South China Sea: US Navy set to confront China over island bases
MAY 14, 20159:43AM
The USS George Washington left Yokosuka, Japan, yesterday. Picture: Jono Searle
The United States is drawing up plans to send warships and aircraft to challenge China’s construction of airstrips on disputed islands in the South China Sea, raising the prospect of a military clash between the two superpowers.
Ash Carter, the defence secretary, has asked his staff to look at ways to apply pressure on China as alarm grows among America’s allies in the region over several hundred hectares of land that Beijing has reclaimed on the Spratly Islands, and the potential the new territory offers for military use. Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei also have sovereignty claims over the islands.
If President Obama approves Mr Carter’s plan, it will be the first significant test of his long-term military strategy, announced in 2011, to shift US military resources to the area and an acknowledgment of concerns over China’s abrasive attempts to dominate the region.
China’s island-building project, which was begun last year, has significantly added to regional tensions, putting pressure on the US to come to the aid of its partners.
The Pentagon’s options include deploying warships from the 7th Fleet to the edge of the 12 nautical-mile territorial zone around the Spratly Islands to safeguard freedom of navigation in an area vital for world commerce. The islands lie in the centre of international shipping routes. Ship-borne trade valued at three trillion pounds passes through the area every year.
The US has an armada of naval assets in the region, including two aircraft carriers, the USS George Washington, which left Yokosuka, Japan, yesterday (Wednesday), and the USS Carl Vinson. She is accompanied by a cruiser and three destroyers. Two more US destroyers are also operating in the area. The USS Fort Worth, one of a new class of small, fast vessels known as littoral combat ships, has already been carrying out patrols around the islands, although she never crosses into the 12-mile zone.
For surveillance missions, America has Poseidon and Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which can be based in Japan and at the huge US base on Guam, about 1,500 miles east of the Philippines.
There is no suggestion of the US imposing a blockade of the islands, but the mere presence of an aircraft carrier, or guided-missile warships, will be viewed by China as a direct challenge to its claim to the islands, which it regards as a defensive perimeter to its shoreline.
The Chinese foreign ministry said that the nation would resolutely defend its “sovereign territory” and warned the US against “risky and provocative approaches”.
Andrew Krepinevich, a defence analyst and former senior Pentagon official, said: “There is a risk of confrontation with China, whether the US 7th Fleet sends warships and surveillance aircraft or not. If the US fails to take action that shows it does not recognise China’s unilateral action to establish control over the islands, then it risks a more serious confrontation with China at a later date.”
Recent satellite pictures show the rapid advance made by Chinese labourers in constructing a runway on Fiery Cross Reef, an artificial island that has been created within the Spratly archipelago. Another island is being developed on Mischief Reef near by. Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
The Pentagon said last week in its annual report to Congress that the Chinese had embarked on extensive land-reclamation projects on five outposts in the Spratly Islands, to bolster its military and civilian presence in the area. The islands have increased in size from about 200 hectares (500 acres) in December to 800 hectares.
The US has not taken a position on sovereignty of the islands, but sees the moves by the Chinese as an example of its creeping dominance in the region. In November 2013, China announced an air defence identification zone off its north-eastern coast between South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, with all aircraft flying into the region ordered to report to the Chinese authorities. This was condemned by the US and Japan, and Washington sent two B-52 bombers into the area to prove a point.
John Kerry, the secretary of state, will visit China this weekend, and is expected to raise America’s concerns about the island-building program.