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2019-04-08  |  BY Hu Bo

Increasingly Militarized US Policy on the South China Sea


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Since the Trump administration took office, the South China Sea issue has never been on the core agenda for its light weight in US foreign policy, and is thus incomparable to economic and trade issues or the North Korea nuclear issue. To some extent, the US South China Sea policy has been relegated to an agenda of the Department of Defense (DoD) and military. Critics hold that the Trump administration, as the Obama administration, has no systematic South China Sea policy, and pays significantly little attention and lacks responses to this issue.  Some observers argue that other issues have overshadowed the South China Sea issue, where China sails ahead in the South China Sea while the Trump administration focuses on such issues as North Korea’s nuclear program and economy and trade. 

However, under the backdrop of the so-called great power competition, the US DoD and military have been continuously increasing all kinds of operations in the South China Sea, and US South China Sea policy have become increasingly militarized. In 2018, the US military significantly increased the frequency and intensity of its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), which is about once every eight weeks on average. Within the 12 nautical miles where the Chinese side stations on islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands, the US military often conducted high-speed maneuvers, exercise training and other provocative activities. Besides, the US military also strengthened its provocations against the Xisha Islands. On May 27, two US warships— USS Antietam and USS Higgins arbitrarily entered China’s territorial waters around the Xisha Islands  without permission of the Chinese government and conducted large-scale maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands.  It should be noted that the US military does not call each of its entry into the 12-nautical-mile islands and reefs of China a FONOP; instead, some may just be normal military patrol, which is far more provocative. It is worth noting that though the frequency and intensity of FONOPs under the Trump administration have been significantly increased compared with those under the Obama administration, the strategic significance such operations bear has been markedly decreased. The White House and National Security Council will no doubt support the US military to continue stepping up operations, but after the approval of the annual plan for the South China Sea, little attention has been paid to the operations, authorities have been delegated, and the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) headquarters have had more freedom to conduct operations, which in turn add to the risks and hazards.

There is a continuing debate in the US on the effectiveness and legal implications of FONOPs. It is generally believed that FONOPs bear legal significance, but they are not adequate to prevent China’s operations in the South China Sea; if the status and effects of such operations are magnified, other actions and efforts made by the US military will be overlooked. According to one opinion, “As the United States has not recognized Chinese title to the features, it is not obligated to observe requirements of a theoretical territorial sea.”  “[That] consistent practice of free navigation, not the reactive FONOP, is the policy best suited to respond to Chinese assertiveness in the SCS. This is especially true in areas such as the Spratly Islands where China has made no actual legal claims to challenge.” In this context, actions more provocative than FONOPs will continue to emerge; in the future, the US military is likely to conduct regular patrol around islands and reefs stationed by Chinese personnel.

FONOPs are indeed not a major part of US military operations in the South China sea. In addition to FONOPs, the US military has also significantly intensified its strategic deterrence and forward presence. In the year 2018, the US Navy sent four carrier strike groups, four amphibious ready groups, several nuclear attack submarines, and 30 sorties of B-52H bombers to conduct strategic deterrence activities in the South China Sea and surrounding areas. The F-22 and F-35 fighters, represented by the fifth-generation jet fighters, have also been deployed around the South China Sea.

As for diplomacy and public opinion, the US has intensified responses to China’s construction work on islands and reefs in the South China Sea and development of military forces, with markedly raised voices and even repeated hints or calls for wars from high-ranking officials. In February 2018, Harry Binkley Harris, Jr., the then Commander of USINDOPACOM, testified in the Congress that “Beijing’s ‘intent is crystal clear’ to dominate the South China Sea and America must prepare for the possibility of war with China.” On April 26, Philip Davidson, Harris’s successor, stated at the review hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”  On February 6, 2019, John M. Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, noted in a speech at Atlantic Council that the US may need to look for ways to impose consequences if the rules specified in the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea are not followed by China.  In an atmosphere of war preparation and show of toughness, the US military will continue intensifying military operations in the South China Sea, constantly exploring the gray zones between peace and conflicts, and probing into China’s bottom lines, which will inevitably push the threshold of small-scale armed conflicts and wars. Although the US DoD and Joint Chiefs of Staff still intend to maintain the strategic posture of “no conflict and no confrontation,” this position has undoubtedly wavered, and which is an innate contradiction to the policy of intensifying the confrontation. In the future, the US may find it increasingly difficult to balance the two sides.

Meanwhile, the Congress has been acting in a more notable manner. Since 2014, the United States Congress has been playing an increasingly important role in the South China Sea issue with more and more direct impact and engagement, shifting from expressing concerns or urging to proposing requirements for and influencing executive departments through legislative approaches and fund appropriation. In 2018, the Congress took substantial actions against the South China Sea issue. The SEC. 1262 of National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 requires that DoD shall provide regular briefing on any significant activity conducted by the PRC in the South China Sea, including reclamation, assertion of an excessive territorial claim, or militarization activities such as significant military deployment or operation or infrastructure construction. SEC. 1259 stipulates that DoD shall not enable or facilitate the participation of the PRC in any Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise unless “China has ceased all land reclamation activities in the South China Sea; removed all weapons from its land reclamation sites; and established a consistent four-year track record of taking actions toward stabilizing the region.” The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 formulated by the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was passed by the United States Senate and House of Representatives respectively in December 2018, and immediately signed into law by President Donald Trump. The Initiative specifies that in the future, the US shall strengthen joint maritime military training and FON plans with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region including the South China Sea and East China Sea.

For China, excessive emphasis on FONOPs will easily mislead the public and public opinion to assume that FONOPs are the United States’ only effective way to challenge China’s claims and status in the South China Sea, thus ignoring the different policy orientations underpinning those different military operations of the US military. In fact, US FONOPs in the South China Sea are only a very small portion of the US military’s complex operations in this area, where the US military has conducted thousands of close reconnaissance and hundreds of military exercises, with a steady US presence in the region for more than 700 ship days every year.  A total of 70% of military strength of the Pacific Fleet has been engaged in various kinds of exercises in the South China Sea, and this proportion will grow bigger in the future.  More than 60% of resources of US forward forces in the Western Pacific have be spent on all kinds of operations in the South China Sea , and such intensity is still gathering momentum. Naturally, not all these operations, are directed against China, but most of them concern China, especially recent incremental operations and some new actions in recent years, which are basically tailored for China.

The US has further cajoled and put more pressure on its allies and the countries surrounding the South China Sea, with its purpose and tactic more blatant through publicly urging the cooperation of its allies to strengthen its forces and operations in this region. James N. Mattis, the then US Secretary of Defense, more than once called on the US allies to combat Chinese efforts to change the regional rules and international order.  On December 28, 2018, Randall Schriver, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, said in an interview with The Australian that to counter China’s actions, US allies, including Australia, the UK, and France, should step up their activities in the South China Sea, such as joint patrols and presence operations if not FONOPs as the US did.  Apart from consolidating the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), the US has also reinforced its military and intelligence cooperation with Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries, and helped these countries improve their capability in coping with maritime security issues. On March 5, 2018, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group of the US Navy arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam, the first time for a US aircraft carrier to dock in the country since the Vietnam War, which marks a progress in the US-Vietnam military cooperation; it was also a historic moment when the then US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018. The US continued to expand its forces and influence in the region through several military exercises and cooperation in various forms with the countries surrounding the South China Sea in 2018, such as nearly a hundred of military maneuvers in the South China Sea with such regional countries as the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as non-littoral states including Japan and the UK. Some of these maneuvers were remarkably targeted at China, including the Anti-Submarine Warfare and some seizing island drills.

Regarding the South China Sea issue, a strategic change of the US is its increasing emphasis on the issues binding— “It stopped talking about the South China Sea for its sake” — but bundled up the South China Sea issue with others. On May 23, 2018, the US DoD revoked its invitation to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to attend RIMPAC 2018 under the pretext that China had deployed missile systems and electronically jamming devices in Nansha Islands. In the Second US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue held on November 9, the US explicitly requested that China withdraw its missile systems deployed on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.  As China expands its control over the South China Sea and the US is showing more anxiety, it will only bundle up issues more frequently and on a wider scope.

 

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Limited Print and Electronic Distribution Rights
This document, printed by SCSPI and Peking University Institute of Ocean Research,is  protected by law. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited. Permission is required from SCSPI to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial use. 

Hu Bo

HU Bo, Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Research and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University. He received his PhD in Politics from the School of International Studies at Peking University and has extensive experience in policy analysis and consulting. His areas of specialization include maritime strategy, international security, and Chinese diplomacy. He has written three books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters on topics related to China’s maritime strategy and policy. His most recent books published in Chinese are as follows: China’s Maritime Power in 2049 (Beijing, China Development Press, 2015), which will be published in English by Routledge press in 2019; and China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era (Beijing, Ocean Press, 2018).

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Hu Bo

HU Bo, Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Research and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University. He received his PhD in Politics from the School of International Studies at Peking University and has extensive experience in policy analysis and consulting. His areas of specialization include maritime strategy, international security, and Chinese diplomacy. He has written three books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters on topics related to China’s maritime strategy and policy. His most recent books published in Chinese are as follows: China’s Maritime Power in 2049 (Beijing, China Development Press, 2015), which will be published in English by Routledge press in 2019; and China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era (Beijing, Ocean Press, 2018).