Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, expressed deep concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Citing a notable event where a Chinese coast guard ship used water cannon against a Philippine vessel, Thomas said, “You have to challenge people operating in a grey zone. When they’re taking more and more, pushing you, you’ve got to push back.”
The South China Sea has been a long-standing point of contention between China and several neighboring countries, with the US actively supporting its allies in the region. This sea, spanning a vast 48 million square miles, is frequently patrolled by the Seventh Fleet, the US Navy’s largest forward-deployed fleet. With a formidable presence of around 70 ships, 150 aircraft, and over 27,000 sailors operating from bases in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, the Seventh Fleet plays a crucial role in maintaining balance in the region.
Admiral Thomas’s comments underscore the increasing tensions between the US and China. The incident on August 5th, where the Chinese coast guard’s aggressive actions targeted a Philippine boat, vividly encapsulates the growing rivalry between the two superpowers.
Recognizing the mutual challenges faced in the region, Admiral Thomas had discussions with Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos of the Philippine Western Command. “We certainly shared challenges. So I wanted to better understand how he views the operations he’s responsible for,” Thomas said, emphasizing the US’s commitment to supporting its allies against any aggressive behavior.
The Philippines, backed by an international arbitration award from 2016, rebuffed China’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea. But despite the tribunal declaring Beijing’s claims as baseless, China has continued its aggressive tactics, constructing militarized, manmade islands.
In addition to the challenges in the South China Sea, recent events in the Taiwan Strait have further intensified US-China relations. The White House highlighted dangerous encounters between the US and Chinese forces, pointing to Beijing’s increasing military assertiveness. A significant event was the “unsafe interaction” where a Chinese warship crossed a US destroyer’s path. White House spokesperson John Kirby warned, “It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt.”
However, despite the heated tensions, there’s a desire to maintain predictability. The US State Department highlighted President Joe Biden’s stance, noting, “We don’t seek any kind of new Cold War, and our competition must not spill over into conflict.”
Yet, as past events suggest, with growing confrontations, the risk remains. Analysts like Derek Grossman from the RAND Corporation worry about miscalculations, such as accidental collisions, which could escalate into armed conflicts.
At the very least we must go tit-for-tat with China to slow their progress in the area. A more complete solution may have to wait for a new Administration, since our current President has been bought by the Chinese.