US sees Panatag Shoal as new flashpoint in South China Sea

by The Wall Street Journal / April 28, 2016 / mb.com.ph

A new potential flashpoint has emerged in the standoff between China and the US over disputed areas of the South China Sea amid concerns that Beijing is considering expanding the area where it is seeking to reclaim islands and extend its influence.

China has been expanding and developing islands in the Spratly Islands chain. But the US military about a month ago observed Chinese ships conducting survey work around a clump of rocks, sandbars, and coral reefs known as Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal, far from the Spratlys. The shoal, likewise known as Bajo de Masinloc, is 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, a close US ally, and just 200 nautical miles from its capital Manila. It is around 470 nautical miles from the closest point on the Chinese mainland.

Signaling its concern, the US flew three different air patrols near Scarborough in recent days, including on April 19 and 21, according to US defense officials. The first of the flights, in a message to Beijing that the shoal is central to maritime security in the region, came just four days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a series of joint patrols with the Philippines. The US Air Force disclosed the April 19 flights in a news release.

“Our job is to ensure air and sea domains remain open in accordance with international law. That is extremely important, international economics depends on it – free trade depends on our ability to move goods,” said Col. Larry Card, Commander of Pacific Air Force’s Air Contingent, which conducted the patrols. “There’s no nation right now whose economy does not depend on the well-being of the economy of other nations.”

Beijing on Monday condemned the US flights, saying the shoal, which it calls Huangyan Island, is China’s “inherent territory.”

In recent weeks, the US had sought to “lower the temperature” over Scarborough, a senior US official said. According to other US officials, that included canceling one “freedom of navigation” patrol in the South China Sea that had been planned for this month.

But last week’s US air patrol has heightened tensions once again, and could lead to more Chinese activity in the area, according to Chinese security analysts.

China’s defense ministry responded on Monday with a statement on its website expressing “concern and opposition,” and accusing the US of militarizing the South China Sea. “The Chinese military will take all necessary measures to safeguard national sovereignty and security,” it said. Read more…

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