In what sounds eerily like a re-run of the Cuban Missile Crisis (though admittedly not nearly as dire), the US has threatened Beijing with unspecified "consequences" if China doesn't remove missiles from islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
According to the South China Morning Post, the US is seeking to verify a CNBC report from last week that China had installed anti-ship and air-to-air defenses on some of these disputed islands over the last 30 days. The missiles are reportedly stationed on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.
China, for its part, has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the missiles.
At a regular briefing on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying neither confirmed nor denied the deployment.
"China’s peaceful construction in the Spratly archipelago, including the deployment of necessary national defence facilities, is aimed at protecting China’s sovereignty and security," she said. "Those who don’t intend to violate [this sovereignty] have no reason to worry."
Following land reclamation efforts that have transformed reefs into full-fledged islands, China's military has built air bases, radar and communication systems, as well as naval facilities, on some of these islands.
As the SCMP points out, tensions over the South China Sea have been brewing for years, which could be one reason why markets ignored the reports about the missiles last week, and have generally viewed the worsening tensions between the US and China as a non-issue.
Back in 2015, the International Criminal Court ruled in favor of the Philippines, declaring that the country could officially exert sovereignty over some of the disputed islands. But China ignored the ruling, and threatened military confrontation should the Philippines try to enforce the ruling.
Admiral Philip Davidson, President Trump's pick to lead the US Pacific Command, has repeatedly warned that China is trying to muscle the US out of the Pacific so it can assert unilateral domination over the territory.
In written testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee released last Tuesday, Adm. Davidson said China is seeking "a long-term strategy to reduce the U.S. access and influence in the region," which he claims the U.S. must maintain its critical military assets in the area. He views China as "no longer a rising power," but rather a “great power and peer competitor to the United States in the region.” Adm. Davidson agreed with President Trump’s recent assessment on China, calling the country a "rival."
Despite President Trump's public "friendship" with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the relationship between the two countries has never quite recovered from Trump's first diplomatic faux pas - accepting a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. China recently terrorized Taiwan by holding the largest-ever live fire drills. Tsai has advocated for a more confrontational relationship with China, though she has specifically said she dosn't oppose the "One China" policy.
Washington takes no position on sovereignty claims, but it has accused Beijing of "militarizing" the South China Sea. Likewise, China has warned the US against continuing its "freedom of navigation" operations - deliberately provocative missions where US destroyers sail within the defensive perimeter of China's South China Sea holdings.
The US, meanwhile, insists that China itself benefits from US "freeops", which a Pentagon spokeswoman says have helped make the region more secure.
"China has to realise that they’ve benefited from the free navigation of the sea, and the US Navy has been the guarantor of that," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
"We will continue to do our operations."
China's defense ministry responded by saying the islands are "part of Chinese territory" and that China alone will decide what happens there.
In other words: The US needs to mind its own business.