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China to U.S.: It’s your fault we are in the South China Sea

U.S. Navy amphibious assault vehicles with Philippine and U.S. troops on board maneuver in the waters during a combined assault exercise facing the contested Scarborough Shoal on April 21, 2015.
U.S. Navy amphibious assault vehicles with Philippine and U.S. troops on board maneuver in the waters during a combined assault exercise facing the contested Scarborough Shoal on April 21, 2015. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

BEIJING — Beijing has a message for the Trump administration: The more ships you send to the contested waters of the South China Sea, the more we will bolster our presence there.

The warning, delivered in a People's Daily commentary published Monday, came days after the USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a reef China seized from Philippine control in 2012. "A U.S. ship wantonly provoking trouble is reckless," it said.

It is not the first time Beijing has tried to blame Washington for maritime tensions — it's a bit of a recurring theme — but the ship's operation and the blustery response may signal an ominous shift in U.S.-China ties.

In his first year in office, President Trump was focused on getting China to rein in North Korea and said little about the South China Sea. But many analysts predicted that his administration would take a tougher line in 2018 — and that may now be underway.

China has laid claim to a number of islands in the South China Sea, building airbases on tiny spits of land while installing radar and missile launchers. (Video: Jason Aldag, Julie Vitkovskaya/The Washington Post / Satellite photos courtesy of CSIS)

The South China Sea fell off Trump’s radar last year. It may be back in 2018.

The United States called last week's operations "routine and regular," but from a Chinese perspective, the timing and the location are significant. 

This was the first of what's termed a freedom of navigation operation in months and the first such passage near Scarborough Shoal. It also took place on the eve of the release of the National Defense Strategy — a document replete with warnings about China.

In the wake of the operation, China showed no sign of changing or softening its stance. Over the weekend, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing was "strongly dissatisfied" with the Hopper's passage and that China would take necessary measures to "firmly safeguard its sovereignty."

Monday's editorial put it this way: "If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there."

Ian Storey, an expert on the South China Sea and a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the timing seemed calibrated to show China that the United States is ready to "do something a bit different."

"I was quite surprised when I read it had taken place at Scarborough Shoal," he said. "I suppose this took China by surprise as well, and it was designed to throw them off balance a bit."

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, a feature about 140 miles off the coast of Luzon, not far from the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay.

In 2016, an international tribunal ruled that China's expansive claims had no legal basis, a finding welcomed by much of the region but largely ignored by Beijing. In the years since, China has pressed ahead with land reclamation and building in the area.

A White House effort to shake up U.S. strategy in the South China Sea will test both U.S.-China and U.S.-Philippines ties — especially because the Philippines, which used to control the shoal, appears to have lost interest in contesting it.

The Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally, used to challenge Chinese claims to the South China Sea. Since coming to power in 2016, however, President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a softer line with Beijing. 

Responding to reports of the freedom of navigation operation near Scarborough Shoal, Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, told local media outlets that it was "America's problem."

"We have reached a point where we have independent foreign relations, and a problem of America is no longer a problem of the Philippines," he said. 

Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the Duterte government's response could help China and hinder the United States by lending credence to Beijing's claims.  

The Duterte administration "washing its hands of this incident and not saying anything about China's assertion of sovereignty is a problem because it could be interpreted as acquiescence to China's statement," he said. 

"If I were China, I would use the Philippines' silence as evidence against their claims."

Luna Lin contributed to this report. 

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