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Mark J. Valencia:
By Mark J. Valencia - 27 Dec 2016
On 16 December, the US Department of Defense announced that it had issued a formal protest to China demanding the return of an underwater drone. After several days of verbal tit-for tat, China returned the drone. The US Navy is determining whether the seizure was a “low-level” action by the sailors or a top down message by senior Chinese leaders.
In recent weeks, US-Philippines relations have undergone a rough patch as President Duterte has sought to “rebalance” Philippine foreign policy and lessen its dependence on the US. The reaction of policy makers and analysts in the US has ranged from anger to handwringing to ignoring the significance and roots of the problem.
It has now been nearly three months since the arbitral panel ruling against China’s claims to maritime space in the South China Sea. The decision has set in motion political and military adjustments. But none of them contribute to the resolution of the conflicting claims or to the contest between the US and China.
China has apparently decided to play for the longer term, leveraging its strong position on the ground while refraining from raising tension by initiating construction on Scarborough Shoal or declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.
American allies like Japan have taken strong stands in support of the decision. But belatedly some are realizing that the decision has important potentially negative implications for their own maritime claims and disputes.
Most such encounters are not unintentional or even unexpected. If the US persists in provocative actions despite China’s repeated requests to cease and desist, it must expect to be challenged. And if Japan continues to flaunt its control of the Senkakus, it too invites such challenges.
China, the US and their respective supporters are engaged in a propaganda “war” regarding the South China Sea. China has launched a worldwide information campaign that justifies its position. Officials and analysts in the US have seemingly been dragged into the media “gutter” and become involved in a public information campaign of their own.
According to the Pentagon, on May 17, 2016, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets intercepted a US Navy EP-3 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance plane on a “routine patrol” in “international air space” about 100 nautical miles south of China’s mainland coast and 50 nm east of Hainan.