Another Cold War? Insights from a close South China Sea encounter

By Viet Anh   October 6, 2018 | 01:05 am PT
The recent encounter between their warships in the South China Sea shows China will confront the U.S. on key issues.
US and Chin warship encountering in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy.

U.S. and China warships have a close brush in the South China Sea on September 30. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy

Experts also say that the encounter is a sign that tensions have escalated and are unlikely to abate in the near future.

Chinese destroyer Luyang approached the USS Decatur, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, as the latter passed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Sunday.

The USS Decatur was carrying out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOPs) in the Spratlys. Captain Charles Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the Chinese warship conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for the Decatur to depart the area.

He said the Chinese destroyer "approached within 45 yards" of the front of the U.S. ship, adding that the USS Decatur "maneuvered to prevent a collision."

Carl Schuster, a former U.S. Navy captain who spent 12 years at sea, now a Hawaii Pacific University professor, said this was very dangerous. "Captains get very nervous when ships get closer than 1,000 yards," he said.

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told VnExpress that the incident demonstrated China's willingness to confront the U.S.

The U.S. and China are at loggerheads on several issues, including trade and the U.S.’ arms sales to Taiwan.

"As U.S. willingness to confront China across a range of issues increases, the Chinese are demonstrating their willingness to confront the U.S.," she said.

The trade war between the U.S. and China has no sign of de-escalating after the Trump administration imposed 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods on September 24.

Then the tariffs will increase to 25 percent at the start of 2019. U.S. President Trump stressed that if China retaliates, as is expected, “we will immediately pursue phase three, which is tariffs on approximately $267 billion of additional imports.”

China hit back at the U.S. with tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods, in a tit-for-tat move. On September 25, China released a 71-page white paper, accusing the Trump administration of "trade bullyism practices" that have become "the greatest source of uncertainty and risk for the recovery of the global economy."

The U.S. and China previously applied tariffs worth $50 billion on imports of each.

As regards Taiwan, the U.S. State Department has approved the sale of spare parts worth $330 million for F-16 fighter planes and other military aircraft, raising China’s hackles. It has warned that the move jeopardized Sino-U.S. cooperation.

At the United Nations Security Council during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, President Trump claimed that China is trying to damage his political standing before the midterm elections because of his imposition of tariffs on billions of dollars in Chinese goods.

“They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade," said Trump.

Glaser said that China's "aggressive response" to the U.S.' navigation practice was "part of the larger strategic friction in the bilateral relationship," not simply a push back against the U.S. Navy ship sailing close to Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratlys.

She makes clear that the incident took place around Gaven and Johnson reefs, two features that are above water at high tide. Therefore, the USS Decator was conducting an "innocent passage" operation, without a military activity.

The USS Decatur was on a routine mission in the South China Sea when it came close to a Chinese warship. Photo by AFP

The USS Decatur was on a routine mission in the South China Sea when it came close to a Chinese warship on Sunday. Photo by AFP

Expressing the same stance, Peter Harris, Assistant Professor, Colorado State University, stated that it's true that we are witnessing a hardening of the U.S. stance towards China, on the South China Sea and also other issues such as trade and technology.

There are several reasons for why President Trump might be adopting a more hardline stance. First, it's clear that the Congress is now opposed to cooperation with China. There have been bipartisan bills to urge a more confrontational approach to China, especially in the military sphere.

"Hawkish attitudes towards China are more prevalent among Republicans but also are evident among Democrats. The Trump administration is responding to these domestic pressures and seems to have recognized the political advantages in demonizing China. In short, it's a popular domestic strategy to "get tough" on China," said Harris.

It is interesting to note that Trump has not sought to politicize China's human rights record, however, which is something that other presidents have done when they have wanted to look "tough" on China. It would be easy for him to do, but he hasn't, perhaps because he is holding out hope of a "grand bargain" over trade and strategic issues, or perhaps because human rights are not as important to him as they have been for previous presidents, according to Harris.

He worries that people are witnessing a gradual increase in Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and so these small but dangerous incidents are likely to become more frequent in coming years unless something can be done to lessen tensions between the U.S., China, and other regional powers. China's message seems to be fairly clear: that they regard the South China Sea as their domain and that the U.S. should not test China's resolve over this core interest.

Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor, the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, gives more reasons for China's encountering in the South China Sea.

First, the Trump Administration has markedly stepped up freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea since it took office.

Second, the U.S. has also increased the number of continuous bomber presence patrols of B-52s and B-1s over the South China Sea and East China Sea. Not only are bombers flying from Guam towards China's east coast and turning back before they enter China's airspace, but the U.S. is also demonstrating global reach by flying B-52 bombers from North Dakota in the U.S. and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean over the South China Sea. The most recent U.S. B-52H flight over the East China Sea was accompanied by an escort of Japan Air Self-Defence Force jets.

He said the most important factor is the U.S. recently approved the sale of $3,300 million in spare parts for Taiwan's F-16 fighters.

China also cancelled a scheduled port visit by the USS Wasp to Hong Kong and then conducted live firing exercises by People's Liberation Army Air Force planes over the South China Sea. A Chinese Navy Commander also cancelled his visit to the U.S.

"China has always vowed to push back against challenges to its sovereignty so it was not surprising that the Chinese warship manoeuvred at dangerous closure to the USS Decator. This should be viewed as posturing," said Thayer.

Harris said that the impact of U.S.-China conflict will be bad for everyone in the region, contributing to a perception that international politics is zero-sum game. It would be much better if the U.S. and China could put their bilateral relationship on firmer foundations and work towards a truly positive-sum set of interactions. The spillover effects of such a positive relationship would be felt across the region, he said.

Harris added: "A new ‘cold war’ between the U.S. and China would force others in East Asia to choose sides even more than is currently the case."

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