Washington is destroying peace and stability, and stirring trouble in the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said yesterday.
His comments came after the US’ guided missile destroyer USS Mustin carried out a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is carrying out an exercise from Sunday to today.
Chinese media noted this was the second time in a week that Washington had carried out such “risky” operations in areas where the PLA is holding exercises. The nationalist Global Times ran a report that Beijing’s naval and air forces had tracked, identified and expelled the USS Mustin.
Observers say Beijing has been unusually vocal about what it sees as incursions by the US, pointing out that this was likely a move to paint Washington as provocateur.
On Tuesday, the United States sent a U2 spy plane into an area designated by Beijing as a no-fly zone, where the PLA’s Northern Theatre Command was carrying out live-fire exercises, and drew angry protests from Beijing.
China launched anti-ship ballistic missiles after the U2 spy plane’s incursion, dropping them near the Paracels.
The US Defence Department on Thursday said the missile tests threatened peace and stability in the region and “call into question (China’s) motivations with ongoing negotiations for a Code of Conduct between China and Asean”, referring to talks to settle on a set of rules and norms to prevent conflict.
“This military exercise is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its South-east Asian neighbours in the South China Sea,” the Defence Department said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Beijing has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan in the South China Sea, where it has been building military installations on disputed reefs and outcroppings to assert its sovereignty.
The USS Mustin’s sailing is the latest tit for tat involving the militaries of both superpowers, which in the past months have seen relations sour over issues including trade, technology and espionage.
Mr Zhao said yesterday that China’s drills in the South China Sea were not targeted at any country and were unrelated to the territorial disputes in those waters.
Taking aim at the US, he said: “The United States is the destroyer of peace and stability, and a troublemaker in the South China Sea, this is obvious to the international community. The United States should stop making trouble and sowing discord, and play a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Beijing’s vocal stance is a strategy to paint Washington as the aggressor, said observers.
Regarding the US reconnaissance plane, Shanghai-based military commentator Ni Lexiong said China chose to “publicly admonish the US for it even though it would mean a loss of face”.
“It was an obvious provocation and wanted to cause trouble… In the past there were incidents like these but China would usually keep quiet about it,” he said.
Dr Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, called this a “contestation of narratives” between Beijing and Washington.
So while tensions are rising in the South China Sea, actual conflict is unlikely as the party that fires the first shot would lose the moral high ground, he said. “China certainly wants to gain the upper hand when it comes to the moral high ground, it wants to be painted as the victim and paint the US as the aggressor.”