Another incident involving US military operations over disputed waters near China has resulted in Beijing issuing a scathing condemnation of Washington amidst already soaring trade war tensions.
China's defense ministry on Tuesday denounced recent US-B52 bomber flyovers of the South China Sea and East China Sea, calling the military maneuvers "provocative". Though Pentagon officials are downplaying this and prior such incidents, it demonstrates just how fast the currently escalating trade war could easily translate into a potential military "mishap" between the two countries.
"Regarding the provocative actions of US military aircraft in the South China Sea, we are always resolutely opposed to them, and will continue to take necessary measures in order to strongly handle (this issue)," Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said before reporters, according to the AFP.
A Pentagon spokesman quickly shot back, rejecting Chinese territorial claims which interpret its expanding man-made island chains as a natural extension of its sovereign space. The flights were part of "regularly scheduled operations," said Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn.
The Pentagon further confirmed that its heavy bombers are operating in the area as part of combined exercises with Japan over the East and South China seas, and that flights were being conducted over recognized international airspace. US officials have over the past year repeatedly confirmed that the Air Force and Navy will "continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows at times and places of our choosing."
Under international law, a country's airspace is considered to be 12 nautical miles distant from the coastline of the nation, but China has used its man-made islands — on which it's frequently stationed military assets — to lay claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea as falling under its definition of what constitutes sovereign Chinese space.
Beijing's so called "nine-dash line" encircles as much as 90 percent of the contested waters in the South China see and runs up to 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and within a few hundred kilometers of Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines — all within this vaguely defined zone Beijing claims as within its "historical maritime rights".
The UN estimates that one-third of global shipping passes through the expansive area claimed by China — and crucially there's thought to exist significant untapped oil and natural gas reserves.
There's been a series of incidents over the summer involving US aircraft and ships, as well as that of regional powers like the Philippines, which have involved Chinese military warning off the foreign vessels and aircraft.
Previously this week China denied a US warship's planned port visit to Hong Kong in what was a stunning symbolic rebuke in response to new tariffs enacted by the Trump administration.
In statements to reporters on Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis downplayed the threat that routine military flights through the area would itself raise tensions with China. He said while referring to the US military base in the Indian Ocean "If it was 20 years ago and they have not militarized those features there, it would have just been another bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or whatever."
Mattis added, "So there's nothing out of the ordinary about it, nor about our ships sailing through there," and said there is no "fundamental shift in anything." He downplayed the whole incident: "We're just going through one of those periodic points where we've got to learn to manage our differences," he explained.
However, Mattis' words aren't too comforting when all of this comes within the context of a US-led trade war that Trump reportedly plans to make "unprecedentedly large" and "unbearably painful" for Beijing.