Tensions have been high these past two weeks since China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, cautioned the United States against challenging Beijing’s sovereignty and security. This warning comes amid news that the U.S. military is planning a new round of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) for 2017 that will likely involve sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s maritime claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
The announcement of these naval patrols is the latest development in a longstanding territorial struggle between The United States, its Asian allies, and the People’s Republic of China. The South China Sea is of particular interest to these nations for its wealth in oil, as well as its strategic importance: over $5 trillion USD in goods pass through it annually and control over its waters would grant China a significant military advantage over other nearby countries. As such, the United States and East Asia’s other nations (including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia) have seen their interests align in opposition to China’s increased territorial influence. In contrast, the Chinese government sees expanding influence in the South China Sea as being crucial to solidifying its role as Asia’s dominant hegemon. In this exchange, the Spratly and Paracel Islands are of particular significance. China currently maintains military fortifications on the islands, which provides it with a vital command post in the middle of the sea. Though it is in no nation’s interest to escalate conflict the United States continually challenges China’s influence as a means of maintaining its power within the region, perceiving this to be its most effective means of agitating the Chinese government.
This balancing act has historically proven to be delicate, demanding that nations assert their own interest while avoiding full-scale military conflict. The boldness of United States’ decision to encroach upon military possessions of central importance to China, points to the uncertainty of American foreign policy in the coming years. Between 2012 and 2015, President Obama explicitly forbade the Navy from undertaking FONOPs in the South China Sea, in a stance that many have critiqued as weak and imprudent. But at the dawn of the Trump era, China and America’s futures appear unclear. The president began their relationship earlier this year by taking a call from the Taiwanese President. He then struck a conciliatory note last week by recognizing the One China policy and touting the importance of having China as an ally against North Korea. Though FONOPs in the South China Sea were routine for more than 70 years before the Obama administration, their recent renewal and the subsequent hostile reaction of Beijing suggests an uncertain future.
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