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Trump’s ‘New Cold War’ aims to hold China at bay

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MANILA –The United States and China are coming dangerously close to a collision in the South China Sea, a clash that could easily turn rhetoric and threats of a “New Cold War” into actual armed conflict.

The sea moves come against the background of a rising war of words, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying over the weekend that, “Some US political forces are taking hostage of China-US relations, attempting to push the ties to the brink of a so-called New Cold War. This is dangerous and will endanger global peace.”

US military officials, on the other hand, say China has been endangering that peace for months. There have been “at least nine” incidents of “unsafe” encounters between the the two sides’ armed forces in the South China Sea since March, according to Reed Werner, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Southeast Asia.

“We do find the current trend line very worrisome,” Werner told Fox News last week, warning that “China continues to push forward” just “[a]s countries are focused inward” to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We continue to see Chinese destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic,” the top American official added, describing Beijing’s expanding military and para-military activities in the area as part of a broader campaign to “intimidate and bully others.”

The Pentagon official said that US warnings are “definitely not overblown” while highlighting what he characterized as China’s “continued risky and escalatory behavior” against US forces in the sea.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

Last month, a Chinese vessel escorting the Liaoning aircraft carrier during “mock battles” in the South China Sea reportedly maneuvered in an “unsafe and unprofessional way” against the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin on a routine operation in the area, according to the Pentagon.

The last time the US and China came this close to a clash on the high seas was in late 2018, when a Chinese warship maneuvered within less than 50 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur, which was conducting a routine Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the sea’s contested Spratly island chain. 

With the US now struggling to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has taken nearly 100,000 lives, China has bid to impose its will on rivals and neighbors, seen in the harassment of Malaysian energy exploration activities and a Philippine warship in recent weeks.

US President Donald Trump’s administration is signaling a tougher stance in response, raising the risk of armed clashes on the high seas.

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