doubt” the US would soon go to war with China.
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