US says Beijing’s actions in South China Sea risk major incident

A photo from July 15, 2014, showing Chinese coastguard ships in the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – A United States official said on Tuesday (July 26) that the Chinese military was increasingly engaging in “unsafe and unprofessional behaviour” in the South China Sea, and warned that such provocations risked a major incident or accident in the region.

“In recent months, we’ve witnessed a sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behaviour by PLA (People’s Liberation Army) ships and aircraft, implicating not only US forces but allied forces operating in the region,” Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner said at a think-tank’s annual conference in Washington.

There had been “dozens of dangerous events in the first half of this year alone” in which the PLA had intercepted US allies and partners operating lawfully in international airspace in the contested waters, Dr Ratner said at the conference on the South China Sea held by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Such incidents were not isolated and had increased dramatically over the past five years, he added.

“This aggressive and irresponsible behaviour represents one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region today, including in the South China Sea. If the PLA continues this pattern of behaviour, it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region,” said Dr Ratner.

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to speak in a call this week, amid rising tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Washington backs an international arbitral tribunal’s finding in 2016 that Beijing’s maritime claims in most of the South China Sea are unlawful, and holds freedom of navigation operations to challenge its claims, which overlap with those of several South-east Asian nations.

The US argues that China’s actions in the disputed waters undermine the international rules-based order, while China’s position is that South China Sea issues should be handled by countries in the region and not by “external powers” such as the US and its allies.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated the point on Monday, saying that the South China Sea was not a “fighting arena” for major powers to compete in.

On Tuesday, Dr Ratner cited an incident reported by Australia’s defence ministry early last month, of a Chinese J-16 fighter jet cutting across the nose of an Australian P-8 reconnaissance plane conducting routine overflight activities in the South China Sea.

According to Canberra, the Chinese jet released a round of chaff –  a cloud of small pieces of aluminium aimed at confusing radar or in self-defence against other aircraft – which was ingested into the Australia P-8 plane’s engine, a manoeuvre that Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles called “very dangerous”.

In response, Beijing accused Australia of “approaching Chinese airspace” and said its forces issued warnings to dispel the Australian warplane in a “professional, safe, reasonable and legal” manner.

Dr Ratner said the chaff incident came on the heels of a series of unsafe intercepts of Canadian aircraft conducting United Nations Security Council resolution enforcement activities in the East China Sea last month, and another incident in February when a Chinese navy ship directed a laser at an Australian jet.

Beijing has denied both the Australian and Canadian accounts of the incidents and said its actions conformed to international law.

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Earlier at the same event, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs and for Global China issues Jung Pak also spoke on Beijing’s “provocative actions” against its rival claimants and “other states lawfully operating in the region”.

“There is a clear and upward trend of PRC provocations against South China Sea claimants and other states lawfully operating in the region,” she said, referring to China by its abbreviated official name of People’s Republic of China.

She added that in three separate incidents over the last few months, Chinese vessels had challenged marine research and energy exploration activities within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Ms Pak’s comments were a “complete reversal of black and white” as China and other countries from the Asean regional bloc were committed to maintaining peace in the South China Sea.

Mr Zhao told a regular briefing that “certain individual major foreign powers”, without specifying which, were the real threat to regional peace by trying to maintain “hegemony” by building up military forces.

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