The United States Navy sent a warship through the South China Sea’s as they conducted a “freedom of navigation operation”. The operation was a clear challenge at China’s claims in the South China Sea. This was the second operation within close proximity of the disputed islands that the United States has accused Beijing of militarizing.
The operation has heightened an already tense standoff between Washington and Beijing in light of the corona virus pandemic after US Secretary Mike Pompeo has recently leveled accusations towards Beijing of exploiting attention to bully it’s South East Asian neighbors surrounding the contested SEA vicinity.
On Wednesday the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill made and approach near the islands in what Commodore Reann Mommsen a spokesman for the US Navy’s 7th fleet called an “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law,”
“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” Mommsen ascertained.
The Spratlys a chain of islands which are located to the Southern portion of the South China Sea’s is claimed by several countries as part of their territory. The 1.3 million square miles area is also claimed by Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. China calls these chain of islands the Nansha Islands and have been accused by the US of militarizing the location in their deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles at the Chinese outposts in the location.
One day earlier on Tuesday, the USS Barry, a guided-missile destroyer of the US Navy also conducted a freedom of navigation mission within close proximity of the Paracel Islands which China refers to as the Xisha Islands. This was a challenge to Beijing’s claim of the waters around the northern Spratly Islands. The operations conducted by the US Navy are not a rare occurrence and are usually conducted typically within weeks or more apart.
Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher with Rand Corp in Virginia, said that the back to back missions are indications of a new strategy devised by the Pentagon. With an ethos of “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability”, the goal is to keep foes on their heels.
He cites a similar operation earlier on the island of Guam, where the pentagon pulled back its long standing bomber presence in the area.
“Just as the bombers at Guam are no longer consistently present there, US naval forces in the South China Sea are likely to carry out operations and activities in unusual patterns that are inconsistent with past, predictable patterns,” Heath said.
China has responded to the US Navy’s incursions by deploying it’s forces to warn the USS Barry away from the waters near the Paracel Islands. Beijing further stated that the US operation in the Paracels have increased tensions in the region and that it is hindering the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
“China urges the United States to focus on its own business with pandemic prevention and control, make more contributions to the global fight against the Covid-19, and immediately stop military operations that are detrimental to regional security, peace and stability,” Senior Col. Li Huamin, spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, said in a statement.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and it has aggressively asserted its stake in recent years.Besides fortifying reefs within the area, Beijing has dispatched survey ships to assert mineral rights and deployed large numbers of coast guards to the area.
The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy has also been modernized in recent years as Beijing bids to protect it’s claim to an area it maintains is it’s sovereign territory.
Earlier this month it established the Xisha District and the Nansha District under Sansha City, a prefecture-level city on Woody Island in the Paracels in a bid to centralize control of the Islands under a single city.