Washington's intention to sail military ships around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea shows how poor US-Chinese relations currently are, says DW's Frank Sieren.
The US Navy is considering sailing warships in the 12-nautical-mile zone around the Spratly Islands, which China lays claim to controversially. This is at least what a high-ranking US official recently announced. He preferred to remain anonymous but was not sparing with the details: He said that there would be a maneuver in the next two weeks. Over the past few months, Beijing has been expanding the zone with man-made islands to boost its territorial claim.
Those who believed that the power struggle between China and the US had calmed down will be alarmed. It has actually been clear that such a development could take place since the summer when US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in relation to China's territorial claims that the US would continue to move in international waters and airspace. However, the dust seemed to have settled ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington last month.
Now, it seems as if Washington was only taking a breather. The Pentagon has been trying for months to get the White House to assume a clearer position against China's military expansion and island development.
The US is in the middle of an election campaign and it's almost become a tradition to harangue against China in such times.
Could it be, however, that this bone of contention might indeed become the object of an escalation between the two countries?
Hua Chunying from the Chinese Foreign Ministry recently said firmly but in a friendly tone: "We hope that relevant countries could stop playing up the issue of the South China Sea, make good on their commitment of not taking sides on issues concerning territorial sovereignty, be discreet with words and deeds, respect efforts by China and relevant regional countries in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea, and play a constructive role to that end."
There are different interpretations of the situation. China says the islands belong to its territory. Its neighbors and the US dispute this claim and say China has simply snapped up the islands.
The most dangerous conflict between the US and China
There is no compromise in sight and this is no longer a frozen conflict, even though China is now the third-largest export market for the US and both countries exchanged goods worth over $600 billion last year. On top of the territorial disputes, the relationship between China and the US has been increasingly tense in recent days and weeks over issues such as cyber espionage, currency manipulation and human rights. One can only hope that neither side is interested in a military conflict and will stay reasonable. But, of all the conflicts between China and the US, the island dispute is the most dangerous.
DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.