The White House has threatened Beijing with “consequences” over what it calls China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea.
China-US relationship: ‘the gloves have come off’ over South China Sea
“We’re well aware of China’s militarization of the South China Sea,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Thursday.
“We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this. And there will be near-term and long-term consequences,” she said.
She was referring to reports this week that China has installed new missile systems on its fortified outposts in the South China Sea, the latest move of several in recent years to beef up its military presence in the contested waterway.
The reported missile deployment and the US response risk escalating tensions between two of the world’s most powerful countries, which engaged in talks this week trying to resolve a trade spat that threatens to disrupt the global economy.
“I think that China – to put it bluntly – doesn’t care about the reaction of regional countries or the United States to rolling out these military capabilities,” Euan Graham, director of international security at the Lowy Institute, told Inkstone.
“The gloves have come off in the China-US relationship,” he said.
One man’s defense
The South China Sea has some of the most contested waters in the world, disputed in part or in whole between China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
On his first visit to the US as China’s leader in 2015, President Xi Jinping had reassuring words about his country’s construction in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed also by Vietnam and the Philippines.
“China does not intend to pursue militarization,” Xi said in the White House’s Rose Garden, standing next to Barack Obama.
Since then, however, China has gradually built up its military presence in the islands and elsewhere in the South China Sea, transforming reefs into outposts that are now complete with anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile capabilities, according to a report by CNBC on Wednesday.
These moves run contrary to Xi’s claim, analysts said.
“Whether characterized as defensive or offensive, missile deployment by any reasonable standard constitutes militarization,” Elena Collinson, a researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney, told Inkstone.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry evaded a reporter’s question on whether it had newly installed missiles in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands.
“Those who do not intend to be aggressive have no need to be worried or scared," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
She repeated China’s claim of sovereignty, adding that it has to right to deploy defensive facilities for national security.
But Lowy’s Graham argued that it was a “naked assertion of might.”
“One man's defense is another man's offense,” he said.
The US is wary of China’s growing military prowess in the South China Sea, where the US conducts regular patrols by ships and aircraft claiming to maintain stability and free passage in the region.
“China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” said Admiral Philip Davidson, the nominee for the post of the new US commander in the Pacific, in a written testimony to the US Senate released last month.
China’s army will be able to use its bases “to challenge US presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants,” he said.
In response to China’s developments in South China Sea, the US has in recent years increased the number of so-called freedom of navigation exercises near China's artificial islands in the area.
The White House’s threat of “consequences” on Thursday to China’s reported missile deployment suggests more similar exercises and other symbolic moves short of the use of force, analysts said.
The US could, for example, uninvite China from a biannual multinational naval exercise, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or increase the frequency of port calls and military exercises with Asian allies such as Japan and Australia.
But these actions are unlikely to deter China from further fortifying its South China Sea facilities, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“China will not stop, because it is going to be politically detrimental if China rolls back, so China will have to maintain its strongman stance against perceived external encroachment,” Koh told Inkstone.
China’s military build-up in the South China Sea has reached “a point of no return,” he said.