China has openly confronted US Navy ships in the South China Sea, a sign of Beijing’s growing confidence over its position in the strategic waterway.
The People’s Liberation Army announced that it had sent warships to challenge a US destroyer and cruiser that had sailed close to its positions in the Paracel Islands.
The move will underline fears in Vietnam that China’s strategic position in the region is reaching critical mass, and that its hold on disputed territory could soon become unassailable.
Vietnam has been fighting a rearguard action, attempting to internationalise the disputes over oil and gas reserves, fishing and the possession of islands and reefs in the Paracels and Spratlys.
President Tran Dai Quang is visiting Japan this week to strengthen strategic ties between the two countries.
Vietnam has also encouraged growing engagement in the South China Sea by India, Russia, Australia and European countries, as well as the United States, in an attempt to counter-balance the Chinese presence.
However, American military planners fear that China’s newly built military bases on reclaimed islands will soon enable it to control the waterway in any scenario short of all-out war with the US.
China responded angrily to Washington’s latest “Freedom of Navigation Operation” (FONOP), describing it as a “grave violation” of Chinese sovereignty.
The Defence Ministry in Beijing said that warships had been dispatched to challenge the American vessels.
The United States has conducted regular FONOP missions in the South China Sea to signal that it does not recognise China’s “historic” claims.
The latest US mission on Sunday appears to have been the most pointed so far.
A US destroyer and a cruiser passed within 12 miles of Chinese outposts in the Paracel chain, including Woody Island, where China maintains a large military garrison and recently landed bombers for the first time.
China claims territorial waters around the islands as well as broader historic rights over most of the South China Sea, both of which were rejected by an international ruling at The Hague in 2016.
China is not thought to be spoiling for a naval clash with the Americans at this stage.
But the dispatch of ships to confront US vessels shows growing confidence in its military capabilities, and a belief that the strategic balance in the South China Sea is shifting.
Beijing is fast building up its capabilities and looking forward to a time when access to the South China Sea can be denied even to the US navy.