US Bombers Above Disputed Islands: A Strong Message Both to China and ASEAN

Americans emphasize their readiness to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, especially as the Trans-Pacific Partnership is gradually becoming reality.

Recently Chinese authorities filed a formal diplomatic complaint with the US embassy in Beijing after US bombers flew within two nautical miles of an artificial island in the South China Sea built and claimed by China. Two B-52s “entered without authorization the airspace around the relevant islands and reefs” of the Spratly archipelago on December 10, China’s Defence Ministry said in a statement.

“The actions by the U.S. side were a serious military provocation, creating complex conditions in the South China Sea and even militarization in the region”, the statement, quoted by Xinhua, reads.

US military officials confirmed the incident took place but said the flyover was “unintentional”.

In an interview with, Alexei Fenenko, associate professor at the Moscow State University School of World Politics, explained how the incident reflected the United States long-standing policy vis-à-vis China and Southeast Asia.

Fenenko believes the second flyby of US warplanes near the disputed islands in less than a month is a message addressed both to China and ASEAN member states. “The US wants to drive a wedge between China and key ASEAN member states, Vietnam and the Philippines. That’s why Americans emphasize their readiness to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, especially as the Trans-Pacific Partnership is gradually becoming reality.”

Spratly islands, a group of reefs, banks and shoals in the South China Sea, are claimed by China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Recently, Beijing began to construct artificial islands in the area to enhance its claim, unrecognized either by neighbouring countries or the United States.

According to Fenenko, close cooperation between China and ASEAN member states is something the US has strived to prevent for almost two decades now.

“Prior to 2010, China and ASEAN headed towards a free trade zone, which caused a serious concern in Washington. But in 2010 China declared the South China Sea a zone of its key interests. It was at that time, too, that State Secretary Hillary Clinton said the US would protect freedom of navigation there,” the Russian scholar said.

China overplayed its hand, Fenenko believes. “They overrated their friendly ties with ASEAN member states and underestimated the fear which Beijing’s assertive stance generated there,” he said. Now Washington is trying to capitalize on that fear.

“The more China is feared in the Philippines and Brunei (a country with minuscule military potential, but huge influence in ASEAN), the better. The more they hate China, the more likely they are to sign up to any anti-China pact, even at unfavourable terms,” Fenenko said.

Asked if military confrontation over the disputed islands could break out, Fenenko said it was unlikely so far, but could be potentially sparked by two scenarios.

“First, if the US resumes the programme of boosting the Philippines Navy capabilities, frozen in 2013,” he said. “In this case, the Chinese may again ponder a strike on the Philippine flagship Gregorio del Pilar, an ex-US Coast Guard frigate. This option was on the table in 2013, when the two countries were close to military confrontation over the disputed islands".

"Even more dangerous is the scenario of a US-led regime change in Vietnam, leading to establishment of an aggressive anti-China regime in Hanoi,” Fenenko went on to say. “Vietnam is well-armed and has strong military traditions. They are proud of their victory over China in the 1979 war and, unlike other states in the region, do not fear the mighty neighbor at the psychological level", the scholar said.

A military conflict between China and Vietnam would bury all projects of integration in Asia-Pacific, Fenenko believes.

The US policy aims to "corner" China, the scholar said, and in that it is reminiscent of the western moves with regard to Russia prior to the Ukrainian crisis. “In fact, tensions between Russia and the West began at the 2012 Munich conference, when NATO plainly rejected all of Russia's initiatives to reform European security and Russia ended up isolated,” he pointed out. “Now America is trying to do the same with China, but there is nothing more dangerous that a cornered enemy, because he can resort to the most decisive moves”, Fenenko concluded.
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