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South China Sea: Beijing Unwilling to Go Down Without a Fight Amid US-Led FONOP

Sputnik News

20:33 21.02.2017(updated 20:36 21.02.2017)

While Washington signals its readiness to continue the Obama-era FONOP operations in the South China Sea, Beijing is seemingly not willing to go down without a fight, Russian expert Anton Tsvetov told Sputnik.

The temperature is rising in the South China Sea over the recent freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) launched by the US.

On Saturday, the US navy strike group led by the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson, began "routine operations" in the South China Sea, according to Reuters.

In response Beijing signaled that it opposes the mission.

"China always respects the freedom of navigation and overflight all countries enjoy under international law. But we are consistently opposed to relevant countries threatening and damaging the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the flag of freedom of navigation and overflight," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told journalists commenting on the matter.

According to Anton Tsvetov, Russian expert on Asian affairs at the Foreign Policy and Security division of the Center for Strategic Research, levels of tension in the South China Sea "varies with the seasons": the most dangerous time is spring and summer.

With the end of winter nearing one might expect that the tensions over the Spratly and Paracel islands will increase.

Speaking to Sputnik Chinese Tsvetov noted that the US is seeking to strengthen ties with its "allies, partners and friends" in Asia. Secretary of Defense James Mattis' recent visits to Japan and South Korea were aimed at reassuring Washington's allies.

According to the expert, Mattis' rhetoric was actually a continuation of Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda. The White House has given a clear signal that it will continue to ensure "the freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea.

However, Tsvetov noted that on the margins on his meetings Mattis hinted at "something more." Since 2015 the US Navy Forces have conducted four FONOPs. Beijing's tough response had forced the Obama administration to refrain from using this tool on a regular basis. Now, it is possible that the Trump administration will meet the Pentagon's expectations and give the nod to the US military to conduct more FONOP operations.

It appears that Beijing is not willing to go down without a fight.

First of all, a day before the USS Carl Vinson entered the South China Sea three Chinese warships wrapped up a week of scheduled navy drills in the region. Second, it was reported that China has made new efforts to develop military infrastructure on the Paracel Islands.

According to Russian military expert Vasily Kashin, these new facilities could turn the Paracel archipelago into a "bastion" for China's nuclear-powered underwater fleet.

Third, Beijing is considering revising its 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law, which would allow authorities to bar some foreign ships from passing through Chinese territorial waters, Xinhua reported last week.

"Parts of the proposed revision, according to Chinese reports, may present a challenge to internationally-accepted norms around freedom of navigation and stands to raise tensions between Beijing and the United States – but also Southeast Asian claimants – in the South China Sea," Ankit Panda of the Diplomat wrote on February 17.

Alexander Gabuev, member of Russia's Foreign and Defense Policy Council, believes that while China's new maritime law is unlikely to bring an end to the US Navy operations in the South China Sea, it will certainly make things difficult for South Asian claimants, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

According to Tsvetov, both China and the United States are testing the waters before setting new red lines in the South China Sea. However, it seems that small Southeast Asian nations risk falling prey to Sino-American power games in the region.


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