US officials: Chinese aggression in contested waterway could provoke ‘major incident’

John Bechtel
US officials: Chinese aggression in contested waterway could provoke ‘major incident’ A Chinese fighter jet comes in to land on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during open-sea combat training by China’s navy, in this undated photo released on Dec. 31, 2021.
Hu Shanmin/Xinhua via AP

China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea could lead to a “major incident,” U.S. government officials warned on Tuesday, while offering solutions for military and diplomatic deterrence during a forum at a Washington think-tank.

Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the most consequential challenge for the region from a security perspective.

“We see Beijing combining its greater military power with a greater willingness to take risks,” Ratner told a policy conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If the PLA continues this pattern of behavior, it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region,” Ratner said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Ratner’s keynote address mirrored comments from a senior State Department official who participated in an earlier panel discussion.

“There is a clear and upward trend of PRC provocations against South China Sea claimants and other states lawfully operating in the region,” said Jung Pak, deputy assistant secretary for East Asia.

Ratner discussed efforts by China to block Philippine supply ships, Chinese intercepts of Canadian aircraft in the East China Sea, and incidents involving Australian aircraft.

Last month, according to Australia’s Department of Defense, a Chinese fighter jet buzzed the nose of an Australian jet conducting a routine flight and released a round of chaff – aluminum coated glass fibers that could have damaged the jet’s engine and endangered its crew.

“Beijing is systematically testing the limits of our collective resolve and advancing a new status quo in the South China Sea that flies in the face of our shared commitment to the respect for sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes and adherence to international law,” Ratner said.

He said Beijing had been involved in dozens of dangerous events in 2021.

“I want to be clear that these are not isolated incidents,” he said, adding that the U.S. and its allies would take steps against China’s actions.

“From a defense perspective, what this demands of us is that we demonstrate the will and capability to credibly deter PRC aggression,” he said.

Efforts will include working with reliable partners, he said, noting the Visiting Forces Agreement and Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. Ratner also called for a credible combat presence in the region.

Earlier this week, the top American military commander said China’s military had shown more aggressive and dangerous behavior during the past five years against military forces from the U.S. and Indo-Pacific allies.

“The message is the Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters as he traveled to Australia with a stopover in Indonesia’s capital on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

As he responded to a question during a daily press briefing on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Milley’s remarks sought to confuse people.

“Some people in the U.S. have clung to the Cold War zero-sum mentality and kept making references to a ‘China challenge,’” Zhao told reporters. “Who’s been challenging regional peace, security and stability? And who is more aggressive? The facts speak for themselves.”


Communication is key to preventing escalation, Ratner said.

“We are actively seeking open lines of communication with Beijing and with China’s defense leaders to ensure we can prevent miscalculations,” he said.

During the panel discussion, Pak discussed potential diplomatic efforts in the region around the contested waterway.

“Countering PRC tactics in the South China Sea is not just a military issue. We are leading a government-wide integrated deterrent strategy that prioritizes diplomacy, development, economic engagement and compliance with international law,” Pak said.

She said the U.S. has policies that establish multilateral support against unlawful Chinese maritime claims, voice support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and sanction PRC entities that jeopardize peace and security.

These policies “have bolstered regional confidence in U.S. resolve and empowered South China Sea claimants to speak up publicly,” she said.

An Indonesian academic who joined Pak as part of the panel discussion said his country turns to China for economic support and to the U.S. for security.

“While China is giving money for its Belt and Road Initiative, the U.S. is pushing human rights concerns,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, an associate professor of international relations at the University of General Achmad Yani in West Java.

Yohanes expressed fear that Indonesia could rely too much on the U.S. for security in the region. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, including territory within Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone.

“If we get closer to the United States, then the United States could dominate the region,” he said.

Yohanes offered advice to President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials.

“The United States needs to pay more attention to Indonesia.”


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