Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said Tuesday in Jakarta, Indonesia, that warships from the United States and China “will meet each other more and more on the high seas” after a Chinese destroyer came dangerously close to a U.S. destroyer in the disputed South China Sea last month
The Chinese ship came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur during a “freedom of navigation” mission in late September, Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this month, Reuters reports.
The FONOP was the latest effort by the U.S. to demonstrate against what Washington sees as Beijing trying to curb navigation through the economically and strategically important waters where other allied navies operate as well.
Richardson also said the U.S. and its allies in the region should watch “with interest” China’s growing cooperation with the Russian navy in the region as well.
Analysis: The U.S. has been steadily increasing its military and diplomatic efforts in the Indo-Pacific region because the Trump administration obviously views that part of the world as both strategically important to American interests but also as increasingly volatile. In fact, it is safe to say that the White House and the Pentagon view China as a bigger threat to U.S. national security than Russia.
And while President Trump has expressed confidence recently that he and counterpart Xi Jinping can strike a trade deal soon that will be more favorable to the U.S. and lead to an end to tariffs currently being imposed by both countries on imports from the other, it’s clear the Chinese are taking the matter of the South China Sea more personally, as evidenced by the provocative action taken by the Chinese destroyer against the USS Decatur recently.
China has invested a lot in achieving and maintaining dominance over the SCS. The cost of building island bases alone is massive. And the fact that Beijing has militarized them sends a very clear message that it intends to not only make the rules about who operates in those waters and for what purpose, but also to stake outsized claims to the natural resources throughout the region and then defend those claims with force, if necessary.
No nation alone in Asia can stand up to China but collectively — and especially with U.S. assistance — they can. And they will have to at some point if they want the region to remain free, democratic, and accessible. That’s why the U.S. is rehabilitating and strengthening relationships throughout Asia, as well as courting India, which — in 10-15 years’ time could become a dominant counterweight to China.
In the meantime, China isn’t about to back down from its claims or stop asserting itself in waters Beijing’s communist leaders believe historically belonged to their country. At the same time, the Trump administration isn’t about to back away from asserting the United States’ right to freely navigate what Washington and most other capitals see as international waters. The South China Sea is just too important, economically and otherwise.
All of this makes conditions ripe for a conflict, which may not start as a planned act but rather as a miscalculation — such as ramming a U.S. warship.