U.S. Navy’s transgressions in South China Sea seen as catalyst for regional tensions

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4th December 2023 – (Beijing) The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China condemned the U.S. on Monday, denouncing it as the principal disruptor of tranquillity in the South China Sea. This follows an unauthorised incursion by a U.S. Navy vessel into waters near the disputed Ren’ai Jiao (also known as Ren’ai Reef) in the Nansha Islands, a contentious area between China and the Philippines.

Chinese analysts interpret this move as a deliberate attempt by the U.S. to stoke tensions, securing the Philippines’ allegiance to Washington and destabilising the Asia-Pacific region. This, they believe, is part of the broader objective of advancing Washington’s “Indo-Pacific strategy.” Recent Philippine actions concerning the South China Sea suggest a current lack of judiciousness, prompting regional countries to brace for potential escalations from Manila.

The USS Gabrielle Giffords, a littoral combat ship, allegedly intruded into waters adjacent to Ren’ai Jiao on Monday without Chinese government authorisation. The PLA Southern Theater Command mobilised naval forces and monitored the U.S. vessel throughout its entire course, stated Senior Colonel Tian Junli, a spokesperson for the PLA Southern Theater Command.

Observers note that it marks a departure for the PLA Southern Theater Command to issue a statement regarding a U.S. warship trespassing into waters off Ren’ai Jiao. While similar declarations have been made whenever a US ship intruded into waters off China’s Nansha Islands, no specific islands or reefs were named previously.

Colonel Tian characterised the US action as a calculated move designed to escalate tensions in the South China Sea, constituting a grave violation of China’s sovereignty and security, regional peace and stability, international law, and basic norms governing international relations. He reinforced China’s unwavering claim over the South China Sea islands and surrounding waters, with troops on constant high alert to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and the region’s peace and stability.

This event unfolds amid escalating tensions between China and the Philippines concerning the sovereignty of Ren’ai Jiao. Since August, Manila has persistently provoked China, attempting to send building materials to reinforce an old Philippine warship that has been grounded on the Chinese reef since 1999. The China Coast Guard has thwarted these attempts.

A public affairs officer for the U.S. 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, quoted by US media, stated Washington’s belief that they were conducting routine operations with “freedom to navigate.” However, an anonymous Chinese military expert criticised the US warship’s actions for exacerbating the situation and sending a misleading signal to the Philippines.

The expert suggested that the U.S. had instigated the Philippines’ recent provocations on Chinese islands and reefs from the outset. In their view, the US seeks to leverage the Philippines’ territorial claims to enhance its military presence in the region and better contain China’s military movements along the “first island chain.”

Chen Xiangmiao, director of the World Navy Research Center at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, viewed the U.S. warship activities as incapable of altering the fact that the Ren’ai Reef belongs to China. He characterised a littoral combat ship as a lightweight warship unsuitable for modern naval combat, but useful for close-in reconnaissance and missions with robust diplomatic and political objectives.

As per Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, the U.S. aims to bolster its alliance in the “Indo-Pacific strategy” by creating regional tensions that solidify the Philippines’ loyalty and foster resentment against China among other regional countries.

Li warned that the U.S.’ tension-fuelling actions on China-related matters could sow seeds of crisis, jeopardising prospects for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

Prior to the U.S. Navy ship’s provocative actions, the Philippines Coast Guard reported on Sunday that “more than 135” Chinese vessels were “swarming” a reef in the South China Sea, namely the Niu’e Jiao. The report described the situation as “alarming.”

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin emphasised at a press briefing on Monday that Niu’e Jiao forms part of China’s Nansha Islands. He described the South China Sea, including Niu’e Jiao and its adjacent waters, as crucial operating areas and shelters for Chinese fishing vessels. He urged the Philippines to refrain from making unwarranted remarks.

In the meantime, the Philippines inaugurated a new coast guard monitoring base on an occupied island in the South China Sea on December 1 and plans to enhance joint patrols with the U.S. and Australia to counter China.

Li Kaisheng, vice president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, expressed concern over the Philippines’ approach. He noted that the Philippines, unlike most ASEAN members and as a country at the heart of geopolitical tensions with limited power, is gradually losing balance and rationality in its policy.

Li warned that attempts to escalate leverage by involving external forces could have dire consequences for the regional stability and the ASEAN community. He urged the Philippines to return to the right track of bilateral negotiation and consultation with China to resolve the disputes.

He also called upon ASEAN members to uphold the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, respect each other’s sovereignty, and maintain the dialogue and negotiation process. This, he believes, is the key to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.

The U.S., as an external power, is seen by many in China and the region as an instigator of conflicts between China and the Philippines, further complicating the territorial disputes. While the U.S. insists on its right to “freedom of navigation,” these operations are increasingly seen by China and other regional players as intrusions that violate their sovereignty and disrupt regional stability.

The Philippines, on the other hand, finds itself in a delicate situation. It must balance its territorial claims and its relationships with both the US and China, as well as its role within ASEAN.