A report published Wednesday, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry asserted it was “not scared” of a growing U.S. presence in the region, suggests China has withdrawn some of its missile systems in the South China Sea.
China has spent the past decade building artificial islands in territory claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, asserting it has full sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. The “nine-dash line” that China claims defines its maritime border grants China control over territory belonging to the aforementioned countries as well as Taiwan (whose sovereignty China does not recognize), Brunei, Malaysia, and waters off of Natuna Island, Indonesia.
The Trump administration has boosted the number of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in those waters to assert the international nature of that region, a $3 trillion trade route, incensing China. On Monday, the U.S. military flew two B-52 bombers near the Philippine and Vietnamese Spratly Islands, where China has constructed and militarized several artificial islands. The Pentagon told reporters it always maintains a “continuous bomber presence” in the area. A report published Sunday revealed that the Pentagon may indeed be planning to expand FONOPs in the region, however, as China continues to place military assets – missiles, fighter jets, heavy bombers, surveillance technology – illegally on foreign territory.
“China won’t be scared by any so-called military ship or aircraft, and we will only even more staunchly [take] all necessary steps to defend the country’s sovereignty and security, to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday, according to Reuters. “Running amok is risky.”
Hua went on to accuse the United States of raising tensions in the region, as she often has since reports of artificial island construction began to surface in the early 2010s.
“I hope the US can explain to everyone: Isn’t it militarization when you send attacking weapons like the B-52 bombers to the South China Sea? Were the B-52s there for freedom of navigation and overflight?” she asked. “If someone frequently flexes his muscles or snoops around near your house, shouldn’t you raise your alertness and improve your defense capabilities?”
China’s state media operations followed suit, expressing concern that the next FONOP may involve the Taiwan Straits. In a column published Wednesday, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, the People’s Daily, warned the Pentagon not to deploy military assets near U.S. ally Taiwan. It noted that “the last time a US aircraft carrier transited the Taiwan Straits was in 2007,” and Beijing expects it to stay that way.
“The Taiwan question is the bottom line that cannot be touched or challenged,” the People’s Daily quotes Lieutenant-General He Lei of the People’s Liberation Army as saying last weekend at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue conference. “The PLA has the determination, confidence and capability to safeguard China’s sovereignty, unity and developmental interests.”
“Some people from Washington believe that it is easy for the US to make trouble for China,” the Global Times, another government publication, said on Wednesday. “They think the cost is very low or even nothing. They imagine they can gain Chinese cooperation and obedience to US interests this way.”
“The US has never frightened any small country so far. How could it possibly scare a major power like China?” the publication asked.
If a new report from ImageSat International (ISI), an Israeli intelligence firm, does indeed prove that China moved several missile systems out of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, it may indicate that China indeed fears a confrontation with the U.S. Navy.
The report, first appearing in CNN, found through satellite images no evidence that the missile systems placed on those islands months ago are still there. ISI was cautious in noting that their absence on the islands where the systems were once located does not necessarily mean they have been permanently moved, and, instead, could be a routine relocation to another area of the South China Sea Beijing may feel is in more need of defense.
“It may be a regular practice,” CNN quotes the report as reading. “If so, within the next few days we may observe a redeployment in the same area.”