The new year is barely three weeks old and already the US Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations are eliciting furious threats of retaliation from the Chinese military.
Since President Donald Trump took office one year ago, the Navy and Air Force have increasingly sought to test the Chinese military response in the Pacific by sailing or flying within a certain perimeter - usually 12 miles - of one of China’s disputed territorial holdings in the South China Sea, according to RT.
In the latest clash, the USS Hopper missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Huangyan Dao, a tiny island claimed by China, on Jan. 17.
As is common during US "Freeops," the US destroyer didn’t solicit Beijing’s permission for entering the waters and was subsequently intercepted by the Chinese Navy, with China’s Foreign Ministry accusing the US of violating “sovereignty and security interests” as well as posing a “grave threat” to its forces stationed in the area.
"China is strongly dissatisfied with that and will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in a statement on Saturday. He also warned US forces against further "provocative moves” for the sake of“China-US relations and regional peace and stability."
The spokesman added that China has “indisputable” control over the territory, which is also claimed by Taiwan (itself the subject of a sovereignty dispute with the mainland) and the Philippines.
China’s Defense ministry echoed Lu’s tone in a separate statement on Saturday, stressing that the military will step up vigilance against air and sea patrols to defend national and regional peace and stability.
The US and Chinese militaries have had frequent standoffs in the South China Sea. Despite Washington having no territorial claims in the area – unlike China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei – it has always stressed the necessity for freedom of navigation in the area and opposed China’s claims.
Short of directly challenging Beijing in the highly-contested, resource-rich region, the US has been increasingly flexing its muscles there, staging joint drills with Japan and South Korea amid growing tensions with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, China has carried out threatening exercises of its own, sending squadrons of fighter jets flying through Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese airspace without warning.