As a US delegation led by senior trade officials arrived in Beijing on Monday to begin the first round of in-person talks to resolve the burgeoning US-China trade war, the US has reportedly carried out its latest 'Freedom of Navigation' operation in the South China Sea - though at least this time there wasn't a near-collision with a Chinese ship.
Since President Trump's inauguration, the US has stepped up its 'Freeops' as the US Navy seeks to contain China's growing military ambitions in the Pacific. But since the trade war began, the US has demonstrated a keen sense of timing, contributing to China's decisions to cancel security conferences and reconsider coming to the table to talk on trade.
But this time, the controversial maneuver seemingly doesn't bode well for the fate of a lasting US-China trade compromise. According to the Wall Street Journal, the US-guided-missile destroyer the USS McCampbell patrolled within 12 miles of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Monday. In particular, it came within a few miles of three islands: Tree, Lincoln and Woody.
China sent its own ship to try and deter the McCampbell, but ultimately decided to file an official complaint. According to Bloomberg, China urged the US to halt "provocative actions" in the South China Sea. "The actions by the U.S. fleet have violated Chinese law and related international laws, and undermined the peace, security and good order in the relevant waters,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a briefing Monday in Beijing. "China strongly opposes the actions."
The Paracels are claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan but have been controlled by China since the Communist Nation seized them from Vietnamese forces in 1974. Further alarming the US, Beijing has upgraded several military outposts in the Paracels and deployed jet fighters to at least one, according to satellite images and US officials.
The ship patrol was meant to challenge excessive maritime claims by Beijing and to "preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law," according to a statement from Lt. j.g. Rachel McMarr, a spokeswoman for U.S. Pacific Fleet.
China sent a vessel to warn off the American ship and has lodged a complaint with the U.S., Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing. Mr. Lu urged the U.S. to stop taking provocative action in the region and avoid disrupting trade talks under way in Beijing.
"It is imperative for the two sides and I believe we have a responsibility to create an enabling atmosphere for these talks at this time," he said.
In a response delivered by a spokeswoman for the US Pacific Fleet, the operation was intended to "preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law." The South China Sea is a key artery for international trade and commerce - another reason why the US and its allies have so vehemently opposed China's militarization of the region.
China claims it has "indisputable" sovereignty over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, and has often accused the US of destabilizing the region with its naval patrols.
The issue of US military challenges to China's claims over the SCS and Taiwan could become flash points in the relations between the two superpowers this year, as President Xi has already delivered two saber-rattling speeches, including a speech to the Central Military Committee on Friday where he ordered China's military to "prepare for war."
Circling back to trade negotiations, in what could be construed as a positive development, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, China's top economic official who has been tasked with leading the trade talks, attended the first day of US-China trade talks in Beijing on Monday, which could offer some hope to investors.