US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s just concluded Asian tour came amid fast spiking tensions in the South China Sea, with China deploying its newest aircraft carrier while warning Washington against “flexing its muscles” in the contested waters.

Beijing’s threat came in response to the US Navy’s deployment of two littoral combat ships, namely the Independence-class USS Gabrielle Giffords and USS Montgomery, officially launched to “bolster attack strength in the South China Sea” and ensure China will “abide by international rules.”

Both powers have expanded their naval presence and deployed an ever larger armada of military assets to regional waters, whether through conducting joint exercises with regional allies or unilateral deployment of their most advanced warships.

The US has recently made more regular freedom of navigation operations in the contested sea, deployments which have been more expansive in scope and featured increasingly more attack-oriented frigates and littoral combat ships.

Following on US President Donald Trump’s much-publicized no-show at the recently held Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits staged in Thailand, Esper embarked on a multi-country tour to shore up support and reassure allies of America’s commitment vis-a-vis an ascendant China.

During the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), the Pentagon chief held high-profile meetings with top defense officials from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a joint press conference with his Philippines counterpart at the Department of Defense in Manila on November 19, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Following the meetings, Esper announced expanded defense aid and military cooperation with new strategic partners, namely Indonesia and Vietnam, both of which have pushed back against China’s maritime assertiveness in Southeast Asia.

Esper and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe tangled diplomatically on the ADMM’s sidelines, where the two defense chiefs discussed a range of issues including the political unrest in Hong Kong.

The South China Sea disputes, however, dominated the exchanges, with China’s defense minister warning against a sleep walk into superpower conflict while defending Beijing’s ever-expanding naval footprint in adjacent waters.

Wei reportedly told his American counterpart that China is determined to maintain “peace and stability in the South China Sea and demands the US stop flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and do not provoke and escalate tension in the South China Sea,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Esper, in a tweet, said that the two sides “discuss[ed] how our two nations can continue a relationship focused on maintaining the international rules based system,” underscoring the Pentagon’s determination to continue its freedom of navigation operations in the area despite China’s strong opposition.

Earlier this month, China deployed its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, known as the Type 001A, through the Taiwan Straits as part of “scientific trials and routine training” in a “normal arrangement”, according to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) spokesman Cheng Dewei.

China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier, known as the Type 001A, in a 2018 file photo. Photo: Facebook

The deployment was seen by many as a carefully calculated show of force, and even an act of intimidation ahead of crucial elections in Taiwan in January, where pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen is seeking re-election against Beijing-leaning rivals. She is leading in opinion polls despite China’s best efforts to influence the outcome.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said that it fully monitored the Chinese carrier’s movement to “ensure national security and safeguard regional peace and stability.”

Responding to China’s expanding naval footprint in the area, the US Navy deployed the USS Gabrielle Giffords littoral combat ship, stationed in Singapore’s Changi naval base, on a freedom of navigation mission on November 15, while the USS Montgomery joined two Australian warships for naval exercises between November 6 and 12.

The Global Times, a state-run pro-China newspaper, described the new aircraft carrier’s deployment as a necessary means to allow its “crew to become familiar with the sea area where it will often sail in the future,” hinting at Type 001A’s possible permanent stationing in southern Hainan province, since “the South China Sea will be right at its doorstep, and not far from the island of Taiwan.”

“The biggest stumbling block in promoting China-US military ties lies in whether Washington would be willing to respect Beijing’s core interests and major security concerns,” the piece, authored by a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, added.

China’s growing maritime ambitions and muscular deployments have perturbed other regional states.

Indonesia recently renamed waters off the coast of its Natuna Islands as “North Natuna Sea” to counter China’s nine-dash line map claims in the area, while Vietnam, following a months-long naval standoff in the Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea, has threatened international arbitration against Beijing over their competing claims.

Source: Facebook

In Bangkok, Esper met Indonesia’s controversial newly-appointed Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who has been banned from entry to the US since 2000 due to allegation of human rights violations during a previous stint as a military commander.

In a major policy shift, the Pentagon chief signaled that its now willing to welcome Indonesian military officers for training in the US, underscoring rapidly burgeoning defense ties between Washington and Southeast Asia’s largest power.

The two sides could also resume joint Special Forces training as military cooperation enters a new phase amid shared strategic concerns, including in regards to China’s maritime expansionism.

During his visit to Vietnam on November 20, Esper announced that the US would give Vietnam’s coast guard a second cutter vessel, which “represents another concrete symbol of our strengthening relationship.”

The announcement came after Washington donated six patrol vessels and equipment worth $12 million earlier this year to Vietnam, the third of four planned four deliveries to enhance its maritime security capabilities in the South China Sea.

US Secretary of Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L) talks with Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich (R) at the Defense Ministry, Hanoi, November 20, 2019. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

During his trip to Manila (November 19), the US defense chief and his Filipino counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, also reiterated their mutual defense treaty (MDT) and shared commitment to countering threats to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

The two sides “reiterated their commitment to uphold freedom of navigation, overflight, other lawful uses of the sea in the South China Sea, and stressed the importance of peacefully resolving disputes in accordance with international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s China-leaning diplomacy, the two allies reaffirmed their commitment to “build upon the existing foundation by continuing to improve information sharing and enhancing cooperation,” casting away any doubts over the future of the two sides’ MDT-backed alliance.

The Pentagon chief said in Manila that the US “rejects attempts by any nation to use coercion or intimidation to advance international interests at the expense of others”, calling on regional states to assert their rights and place China “on the right path.”

“The clear signal that we’re trying to send is not that we oppose China per se, but that we all stand for international rules and international laws and that we think China should abide by them as well,” Esper said, as his Pentagon looked to allay doubts about Trump’s commitment and focus on the region’s security.