After an exciting weekend of comments from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chinese People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant General He Lei at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, a civilian and military defense summit in Singapore, it appears the United States had to have the last word.
On Sunday, two U.S. officials told Reuters that the Pentagon is considering increased naval war drills in the South China Sea near China’s heavily disputed militarized islands. The officials, who are working jointly with Asian diplomats — declined to comment about the Pentagon’s progress in finalizing the plan for the new drills.
Such a move could further increase geopolitical tensions in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Officials explained to Reuters that the naval drills could involve more extensive patrols, ones involving a large number of warships or operations including closer surveillance of the Chinese military bases on the islands, which now includes anti-ship cruise missiles, radar-jamming equipment, and strategic bombers.
U.S. officials said they are not doing this alone. They are aligning international allies and strategic partners to increase “naval deployments through the vital trade route as China strengthens its military capabilities on both the Paracel and Spratly islands.”
“What we have seen in the last few weeks is just the start, significantly more is being planned,” said one Western diplomat, referring to a freedom of navigation patrol late last month that used two U.S. ships for the first time.
“There is a real sense more needs to be done.”
While the Pentagon does not directly comment on future classified operations, there is a reason to believe that more naval drills are set to intensify in the second half of 2018. Last month, we reported that the U.S. Navy conducted its “freedom of navigation” patrols near the islands to demonstrate the right to sail through the international waters, even as President Donald Trump asked Beijing for cooperation on North Korea.
Even though the naval operation had been planned for many months in advance, this was the first time where two U.S. warships used the “freedom of navigation” card to sail miles from the heavily disputed islands.
In response to Beijing’s recent militarization of its islands, the Pentagon withdrew an invitation for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to participate in a massive multinational naval exercise off Hawaii’s coast this summer.
During the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit on Saturday, Mattis blasted Beijing for the militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea and warned there could be “much larger consequences” in the near term. He said China’s militarization in the region was now a “reality” but that Beijing would face unspecified consequences.
Last month, China conducted military drills over – and on – heavily disputed islands in the South China Sea, as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) for the first time landed several strategic bombers on the islands, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines.
Chinese bombers including the H-6K conduct takeoff and landing training on an island reef at a southern sea area pic.twitter.com/ASY9tGhfAU— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) May 18, 2018
At the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Senior Col. Zhao Xiaozhou, of the People’s Liberation Army’s, hinted in a question to Mattis that the U.S. Navy’s recent freedom of navigation around the islands could be defined as militarization.
“Mattis’ speech was negative,” Zhao said in an interview afterward.
“If China’s islands and reefs are continuously threatened by activities under the name of so-called freedom of navigation, China will eventually station troops on these reefs.”
Speaking to reporters at the Singapore conference, Lieutenant General He Lei defended Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea, blasting the “irresponsible comments” made by Mattis, who on Saturday accused Beijing of threatening its neighbors in the heavily disputed waters and warned China of “consequences” if it continues weaponizing the South China Sea.
“It is China’s sovereign and legal right for China to place our army and military weapons there. We see any other country that tries to make noise about this as interfering in our internal affairs,” He said.
Singapore-based military strategist Tim Huxley told Reuters while increased international pressure might slow China’s militarization efforts, however, the momentum will be hard to stop.
“China has created a new reality down there, and it is not going to be rolled back,” Huxley said.
“They are not doing this to poke America or their neighbors in the eye but they are almost certainly doing this to serve their long-term strategic objectives, whether that is projecting their military power or securing energy supplies.”
The amount of insight from Mattis and General He Lei at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue this past weekend has provided us with the understanding that tensions in the South China Sea are about to significantly flare up in the second half of 2018 and beyond. Nevertheless, the clues from Reuters about their conversation with U.S. officials familiar with the situation confirms that one of the world’s most volatile areas could soon be much closer to war than we thought.