Risk of South China Sea conflict could rise after US destroyer sails near disputed islands under Chinese control, experts say

by Laura Zhou / October 22, 2016 / South China Morning Post

The risk of conflict in the South China Sea could increase following the latest “freedom of navigation” exercise by the US Navy in the disputed waters, experts warn.

On Friday, the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur challenged “excessive maritime claims” near Triton and Woody islands in the Paracel Islands chain, US officials said. Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the Paracels.

The destroyer sailed near the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit but did not cross it before three Chinese vessels began to shadow it, according to the officials. The destroyer left and all interactions were safe, they said.

But China viewed the move as an intentional challenge made after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his nation would “separate” from the US, a traditional ally.

The defence ministry condemned the move as “illegal and provocative”, saying only two of its warships, the Guangzhou and the Luoyang, warned the US vessel to leave the area.

“This has proved that the US side is the troublemaker in the stability of the South China Sea,” said ministry spokesman Wu Qian.

“China will work together with other nations in the area to firmly defend peace and stability in the South China Sea region.”

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the move “severely violated China’s sovereignty and security interests” and called it “an extremely irresponsible provocative act”.

The Pentagon said the Decatur “conducted its transit in a routine, lawful manner” and the manoeuvre was long planned.

Military and diplomatic observers warned that the risk of military conflict between the two powers could increase should the regional balance of power shift following any strategic realignment by Manila.

“What Duterte is doing is intensifying tensions between China and the US that have already been heightened … and opening another arena of confrontation between China and the US,” said Renato Cruz De Castro, a fellow at the East-West Centre in Washington and an expert on China and the Philippines.

The US might “light up other fires” if it lost its footing in the Philippines, he added.

Su Hao, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said the sail-by close to Woody Island, or Yongxing in Chinese, was particularly serious given it was home to the prefecture-level government of Sansha. “This is particularly serious … it is the core island China is controlling,” he said. Read more…

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