- Secretary of Defence Mark Esper warned Beijing on Tuesday that the US isn’t “going to be stopped by anybody” in the South China Sea, stressing that US aircraft carriers will continue to sail these waters.
- His remarks follows a statement last week from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejecting many of China’s maritime claims and criticising its efforts to enforce its will.
- While Esper was tough on China in his remarks, he extended an olive branch that revealed that he is planning a trip to China, his first as secretary of defence, before the end of the year.
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Secretary of Defence Mark Esper warned Beijing on Tuesday that the US isn’t “going to be stopped by anybody” in the South China Sea, the latest in a series of tough remarks from the US on the strategic waterway.
He said at a virtual International Institute for Strategic Studies event that China “continues to engage in systematic rule-breaking, coercion, and other malign activities, and most concerning, to me, is the People’s Liberation Army continues its aggressive behaviour in the East and South China Sea.”
“We hope the [Chinese Communist Party] will change its ways, but we must be prepared for the alternative,” he added. “We must uphold the free and open system that has secured peace and prosperity for millions and defend the principles that undergird it.”
The secretary said that the US military is positioning forces to counter Chinese behaviour and support US policies, revealing that the US conducted more freedom-of-navigation operations challenging unlawful movement restrictions and excessive claims in 2019 than it has any year in the past four decades. “We will keep up the pace this year,” he said.
Last Tuesday, the US Navy destroyer USS Ralph Johnson conducted its sixth FONOP this year in the South China Sea, as the service calls patrols through disputed areas that the US considers international waters. And, two times this month, Esper noted, the US Navy has conducted dual carrier operations in the waterway with two carrier strike groups.
China has bristled at the presence of US Navy aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. The inflammatory Global Times, controlled by China’s Communist Party, wrote earlier this month that the “South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” and “any US aircraft carrier movement in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.”
And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. #USSNimitz & #USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated #AtOurDiscretion https://t.co/QGTggRjOul
— Navy Chief of Information (@chinfo) July 5, 2020
The secretary of defence said Tuesday that he doesn’t “know what the Chinese meant by that hollow statement about American carriers being there by the pleasure of the PLA or something.”
“American aircraft carriers,” he said, “have been in the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific since World War II and will continue to be there, and we are not going to be stopped by anybody.”
“We’re going to sail, fly and operate where international law allows, Esper said, “and we do that, again, to assert international law and rights to back up the sovereignty of our friends and partners and to reassure them that we will be there to defend those things.”
Esper’s comments on the South China Sea follow a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Monday rejecting many of China’s maritime claims and criticising its efforts to enforce its will in the area.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” the secretary stated.
“Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo said, adding that “the PRC’s predatory world view has no place in the 21st century.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the US statement on the South China Sea “irresponsible.”
“It violates and distorts international law, deliberately stokes territorial and maritime disputes, and undermines regional peace and stability,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said last Tuesday.
Despite Esper’s tough rhetoric on China’s behaviour, he extended an olive branch to Beijing Tuesday, saying that he is planning to visit China before the end of the year to “establish the systems necessary for crisis communications and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system in which we all belong.”
If he travels to China, it will be Esper’s first trip to China as secretary of defence.