US President Donald Trump approved a plan giving the country’s navy greater freedom in operating in the South China Sea, putting pressure on China’s efforts to enlarge its military presence by artificially building reefs and atolls in the area.
The plan, detailing a full-year schedule of when US navy ships will sail through the contested waters, was submitted to the White House in April by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, a US official confirmed on Saturday, according to Breitbart News (via SCMP).
The move is seen as a challenge to Beijing’s maritime claims over most of the South China Sea and its attempts to overrule overlapping claims by five other countries — Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
According to the report, the official claimed the White House would be aware of all planned “freedom of navigation operations” so it would not be “a surprise” when requests came up the chain of command, and they would be approved faster than before.
The faster approval process would mean operations could be conducted on a “very routine, very regular” basis, as part of a programme to keep the waters open, rather than as a “one-off event”, the person said.
While such patrols were routine under the previous Obama administration, analysts fear this could be a sign that the US is planning on stepping up operations in the region – a move almost guaranteed to be met with protest from Beijing.
Li Jie, a Beijing-based military analyst, told SCMP he would not be surprised if such patrols became a regular occurrence under Trump, given the hawkish nature of his closest military advisers, Mattis being one.
“At the same time, the US could gain leverage to contain China in terms of its maritime affairs by increasing its military presence in the region,” Li said.
Trump has so far exercised a level of restraint in the region, with many assuming he was putting off patrols to avoid antagonising Beijing.
In May, the first freedom of navigation operation by the US Navy under the Trump administration saw the USS Dewey sail within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, an area currently controlled by Beijing but also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
A second patrol followed in early July as The USS Stethem, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island.
Despite getting off to a surprisingly friendly and upbeat start following their get-to-know-you meeting in April, the relationship between Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping has soured in recent weeks.
Trump has repeatedly called on China to step up efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear programme, and on Thursday asked Beijing to provide more support in monitoring the North’s military activities.
Additionally, the White House has placed sanctions against Chinese companies accused of aiding North Korea’s weapons programmes; has approved US$1.4 billion worth of arms sale to Taiwan; placed China on its list of the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labour; and repeatedly threatened tariffs and a trade war after their first Comprehensive Economic Dialogue ended in deadlock this week.