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The South China Sea has long been at the centre of a row between China and several USA allies across Southeast Asia over who hold official control over the area. Freedom of navigation in the region is of key important to the United States and Washington has over the years deployed frigates in a bid to keep Beijing under control. But South China Sea expert Hu Bo warned a “medium-scale” conflict could be on the cards
The Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Research suggested a wider conflict is unlikely because of the deep economic and commercial links China and the US have but the expert insisted smaller battles could not be discounted.
Speaking to CGTN, Mr Hu said: “Although the US has been trying to decouple from China in other areas, they are still closely connected.
“The chances of a large-scale conflict happening are small.
“But a medium or small-scale conflict is possible, such as two warships hitting each other or occasional crossfire since the two countries’ warships and aircraft encounter each other.”
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China has become increasingly bold in confronting foreign ships passing through the South China Sea over the past few years.
Earlier this week Australia deployed five warships in the region in a show of support for the US and Japan, who have long lamented Beijing interference with free navigation in the area.
The arrival of the frigates comes after China was reported to have test-fired live weapons nearby.
Commodore Michael Harris, commander of the Australian Joint Task Group, said: “The opportunity to work alongside the US and Japanese is invaluable.
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“Maintaining security and safety at sea requires navies to be able to co-operate seamlessly.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced earlier this month Washington DC would effectively end its neutral stance on territorial disputes involving China and Southeast Asia nations in the South China Sea.
Secretary Pompeo insisted the US would stand by its allies in the region to ensure Beijing respects international maritime law.
He said: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.
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“America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”
The announcement came as USS Reagan and USS Nimitz reached the South China Sea for manoeuvres in what markes the first dual-carrier operation in the region since 2014.
Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz, said: “Nimitz and Reagan Carrier Strike Groups are operating in the South China Sea, wherever international law allows, to reinforce our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a rules based international order, and to our allies and partners in the region.”
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