There may be a greater risk of incidents between the United States and Chinese navies in the South China Sea because the US military has been given more decision-making authority, a Chinese think tank warned on Tuesday.
In a report, the think tank said the White House National Security Council had become less involved in US military activities in the disputed region, despite an increase in their frequency and intensity.
“The US military will continue intensifying military operations in the South China Sea, constantly exploring the grey zones between peace and conflict, and probing China’s bottom line, which will inevitably push the threshold of small-scale armed conflict and war,” according to the report released by Peking University’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.
The US Navy has been conducting so-called freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-controlled islands and reefs since 2015, to challenge what Washington calls Beijing’s excessive claims in the waterway. Four such operations were carried out under former president Barack Obama and there have been 11 so far under President Donald Trump.
“During the Obama era, such operations had more strategic significance so there was management from the higher level,” said Hu Bo, co-author of the report and director of the Centre for Maritime Strategy Studies at Peking University.
He said the Trump administration had delegated authority to the Indo-Pacific Command (PACOM), which would “surely increase the risks and hazards” in the region.
“After the annual [defence] plan [and budget] was approved, little attention has been paid to operations,” Hu said.
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The report comes after several high-ranking officials – including former PACOM commander Harry Harris, his successor Philip Davidson and chief of naval operations John Richardson – have repeatedly threatened tougher action against China over its activities in the region.
“It’s concerning that those key figures in the military decision-making chain are making these kind of remarks,” Hu said.
Meanwhile, there are also concerns that China’s military could act with less restraint. Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, director of the Centre for Security Cooperation under the defence ministry, said last month that the Chinese navy could become less tolerant of US activities in the South China Sea.
“As our capability grows, we are likely to take more actions to counter provocations,” he said.
Tensions rose in September when the USS Decatur was challenged by the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou during an operation near Gaven Reef, one of China’s artificial islands, and a collision was narrowly avoided.
Hu said the US and China should pursue more “effective” dialogue, including on regional maritime arms control, to avoid escalation of any future incidents.
“The most important issue is making clear the strategic intentions of each side,” he said.
Beijing claims most of the resource-rich South China Sea and uses the southern island of Hainan as a base for projecting power over and administering islands in the area. But the waters, the world’s busiest trade route, are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.