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US to counter China with more patrols in disputed waters | Gordon Lubold, Jeremy Page – The Wall Street Journal

03 September 2017

Gordon Lubold, Jeremy Page The Wall Street Journal – The Pentagon for the first time has set a schedule of US naval patrols in the South China Sea in an attempt to create a more consistent posture to counter China’s maritime claims there, injecting a new complication into increasingly uneasy relations between the two powers.

Sailors conduct flight operations on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which made a scheduled deployment near East Asia earlier this year.

The US Pacific Command has developed a plan to conduct so-called freedom-of-navigation operations two to three times over the next few months, according to several US officials, reinforcing the US challenge to what it sees as excessive Chinese maritime claims in the disputed South China Sea.

Beijing claims sovereignty over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.

The plan marks a significant departure from such military operations in the region during the Obama administration, when officials sometimes struggled with when, how and where to conduct those patrols. They were cancelled or postponed based on other political factors after what some US officials said were contentious internal debates.

The idea behind setting a schedule contrasts with the more ad hoc approach to conducting freedom-of-navigation operations, known as “fonops” in military parlance, and establish more regularity in the patrols. Doing so might help blunt Beijing’s argument that the patrols amounted to a destabilising provocation each time they occurred, US officials said.

Chinese officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest US plans. Beijing has accused the US of militarising navigation in the region by conducting military patrols. There have been three navigation patrols so far under President Donald Trump; there were four during the Obama administration, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Officials described the new plan as a more predetermined way of conducting such patrols than in the past, though not immutable. The plan is in keeping with the Trump administration’s approach to military operations, which relies on giving commanders leeway to determine the US posture. In keeping with policies against announcing military operations before they occur, officials declined to disclose where and when they would occur.

The added military pressure on China comes while the US is seeking greater co-operation from Beijing in reining in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. The Trump administration has complained that Beijing hasn’t done all it can to pressure its allies in Pyongyang not to develop weapons or threaten the US and its territories and allies.

In a new facet, some freedom-of-navigation patrols may be “multi-domain” patrols, using not only US Navy warships but US military aircraft as well.

Thus far, there have been three publicly disclosed freedom-of-navigation operations under the Trump administration. The last one was conducted on August 10 by the navy destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, which days later collided with a cargo ship, killing 10 sailors.

That patrol around Mischief Reef — one of seven fortified artificial islands that Beijing has built in the past three years in the disputed Spratlys archipelago — also included an air component.

According to US officials, two P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft flew above the McCain in a part of the operation that hadn’t been previously disclosed. More navigation patrols using warships likely now will include aircraft overhead, they said.

Pacific Command officials had no comment on the matter.

The first such patrol under Mr Trump was conducted by the destroyer USS Dewey May 24 around Mischief Reef. In July, the guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem conducted a patrol near Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea, coming to within 12 nautical miles of the island.

Together, the moves amount to a more extensive US posture in the South China Sea, where the US has attempted to counter what it sees as excessive Chinese claims around two island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, where Beijing has conducted reclamation activities, building or expanding islands using sand dredged from the ocean floor to establish runways, ports, buildings and other facilities for military purposes.

Those structures worry the US and other nations, which believe China’s presence there could impede shipping lanes through which billions of dollars of cargo transit each year.

The US doesn’t make claims to any of the islands, but conducts the patrols to challenge China’s claims, which overlap with those of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines, a US treaty ally.

Colonel Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said US forces operated throughout the Asia-Pacific region every day, including in the South China Sea. “All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Col Manning declined to comment on the new Pacific Command plan.

Countries in the region have welcomed the more unhesitating Pentagon approach under Mr Trump, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, and a former consultant to the Pentagon and State Department.

“I think there has already been a positive reaction from the region that we see in the aftermath of the three fonops we’ve seen so far,” Ms Glaser said.

She said the Obama administration was “too risk averse” when it came to freedom-of-navigation patrols. “We need to conduct fonops on a regular and consistent way that sends a signal about our unwillingness to accept excessive maritime claims, to challenge those claims, and to underscore that our operations in the South China Sea are no different in other parts of the globe,” she said.

A former Obama administration official said a move to increase the number of navigation patrols was a good idea, but must be accompanied by a broader strategy.

“I think regularised fonops are a good idea,” said David Shear, an assistant secretary of defence at the Pentagon under Mr Obama. “I think they should be conducted in the context of a broader South China Sea and regional strategy, and it’s not clear to me that this administration has devised a strategy for the South China Sea or the region, so I’m not sure what purpose the fonops serve outside of that context.”

The Wall Street Journal

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