China to US: Your fault we are militarising South China Sea

A Chinese fishing boat and a China Coast Guard vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal on April 5, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (WASHINGTON POST) - Beijing has a message for the Trump administration: the more ships you send to the contested waters of the South China Sea, the more we will bolster our presence there.

The warning, delivered in a People's Daily commentary published on Monday (Jan 22), came days after the USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a reef China seized from Philippine control in 2012.

"A US ship wantonly provoking trouble is reckless," it read.

It is not the first time Beijing has tried to blame Washington for maritime tensions - it's a bit of a recurring theme - but the ship's operation and the blustery response may signal an ominous shift in US-China ties.

In his first year in office, President Donald Trump was focused getting China to rein in North Korea and said little on the South China Sea. But many analysts predicted his administration would take a tougher line in 2018 - and that may now be underway.

The United States called last week's operations "routine and regular", but from a Chinese perspective, both the timing and the location are significant.

This was the first so-called Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in months and the first such passage near the Scarborough Shoal. It also took place on the eve of the release of the National Defence Strategy - a document replete with warnings about China.

In the wake of the operation, China showed no sign of changing or softening its stance.

Over the weekend, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing was "strongly dissatisfied" with the Hopper's passage and China will stake necessary measures to "firmly safeguard its sovereignty".

Monday's editorial put it this way: "If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there."

Mr Ian Storey, an expert on the South China Sea and a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the timing seemed calibrated to show China that the United States is now ready to "do something a bit different".

"I was quite surprised when I read it had taken place at Scarborough Shoal," he said, "I suppose this took China by surprise as well and it was designed to throw them off balance a bit."

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, a feature just off the coast of Luzon, not far from the former US base at Subic Bay.

In 2016, an international tribunal ruled China's expansive claims had no legal basis, a finding welcomed by much of the region, but largely ignored by Beijing. In the years since, China has pressed ahead with land reclamation and building in the area.

A White House effort to shake up US strategy in the South China Sea will test both US-China and US-Philippine ties - especially since the Philippines, which used to control the shoal, appears to have lost interest in contesting it.

The Philippines, a longtime US ally, used to challenge Chinese claims to the South China Sea. Since coming to power in 2016, however, President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a softer line with Beijing.

Responding to reports of the FONOP near Scarborough Shoal, Mr Duterte's spokesman, Mr Harry Roque, told local press it was "America's problem".

"We have reached a point where we have independent foreign relations, and a problem of America is no longer a problem of the Philippines," he said.

Mr Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the Duterte government's response could help China and hinder the US by lending credence to Beijing's claims.

The Duterte administration "washing its hands of this incident and not saying anything about China's assertion of sovereignty is a problem because it could be interpreted as acquiescence to China's statement," he said."If I were China, I would use the Philippines silence as evidence against their claims."

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