It was a demonstration of power: two US aircraft carriers conducted an exercise within sight of Chinese warships in the South China Sea on Monday, July 6.

US Naval Show of Force

The conflict between Washington and Beijing in the South China Sea continuous to intensify. Despite China’s warnings, the United States sent the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz to participate in one of the most extensive naval exercises in recent years — into one of the most severely contested areas on the globe.

The exercises conducted by the US come after the Defense Department recently expressed concern about a multi-day military exercise by China near the Paracel Islands. According to Rear Admiral George Wikoff, the United States seeks to “send our partners and allies an unmistakable signal that we feel committed to regional security and stability.”

China Condemns American Actions

China has condemned the deployment of the carriers. Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian spoke of a “demonstration of power with ulterior motives.” According to Lijian, the exercises were a provocation by the United States and undermined peace and stability in the area. The move also promoted the militarization of the South China Sea, Zhao stated. On the other hand, China’s exercises around the Paracel Islands were not objectionable as the archipelago belonged to China. Although Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the islands, Zhao argued that a dispute did not exist. Washington’s criticism of Beijing’s actions “completely ignores the facts.”

An increased destabilization and militarization in the region have indeed been witnessed over the last years. However, contrary to China’s point of view, Beijing is the culprit due to its aggressive conduct and preposterous territorial claims.

Why is the South China Sea Important?

The South China Sea lies between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Territorial disputes between the neighbors have existed for decades. The islands in question are a collection of mostly tiny reefs, sandbars, and atolls and are located around 330 kilometers southeast of the Chinese island of Hainan. The Spratly Islands extend even further south over a distance of approximately 1,000 kilometers and are significantly closer to the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia than to China.

As established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state can claim territory from its belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22 km). China’s claims are hence not only man-made but in violation of international law.

China’s Claims on Islands in the South China Sea

Nonetheless, China has been claiming the islands, since 1947, and despite a judgment by the Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague that rejected China’s claims in 2016 – a decision Beijing utterly disregards.

Instead, Beijing claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which remains one of the most relevant international shipping routes, with $3.37 trillion worth of trade passing through every year – amounting to almost one-third of all global maritime trade. Moreover, vast amounts of raw materials such as oil and gas are suspected below the surface. Specifically, the US estimates deposits totaling 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China Starts Building Man-Made Islands

In 2014, China started to add landmass to the island and subsequently began building military fortifications on them. That build-up occurred despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge to President Barack Obama in 2015 that the islands would not be militarized. Despite the broken pledge and China’s rather apparent interests in the region, Beijing speaks of “peaceful” intentions.

The exercises occur at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China, primarily due to the corona pandemic and allegations the White House has expressed towards Beijing. Besides the pandemic, persistent trade issues and Beijing’s dealings with Hong Kong continue to escalate. Given that President Donald Trump has played the China card as part of his reelection efforts, these conflicts are unlikely to be alleviated any time soon.

With increased Chinese presence, the US seeks to and must counterbalance Bejing’s hegemonic aspirations. The exercise now is hence not only a display of force and yes, superiority but also a signal to China. A signal that the United States is neither inclined to accept nor willing to succumb to China’s aggression in the region. It is an indispensable message as the US remains the last line of defense between Bejing and its agenda: mastery of East Asia and beyond.

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