Trade War | US naval patrol prompts Chinese protest as talks start

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Barry

China accused the U.S. of “tricks” as two American warships sailed through waters claimed by Beijing on the eve of high-level trade talks.

China’s foreign ministry said the country’s navy “warned off” off the U.S. warships yesterday as they attempted to assert free navigation rights in the disputed South China Sea. The ships sailed close by Mischief Reef, where China has built an airbase on reclaimed land, and the adjacent Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by the Philippines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying deflected a question about whether the move would impact trade talks expected to get underway Tuesday in Beijing. “You have observed very carefully, and observed a series of tricks by the U.S. side. I believe you all see through these small tricks by the U.S. side,” Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The so-called freedom-of-navigation patrols were reported earlier yesterday by Reuters, which cited an unidentified U.S. official. The report said two guided-missile destroyers passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a maneuver the U.S. uses to assert that a waterway is free to international transit.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the patrol. The American-side often doesn’t announce such sail-bys in the South China Sea, where China’s claims overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The sail-by comes as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer head for Beijing, the latest high-profile effort to resolve the two countries’ trade dispute before their tariff cease-fire expires March 1. The trade fight has exposed a series of strategic disputes between the world’s two largest economies, ranging from China’s territorial claims in the Western Pacific to accusations of spying.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week said China dispatched almost 100 vessels to the Spratly chain in an effort to stop the Philippines from building on another feature known as Thitu Reef. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement last week called on China to respect the country’s sovereignty.

The island that is home to about 100 civilians and a small military garrison is the largest of the nine occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly islands and serves as its administrative center in the area. Thitu and is also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The ramp will facilitate the delivery of construction equipment and material for upgrading the island’s airstrip and other infrastructure, AMTI said. Bigger ships with deeper drafts would be able to offload supplies directly onto the island, rather than having to transfer them to smaller vessels as was the case before.

Additionally, satellite imagery shows excavators depositing sand over a larger area to the north about the size of three city blocks, AMTI said. Lorenzana had earlier said there were plans to expand facilities on the island, including building a “fish port, desalination plant, solar power array, improved housing, and marine research facilities,” AMTI said.

AMTI says satellite photos show the number of Chinese vessels fluctuating from as high as 95 in December to just 42 by late January. It gave no word on any attempt by them to intervene in the ongoing work.

“Manila appears intent on upgrading its facilities in the Spratlys despite any detente or objections from Beijing,” AMTI said in its report.

The Philippines’ land reclamation efforts are much more modest than those of its neighbors in the Spratlys. Once completed, it will have created 3.2 hectares of reclaimed land in the island group in recent years, compared to about 49 hectares by Vietnam and 1,295 hectares by China.

The U.S. has conducted several freedom of navigation patrols in recent months. In January, China urged the U.S. to halt “provocative actions” after a U.S. guided-missile destroyer conducted sailed near the Paracel Islands, which are occupied by China and claimed by Vietnam. American warships have also sailed through the strait separating mainland China from democratically run Taiwan.

“We respect all countries’ right for freedom of navigation and flight under international law, but we firmly oppose any action to jeopardize the sovereignty and security of countries under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” Hua said.

American F-35B Lightning II aircraft operating off the Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Wasp conducted “milestone flight operations” with weapons fully loaded in the Philippine and East China Seas, Jan. 26 through Feb. 6, the Marine Corps said.

The training mission demonstrated an “increase in lethality and integrated amphibious capability,” it quoted Col. Robert Brodie, commanding officer of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit as saying.

The fifth-generation fighters carried CATM-9X air-to-air missiles and dropped 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II and 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs.

“We achieved mission success by using the full capabilities of the F-35B at sea,” Lt. Col. Michael Rountree, the F-35B detachment officer-in-charge was quoted as saying in a news release.

Rountree said the planes engaged role-playing enemy aircraft and hit simulated targets before landing vertically on the Wasp.

It was the first time such a level of training had been carried out by an operationally deployed F-35B detachment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Rountree said.

While the area of operations was east of the South China Sea, the exercise illustrates the continuing U.S. military presence in the area, to which China routinely objects. MDT/Agencies

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