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US-China closer and closer to a no-talk sea clash



This week, the United States, Japan and the Philippines kicked off their first-ever joint coast guard drills in Manila Bay amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

The exercises, featuring four Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels along with a US Coast Guard cutter and a Japanese Coast Guard cruiser, are aimed at enhancing interoperability, search and rescue, and law enforcement capacity of the three allied nations, especially as the PCG confronts rising Chinese maritime intrusions.

The unprecedented coast drills are part of broader efforts by the US and its regional allies to check China’s rising maritime ambitions. Earlier this year, the Philippines, US, Australia and Japan conducted massive wargames in the Philippines. Following on, later this year naval forces from the Philippines, US and Australia are expected to conduct joint patrols in the contested South China Sea aimed at China.

The coast guard drills came just a day after the US Indo-Pacific command released footage that showed an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” by a Chinese J-16 fighter against US RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft on May 26.

The Pentagon maintained that it was simply conducting “safe and routine operations” over the South China Sea but Beijing countered by accusing the US aircraft of posing a “serious danger” by “deliberately intrud[ing]” into China’s training exercises in the contested area.

Rising tensions in the maritime region have shadowed this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where senior American and Chinese officials are expected to present their respective regional security architecture visions before the international community.


In a telltale sign of intensifying rivalry, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who has been sanctioned by the US for alleged involvement in high-tech defense deals with Moscow, has reportedly turned down a proposed meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the high-profile defense confab.

Notwithstanding China’s deployment of a new envoy to Washington, Xie Feng, there is little indication of any diplomatic breakthrough. An emerging New Cold War could quickly turn into a hot water one absent a concerted effort by both superpowers to keep their rivalry on an even keel.

Fears of actual skirmishes were brought into sharp focus following yet another close encounter between the US and Chinese armed forces in the South China Sea.

Back in 2018, a Chinese warship maneuvered as close as 45 yards from the US Navy destroyer USS Decatur, risking direct confrontation. This time, a Chinese fighter partially intercepted a US reconnaissance aircraft by cutting directly cutting in front of the latter’s nose.

The aggressive maneuver created sufficient turbulence to rock the RC-135, underscoring how close the two superpowers have again come to blows over the disputed waters.

“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows, and the US Indo-Pacific Joint Force will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) said in a statement, insisting on the legality of its operation in the area.

During a briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning countered the US claims by instead accusing the Pentagon of inviting crisis through the regular deployment of spy planes into China’s claimed territories.


“The US’s provocative and dangerous moves are the root cause of maritime security issues. China urges the US to stop such dangerous provocations,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said.

The incident echoed the 2001 full collision between an American reconnaissance plane and Chinese fighter jet over the Hainan Island in the South China Sea, which led to one casualty and a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

In contrast to bilateral relations two decades earlier, when then-Chinese president Hu Jintao welcomed institutionalized bilateral dialogue with Washington, the two superpowers are currently locked in a brewing New Cold War with trade and tech war components.

A whole host of bilateral strategic dialogues were suspended following diplomatic tensions in the wake of former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to the self-governing island of Taiwan last August. A highly-promising summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping last November raised hopes of a thaw between the two sides.

But the Biden administration’s decision to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon flying over sensitive facilities in mainland America deflated earlier hopes of restoring frayed communication channels.

This week, China reportedly rebuffed efforts to arrange a meeting between Defense Secretary Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart Li at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum in Singapore this week.

“Frankly, it’s just the latest in a litany of excuses. Since 2021, the PRC has declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defense for key leader engagements, multiple requests for standing dialogues and nearly ten working-level engagements,” a Pentagon official told the press on the condition of anonymity.


But China’s Defense Ministry has insisted that Beijing “attaches importance” to maintaining stable ties with Washington and that there had been “no interruption” in communication channels while blaming Washington for the dearth of institutionalized dialogue.

“Responsibility for the current difficulties faced by the two militaries in their exchanges lies entirely with the US side,” maintained China’s defense spokesperson Tan Kefei.

“The US claims that it wants to strengthen communication, but in reality it disregards China’s concerns and creates artificial obstacles, seriously undermining mutual trust between the two militaries,” he added, referring to a host of new US sanctions imposed on Chinese tech companies and senior officials, including defense minister Li.

Beijing has reportedly demanded the lifting of “illegal unilateral sanctions” , including on its top officials, as a precondition for the resumption of high-level dialogue. But the Biden administration has insisted on unconditional dialogue in the interest of both superpowers and international security.

The interregnum in high-level military dialogue between the world’s reigning superpowers is ringing high-pitched alarm bells, since even at the height of the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union maintained robust communication channels.

Alarmed by the rising tensions, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was on a trip to new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Sweden this week, warned that the latest incident in the South China Sea underscores the need for “regular, open lines of communication” especially “between our defense ministers.”

“The most dangerous thing is not to communicate and as a result, to have a misunderstanding, a miscommunication,” Blinken added.


Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at Richeydarian

Source: Asia Times