The US has dispatched two Independence-class vessels, the USS Gabrielle Giffords and USS Montgomery, to the South China Sea, while US Defence Secretary Mark Esper has vowed to proceed with freedom of navigation missions in the disputed waters.
In a press briefing Tuesday, Esper called upon claimant nations in the South China Sea to safeguard their interests in the region: "I think it's incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasise the importance of law", he said.
On Monday, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe urged Esper to “stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and to not provoke and escalate tensions in the South China Sea” during a closed door meeting on the sidelines of an ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in Bangkok.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea. The other claimants to the area include Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
US Seeking to Maintain Dominance in South China Sea
Chen Xiangmao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, is doubtful that Washington will lend a sympathetic ear to Beijing stressing that the US is seeking to maintain dominance in the region.
"Over the last three years, the US activity in the region has increased dramatically", Chen observes. "The US is drawing Japan, Australia, and the UK over to its side in order to establish its control in the region. The US actions in the South China Sea are aimed at implementing their Indo-Pacific Strategy. I believe that the South China Sea plays a very important role in this strategy. Apparently, the United States will continue to try to interfere in the South China Sea region, and their actions may be provocative".
Under President Donald Trump, Washington has carried out more "freedom of navigation" operations in the region than the Obama administration during its entire eight years.
Pavel Zolotarev, a military analyst at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, a Russian think tank that is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, predicts that this trend will strengthen in the foreseeable future.
"The US is seeking to secure the freedom of action in any region", Zolotarev opines. "The main element in the projection of force is the US Navy, and the actions of the US Navy constitute the main problem for China".
According to the military analyst, the passage of a Chinese aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait on 17 November amid the 2019 ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in Bangkok sent an apparent signal to Washington. A US cruiser earlier passed through the Taiwan Strait on 12 November, according to a US Navy tweet.
#BREAKING: #USSChancellorsville conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit Nov. 12 (local time). The ship's routine transit demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The #USNavy will continue to operate anywhere international law allows. #NavyReadiness pic.twitter.com/QNnJXxzkbU— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) November 12, 2019
Chen Dewey, the Chinese Navy's official spokesman, elaborated that the aircraft carrier conducted “research and routine training” in this area, something that is a “normal practice” during such tests. He refuted the assumptions that the vessel had any particular target stressing that its passage had nothing to do with the current situation in the region.
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