SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States is considering stepping up naval patrols in the South China Sea in an attempt to defy the growing militarization of the Chinese waterway, actions that could further raise bets in one of the most important areas. volatile of the world.
The Pentagon weighs a more badertive program of so-called freedom of navigation operations near the Chinese facilities on the disputed reefs, two American and Western officials and Asian diplomats close to the discussions they said.
Officials refused to say how close they were to finalizing a decision.
Such moves could involve longer patrols, involving a larger number of vessels or operations involving closer surveillance of Chinese facilities in the area, which now include electronic interference equipment and advanced military radars.
U.S. Officials are also pressuring international allies and partners to increase their own naval deployments along the vital trade route while China strengthens its military capabilities on the Paracel and Spratly islands, diplomats said, even if they did not directly challenge the Chinese exploitations.
"What we have seen in recent weeks is just the beginning, much more is being planned," said a Western diplomat, referring to a freedom of navigation patrol late last month that used two US spacecraft for the first time. .
"There is a real sense that must be done".
The Pentagon does not comment on future operations, but a spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan, said that "we will continue to work with our friends, partners and allies to guarantee a free and open Indo-Pacific."
It seems that a more badertive Pentagon approach has already begun. Reuters reported for the first time on patrol last month that two US Navy warships were sailing near the islands of the South China Sea claimed by China, even when President Donald Trump sought Chinese cooperation in Korea from North.
While the operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it is believed to be the first time that two US warships have been used for an operation of freedom of navigation in the Sea. of South China.
The Pentagon also withdrew an invitation for Chinese forces to join major multinational exercises against Hawaii later in the year.
Critics have said that patrols have little impact on Chinese behavior and mask the lack of a broader strategy to deal with China's growing dominance over the area.
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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned in Singapore on Saturday that the militarization of China in the South China Sea was now a "reality," but that Beijing would face unspecified consequences.
Questioned during the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference about whether it was too late to stop China, Mattis said: "Eventually these (actions) do not bear fruit."
Last month, China's air force landed bombers on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel archipelago as part of a training exercise, raising concerns in Vietnam and the Philippines.
Satellite photos taken on May 12 showed that China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles in Woody, while anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-aircraft missiles were also placed at their largest size. bases in the Spratlys.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore conference, He Lei of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences said China had every right to continue militarizing its properties in the South China Sea.
"It is China's sovereign and legal right for China to put our army and our military weapons in. We see any other country that tries to make noise about this as interference in our internal affairs," he said.
Regional military attachés say they are now preparing for China's upcoming moves, which some fear could be the first deployment of fighter jets for the Spratlys or an attempt to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) similar to one created by Beijing. Eastern coast in 2013.
Vietnamese military officials say they are particularly concerned about the prospect of an ADIZ, saying it could threaten the integrity of Vietnamese airspace.
Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Hai, head of the Institute of Strategic Studies of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, said that although Vietnam had always sought peaceful settlements for disputes, "all options are on the table from our side to safeguard our sovereignty and territory".  "The ADIZ establishment is an option that we have thought about and we also have plans to face."
Vietnam is the country that most defies China's claims over much of the South China Sea, with Hanoi claiming the Paracels and the Spratlys in their entirety.
Malaysia and the Philippines have some characteristics of Spratlys, while Brunei states that the waters are crossed by the demand of the line called nine-dash of China. Taiwan claims the same area as China.
Singapore-based security expert Tim Huxley said that although increased pressure could curb China's militarization efforts, it would be difficult to stop them.
"China has created a new reality down there, and it's not going to reverse," Huxley told Reuters.
"They are not doing this to push the United States or its neighbors in the eye, but they are almost certainly doing it to meet their long-term strategic objectives, whether by projecting their military power or securing the energy supply."
Reports by Greg Torode and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Lee Chyen Yee; Edition of Raju Gopalakrishnan