PARACEL ISLANDS, SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 05, 2021) Seaman Recruit Richard Lopez, from Tulare, Calif., stands watch as aft lookout on the flight deck aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) as the ship conducts routine underway operations. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda.
President Joe Biden outlined his foreign policy priorities during a Thursday speech at the State Department, singling out China as America’s “most serious competitor.”
Biden pledged that his administration would “confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action,” and “push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.”
“American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism,” Biden said.
To that end, the US Navy was quick to do its part.
The USS John S. McCain sailed past the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Friday, underscoring America’s uninterrupted pushback against China’s unlawful territorial claims in that body of water only one day after the guided-missile destroyer passed through the Taiwan Strait — another flashpoint in US-China relations.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands in the Indo-Pacific region. For its part, China has built military installations on the archipelago and claimed authority over the surrounding waters. Taiwanese officials have subsequently warned that Beijing might declare an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, over the area.
“By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea,” the US 7th Fleet announced in a Friday release, addressing the McCain’s passage in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands.
“U.S. forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century,” the Navy statement said, adding that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”
Friday’s South China Sea passage came just one day after the McCain, a Japan-based Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, passed through the Taiwan Strait — the narrow body of water dividing mainland China from Taiwan, located about 500 miles north of the Paracel Islands.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the US 7th Fleet announced in a release. “The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
Beijing protested the move.
“China paid close attention to and monitored from start to end the passage of the US military vessel through the Taiwan Strait,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Thursday, adding: “We hope the US side will play a constructive role for regional peace and stability, rather than the opposite.”
At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Chinese national forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek retreated from the Chinese mainland and established an autonomous government on Taiwan called the Republic of China. Communist China has continued to claim Taiwan as its sovereign territory. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have been on the rise in recent months, spurring some foreign policy experts to speculate that China might eventually attempt to invade the island nation.
Across the entire Indo-Pacific region, both China and the US are jostling for influence over island nations for the sake of gaining strategic military advantage. Establishing a far-reaching footprint across the region, US military forces have platforms to forward deploy military forces — including long-range, precision weapons — which are meant to deter China from aggressive power grabs that threaten the status quo balance of power.
Some warn, however, that tensions between China and the US are edging away from innocuous diplomatic sparring and increasingly toward military competition. For their part, US warships typically pick up a Chinese shadow as they regularly pass through the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. According to USNI News, two Chinese guided-missile frigates maneuvered near the McCain during its Taiwan Strait maneuvers on Thursday.
“China will continue to stay on high alert and is ready to respond to all threats and provocations at any time and will resolutely safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Wang, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.