People may have lost count of the number of times US warships have intruded into China's territorial waters over the years.
Each time the US portrays the naval operation as a necessary means to safeguard "freedom of navigation" in the region; and each time the People's Liberation Army responds by sending naval vessels to "monitor and verify" the intruders before warning them off, followed by Beijing lodging a protest over the "provocative" move by the US that undermines China's sovereignty and security interests, as well as regional peace and stability.
So, it was déjà vu on Wednesday when the US Navy destroyer Wayne E. Meyer triggered this cat-and-mouse game again by sailing within 12 nautical miles of China's Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government.
But there was an additional problem this time — it was ill-timed. The latest US move has fanned the animosity that already runs high among people in both countries as they lock horns over trade. And tensions have flared since the White House threatened to impose additional punitive tariffs on $550 billion of Chinese imports last week, sparking concerns over a sharp escalation in the trade tensions.
Negotiators from the two countries have already conducted many rounds of talks but with few signs of concrete progress, mainly because of the US going all out to exert "maximum pressure" on China in the hope it will make concessions. However, Foreign Ministry spokeswomen Hua Chunying made China's position clear: "Only when the US shows enough sincerity and good faith can we achieve progress in the trade talks."
Amid escalated trade tensions, sending a warship to flex military muscles on China's doorstep can only be seen as a desperate US attempt to further intimidate China in the hope of forcing it into submission at the negotiation table. Instead of that, what it has done is precipitated erosion of the already weak base of mutual trust between the two countries, and made any concession on the part of China even more unlikely as it recalls the gunships of the West that forced China to open its doors in the mid 1800s.
Securing a successful deal requires finding common ground and building trust. Unfortunately, the US seems to be doing just the opposite, by upping the military ante and extending the conflict beyond trade.
That does not bode well for the coming trade talks.