America pushes back in South China Sea

Naval ships in the South China Sea © Getty images
China is expanding its presence

US defence secretary James Mattis has denounced Beijing for its “militarisation” of the South China Sea, through which $5trn of international trade passes each year, says Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times.

Since 2014 Beijing has been concreting over coral reefs and expanding artificial islands to install military airports equipped with missiles, strengthening its claim to the entire area. At a recent meeting of defence ministers in Singapore, Mattis said that “despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion”.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also claim some of the hundreds of reefs and islands in these waters, but China’s actions are making their claims look “increasingly forlorn”, says Simon Roughneen in the Nikkei Asian Review. Mattis has warned that there will be “consequences” if Beijing does not start to “work more collaboratively with all of the nations”.

US pushback includes continuing to carry out so-called freedom of navigation operations and having US military aircraft flying over the Paracel Islands in early June. America has also sought to “widen the array of countries” that will join it in countering China’s rising influence.

France, which cites its need to defend the interests of 1.5 million French citizens scattered across five French territories in the Pacific, is also upping its presence there, says the South China Morning Post. As part of its strategy, in August the air force will start its biggest-ever air exercise in southeast Asia.