The United States has said “it is only a matter of time” before there is a major accident in the Indo-Pacific region as the Chinese military continues what it calls its provocative behaviors, and that Washington is seeking open lines of communication with Beijing to prevent miscalculations.
The stark warning came ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, expected Thursday.
Tuesday, senior U.S. officials and a member of Congress detailed their assessment that China poses the greatest challenge to U.S. national security and regional stability.
“The PRC’s expansive and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, along with its provocative actions to implement such claims contribute to regional instability,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Jung Pak. She was referring to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Citing three incidents over the last few months, Pak told the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that PRC vessels have challenged marine research and energy exploration activities within the Philippines exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon’s top official on Asian affairs also weighed in.
"In my view, this aggressive and irresponsible behavior represents one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region today, including in the South China Sea,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner.
Ratner said there is a “sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behavior” by Chinese military ships and aircraft in the region, citing examples including a Chinese J-16 fighter that dangerously intercepted an Australian surveillance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea in May.
“PRC continues to harden its position along its disputed border with India and further to the north in the Taiwan Strait. Across each of these areas the PRC is altering the status quo,” Ratner added.
China asserts territorial claims over a majority of the South China Sea, including a right to draw baselines and closing in internal waters within four geographically disperse groups of islands and other maritime features.
The United States has continued to reject Beijing government’s sweeping and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the South China Sea issue should be handled by countries in the region themselves as it is not a “safari park” for countries outside the region or a “fighting arena” for major powers to compete in.
“A certain non-regional power has continued to increase its input into the region, deliberately escalated conflicts and provoked tensions,” said Wang in opening remarks at a virtual event marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a non-binding "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," also known as DOC.
But for years, China and the Southeast Asian bloc have not been able to reach a legally binding code of conduct to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.
Republican Congressman from Virginia Rob Wittman said the South China Sea would become “Chinese sovereign territory” if the U.S. and other countries do not push back on China’s “aggressive behaviors.” As the co-chair of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus, Wittman said the U.S. would soon be lagging behind China in either quantity or quality of modern military ships.
“The United States Navy would be on track to be at 270 ships by 2027. By 2030, the Chinese will be at 460 ships,” he said.
“If you look at the capability of ships in the United States, you see that the United States has about 167 ships that you could consider that are right at the cutting edge of technology that have tremendous offensive and defensive capabilities… the Chinese navies [are] at 285 ships of equal or greater capacity,” said the Congressman.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in a Tuesday briefing that managing competition between the world’s leading economies, Taiwan, and Ukraine are among the topics of the Biden-Xi call this week.