President Donald Trump’s Pentagon just did something that Barack Obama’s administration steadfastly refused to do: Changed tactics on combating China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
According to the Navy Times, reversing an Obama-era stance against such activity, the Trump administration has decided to go ahead with freedom of navigation operations — or FONOPS — in the South China Sea near China’s disputed islands there.
Reuters reported that the warship USS Stethem, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed on Sunday within 12 nautical miles of Triton, an island claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Twelve miles is the internationally recognized zone considered a country’s territorial waters off its coast. A U.S. Defense Department official confirmed that Sunday’s operation was meant to challenge the competing territorial claims. And needless to say, it made the Chinese furious.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called it “a serious political and military provocation.”
“China strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop this kind of provocative action which seriously violates China’s sovereignty and puts at risk China’s security,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
The Stethem’s mission is the second FONOPS mission under the Trump administration. According to Breitbart, the first came in May, when the USS Dewey, a destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a spit of land in the Spratly Islands chain that China has fortified into a military base.
The Obama administration avoided such operations. In fact, according to Navy Times, “Obama specifically prohibited the Navy from carrying out FONOPS in the South China Sea from 2012 through 2015. During that time, China put into overdrive its land reclamation and military construction projects” — accelerating its land reclamation program in the South China Sea.
Now, U.S. Navy and Pacific Command leaders are looking to make such FONOPS missions much more frequent.
“The Trump administration has to decide what it wants to achieve,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Navy Times.
“I doubt it it’s possible to compel China to withdraw from its newly built islands in the Spratlys. But the U.S. could develop a strategy aimed at preventing more land reclamation, capping militarization and deterring China from using its new outposts to intimidate and coerce its neighbors.”
While Triton is part of the Paracel Islands chain, and not one of the newly created islands, there are significant issues with Chinese military buildup there.
“Unlike in the Spratlys, where China has created new artificial territory in the last several years, it has effectively controlled the Paracels since 1974,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, an expert on the South China Sea with the Center for a New American Security, told Reuters. “It claims illegal straight baselines around the Paracels, and the FONOP may have been contesting these.”
It’s clear that the Trump administration is going to be taking a different tack with China’s military expansion into the South China Sea. Good. Chinese military expansion has proceeded unchecked for too long. Enough is enough.
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