Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan vowed to quit “tiptoeing” over Beijing in the South China Sea after the Pentagon repeatedly sent warships and B-52 bombers near Chinese borders.
“We’re not going to ignore Chinese behavior and I think in the past people have kind of tiptoed around that,” Patrick Shanahan told the audience at an event in Singapore on Saturday. It happened a day after he held talks with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, and came out of the meeting accusing Beijing of trying to “destabilize” the region.
The Pentagon chief blasted Chinese military sites on the disputed reefs and islets in the South China Sea as a “toolkit of coercion” and “overkill,” promising that Washington will not ignore the increasing Chinese presence there.
Shanahan did not specify what new measures he plans to enact to challenge Beijing but so far the US policy has been anything but ‘tiptoeing’ – unless by ‘tiptoeing’ Washington means sending warships near Chinese territorial waters.
The South China Sea remains a volatile region due to multiple disputed territories, claimed by a variety of neighboring states. It also remains vital for its many shipping routes.
In recent years, the Pentagon stepped up its so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) at China’s doorstep. The US ships typically sail within 12 nautical miles (22km) of islets held by Beijing. This is as close as they can get under international law without violating the nation’s maritime borders.
In early May, two guided-missile destroyers, USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon, sailed 12 nautical miles off Gaven and Johnson South Reefs in the Spratly Islands, both controlled by China. The “innocent passage” was intended to challenge Beijing’s “excessive maritime claims,” the Pentagon spokesperson told Reuters.
Two weeks later, USS Preble did the same maneuver near the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The ‘freedom of navigation’ forays are not limited to destroyers, though – as the US sent in aircraft carriers as well.
Washington also increased regular drills in the area, sometimes showing off its naval might alone, but also together with China’s rivals, Japan and South Korea. Beijing would occasionally participate too – until last the US promptly “disinvited” the country from joint exercises.
Chinese officials had firmly denounced the maneuvers near its borders. Beijing was slammed them as “provocative actions,” especially when the US were sending B-52 strategic bombers to fly over the disputed islands several times.
Reacting to the US defense chief’s speech on Saturday, Chinese senior military official, Shao Yuaming, said that Patrick Shanahan was voicing “inaccurate views and repeating old tunes” about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Such rhetoric is “harming regional peace and stability,” he stated.
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