04:43 GMT04 June 2020
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    US assertion in the South China Sea against Chinese stance could create a major flashpoint, which could have repercussions beyond the disputed islands, experts warn.

    NEW DELHI (Sputnik) — The South China Sea dispute could become a major flashpoint in coming days with the top officials of US President Donald Trump's administration turning their attention towards Chinese military presence in the region. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as well as senior advisor Steve Bannon, has in recent days referenced China's extensive and growing territorial claims in the South China Sea as a potential flash point of war.

    "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed," said Tillerson during his confirmation hearings in the US Senate on 11 January. 

    Similarly, Bannon has even gone to the extent of forecasting that a war may happen in the medium to long term.

    "We're going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren't we? There's no doubt about that. They're taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those," Bannon, who is part of the core group advising President Trump, said last March. 

    The US reaction is a major policy shift vis-à-vis the South China Sea dispute although not surprising under the Republican Presidency of Trump, who during his campaign promised a more assertive foreign policy than his predecessor Barack Obama, especially when it will involve reining in Chinese ambitions.

    "US responses to China's South China Sea activities have been insufficient to alter China's behavior and have fed the narrative that China is pushing the United States out of the region. Countering China's efforts has become a key test of perceived US commitment to many in the region. If Chinese coercion goes unchallenged by the United States, it will send a dangerous signal about the strength of the U.S. alliance system and lessen the appeal of the United States as a security partner," write Amy Searight and Geoffrey Hartman in The National Interest, a US-based think-tank.

    But, all observers of the dispute are not hawkish in their stance and instead suggest a negotiated settlement. A major rationale for that has come in the wake of the international tribunal's decision against China, which has made Beijing to mull on its public posture.

    "China's claims on islands, rocks and reefs located within the Nine Dash line have been rejected by the Tribunal held under UNCLOS when the Philippines referred the matter for adjudication. China did not make its own submission and has maintained all along that it would not accept the Tribunal's decision. In spite of its long-held position it was taken aback by the unambiguous and total rejection of its claims to the islands. While public posturing remains the same China appears to be doing some rethinking; possibly on areas where compromise would be possible," Vinod Saighal, a strategic expert and retired Major General from the Indian Army, told Sputnik.

    He too, however, maintains that "the situation could turn critical" and "there is no way that either of the super powers (China is fast becoming one) could take the next escalatory steps. It is time to step back." And this where, "sane voices must come together to ward it off", he adds.

    South China Sea, China, United States
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