Multiple reports indicate that American military officials are considering sending forces to monitor disputed areas of the South China Sea in an attempt, as Reuters describes it, to “assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands.” The reports arrive less than one week before Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with Chinese leadership in Beijing.
A U.S. official told Reuters, on the condition of anonymity, that American officials are “considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade,” particularly regarding the Chinese government’s developments on the Spratly Islands, which they claim belong to China, but the Philippines, Vietnam, and neighboring nations contend do not. Specifically, the newswire notes, American officials are considering sending aircraft or military ships to monitor the area.
An American official similarly told CNN that such a move is intended to “contest Chinese claims over disputed islands.”
The Chinese government has responded to the reports with alarm. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying described officials as “seriously concerned” about American intervention in the region. State outlet Xinhua quotes Hua as stating that, while China “has always advocated freedom of navigation” in the region, “freedom of navigation does not give one country’s military aircraft and ships free access to another country’s territorial waters and airspace.”
The Philippines, which disputes China’s claims to the Spratly Islands and other areas of the South China Sea, welcomed the news. “The Philippines believes that the U.S., as well as all responsible members of the international community, do have an interest and say in what is happening in the South China Sea,” Charles Jose, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said on Wednesday. The remark echoes comments from Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who said of the dispute, “We are taking the position that we must do something quickly lest the massive reclamation results in de facto control of China of the South China Sea.” Del Rosario is currently in Washington, D.C., on a foreign diplomatic trip.
Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Beijing over the weekend, where the topic is expected to arise in discussions with Chinese officials. Officials tell Reuters that Kerry is expected to leave China “in absolutely no doubt” of America’s opposition to its takeover of the South China Sea. “He will leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintaining freedom of navigation and to exercise our legitimate rights as pertaining to over flight and movement on the high seas,” Reuters quotes the official as saying.
The Chinese government has reportedly been building artificial islands, plane landing strips, and even factories in the Spratly Islands since 2014, development of which has been caught by satellite cameras. The Philippines have repeatedly called for an end to the construction, objecting that the islands are sovereign Philippine territory to which the Chinese government has no claim. In response, China has accused the Philippines of violating Chinese sovereignty by “constructing military and civilian facilities on certain disputed islands.”
Experts have noted that, from satellite evidence, it appears that China may be causing significant environmental damage to coral reefs in the South China Sea, deliberately crushing the coral to create artificial islands.