Articles

Beijing lambastes US warship patrol in South China Sea as tensions rise over waterway, North Korea

Beijing issued a scathing rebuke on July 3 of a US warship's patrol a day earlier near a contested island occupied by Chinese troops in the South China Sea -- the latest irritant in the two powers' increasingly fraught relationship.


The patrol, the second known "freedom of navigation" operation under the administration of US President Donald Trump, came as the White House appeared to grow ever more frustrated with China over its moves in the waterway and lack of progress on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Sunday's operation, which involved the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Stethem guided-missile destroyer, was conducted within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago, a US defense official confirmed to The Japan Times.

USS Stethem. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian A. Stone

China's Defense Ministry lambasted the move in a statement, issuing what appeared to one of the strongest condemnations yet of the US operation which Washington says is aimed at affirming its right to passage.

The US "actions seriously damaged the strategic mutual trust between the two sides" and undermined the "political atmosphere" surrounding the development of Sino-US military ties, the statement said. The Chinese military, it added, would take bolstered measures in the waters, including "an increase in the intensity of air and sea patrols."

The tiny islet is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, and is not one of the seven fortified man-made islands located in the South China Sea's Spratly chain, which is further south.

Late July 2, China's Foreign Ministry said that it had dispatched military ships and fighter jets in response to warn off the Stethem, which it said had "trespassed" in "the country's territorial waters."

A Chinese J-10 "Firebird" multi-role fighter. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

"Under the pretext of 'freedom of navigation,' the US side once again sent a military vessel into China's territorial waters off the Xisha Islands without China's approval," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement using the Chinese name for the Paracel Islands.

The US, he said, "has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China's sovereignty, disrupted peace, security, and order of the relevant waters, and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands."

Lu said the US "deliberately stirs up troubles in the South China Sea" and "is running in the opposite direction from countries in the region who aspire for stability, cooperation, and development," adding that the patrol "constitutes a serious political and military provocation.

FONOPs represent "a challenge to excessive maritime claims," according to the US Defense Department. The significance of the distance of 12 nautical miles derives from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which generally grants coastal states jurisdiction over seas within 12 nautical miles of land within their territory.

Paracel Islands, as seen from above. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The patrol was believed to be the second near Triton Island, after a similar FONOP under the administration of President Barack Obama in January 2016. The July 2 operation was first reported by Fox News.

Ahead of the patrol, there has been growing speculation that the White House is frustrated not only with Beijing's moves in the strategic waterway, but also its failure to rein in North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

This frustration was seen in a tweet sent by Trump late last month, when he wrote: "While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!"

And on June 30, in a step that the White House said was not aimed at Beijing, the Trump administration unveiled new sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs. The sanctions came just a day after the US announced a new $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by George Skidmore)

Earlier last week, the US State Department also listed China among the worst human-trafficking offenders in an annual report.

According to Mira Rapp-Hooper, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security think-tank in Washington, the July 2 FONOP was "not particularly provocative," and was "basically a repeat of an earlier one.

"But given that the administration also announced North Korean sanctions and a Taiwan arms package, it's hard to see the timing as pure coincidence," Rapp-Hooper said. "This may not be an effort to pressure China to specific ends, rather a 'snap back' in Trump administration foreign policy, which was solicitous of Beijing for several months as it sought help on North Korea."

"The White House now understands that Beijing will not solve this problem for it," she added.

Photo from The Moscow Kremlin

Zack Cooper, an Asia scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted the timing between previous FONOPs and the rapid-clip announcements of recent US actions against China.

"These four actions have come in just five days," he said, adding that the last FONOP was just under 40 days ago, while the one before that took place more than 215 days earlier.

However, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a spokesman for the US Navy's Pacific Fleet, said in a statement that "FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements."

"US forces operate in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis," Knight said. "All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.

Photo from US Navy

"That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe," he added.

China has continued to militarize its outposts there -- despite a pledge to the contrary -- as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei also have overlapping claims.

Now, with fewer constraints on a tougher approach to China across the board, experts say Trump could butt heads with Beijing over a number of issues.

"What we know for sure is that the Trump administration is now more comfortable with higher levels of friction with China than in previous months," said Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security adviser to US Vice President Joe Biden and current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

5 hints that your deployment is about to get extended

When troops deploy, they're told in advance how long they'll be gone. This gives you the chance to prepare your family, get all your paperwork in order, and so on. But, for some reason, troops always find out at the last possible minute that their deployment is about to get extended.

It's like a terrible Band-Aid that some officer didn't want to pull off.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less

Admiral Ronny Jackson withdraws his bid to be next VA Secretary

Ronny Jackson, the White House physician nominated by President Donald Trump to run the US Department of Veterans Affairs, withdrew his name from consideration for the role on April 26, 2018.

"Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for this president and the important issue we must be addressing — how we give the best care to our nation's heroes," Jackson said in a statement.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

How to protect a ship's crew from a weapon of mass destruction

Ships at sea have long had to contend with efforts to sink them. Traditionally, this was done by busting holes in the hull to let water in. Another way of putting a ship on the bottom of the ocean floor is to set the ship on fire (which would often cause explosions, blowing holes in the hull).

The two act in combination at times — just look at the saga of USS Liscome Bay (CVE 56) for one such case.

Keep reading... Show less

The F-35 in Japan is still losing dogfights to F-15s

The most expensive weapons system in history, the US's F-35 Lightning II, is still sometimes losing to the 1970s F-15 in dogfights during training scenarios in Japan.

US Air Force F-15 pilot Capt. Brock McGehee, when asked by Defense News if the F-35s at Kadena Air Force base in Japan still sometimes lost to the Cold War-era fighters, said "I mean, sometimes."

Keep reading... Show less
Military Life

Why the Army cutting out BS training was inevitable

A recent decision by the Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, has been met with universal praise: No more stupid, mandatory training programs!

In fairness to the now-defunct online classes, yes, Soldiers should be aware of the risks inherent in traveling, the dangers of misusing social media, and that human trafficking is still a concern in 2018. But did the process of taking a four-day pass really need to include a mandatory class about why seat belts are important? Probably not.

Keep reading... Show less

Congress wants misconduct by military's top brass to be public

A subcommittee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act would require the secretary of defense and military service secretaries to post reports of misconduct by generals and admirals, and those of equivalent civilian rank, so they are accessible to the public.

The House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel released its markup of the fiscal 2019 defense budget bill on April 25, 2018, one step in the complex process of the bill passing the House and Senate and becoming law.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

This luxury private jet could become a medevac asset

It's a fact of life; in war, troops sustain injuries — which can range from mild to severe. If the medics and aid stations can't fully treat a wound on their own, troops are moved back from the front lines to more-equipped facilities to recover. Exactly how far back depends on how long the wounded service member needs to recover before returning to fighting shape.

Keep reading... Show less