China is not afraid of fighting a war against the United States in the South China Sea, a state-run newspaper with links to the Communist party has claimed.
Twenty-four hours after Washington challenged Beijing’s territorial claims in the region by deploying a warship to waters around the disputed Spratly archipelago, the notoriously nationalistic Global Times accused the Pentagon of provoking China.
“This can convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity.”
The People’s Liberation Army Daily, China’s leading military newspaper, used a front-page editorial to accuse the US of sowing chaos in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Cast-iron facts show that time and again the United States recklessly uses force and starts wars, stirring things up where once there was stability, causing the bitterest of harm to those countries directly involved,” the newspaper said, according to Reuters.
Tuesday’s manoeuvre, which saw the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sail close to artificial Chinese islands, came after Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping failed to find common ground over the issue during recent talks at the White House.
US defence secretary Ash Carter warned that further “freedom of navigation” operations in the region were planned. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” he told a congressional hearing.
China reacted to Tuesday’s long-anticipated mission by hurling a barrage of accusations at Washington.
“The United States has been very irresponsible,” defense ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun said, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency.
“We will take any measures necessary to safeguard our security.”
Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said China would “resolutely respond” to any deliberate provocations but declined to be drawn on any potential military response.
“I advise the US not to make a fool out of themselves in trying to be smart,” Lu said.
But despite the angry rhetoric coming out of Beijing, experts say China’s response has been relatively muted.
“It seems like China’s reaction – at least initially – has been to respond in a restrained, operational way. The Chinese have absolutely no interest in sparking a tactical crisis or any kind of confrontation with the Americans,” said Ashley Townshend, a South China Sea expert from the University of Sydney’s United States studies centre.
China’s military buildup in the South China Sea – including the construction of a 3km runway capable of supporting fighter jets and transport planes – has become a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
China claims most of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, although Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims. Beijing says the islands will have mainly civilian uses as well as undefined defence purposes.
But satellite photographs have shown the construction of three military-length airstrips by China in the Spratlys, including one each on Mischief and Subi reefs.
Washington hoped Tuesday’s mission would encourage Beijing to step back from its controversial island building campaign, which China claims is for civilian purposes but critics believe is an attempt to use military power to cement its grip over the region.
However, Townshend warned that sending US warships to the South China Sea could have the opposite effect.
“I think these freedom of navigation missions may play into the hands of the hardliners in the [Chinese] military or in the regime … It will be harder for moderates in the regime to say no to People’s Liberation Army hawks and others if the Americans are [seen as] being provocative.”
Townshend said the US mission may have temporarily strengthened Washington’s hand. “[But] there’s an element of you win the battle but you lose the war if actually these freedom of navigation missions make China more determined to militarise these islands,” he added.
“These islands are not going away – unless global warming takes them out.”