October 27, 2015 (Mainichi Japan)
U.S. Navy sailing near Spratly Islands jacks up tensions with China
 
WASHINGTON -- Military tensions spiked in the South China Sea on Oct. 27 as the United States sailed an Aegis-class destroyer within the 12-nautical-mile (about 22-kilometer) "territorial limit" of artificial isles China is building in the Spratly Islands.

The U.S. move looks like a strategic gambit to head off any further measures by Beijing to strengthen its territorial claim to the area. However, with a U.S. Navy ship prowling these contested waters, there is now the real possibility of an incident unforeseen in either China or the U.S.

During summit talks in late September, U.S. President Barack Obama directly requested that his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping halt the militarization of the South China Sea, but Xi rebuffed Obama by saying China was acting within its sovereign domain. The Oct. 27 cruise of the U.S. destroyer constitutes strong-armed action by the United States to back its "freedom of navigation" policy, and was obviously ordered in the expectation that it would trigger countermeasures by the People's Liberation Army Navy.

The U.S. has maintained its insistence on the freedom of navigation of the world's oceans since the end of World War II and, with this latest gambit, the Obama administration intends to continue pushing that policy vigorously. The U.S. explained the move to its Asia-Pacific allies including Japan before the destroyer passed into the seas claimed by China, and this, too was an attempt to build regional support for freedom of navigation.

Since March this year, U.S. military aircraft approaching the artificial islands have been warned off numerous times by Chinese fighter jets that often come unusually close to the U.S. aircraft. Beijing, however, has insisted it is merely conducting normal aircraft identification operations.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in September this year a Chinese fighter jet passed an "unsafe" 150 meters in front of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane flying in international airspace above the Yellow Sea. In another incident in August 2014, a Chinese fighter came just 6 meters from a U.S. P-8 patrol aircraft on a reconnaissance mission in international airspace over the South China Sea, flying in front of the patrol plane to show the U.S. crew its load of missiles in what a U.S. government official called obviously provocative behavior.

Even in September this year, just before President Xi went to Washington, a Chinese military vessel cut through U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Alaska. In sum, China looks to be engaged in activities aimed squarely at countering the U.S.'s freedom of navigation strategies.

With all the past close encounters in mind, Obama and Xi agreed at their September summit to implement measures for preventing accidental clashes between the two nations' military planes. The leaders also agreed to such a mechanism, plus mutual confidence-building measures, at a meeting in Beijing in November 2014. The effectiveness of this mechanism, however, will depend entirely on how it works when close encounters or other incidents related to the freedom of navigation actually happen.

A crisis was precipitated just before the Taiwanese presidential election in 1996, when China conducted a missile exercise in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding areas and the U.S. dispatched a carrier group to the area in response. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet touched a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying in international airspace near the southern Chinese island of Hainan. The fighter lost control and crashed, killing the pilot, while the U.S. plane was forced to make an emergency landing in China. The American crew was held temporarily by Chinese authorities, while the two governments engaged in a war of words over the incident.

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