The United States has quietly conducted a demonstration of force against China as the two super powers continue to square off in what is shaping up as a flashpoint for potential conflict.
The US Navy’s latest exercises in the South China Sea saw the USS Mustin destroyer sail through the body of water separating China and Taiwan as it promises to ensure the region is “free and open” in the face of China’s increased aggression and expansionist territorial claims.
According to reports in Taiwanese media, the US ship sailed west of the tacitly acknowledged median line which demarcates the two territorial bodies of water, approaching the Chinese coastline.
The significance of the move to reportedly cross the maritime border is debatable, but it’s a subtle message by the US in what amounts to a “wild card” issue for global security, says Professor John Blaxland from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.
“It’s not something the US has done in recent times, operating in that space since China has basically emerged as a peer competitor of the United States,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
“That’s a fairly big body of water, you can be inside the PRC (People’s Republic of China) exclusive economic zone without being inside PRC 12 nautical miles, so that’s not illegal under maritime law,” he explained.
“But what’s important here is the United States is sending a message to China that Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and in relation to Taiwan, will be contested.
“It basically saying we’re not backing down on a refusal to recognise Chinese claims.”
The Chinese Communist Party claims nine tenths of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which some $US3 trillion of trade passes a year while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims.
However, it’s the repeated pronouncements made by Chinese officials about reclaiming Taiwan as its sovereign territory, and any military action to that end, which has the potential to push the US and its allies into heated conflict.
“The prospect of conflict is alive and well over Taiwan,” Professor Blaxland said.
Taiwan issue a ‘wild card’ for the region
The US has responded to China’s growing assertiveness by increasing so-called freedom of navigation exercises in the region, while the Trump administration has ramped up the bellicose rhetoric aimed at China.
“I can’t envision the United States walking away from this any time soon,” Prof Blaxland said.
If Joe Biden wins the US election in November, he expects the Chinese to test him on the issue early in his presidency in a similar way the country did to Barack Obama regarding a dispute over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, which ultimately saw the US president back down as China built out artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Professor Blaxland says China’s continued assertion that it will reclaim Taiwan is a “wild card” issue that could see Australia dragged into conflict in the years ahead.
If China uses force to reabsorb the nation of 23 million people, “there will be enormous domestic democratic pressure” on the US to act in defence of Taiwan “and for allies to act, principally Japan and Australia,” he said.
“Japan has a vested interest in not seeing Taiwan fall, because if Taiwan falls, what’s to stop China claiming much more of the Japanese space and it significantly restraining Japanese freedom of action even more than it has been?”
On Wednesday, China labelled the USS Mustin’s voyage “extremely dangerous”, saying it was in neither countries interest to provoke tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
The Eastern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army said its air and naval forces followed and monitored the US ship throughout its voyage.
“Any words or deeds that ... cause trouble in the Taiwan Strait are not in line with the fundamental interests of China and the United States, harm the well-being of compatriots on both sides of the strait, pose real threats to peace and stability in the region and are extremely dangerous,” it said.
Taiwan strait a flashpoint as tensions rise
At least privately, Australian officials and commentators lay the blame for growing tensions over Taiwan squarely with the increasing assertiveness of Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to Professor Brendan Taylor from the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affair at ANU.
In March 2019 two Chinese J-11 fighters deliberately violated the Taiwan Strait’s median line for the first time in two decades, sparking a brief standoff.
A similar incident took place in February this year when Chinese planes — including strategic bombers — again crossed the median line, prompting Taiwan to scramble the jets.
“There have been shifts in the cross-strait military balance, with the result that a Chinese attack cannot be ruled out,” Prof Taylor wrote earlier this year.
“Beijing was previously deterred from this course by the possibility of US intervention. Taiwan’s military also held an edge over the mainland’s large, land-focused forces until as recently as the mid-1990s. But there now remains little left to speak of in the way of a cross-strait military balance.”
The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and has sent warships regularly through the strategic waterway. Australia recently joined the US in officially denouncing Chinese claims and participated in a joint military show of force in the South China Sea with US and Japanese ships.
The latest US drill comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and China. Washington has criticised Beijing over its novel coronavirus response and accuses it of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
That impression was furthered this week by a Wall Street Journal report that indicated China could tie vaccine distribution to reciprocal recognition of its territorial claims to the South China Sea.
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