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China And The US Have Joined Forces In The South China Sea … But Only For The Moment

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A Chinese warship joined forces with the U.S. and its allies to search for a missing sailor in the South China Sea, according to China’s defense ministry.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) guided-missile frigate Liuzhou is cooperating with the U.S. “in the spirit of humanitarianism,” the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement Thursday, according to the Associated Press. The PLAN vessel, which was initially shadowing allied vessels in the area, offered assistance after the USS Stethem, a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, reported a man overboard Tuesday.

After multiple searches, the sailor has not yet been found.

“I would say that this is a good example of what benefits come from increased positive interaction with the Chinese,” a U.S. Navy official told Defense News, “The use of [the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea], existing operational channels for communication, participation in [Rim of the Pacific Exercise] — instances such as this, search-and-rescue efforts, are where those positive interactions and familiarity pay dividends.”

While China and the U.S. have set aside their differences for an emergency, tensions remain in the disputed South China Sea.

China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea, asserting indisputable sovereignty in the region and tightening its grip militarily. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague discredited China’s claims last summer, but Beijing rejected both the authority of the arbitration tribunal and the ruling.

China has been boosting its military presence in the region through the construction of military outposts armed with missiles, close-in weapons systems, and point-defense systems. The U.S., however, has been pushing back, putting Beijing’s sovereignty claims to the test through regular freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) and bomber overflights.

The USS Stethem conducted a FONOP in early July, sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese holdings in the Paracel Islands, a string of territories China seized from Vietnam by force several decades ago. Beijing has constructed hardened military outposts in this island chain.

The Trump administration has conducted two FONOPs and two bomber overflights.

“All navies on the seas share common concerns and the safety of sailors is high up on that list,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News, adding, “I would not exaggerate the broader significance … They don’t want us doing surveillance inside their exclusive economic zone; the U.S opposes their militarizing of the islands in the South China Sea.”

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