World on brink: The terrifying picture that shows how close US and China are to conflict

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The US Navy shared the pictured via its official website yesterday, saying it showed the USS Gabrielle Giffords conducting routine operations” near the Chinese vessel Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 Hao. In another photo released by the navy, a ship which apparently belongs to the Vietnamese coastguard can be seen along with the Giffords and the Hai Yang 4.

Last month, the Chinese ship sailed into waters in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in what was widely perceived to be an attempt to deter Hanoi from exploring for oil with international partners off the country’s southeastern coast.

The ship left on June 20, but vessel tracking software seen by US-funded website Radio Free Asia indicated on Tuesday the Hai Yang 4 was roughly 205 nautical miles (330 km) from Vietnam’s coast on Tuesday.

The move is highly significant because the Chinese ship in question is the sister ship of the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 Hao, which Beijing likewise ordered into waters within Malaysia’s EEZ, accompanied by six China Coast Guard vessels, in April.

The ship performed a survey close to a Malaysian-contracted drillship called the West Capella, which was exploring for oil there.

The West Capella suspended operations on May 12, earlier than scheduled, and the Hai Yang 8 left shortly afterwards.

On that occasion Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, said: “The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.

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“Millions of people in the region depend on those resources for their livelihood.”

China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about £2.4 trillion of trade passes each year.

The US Defense Department yesterday voiced concern about China holding military exercises in the disputed waters close to the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.

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A statement warned: “Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability.

“The military exercises are the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, asked about the Pentagon’s comments during a daily briefing in Beijing, said the military exercises are within the scope of China’s sovereignty and said that certain “non-regional countries” conducting military exercises in the South China Sea are affecting the region’s stability.

Zhao did not name any countries, but the United States has conducted multiple freedom of navigation operations by sending its warships through the area to assert the freedom of access to international waterways.

Speaking during an online news conference in April, Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines: “What is pretty obvious is China’s not going to stop.

“If a global pandemic doesn’t cause China to calm things down in the South China Sea, there’s not much that will.

“The number one thing that we should think to look into is international economic sanctions.

“We have never had a discussion about sanctioning the actors behind the Chinese maritime militia.

“China admits it has a maritime militia, and it’s a clear violation of international law.

“They are operating on the same policy framework which is go out, assert rights, harass neighbours, do whatever you want.”

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