South China Sea Tensions

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Tensions are building up in the South China Sea as the US Navy is carrying out an operation in the disputed water body. China has condemned the US naval patrols as a challenge against its sovereignty.

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Narration: Here is the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.The South China Sea, one of the world’s most contentious bodies of water.

Nearly one third of the world’s maritime traffic passes through the strategic region.

The South China Sea is believed to hold valuable oil and gas reserves. It is estimated that more than 5 trillion dollar of world’s annual shipping trade passes through the strategic region.

The South China Sea is estimated to hold some 11 billion barrels of oil, nearly 110 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 10 percent of the world’s fisheries.

In recent years, tensions have been escalating in the region amid rising territorial disputes among countries which have competing claims about South China Islands.

China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts or all of the strategic water body. China claims historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea.

Much of the dispute is over the ownership of The Paracels and the Spratlys – island chains which comprise more than 750 islets.

Two uninhabited islands which are estimated to have reserves of mineral wealth around them.

The US Navy, under the pretext of freedom of navigation in international waters, has boosted its presence in the South China Sea.

On February 19, 2017 the US aircraft carrier strike group, which includes Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, started routine operations in the contested water body.

It was not the first time that the US Navy carried out such a mission.

Back in October 2016, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Decatur, sailed through the South China Sea, in the vicinity close to the China claimed islands.

Beijing has reiterated that it respects the freedom of navigation of all countries in the South China Sea but it opposes any act of provocation which threatens the regional peace.

SOUNDBITE [Chinese] Geng Shuang, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman: “We are consistently opposed to relevant countries threatening and damaging the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the flag of freedom of navigation and over flight.”

Narration: Chinese authorities have already condemned US military presence in the South China Sea region as an act of provocation and a serious violation of law and a threat to the Chinese territory.

Observers believe the so-called freedom of navigation operations carried out by the US Navy are intended to relay a blunt message to China.

SOUNDBITE [English] Scott Bennett, Former U.S. Army Psychological Warfare Officer: “The United States is seeing Asia rise with its alliance with Russia and the rise of Shanghai economic alliance, the rise of the Silk Road, being laid to Europe. All of those indicate the economic power of China and that is one of the areas that the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the military have always sought to control through dominating natural resources, and the economic power. So the United States is seeing China rise and seeing its increased influence in the world is trying to thwart that.”

Narration: The United States accuses China of building artificial islands in the region in a bid to claim more territory in the contested waters.Washington also argues that Beijing is building military bases in the South China Sea islands.China on the other hand, accuses the US of militarizing the region.

It says the territorial dispute can be resolved through negotiations among regional countries and there is no need for the presence of extra-regional states in the region. China has time and again demanded that the US Navy stay away from the contested region, warning against the repercussions of escalating tensions in the region. China views the routine operations by the US Navy as a sort of flexing military muscle at its doorstep. It accuses the United States of seeking military dominance in the region.

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Narration: China contends that such operations carried out in the vicinity of the disputed islands in the South China Sea could lead to incidents which in turn may give rise to military confrontation between Beijing and Washington.

SOUNDBITE [English] Scott Bennett, Former U.S. Army Psychological Warfare Officer: “Europe will increasingly abstain from military conflict with China and leave the United States sort of hanging in the wind. So, I think this is time for Trump to show off his muscles, but I think he will very quickly rush to the negotiation table and do everything possible not to engage in any military activities, because the United States can’t afford it, we have bankrupted ourselves morally and economically with our Middle East adventures and the last thing American people want is anymore war and they certainly don’t want it with China.”

Narration: The United States of America has already started shifting its focus from the Middle East region to Asia Pacific in recent years. Former US President Barack Obama described Asia-Pacific as a top Priority for the United States.

SOUNDBITE [English] Barack Obama, Former U.S. President: “As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in the US defense spending will not, I repeat, will not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific .”

Narration: As a result, the so-called freedom of navigation and military drills accelerated under President Barack Obama's administration. But the situation has deteriorated after the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election.

Some observers believe Trump and his team seem to be heading on a collision course with China. Back in January and shortly after his surprise victory in the presidential election, Donald Trump raised eyebrows for the first time after his phone conversation with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen.

The contact was seen as a direct challenge to the so-called One-China policy, under which Washington considers Taiwan as part of China. Trump even threatened to upend One China policy and use it as a bargain chip in the negotiations between Beijing and Washington.

SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump,U.S. President: “I fully understand the One-China policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by the One-China Policy unless we make a deal with China, having to do with other things including trade. "We're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them.”

Narration: Trump’s comments drew strong condemnation from officials in Beijing, who described One China Policy as none-negotiable.After his inauguration Trump backed down and vowed to honor the decades old policy. However, the US officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have vowed to take on a tough line with China over a number of issues including the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

SOUNDBITE [English] Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State: “-So this is a global issue of great importance to many many, from important allies to certainly the people in the region.

-Will support a more aggressive posture in South China Sea?

-"We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

Narration: All the same, it seems that the latest escalation in the ties between the US and China is just the tip of an iceberg.

US officials claim that China has almost finished constructing nearly two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The alleged military structures are said to be capable of hosting surface-to-air missiles.

If confirmed, the development could offer a key challenge for the Trump administration which has already pledged to take a tough line on China in the South China Sea.


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