US plans to send warships or military aircraft within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, possibly within days, could open a tense new front in Sino-US rivalry, security experts said.
Washington’s so-called freedom of navigation patrols would have to be regular to be effective, given Chinese ambitions to project power deep into maritime Southeast Asia and beyond, Reuters quoted the experts as saying.
But China would probably resist attempts to make such US actions routine, some said, raising the political and military stakes.
China’s navy could for example try to block or attempt to surround US vessels, they said, risking an escalation.
Given months of debate already in Washington over the first such patrol close to the Chinese outposts since 2012, several regional security experts and former naval officers said the United States might be reluctant to do them often.
US allies such as Japan and Australia are unlikely to follow with their own direct challenges to China, despite their concerns over freedom of navigation along vital trade routes, they added.
“This cannot be a one-off,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
“The US navy will have to conduct these kinds of patrols on a regular basis to reinforce their message.”
Bonnie Glaser, a security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said US missions would likely be regular, with the navy wanting to ensure it did not become effectively shut out of the area.
“I know the US does not want that outcome. Nobody wants to give the Chinese a new no-go zone and an effective territorial sea they are not entitled to,” she said.
The Obama administration has said it would test China’s territorial claims to the area after months of pressure from Congress and the US military. It has not given a timeframe.
“I think we have been very clear – that we intend to do this,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters last Monday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials said this month that Beijing would “never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly islands in the name of protecting navigation and overflight”.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12-nautical mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
Four of the seven reefs China has reclaimed over the last two years were completely submerged at high tide before construction began, legal scholars say.
China claims most of the South China Sea. Other claimants are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
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