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US set to escalate tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea

If reports this week are anything to go by, the US is sending strong signals it is about to take a more aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea – and if it does send its warships and aircraft to challenge China’s maritime claims, it can only mean at best a deterioration in relations and at worst a dangerous escalation of tension with Beijing.

It is probably no coincidence these media reports came just before US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in China for talks with his team promising a tough line over Beijing’s actions in the Sea, though Kerry can also expect intense questioning over his country’s intentions there.

In the past few years, China has upped the assertion of its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea – defined by the “nine-dash line” first established by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist state in 1947.

Beijing has historical claims to some of the islands and with the growth of the Chinese economy it needs to guarantee the security of its energy imports from the Middle East through the Sea and also has the means to do so as it can afford to build up its navy, coast guard and air force.

This has led to confrontation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which lay claim to some of the same islands and coral reefs.

Since President Obama initiated his pivot – or rebalancing – to Asia in 2011, the focus has seemed to be on ensuring strengthened US economic integration in the world’s most dynamic region with Washington concentrating on expanding and sealing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

So far the pivot has had a relatively modest military component with plans to establish a base for marines in Australia and the recent agreement to deepen defence cooperation with Japan.

But we have also seen opportunistic diplomatic and military support for Manila and Hanoi who – in what is something of a diplomatic setback to China – have looked to Washington for help in their disputes with Beijing.

These American moves, added to the exclusion of China from the proposed TPP, have led many in China to suspect the US of trying to contain Beijing – much as the US had confronted the Soviet Union with its containment policy during the Cold War.

So if the US does now adopt a more aggressive policy by using its own ships and aircraft to directly challenge Beijing’s claims by sailing or flying right up to the twelve mile nautical limit around Chinese controlled islands, this will confirm those suspicions and strengthen the hand of those Chinese policy-makers who advocate a tougher approach to Washington.

The reports that the US is “considering” using its own military to challenge China’s claims follows a plethora of reports in the media that Beijing is building artificial islands on coral reefs to support airfields and docks in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

Importantly, under international maritime law territorial claims can be based on the area around islands but not coral reefs, which are submerged much of the time.

The apparent leaking by the Pentagon of its strategic thinking may in itself be intended to deter China, but if it is, then judging by Beijing’s reaction so far it has been counterproductive.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday: “China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, (and) avoid taking any risky and provocative actions…”

So how will China respond if US does more than say it is considering taking action?

If Beijing’s approach to its dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a guide, you can expect to see Chinese ships and aircraft intercepting their American counterparts which will increase the chances of an accidental clash – it has happened before when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan in 2001 killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to land in China where it was dismantled for its secrets before being returned in boxes.

But this is 14 years later and Beijing’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping is much more prepared to assert what they see as China’s key interests – added to which China’s military capabilities are much greater than they were then.

So the Americans would be playing a dangerous game. It is also a puzzling one given the recent US push to improve military to military communication and understanding with Beijing.

With the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine pulling the US back into the regions it was hoping to disengage from, the Obama Administration has struggled to maintain its focus on Asia and how to engage with China. But it now seems the hawks may be winning the argument in Washington, in which case the legacy of Obama’s Asia Pivot may end up being escalating confrontation with Beijing.

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