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Sept. 9, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Navy tests China’s new maritime law

By Bill Gertz
The U.S. Navy squared off against the People’s Liberation Army on Wednesday after the passage of an American warship near a disputed reef in the South China Sea.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and conducted operations near the reef where China has built a military base.

“USS Benfold demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” said Navy Lt. Mark Langford, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet.

The Chinese Defense Ministry said on its website that the Benfold voyage violated China‘s sovereignty.

“The PRC’s statement about this mission is false,” Lt. Langford said later, adding that the destroyer operated legally under international law and continued operations in international waters.

“The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle,” he said. “The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing [China] says otherwise will deter us.”

The Benfold’s mission was the first operation after China implemented a new maritime law. China‘s Maritime Safety Administration announced earlier this year that beginning Sept. 1, some foreign vessels in Chinese-claimed waters must provide advance notice to Beijing, including ships transiting with radioactive materials, and bulk carriers of oil, chemicals, liquefied natural gas and other materials. The regulation authorizes penalties and fines for noncompliance and allows Chinese ships to order the vessels out of waterways.

Asked about the maritime law, Pentagon spokesman John Supple said the U.S. government firmly insists that any coastal state laws must not impede navigation and overflight rights outlined in international law.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims, including in the South China Sea, pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rights and interests of South China Sea and other littoral nations,” Mr. Supple said.

Lt. Langford said the Benfold was hailed on radio by the PLA during its transit and did not seek permission for its Mischief Reef operations. The spokesman added that the PLA navy’s statement “is the latest in a long string of [Chinese] actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”

China‘s behavior “stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” he said. “All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms.”

The Benfold engaged in unspecified “normal” operations within 12 miles of the reef, the spokesman said.

Mischief Reef is one of three disputed islands in the South China Sea where Beijing has built up bases and deployed missiles and other military equipment, including runways capable of handling all types of military aircraft.

Lt. Langford said China‘s land reclamation efforts, installations and structures on Mischief Reef do not change its status under international law as a low-lying reef that does not support any nation’s sovereignty claim.

In the PLA statement, Senior Col. Tian Junli, a spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, said the Benfold “trespassed” near Mischief Reef, called Meiji Reef by the Chinese. Col. Tian said the warship was “warned off” by the PLA.

“It is another ironclad proof of [U.S.] navigation hegemony and militarization of the South China Sea,” he said. “Facts have repeatedly proved that the U.S. is an out-and-out ‘security risk maker in the South China Sea’ and the ‘biggest destroyer’ of peace and stability in this region.”

Kerry stiffed again by China on climate
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Biden administration’s point man on climate change, last week made a second visit to China and again came away empty-handed in efforts to coax Beijing into reducing its carbon emissions.

Worse, senior Chinese leaders used their meetings with Mr. Kerry, who traveled to the city of Tianjin, to criticize the United States and let him know there would be no cooperation on climate change because of hard-line American policies toward China.

Yang Jiechi, a senior Communist Party official and President Xi Jinping‘s top foreign policy aide, told Mr. Kerry during a video call Sept. 2 that the United States had meddled in China‘s internal affairs and harmed Beijing‘s interests. He blamed Washington for causing problems in U.S.-Chinese ties.

A day earlier, Foreign Minister Wang Yi threw cold water on Mr. Kerry’s attempts to separate climate issues from other bilateral issues such as Chinese genocide in Xinjiang, the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, cyberattacks and Chinese territorial encroachment in international waters.

Mr. Wang bluntly rejected Mr. Kerry’s appeal for China to separate climate from those issues, telling the climate czar that a precondition for cooperation would be for the United States to “cease containing and suppressing China all over the world.”

The foreign minister rejected Mr. Kerry’s efforts to isolate climate change as “an oasis” in the relationship. “If the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified,” Mr. Wang said.

Mr. Kerry sought to spin the Chinese insults. He told reporters that he promised to convey the Chinese leaders’ messages to American officials and called his talks “very constructive and detailed.”

However, the rejection of cooperation by Mr. Yang and Mr. Wang was in stark contrast with the joint statement issued in Shanghai during Mr. Kerry’s visit in April. That statement said both nations were committed “to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”

It was the latest bait-and-switch by a Chinese government that critics say has failed to follow through on numerous promises to the United States for years, such as curbing coal-fired plants and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“What China is saying is that they have no intention to collaborate with the U.S. on climate issues if they don’t get what they want,” June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, told the Voice of America.

Leftist group opposes Taiwan arms sales
The anti-war group Code Pink is launching a lobbying campaign to kill a $750 million weapons sale to Taiwan proposed by the Biden administration.

“Not only is this sale in direct violation of China‘s sovereignty and previous agreements between the U.S. and China, it also will exacerbate climate change through military pollution and increase the risk of kinetic and nuclear war between the nations,” Code Pink stated on its website.

The lobbying campaign, co-sponsored with the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament & Common Security, calls for letters urging members of Congress to block the Taiwan deal. The weapons slated for sale include howitzers, armored vehicles equipped with machine guns and bomb kits for precision-guided munitions.

The group says the arms sale would violate the 1980s communiques with China, a claim frequently made about American weapons sales by Beijing.

“China‘s Foreign Ministry has called this proposed arms sale a violation of China‘s sovereignty that sends the wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces, seriously damages Sino-U.S. relations, and threatens peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the letter to Congress states. “Moreover, sending more weapons to Taiwan will surely upset Chinese leaders, making the much-needed cooperation on climate change, pandemic relief, nuclear nonproliferation and other issues of common concern increasingly difficult.”

U.S. sales of defensive arms to Taiwan are codified in law, specifically the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The act outlines U.S. government efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses to deter and prevent any military move against the island state, which Beijing claims is a breakaway province.

A Code Pink spokesman did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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