The U.S. stand in dis­puted wa­ters

Ad­mi­ral says dur­ing his China stop that no re­ver­sal of Obama-era pol­icy is ex­pected.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Jes­sica Mey­ers Mey­ers is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Ni­cole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this re­port.

ZHANJIANG, China — A se­nior U.S. naval com­man­der in­sisted Thurs­day that Amer­i­can pol­icy on the South China Sea has not shifted, de­spite un­cer­tainty about Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­sponse to Chi­nese mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the dis­puted wa­ters.

“The pol­icy is con­sis­tent be­tween the two ad­min­is­tra­tions,” said Adm. Scott Swift, who leads U.S. naval forces in the Pa­cific. “I don’t think any­body is ex­pect­ing this huge re­ver­sal.”

Swift spoke aboard the guided-mis­sile de­stroyer Sterett dur­ing its sched­uled stop in Zhanjiang, a seaside steel town on China’s far south­ern tip. The ship docked amid Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army ships at a Chi­nese naval base. The port city is the naval head­quar­ters re­spon­si­ble for op­er­a­tions in the South China Sea.

The com­man­der em­pha­sized con­ti­nu­ity amid con­cerns Trump is look­ing the other way on China’s island-build­ing in fa­vor of its help thwart­ing North Korea’s nu­clear am­bi­tions.

Al­lies re­ceived some re­as­sur­ance last month when a U.S. war­ship sailed near ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands China claims, the first test of Beijing’s as­sertive­ness since Trump took of­fice. (Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Lu Kang ac­cused the U.S. of tres­pass­ing near is­lands where China has “in­dis­putable sovereignty.”)

Swift em­pha­sized Amer­ica’s “con­sis­tent pres­ence” in the re­gion but also played down the fo­cus on these free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions, or FONOPS.

“The amount of FONOPS we do is in­fin­i­tes­i­mal com­pared to our ev­ery­day ex­changes,” he said. “I don’t see how those op­er­a­tions in the South China Sea should be viewed from a Navy per­spec­tive as any more con­se­quen­tial than any­where else.”

Swift noted U.S. “ship days” in the South China Sea would prob­a­bly reach 900 this year, up from about 700 an­nu­ally. But he at­trib­uted it to car­rier strike groups tem­po­rar­ily in the Pa­cific and cau­tioned against as­sum­ing a reg­u­lar in­crease.

China claims al­most all of the South China Sea and has in­ten­si­fied its grasp in re­cent years by con­vert­ing sub­merged reefs into fullscale is­lands with run­ways and mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions. It vies against neigh­bors for stretches of the strate­gi­cally vi­tal and min­eral-rich wa­ters, through which more than $5 tril­lion worth of trade passes each year.

The fight is about sovereignty and se­cu­rity, but it’s also about the abil­ity to drill for oil and fish in plen­ti­ful wa­ters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Viet­nam and Tai­wan all have com­pet­ing claims.

U.S. of­fi­cials haven’t taken sides in the sovereignty dis­pute, but they have sought to re­in­force the right to sail in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters. Trump crit­i­cized China’s island buildup dur­ing the cam­paign and then spoke less about the is­sue once he took of­fice.

“The mixed mes­sages are still there,” said Euan Gra­ham, di­rec­tor of the in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity pro­gram at the Lowy In­sti­tute in Aus­tralia. Of­fi­cials “are try­ing to demon­strate con­sis­tency against a pat­tern of in­con­sis­tency at the White House,” he said.

De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis, speak­ing at an in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Sin­ga­pore this month, at­tempted to find a bal­ance. He pledged to work with China on is­sues the two na­tions care about while crit­i­ciz­ing its “in­dis­putable mil­i­ta­riza­tion” of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands and “ex­ces­sive mar­itime claims un­sup­ported by in­ter­na­tional law.”

The U.S., he said, “can­not and will not ac­cept uni­lat­eral, co­er­cive changes to the sta­tus quo.”

Swift and the ship crew sought to high­light the col­lab­o­ra­tive side.

The de­stroyer’s stop is the first visit this year of a U.S. war­ship to main­land China. Of­fi­cials billed the five-day lay­over as a chance to build mar­itime co­op­er­a­tion through pleas­antries such as ship tours and a cook­ing ex­change. Each side hosted an evening re­cep­tion, where sailors ex­changed belt buck­les and uni­form or­na­ments.

The de­stroyer, de­ployed from San Diego in March, re­cently as­sisted in a train­ing ex­er­cise with two Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers over the South China Sea. Cmdr. Sean Lewis, the ship’s ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, said they con­ducted three other op­er­a­tions there “show­ing our pres­ence.”

Chi­nese an­a­lysts saw the visit as il­lus­tra­tive of the com­plex, ruf­fled rap­port be­tween the two coun­tries.

“There are ac­tions that are provoca­tive, yet this visit is just friendly,” said Xu Guangyu, for­mer vice pres­i­dent of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army De­fense In­sti­tute of China. “This re­flects the in­ter­nal con­tra­dic­tion in the U.S.-Sino re­la­tion­ship.”

Bullit Mar­quez As­so­ci­ated Press

CHINA’S mil­i­ta­riza­tion of is­lands in the South China Sea has raised ten­sion with other na­tions with com­pet­ing claims in the re­gion.

Ted Aljibe AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE PHILIP­PINES is among the na­tions an­gered by China’s claims. The U.S. has chal­lenged Beijing’s as­sertive­ness through free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions.

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