THE US has dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea, in a move that is set to escalate tensions after China authorised its coastguard to open fire on any foreign vessel deemed to pose a threat to its sovereignty.
The US military announced on Sunday that the strike group, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt, had entered the South China Sea on Saturday.
‘After sailing through these waters throughout my 30-year career, it’s great to be in the South China Sea again, conducting routine operations, promoting freedom of the seas, and reassuring allies and partners,’ said commander of the strike group Doug Verissimo.
‘With two-thirds of the world’s trade travelling through this very important region, it is vital that we maintain our presence and continue to promote the rules-based order which has allowed us all to prosper,’ he said.
China has passed a new law that allows its coastguard, for the first time, to fire on foreign vessels if needed.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, but Washington sides with China’s rival claimants in the sea, accusing Beijing of seeking to extend its sphere of influence in the region.
The United States routinely sends its warships and warplanes to the South China Sea to assert what it calls its right to ‘freedom of navigation’.
China has constantly warned Washington against military activities in the sea, saying that potential close military encounters by the air and naval forces of the two countries in the region could easily trigger ‘accidents’.
This latest US deployment came after Taiwan said Chinese warplanes, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, had entered its airspace.
China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province which it has vowed to retake, by force if necessary, but a stepped-up US engagement in the dispute has escalated tensions, with Beijing warning against Washington’s interference in its internal affairs.
On Saturday, Taiwan’s defence ministry said China had sent several warplanes to the southwestern corner of the island’s air defence identification zone. It said eight nuclear-capable H-6K bombers and four J-16 fighter jets flew over the island.
The US State Department immediately reacted to the claim, calling on China ‘to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan.’
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US ‘notes with concern the pattern of ongoing (China’s) attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.
‘We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defence capability,’ he added.
China says its military exercises are aimed at defending its sovereignty and security in the region and has warned the US against any ‘nasty’ behaviour over Taiwan, and threatened to impose sanctions on American officials.
The reports of these new overflights came after former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo took a controversial step to lift Washington’s ‘self-imposed’ bans on meetings with Taiwanese officials in the final days of the Trump administration.
The move worsened the already tense relations between Washington and Beijing.
Under the ‘One China’ policy, almost all world countries, including the US, recognise China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and refuse to have formal relations with Taipei.
The Trump administration, however, constantly supported the island’s secessionist president Tsai Ing-wen and provided her government with some advanced weapons.
Relations between China and the US hit their lowest point in decades, as Donald Trump launched a damaging trade war with China, imposing sanctions on the country and clashing with the Asian power over a series of issues.
A senior lawmaker for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Lo Chih-Cheng, told the media that, through these recent overflights, Beijing was trying to deter the new US government from backing the island.
‘It’s sending a message to the Biden administration,’ he claimed.
President Joe Biden, who took office earlier last week, has so far shown no sign of changing the former administration’s tough policy on China.
According to Lanhee Chen, director of domestic policy studies and lecturer at Stanford University, Biden’s team has given ‘early signals’ that the new president ‘may change the tone and tenor of the conversation with Beijing – but they’re not really gonna change the policy.’
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations to Biden on his inauguration last Wednesday, saying he hoped Beijing and Washington could focus on cooperation and keep their differences in check.
Xi was one of the last major world leaders to congratulate the new president of the United States.
- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has condemned a ‘terrorist attack’ on a major gas pipeline at a time when the Latin American country is already reeling from fuel shortages due to illegal US sanctions against Caracas.
The incident took place on Saturday and led to a major fire at the facilities in the northeastern state of Anzoategui.
Media reports say there were no casualties, and workers at the state-run oil and gas company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) have already stopped the gas leak.
‘Today we suffered a terrorist attack on the eastern gas pipeline that caused a huge fire that at this time is already under control by the workers of Petroleos de Venezuela,’ Maduro said during a Saturday address broadcast on YouTube.
The president, however, did not give further details on the incident but said the ‘attack’ had sought to compromise the country’s fuel supplies.
Maduro has in the past accused the US of organising attacks on Venezuelan infrastructure, including communications, energy, and oil and gas facilities.
He also announced the capture of an ‘American spy’ carrying heavy weapons and money near two refineries in the country.
Maduro has previously warned that western sanctions targeting PDVSA and its subsidiaries are an attempt to seize the state-run oil and gas company’s foreign assets and prevent the firm from completing transactions.
Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves and its refineries can produce more than 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of fuel, but they are working at less than 20 per cent of their capacity mainly due to power outages and lack of spare parts amid US sanctions.
The country descended into political turmoil after opposition figure Juan Guido unilaterally declared himself ‘interim president’ in January last year, followed by an abortive coup against the elected government of Maduro.
There was also an attempt to assassinate President Maduro in a drone strike in 2018.
Guaido’s self-proclamation and his coup attempt received backing from the administration of former US President Donald Trump.
Ever since, Washington has imposed several rounds of crippling sanctions against the oil-rich South American country aimed at ousting Maduro and replacing him with Guaido.
The sanctions, which include the illegal confiscation of Venezuelan assets abroad and an economic blockade, have caused enormous suffering for millions of people in the country.
According to the United Nations, more than five million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015 to flee the political and economic turmoil.
Also on Saturday, Maduro said he is willing to ‘turn the page’ with the US under newly-elected President Joe Biden, calling for a ‘new path’ after years of tension with the Trump administration in Washington.
‘We are willing to walk a new path in our relations with Joe Biden’s government based on mutual respect, dialogue, communication and understanding,’ the Venezuelan president said.
In November, when Biden won the US presidential election, Maduro congratulated the then-president-elect and said Caracas was ‘ready for dialogue and good understanding with the people and government of the United States.’
Maduro also repeated the message in December, with reports saying that Biden also expressed readiness to re-establish talks with Venezuela.