China takes pride in being a peaceful country. “We never started a conflict, occupied an inch of foreign land or waged a proxy war,” its defense minister, Li Shangfu, said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security summit in Singapore on Sunday.
But on that same day, when Li said that war with the U.S. poses an “unbearable disaster” for the world, the U.S. military released a video showing China making moves in the Taiwan Strait that would only seem to escalate the already rising tensions between the two superpowers.
According to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, a Chinese warship cut through the path of an American destroyer and a Canadian Navy frigate doing a routine transit on Saturday. China’s ship, a guided-missile destroyer, crossed the bow of the USS Chung-Hoon at 150 yards, forcing the American vessel to slow down to “avoid collision.” At 2,000 yards, the Chinese vessel crossed the bow again. The Indo-Pacific Command called the maneuver “unsafe,” and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at a White House briefing Monday that the encounter signals an “increasing level of aggressiveness” from the Chinese military. The incident also comes on the heels of a Chinese fighter jet on May 26 flying in front of the nose of a U.S. Air Force aircraft conducting routine operations over the hotly-contested South China Sea.
“It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt,” Kirby warned. “That’s the concern with these unsafe and unprofessional intercepts. They can lead to misunderstandings. They can lead to miscalculations.”
China, for its part, points to the U.S. as a provocateur in the region. Foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Monday that China’s actions are “completely justified, lawful, safe and professional,” and added that it respects freedom of navigation and overflight.
A fundamental issue behind the U.S. and China’s tensions
For the longest time, China and the U.S. have been trading barbs over who’s stirring trouble in the region with supposed territorial incursions and related responses. Euan Graham, a senior fellow from the International Institute of Strategic Studies—which hosted the weekend dialogue—says that China is “clearly” the aggressor in this latest ship saga. “They were,” he tells TIME of the U.S., “sailing along their normal course, apparently, not deviating from across the median line in any way that would have prompted the Chinese response.”
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified and the U.S. has not but adheres to, international ships may freely pass through parts of the Taiwan Strait—as long as they are outside the 24-nautical mile zone from either coastline. Coastal countries are also granted an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline, over which they have “sovereign rights” (meaning they can use and manage the resources in those areas) but not territorial rights (like they do over their land and within 12 nautical miles off the coast). These coastal countries, according to the convention, cannot limit other countries’ freedom of navigation and overflight within the EEZ.
Collin Koh, a regional security analyst from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the U.N. treaty hasn’t explicitly stated any limits on foreign military activities in those maritime regions, and this ambiguity is a “key crux” of the conflict between China and the U.S. in the waterway. “China will prefer a restrictive interpretation according to its rights as a coastal state, whereas the U.S. being the user state, will want to interpret it more broadly, that associates broader global interests,” Koh says.
Still, a full-scale conflict emerging from China’s moves is unlikely, says Koh. “I don’t think both the U.S. and China enter the room with eyes closed,” he says. “Both sides will have rhetoric, but it seems like they stop at that.”
There’s also an apparent double standard with China’s furor over the U.S. entering its neighboring waters. In 2015, Chinese navy vessels entered Alaska’s territorial waters, but U.S. reaction was minimal since China had the right of “innocent passage.” China has similarly entered Japan’s territorial waters since December last year, and in the South China Sea, Chinese vessels and warships have been repeatedly spotted in Philippine maritime territory, even scaring off fishermen within the Southeast Asian nation’s EEZ and at one point thwarting Philippine coast guard officials with military-grade laser lights.
For Derek Grossman, a defense analyst at California-based think tank RAND Corporation, “the trouble really stems from China’s expansive and unjustifiable claims over territories and seas in the first place that the U.S. and increasingly select allies and partners, like the Philippines, feel compelled to respond to.”
In Singapore, Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela posed a question to the Chinese defense minister: “While China is talking about dialogue, China’s actions show confrontation. Why is there a big difference between China’s words and its actions?” Li didn’t give an answer.
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