With the 4th anniversary of a landmark ruling by a UN tribunal fast approaching, the State Department is planning a major policy change that could swiftly lead to even more heightened military tensions between Washington and Beijing in one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical powder kegs: the South China Sea.
Since Trump’s inauguration, the Pentagon has stepped up Naval operations in the contested territory, and sent dozens, if not hundreds, of destroyer-class ships and others to engage in “Freedom of Navigation” operations – or “Freeops”, for short. Most recently, the US sent two aircraft carriers to the area to hold military exercises…while Chinese ships held exercises of their own nearby.
In a copy of the draft statement reviewed by WSJ, the administration claims that China’s refusal to acknowledge the landmark ruling and continue with its claims of supremacy over the area poses “the single greatest threat to freedom of the seas in modern history.”
“China’s maritime claims pose the single greatest threat to the freedom of the seas in modern history,” according to a draft seen by The Wall Street Journal. “We cannot afford to re-enter an era where states like China attempt to assert sovereignty over the seas,” the draft said.
China’s territorial claims fall within what’s known as the nine-dash line, or the “Cow’s Tongue”, named for its peculiar shape.
At the time of the 2016 ruling, the Obama Administration decided not to get involved, and official set America on a course of non-interference in the area.
That changed almost as soon as Trump was inaugurated, as the president promised to reverse the Obama Administration’s policy of cooperation and appeasement in favor of a more resolute stance. The Trump Administration has recently stepped up its criticism of the region’s maritime claims. Even the Philippines, which initially brought the case against China to the Hague back in 2013, is no longer pressuring Beijing to obey the ruling, after President Rodrigo Duterte was elected with a mandate to negotiate directly with Beijing.
Since the ruling, China has continued efforts to build artificial islands and fortify them with weaponry, leading to the creation of what Steve Bannon has described as “mobile aircraft carriers”. Bannon has repeatedly warned that China is the most pressing threat to American security and economic interests.
While Beijing mostly just whines and complains when the US sends navy ships within 12 miles of the Spratly islands, we suspect the Foreign Ministry’s response once Washington confirms the policy change will be even more aggressive. Perhaps the decision might even spur the People’s Liberation Army-Navy to speed up their plans for fortification and weaponization, just like the initial ruling appears to have done.