Long-running multi-party territorial disputes in the South China Sea have increasingly morphed into a Sino-American contest for maritime primacy in the maritime region, a dynamic shift with significant implications for regional peace and security.
On Sunday, two American warships openly challenged Beijing’s sovereign claims in the area after China deployed nuclear-capable H-6K strategic bombers to disputed land features in the Paracel group of islands earlier this month.
The US Navy’s (USN) guided missile cruiser USS Antietam and guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins conducted so-called Freedom of Navigation (FONOPs) within 12 nautical miles of several Chinese-occupied islets in the South China Sea.
In particular, the operations directly challenged Beijing’s sovereign claims over the Tree, Triton, Lincoln, and Woody islets in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam.
The US Navy has tried to portray the latest operation as standard operating procedure planned months in advance and bereft of prejudice. According to a spokesman from the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, the FONOPs are not targeted against “any one country,” namely China, “nor are they about making political statements.”
Still, the maneuvers came just days after the US disinvited China’s navy from the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise naval drill, a move Beijing said it viewed as “unconstructive” while expressing hope the US would change its “negative mindset.”
Though Washington has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), America’s navy observes its relevant provisions as a matter of customary international law.
Based on the UNCLOS, naturally formed islands are entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial sea, where the coastal state enjoys maximum rights to restrict the passage of vessels.
Through the FONOPs, Washington is openly challenging not only Chinese occupation of the land features, but also their artificial augmentation into island-like territories through advanced geo-engineering.
China’s response to the latest FONOPs has been furious. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that expressed its “resolute opposition” to America’s deployment of warships to the area.
Crucially, China’s Defense Ministry also chimed in, with its chief spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian accusing the US of “gravely violat[ing] Chinese sovereignty” since the Parcels constitute a “Chinese indigenous territory.”
He described the FONOPs as a violation of “China’s laws and relevant international laws”, since they were conducted “without authorization” from Beijing. The ministry said it sent ships and aircraft to warn the US warships to leave, though it wasn’t clear how or if the US Navy responded.
He also reiterated the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) determination to “strengthen the preparations for sea and air combat readiness, raise the level of defense, defend national sovereignty and security, and maintain the determination of regional peace and stability.”
A prominent Chinese researcher from the government-funded National Institute for South China Sea Studies indicated in the wake of the episode that Beijing might accordingly step up its militarization of contested areas, including in the Spratlys, which is claimed by several Southeast Asian states.
“As for how big that presence is depends on the threat assessment China has going forward for the [Spratly] Islands,” the Chinese academic said. “The [Spratly] region faces severe military pressure, especially since [US President Donald] Trump took office and increased freedom of navigation patrols. So China has raised its threat assessment.”
Under Trump, America has expanded the scope and frequency of its FONOPs across the South China Sea. In recent months, for the first time, it has deployed a warship to directly challenge China’s de facto occupation of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal.
Within weeks, two American aircraft carriers docked at Philippine ports for goodwill visits. During this month’s annual joint US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises, which saw the participation of as many as 8,000 troops, the two allies conducted joint amphibious exercises in the South China Sea after a year hiatus.
Earlier this year, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made high-profile visits to Vietnam and Indonesia in order to strengthen maritime security cooperation amid China’s rising assertiveness. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, an American aircraft carrier also visited Vietnam’s strategic port at Cam Ranh Bay after Mattis’ visit to Hanoi.
America and its regional partners are deeply concerned about China’s rapid militarization of the South China Sea disputes. In the past year, China has for the first time deployed surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) as well as anti-cruise ballistic missile (ACBM) systems; installed electronic jamming platforms; and conducted drills with nuclear-capable bombers across disputed land features.
It also reclaimed as many as 72 acres to augment its artificially constructed islands in the area, namely at the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly chain of islands.
The Woody Island, in the Paracels, serves as the headquarters for China’s military activities across the South China Sea, directly reporting to PLA’s southern theater command. The Fiery Cross reef, meanwhile, serves as the command-and-control center for Chinese operations in the Spratlys.
In response to China’s ramped up reclamation and militarization of the disputes, smaller claimant states have desperately sought to fortify their position by repairing existing facilities (the Philippines) or conducting small-scale reclamation and deploying military assets (Vietnam) to other contested land features under their control.
China, however, remains in a dominant position among claimant states in the region. As Admiral Philip Davidson, the incoming commander of the US Navy’s Pacific Command, said recently during congressional testimony in Washington, “Any [Chinese] forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants.”
Unwilling and incapable of checking China’s maritime ambitions, smaller regional states have quietly relied on and welcomed American pushback, including through FONOPs. Yet there are also growing worries that the situation could be hurtling towards great power conflict as the back-and-forth maneuvers and threats intensify.