Two US navy warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait as Donald Trump’s government increases the frequency of movement in the South China Sea despite vocal opposition from China.
Sunday’s voyage “risks further raising tensions with China but will likely be viewed by self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from the Trump administration amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing”, says Reuters.
Commander Clay Doss, a spokesperson for the US navy’s seventh fleet, said the manoeuvre “demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Navy boss Admiral John Richardson told the Financial Times that he had warned his Chinese counterpart, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, in January that the US naval force “will not be coerced and will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world”.
In recent years, China has been “increasingly willing to protest actions by foreign militaries in areas it considers its home waters or spheres of influence”, says the Associated Press.
Beijing has grown ever more reliant on non-naval ships to asset its territorial claims in the South China Sea, “blurring the line between its military and coast guard, which has complicated US efforts in the past few years”, according to Bloomberg.
China’s maritime militia, an armed reserve force of civilians and fishing boats, is the only one of its kind sanctioned by a government in the world, the Pentagon said last May in its annual report on Chinese military.
The fleet of large patrol ships has “more than doubled to over 130 in the past nine years, making it the largest coast guard force in the world”, adds Bloomberg.
Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said he hoped “non-regional forces don’t stir up troubles in the South China Sea”, after a US warship joined drills near the Scarborough Shoal, another area of the disputed sea.
Multiple countries claim sovereignty over the South China Sea, and the stakes are high. Each year around $3trn (£2.33trn) of shipborne trade passes through the waterway, which is also home to large fishing grounds and possible reserves of oil and natural gas, reports Reuters.
What the UN says
The South China Sea is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, says Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute. Economic growth in the region in recent years has led to a significant increase in the amount of commercial merchant shipping passing through the channel, which is also an important route for importing goods to countries including Japan and South Korea.
Following rising tensions between these various parties in the 1980s, the United Nations drafted a Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994.
The deal was intended to balance the economic and security interests of the countries involved by dividing the sea into Exclusive Economic Zones – 200-nautical-mile stretches of water extending out from the coastline of each border nation – and making the rest international waters.
To enforce this, third-party nations conduct “freedom of navigation” military operations in the waterway.
China vs. the world
No other country recognises the nine-dash line, and in 2013 an arbitration tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines after it claimed that China had violated its sovereignty by intruding into nine-dash territory within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
Tensions are particularly high over a series of uninhabited islands in the middle of the sea that possess rich natural resources and fishing areas, which are claimed by multiple countries.
The Spratly Islands, near the Philippines, are the most contentious. The Japan Times reports that Beijing “has already set up an interconnected array of radar, electronic-attack facilities, missile batteries and airfields” on the archipelago.
China has also created 3,200 acres of new land in the islands since 2013 using reclamation methods, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“China’s strategy poses a serious challenge to its neighbours, which face a deepening dilemma over how to deal with its creeping aggression,” The Japan Times adds.
The Chinese are thought to have found an ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly sanctioned joint naval exercises between the two countries. Russia has also offered rhetorical support for China’s position on its sovereignty claims.
Bonded by a common rivalry with the US, Moscow and Beijing have forged what they describe as a “strategic partnership”, expressing their shared opposition to the “unipolar” world – “a term they use to describe perceived US global dominance”, says the Associated Press.