US Maintains Robust Presence in South China Sea Amid China’s Moves

by Adlinna Abdul Alim

The status quo of the South China Sea imbroglio remains fluid with recent US manoeuvres countering strategic developments by China’s military and civilian fleets in the disputed area which is also claimed by four bordering ASEAN states. The US Navy continues to be present at the disputed area as part of its strategy to stabilise the area by conducting freedom of navigation patrol around the waters there. The US Navy’s freedom of navigation programme is global in scope and targets excessive maritime claims by a range of states, including US allies and partners. Beginning 2017, the navy’s operations focused on 10 Asian countries, including China. At the sidelines of the operations, US naval vessels participates in regional maritime exercises to strengthen ties with armed forces in the region. Beside strategic moves, China is also playing its part to create closer relations with ASEAN and its member countries to strengthen its influence over the government of the affected areas. The South China is claimed wholly or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, including Taiwan. While rivalry between the two powers continues, ASEAN states are trying their best to handle the matter diplomatically, by not taking sides.

US FONOPS in the South China Sea 

The US remains the most powerful military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, but its activities in the South China Sea mainly take the form of what it calls freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), in which its warships sail near islands or features claimed by China to indicate its view that they remain international waters. The US Navy carried out nine such operations in 2017 and 2018. As part of its operational deployment, the navy conducts military exercises with military forces around the waters of the contested area. The first FONOP for this year was conducted in the early days of January when an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer sailed near islands disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan in the South China Sea. USS McCampbell, the destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of islands in the Paracel Islands in what the US Pacific Fleet said was an operation “to challenge excessive maritime claims.” The operation was not about any one country or to make a political statement, a spokesperson for the Pacific Fleet was quoted as saying. The statement came as trade talks between China and the US were under way in Beijing, the first round of face-to-face discussions since both sides agreed to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has roiled international markets.

In February, two US destroyers, USS Pruance and USS Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands “in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” said a spokesman for the Japan-based US 7th Fleet in a statement. The February FONOP focused on Mischief Reef, an atoll east of the Spratly group that China has expanded into an island and equipped with runways, hangars and other military facilities, according to satellite images. The FONOP followed international law and that US forces routinely operate in international waters and airspace.

In March, USS Blue Ridge made a port visit to Manila Bay in the Philippines, the latest affirmation of the strong US-Philippine alliance. In a statement, the commander of the US 7th Fleet said that the ship’s Manila visit strengthens the US “shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” After the port visit, USS Blue Ridge then made her way to the island of Langkawi to take part in the recent Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition, along with USS Preble. 

In the latest series of events in the South China Sea, the US has sailed its USS Wasp amphibious assault ship near Scarborough Shoal, a strategic reef claimed by China and the Philippines that lies just 230km from the Philippine coast. It was reported that aircraft were seen landing and taking off from the ship, some 5km from local fishermen’s boats. While a US military spokesperson did not confirm nor deny the ship’s presence there, she confirmed that the Wasp has been training with Philippine Navy ships in Subic Bay and in international waters of the South China Sea for several days.

The vessel has been taking part in the US-Philippines military exercise Balikatan that focuses on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges. 

However, the aircraft’s presence alone in the South China Sea is enough to draw China’s attention since this is the first year that the Balikatan exercise incorporated the Wasp paired with the US Marines Corps’ F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter. US spokesperson said that the presence of both strategic assets represent an increase in military capacity committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

It is not only the United States that is exercising the freedom of navigation rights. On Aug 31 last year, UK’s HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines were reported to have passed near the Paracel Islands. The Albion was on its way to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked following a deployment in and around Japan. China’s foreign ministry in a statement said that the country opposed the action of the Royal Navy ship which it said violates the international law and infringed on China’s sovereignty. However, a spokesperson for the Royal Navy said that HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.   

China’s Stand and Protests 

US presence around the waters of the South China Sea, without doubt incur protest from China. Beijing said that the US manoeuvres infringe the sovereignty of China over its territory. During US FONOPS in January, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang was quoted as saying that the conduct of the US ship had violated China’s and international law, and China had lodged “stern representations”.

“We urge the US to immediately cease this kind of provocation,” he said, adding that China had sent military ships and aircraft to identify and warn off the ship.

Asked about the timing of the operation during trade talks between US and China, Lu said resolving issues would benefit the two countries and the world. “Both sides have the responsibility to create the necessary positive atmosphere for this,” he was further quoted.

China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lambastes the US and its allies for freedom of navigation naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands. 

China in the past, has attempted to put to halt US operations in the South China Sea. Last year, a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer has attempted to intercept a US Navy destroyer conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the Spratly group when it came within what the US said was just 40ft of the bow of the US warship, forcing it to manoeuvre. The incident could have caused a collision, US officials said at the time.

In the February FONOPS focused on Mischief Reef, the PLA Navy tried to warn off the USS Spruance and USS Preble as they approached Chinese-claimed islands in the Spratly chain, according to China’s foreign ministry statement. 

“The relevant actions of the US warships violated Chinese sovereignty, and undermined peace, security, and order in the relevant sea areas,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “China has always respected and safeguarded freedom of navigation…but resolutely opposes any country falsely using it to harm the sovereignty and security of coastal countries.”

US Navy’s deployment of USS Wasp near Scarborough Shoal, however, would test China’s strategic interests on the group of islands there. China covets Scarborough Shoal for its strategic significance, experts say, as it would be the crowning jewel in a bid to solidify the country’s grip over the South China Sea. Full, uncontested control of Scarborough Shoal could give the Chinese a “strategic triangle,” comprising Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to the northwest and its Spratly islet outposts to the south, giving Beijing the ability to police an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. The impact of such a strategic triangle would bring the entire region under Chinese radar, missile and air coverage, some experts say, and could be a game-changer in regional power relations.

But any decision by China to forcefully take over the collection of outcroppings for land reclamation purposes would likely be met with resistance by the US, the Philippines and others.

ASEAN in the Middle  

Member states of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), are playing their diplomatic cards throughout the series of incidents, although they felt the squeeze in the power struggle between the super powers. Diplomatic sources and observers said that the freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US and its allies in the South China Sea have heightened the dilemma faced by ASEAN caught between China and the US. 

Many say that the more frequent naval operations by the US and its allies in the contested waters may help reinforce international rules in the face of China’s military construction programme in the disputed waters, according to reports. But they are not convinced that the operations will be enough to deter China’s aggressive territorial claims and smaller countries fear they may pay a price for US actions.

The recent developments also make it difficult for countries here in the region to remain neutral between the two powers. Analysts said that while the increasing operations by the US and its allies, including Australia, Britain and France, could help “moderate” some of Beijing’s assertive activities, they were unlikely to deter China. An expert said that an ASEAN-US dialogue on the code of conduct (CoC) could help identify and clarify points of mutual or convergent or complementary interests in the South China Sea, so that in subsequent negotiations with China, ASEAN could be more conscious of what regional and extra-regional interests to balance in the course of the CoC negotiations. It may also provide an opportunity for ASEAN and the US to clarify their respective roles and directions in dealing with China. But this would also mean ASEAN nations needed to strike a more delicate balance. “This may help somewhat, on the assumption that ASEAN countries may at least have extra-regional powers to fall back on and not necessarily have to cave in to Beijing’s demands regarding the CoC,” the analyst was quoted as saying.

That said, the ASEAN parties will necessarily have to not only consider the extra-regional powers’ commitment to the region–which some may see in the current US administration as possibly tenuous at best–but also their long-term relations with China which is an immediate neighbour and with whom there are considerable economic stakes especially involved. 

US Navy commander Adm Philip Davidson said in February that he expected allies and partners would continue to help the US in the South China Sea “in the months ahead” and that the US was helping ASEAN in its discussions with China about a code of conduct, which has long been advocated by China as a way of reducing the risk of confrontation in the disputed waters.

On March 8, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said that an increasing number of ASEAN nations have agreed with China’s proposal to speed up negotiations for a pact on the South China Sea. Speaking on the sidelines of legislative meetings in Beijing, Wang said countries in the region should develop and honour a code of conduct themselves.

“We welcome well-intentioned advice but do not accept political smears or interference. Countries in the region should grasp in our own hands the key to peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Wang was quoted as saying.

Negotiations on the CoC, which will set out norms of behaviour in the contested waters, began in March last year, following the adoption in 2017 of a framework for the CoC. 

Additional inputs: MG Mahmud