The Washington-Beijing tit-for-tat is growing on a number of fronts, but has the potential for direct conflict in the South China Sea, where both countries are busy flexing, also on the heels of accusations and counter charges over the COVID-19 pandemic's origins and cover-up.
Fox's Lucas Tomlinson reports Thursday, "One month after U.S. guided-missile destroyer Mustin harassed by Chinese warship from a carrier strike group, the Mustin cruises by contested islands in move likely to irk China."
Specifically the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer sailed near the Paracel Islands in a contested area of the South China Sea.
With all eyes on South China Sea, U.S. Navy dispatches two warships to East China Sea: Japan-based USS New Orleans and guided-missile destroyer Rafael Peralta from TR strike group pic.twitter.com/hy31WihXRO— Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) May 28, 2020
As the Fox correspondent further reports, the US Navy has dispatched a pair of additional warships to the East China Sea, namely USS New Orleans out of Japan and the guided-missile destroyer Rafael Peralta, the latter also based in the Western Pacific region as part of the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group.
It goes without saying that US-China relations have reached their lowest point in decades, with a former Trump administration trade official recently warning the spike in tensions brought on by the corona-crisis on the heels of the trade war has marked "the start of a new Cold War".
This has been demonstrated especially with the Pentagon's significant ramping up of B-1 bomber flyovers of contested waters near China over the past weeks.
Two days before U.S. Navy warship sailed by contested islands in South China Sea, U.S. B-1 bombers flew over same area from Guam while a separate pair flew to Sea of Japan for training with 16 Japanese fighter jets pic.twitter.com/SPS49cvnve— Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) May 28, 2020
For example, since the start of April there's been no less than 15 US military aircraft flights approaching Taiwan's contested borders, with at least three bomber approaches since the start of May.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media confirmed the US warship presence in the South China Sea, claiming its PLA forces "expelled" an American ship for "trespassing" in China's territorial waters.
As a state-funded Global Times report claimed:
The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) on Thursday expelled a US warship that trespassed into Chinese territorial waters off the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea, and the US operation amid the COVID-19 pandemic showed the US is the source that sabotages peace and stability in the South China Sea, a Chinese military spokesperson said on Thursday.
Citing military sources to assert it's part of a long recent history of US violations of Chinese sovereignty, GT stated further, "The PLA Southern Theater Command organized naval and aerial forces to follow the US guided missile destroyer USS Mustin when it illegally trespassed into China's territorial waters off the Xisha Islands on Thursday without authorization from the Chinese government, said Senior Colonel Li Huamin, a spokesperson of the PLA Southern Theater Command, on Tuesday."
The PLA sources said they followed and monitored the ship's course before ultimately driving it out of Chinese-claimed waters.
Chinese PLA on Thursday sent forces and expelled US destroyer USS Mustin when it trespassed into China's territorial waters off the Xisha Islands. The US is the source that sabotages peace and stability in the #SouthChinaSea: spokesperson https://t.co/ugkcV6xJpc pic.twitter.com/1eTmH5rGyZ— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) May 28, 2020
Of course the US Navy saw things very differently:
"On May 28 (local time), USS Mustin (DDG 89) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law," Lt. Anthony Junco, a spokesperson for the US Navy's 7th Fleet, said in a statement.
"By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea," the statement added.
In the past two months there's been a very noticeable and dangerous uptick in both American battleships entering contested waters near China's coast and around Taiwan, as well as long-range bomber activity essentially right on the Communist country's doorstep.
Though the trade war and more recent coronavirus blame-game remains but heated rhetoric with occasional mutual expelling of foreign journalists and students, the potential for a direct military 'incident' or 'accident' in the region could be a concrete outlet for boiling tensions and combustible mix leading to violent regional conflict.