A US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea on Thursday, a "provocation" that threatens another angry response from the Chinese government and further complicating President Donald Trump’s efforts to align the Communist Party in his pursuit to find a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean crisis.
As Reuters reports, the USS John McCain (yes, he the Senator has a ship named after him) passed by the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in what US military officials justified as yet anoter “freedom of navigation” operation, the third since Trump took office. Over the past six months, the US has grown increasingly bold, or provocative as Beijing calls it, by sending aircraft and ships to contested waters in the South China Sea to the anger and frustration of Beijing.
As is well-known, China has been engaged in a long-running dispute with its neighbors over its decision to build a network of artificial islands in the area. Last summer, the Philippines won a lawsuit filed in a UN court challenging China’s claim to ocean territory within a “nine-dash line.” However, China refuses to recognize the ruling.
Meanwhile, the US military maintains that it’s within its rights to send military ships through the contested territory, adding that the dispute is “separate” from the US’s political considerations involving China. Here's Reuters with more:
“The United States has criticized China's construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement. The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.
The Trump administration has vowed to conduct more robust South China Sea operations.”
Critics of Barack Obama argue that the former President didn’t do enough to counter China’s claims in the region, and that Trump is simply making up for lost ground.
“Experts and officials have criticized President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China's claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.”
Whatever the motive, the region is a critical chokepoint for global trade with $5 trillion in cargo crossing the area every year; it is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While the US’s escalating tensions with North Korea have occupied the headlines, a series of near-miss confrontations with Russia and China have hinted at potentially more serious conflicts simmering beneath the surface.
Thursday’s provocation comes only a week after the US backed off a threatened trade war with the Chinese after its leaders supported tough new UN sanctions against North Korea amounting to a $1 billion ban on the isolated kingdom’s exports. Beijing also slammed its neighbor for its ongoing missile tests, which have provoked an unprecedented escalation of tensions with the US, although it has withheld from engaging in more aggressive containment measures aside from jawboning.
The move - which Beijing will shortly call another provocation by Washington - comes as Trump and Kim Jong Un continue to trade threats of nuclear annihilation, and which absent the diplomatic support of China will most likely result in military engagement.