US warns China over “provocative behavior” in the South China Sea

Defense Secretary Mark Esper reiterates Washington’s opposition to the militarization of the disputed waters

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has fired another salvo across the bows of Beijing as tension continues to rise in the South China Sea. 

During a visit to Hawaii, he warned President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party that the United States will not “cede an inch” in the Indo-Pacific amid “provocative behavior” by China’s navy in disputed waters.

“To advance the CCP’s agenda, the People’s Liberation Army continues to pursue an aggressive modernization plan to achieve a world-class military by the middle of the century,” Esper said as reported by multiple news agencies.

“This will undoubtedly involve the PLA’s provocative behavior in the South and East China Seas, and anywhere else the Chinese government has deemed critical to its interests.”

His comments came after the US Department of Commerce blacklisted 24 Chinese companies close to Beijing for constructing artificial islands in the resource-rich South China Sea for military purposes.

‘Sovereign territory’

A spokesperson for China’s Washington’s embassy quickly condemned the US sanctions as “completely unreasonable,” claiming the move threatened its “territorial integrity.” 

“[The South China Sea Islands] is an integral part of China’s territory, and it is fully justified for us to build facilities and deploy necessary defense equipment there. The Chinese government has firm determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the spokesperson said.

Xi’s government claims vast areas of the 1.3 million square mile waters as its “sovereign territory,” dismissing the claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the self-governing island of Taiwan.

Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through these highly-contested maritime highways.

“This is the first time the US has levied any type of economic sanction against Chinese entities for behavior in the South China Sea,” Greg Poling, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said.

Still, the US decision was announced just hours after the PLA navy had launched two missiles, including an “aircraft-carrier killer,” into the South China Sea.

U2 spy plane

The South China Morning Post reported:

“The move came one day after China said a US U-2 spy plane entered a no-fly zone without permission during a Chinese live-fire naval drill in the Bohai Sea off its north coast.

“One of the missiles, a DF-26B, was launched from the northwestern province of Qinghai, while the other, a DF-21D, lifted off from Zhejiang province in the east.

“Both were fired into an area between Hainan province and the Paracel Islands, [a] source said.”

As the New Cold War between Washington and Beijing intensifies, there appears little hope of finding a diplomatic bridge over troubled waters.