US Navy to continue S.China Sea patrols despite Duterte: analysts

By VnExpress   October 22, 2016 | 11:28 pm PT
US Navy to continue S.China Sea patrols despite Duterte: analysts
Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) operates in the South China Sea as part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) in the South China Sea. Diana Quinlan/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters
The latest U.S. announcemnt comes on the heels of more 'troubling rhetoric' from the new president of the Philippines.

Analysts say Friday's U.S. naval patrol past islands claimed by China reflect the insignifcance of Filipino Rodrigo Duerte's recent posturing in Beijing.

That same day, a Pentagon spokesperson told AFP it had dispatched the USS Decatur past the Paracel Islands without ever entereing the 12 nautical mile zone international law defines as territorial waters.

The ships transited the area in “a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident,” a spokesman said. China slammed the patrol in typical rhetoric, describing it as a “deliberately provocative” and “serious illegal" act.

Friday’s patrol was the first such incursion since the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled, this summer, that there was no legal basis for China’s claims to nearly all of the sea — a verdict Beijing vehemently dismissed.

“[The U.S.] is showing that its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) program is continuing, especially after the arbitration ruling, because after July 16 there was a kind of silence despite expectations. People were wondering when the next FONOP would be, so I think this is a demonstration that they are still doing it,” Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, told VnExpress in an email.

The recent patrol through waters the U.S. describes as "international" challenges China’s territorial claims over the region, according to Batongbacal.

In 1974, China took the archipelago following a brief but bloody battle with the naval forces of the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam. Vietnam never relinquished its claim to the Paracels, despite China's illegal occupation.

Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at U.S. think tank Atlantic Council, agreed that the latest U.S. patrol signals a refusal to abandon its policy. 

"This is part of the ongoing process,” he said.

The last U.S. freedom-of-navigation operation, held in May, sailed within 12 miles of Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Islands; China scrambled fighter jets in response.

Friday's operation followed Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte's murky "separation" from Washington and realignment with Beijing.

The Philippines served as a key ally of the United States and territorial rival of Beijing in the South China Sea (which Vietnam calls the East Sea), until Duterte took office in June.

Duterte's announcement on Thursday represented a complete policy reversal for the island nation, whose previous administration petitioned The Hague to rule on China's maritime claim to nearly all of the islands and territories to its south.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila blasted Duterte's comments as "creating unnecessary uncertainty," CNN reported Saturday.

"We've seen a lot of this sort of troubling rhetoric recently, which is inexplicably at odds with the warm relationship that exists between the Filipino and American people and the record of important cooperation between our two governments," embassy spokeswoman Molly Koscina said in a statement.

The United States will honor its alliance commitments and treaty obligations, and expects the Philippines to do the same, she added.

Shortly after arriving home late Friday night from his four-day state visit to China, Duerte said "separation" with the United States would not mean severing diplomatic ties, as this would not be good for Filipinos, according to the Saturday edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Duerte said his words should be taken in the context of what he has been saying all along. When he mentioned separation, during an address he gave during his China trip, what he was saying was “separation of a foreign policy,” he said.

Duterte came home late Friday night from his state visit to China, which he described as “productive.”

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