While the geopolitical posturing between the US and China over the South China Seas is nothing new, the latest and most dramatic installment started just one month ago, when as part of its celebration to commemorate the successful victory over Japan in World War II, China sailed five warships to the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, just as Obama was quite literally taking selfies of himself a few hundred miles away.
Then yesterday, in the latest US attempt to one-up China despite the now long forgotten visit of China's president to the US which clearly achieved absolutely nothing, and resolved even less, we reported that the US would retaliate to the most recent Chinese "prank" by sailing warships close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea as a signal to Beijing that Washington does not recognise Chinese territorial claims over the area.
A senior US official told the Financial Times that the ships would sail inside the 12-nautical mile zones that China claims as territory around some of the islands it has constructed in the Spratly chain. The official, who did not want to be named, said the manoeuvres were expected to start in the next two weeks.
The move, which is likely to raise tensions between the powers, comes amid disagreement over several issues, including US allegations that China is engaging in commercial cyber espionage.
As a reminder, this is area which is provoking so much consternation due to the location of vast commodity resource fields underneath:
Which is odd: one would think this could have been cleared up just two weeks earlier when the two presidents were having a state dinner in the White House (where Michele Obama was dressed in Vera Wang). One wonders just what the topic of conversation was if this most important aspect of geopolitical tensions was left entirely uncovered.
In any event, now that we know that the Spratly topic was not discussed, it then comes as no surprise that China just had a very vocal retaliation in kind to what it sees an upcoming provocation by the US.
According to Reuters, earlier today China said "it would not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation, as the United States considers sailing warships close to China's artificial islands in the South China Sea."
As noted above, a U.S. defense official told Reuters the United States was mulling sending ships within the next two weeks to waters inside the 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around islands it has built in the Spratly chain. Washington has signaled it does not recognize Beijing's territorial claims and that the U.S. navy will continue to operate wherever international law allows.
China's response was quick, clear and unequivocal:
"We will never allow any country to violate China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing.
"We urge the related parties not to take any provocative actions, and genuinely take a responsible stance on regional peace and stability," Hua said in response to a question about possible U.S. patrols.
The United States and its allies in Asia, including Japan, have called on Beijing to halt construction on its man-made islands and the issue is central to increasingly tense U.S.-China relations. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told the Aspen Security Forum in July that China was building hangars on one of the reefs - Fiery Cross - that appeared to be for tactical fighter aircraft.
What is curious is that while in the past China has traditionally responded by pleading ignorance, with President Jinping saying repeatedly China has no intention of militarizing the islands even though that is precisely what he is doing, never has it escalated the rhetoric to this level.
Almost as if after Obama's humiliating embarrassment in Syria, it is now China's turn to test just how far it can (and will) push Obama.
And now that the threat is out there, the ball is in Obama's court: will he provoke China by sailing the ships in a move that is nothing more than a symbolic pissing contest and risk the clear threat of retaliation, or will he, once again, fold and admit that when it comes to geopolitics, the US is now barely hanging on to "superpower status."
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Finally here again, as a reminder, are the satellite images which demonstrate the extent to which Beijing is "changing the landscape", so to speak, in the South China Sea.