US sets schedule for S. China Sea patrols for the first time: Report

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey transits the South China Sea on May 6, 2017.
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey transits the South China Sea on May 6, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

The United States Pacific Command has, for the first time, developed a schedule for naval patrols in the South China Sea, with plans for freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) two or three times over the next few months, according to a report which quoted unnamed US officials. This would mark a more regular approach to Fonops in the disputed South China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reported. China claims the maritime zone virtually in its entirety, but Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also have claims there.

China has called previous Fonops by the US provocative. There have been three so far under President Donald Trump and four under the previous Barack Obama administration. China reacted sharply to a US patrol on July 2, when the American destroyer USS Stethem passed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels chain, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has built a small harbour and helipad on Triton.

The destroyer had "trespassed" Chinese territorial waters, China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "China dispatched military vessels and fighter planes in response to warn off the US vessel," spokesman Geng Shuang added.

But Admiral Harry Harris, chief of the US Pacific Command, has publicly favoured more Fonops.

The last such operation was conducted on Aug 10 near Mischief Reef, one of several features in the Spratlys chain that had been fortified by China. In that operation, the destroyer USS John McCain was accompanied by two P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft, officials told the Wall Street Journal, adding that air support may be a regular feature of future Fonops.

Notwithstanding an apparently warm start to the personal relationship between President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping, China and the US are still feeling their way in a relationship which, under Mr Trump, has become prickly over the issue of trade and North Korea.

China has called previous Fonops by the US provocative. There have been three so far under President Donald Trump, and four under the previous Barack Obama administration.

The US wants to cut its trade deficit with China, and also wants Beijing to lean on North Korea to pressure Pyongyang to curb its nuclear and missile programmes - and Mr Trump has linked the two issues.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, Vietnam objected to Chinese drills in the Gulf of Tonkin, just north of the South China Sea. In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Thi Thu Hang said: "Vietnam proposes China to cease and refrain from repeating acts that complicate the situation in the East Sea (South China Sea)."

Last Friday, China responded by urging Vietnam to maintain a calm and rational approach, Reuters reported.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'US sets schedule for S. China Sea patrols for the first time: Report'. Print Edition | Subscribe