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What's The Strategy?: U.S. Considers Sending Ships To South China Sea


The U.S. is considering sending navy ships to within a few miles of some disputed islands in the South China Sea. This would be a direct challenge to China. China claims the islands and waters around them are its territory, and China has been building ports and airstrips on them. NPR's Anthony Kuhn begins his coverage with a football metaphor.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: You could say that since the end of World War II, the U.S. has been operating on China's 5-yard line, flying spy planes up and down its coast and as recently as 2007, sailing warships through the Taiwan Straits. Not surprisingly, many Chinese citizens feel this is not fair. Here's how Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese army general, puts it.

XU GUANGYU: (Through interpreter) What if China was strong enough to send two-thirds of its fleet to California, Alaska and Hawaii? How would you Americans feel if we started setting up military bases in the Caribbean?

KUHN: China can't yet make it to the U.S. 5-yard line, as it still lacks a blue-water navy and it has no overseas military bases. But as its military muscle grows, the country is debating how to use it. On one side of the debate, says Xu Guangyu, are the moderates. They warn against provoking the U.S. On the other side, he says, are the hawks.

GUANGYU: (Through interpreter) An eye for an eye, they say. If the U.S. insists on continuing its close-in surveillance, then we'll go over to the U.S. West Coast and have a look around.

KUHN: Last month, three Chinese warships sort of made it to the 50-yard line. They sailed through international waters off the coast of Alaska for the first time. Last year, China sent a spy ship to waters off Hawaii. The Pentagon said it did not see these moves as threatening. Xu Guangyu says that China can offer the excuse that some of the ships were invited to these areas by the Russian and U.S. navies.

GUANGYU: (Through interpreter) We don't want it to look like a tit-for-tat action, so we don't rule out sending ships where there are joint exercises.

KUHN: Bryan Clark is a former U.S. submarine commander and an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. He says the Chinese maneuvers might just have forced the Obama administration's hand.

BRYAN CLARK: It provided the United States more ammunition with regard to these FONOPs they're going to do in the South China Sea.

KUHN: The FONOPS, or freedom of navigation operations he mentions, are intended to show that the U.S. warships have a right to be in what the U.S. considers international waters. Both countries' leaders have publicly pledged to avoid a military confrontation. And Clark doubts that U.S. operations near the islands will trigger a clash. But over the long term, he says, it's going to become increasingly dangerous for the U.S. military to sail, fly or collect intelligence off China's shores.

CLARK: The U.S. is going to have to get used to operating in the vicinity of threats or else they're going to end up ceding that area to the Chinese and treating it as sort of a Chinese ocean.

KUHN: In other words, China is going to try to push the U.S. farther away from its end zone. Of course, retired general Xu Guangyu points out the football metaphor is only relevant up to a point. In peace time, he says, unlike in football, it's OK to have a scoreless tie. There's no need for overtime, much less sudden death. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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