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Why the US continues to stir up the South China Sea despite the Covid-19 body blow

2020-05-09 14:37:00       source:NISCSS

May 9, 2020

Covid-19 has dealt a body blow to the United States, including its military combat capabilities and deployment. It is reported that the virus has been found in at least 150 US military bases and on four aircraft carriers. Nevertheless, the US military has continued to make waves recently through its operations in the South China Sea, in its relentless pursuit of hegemony in the Western Pacific.


This year, the US has mainly conducted four types of military activities in the South China Sea – navigation, training and exercises of military vessels; reconnaissance and overflight of military aircraft; freedom of navigation operations, and; military diplomacy, including providing help to, as well as exchanges and joint exercises with, the littoral states of the South China Sea.


Although the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt strike group was docked in Guam for quarantine, the intensive activities of US military vessels and planes has continued in the South China Sea.


To make up for a possible weakening of its power in the South China Sea after the incapacitation of some of its ships, the US military has increased the number and frequency of its flight missions in this region.


Why is the US military intensifying its efforts in the South China Sea after its capabilities were weakened by Covid-19?

The Trump administration designated China a strategic “competitor” in its first national security strategy report, released in 2017, and further highlighted the importance of the South China Sea in the security competition between the two countries in the Indo-Pacific strategy report that followed.


From the US perspective, the South China Sea is indispensable to its hegemony in the Western Pacific. It is a vital artery for US-style sea power, and a handy issue to be manipulated amid China’s rise and growing maritime power.


From China’s perspective, its sovereignty, security and development are all at stake in the South China Sea. The sea not only serves as a natural shield for its national security, but also hosts strategic sea lines of communication.


Therefore, the US-China competition in the South China Sea is both strategic and structural. The Chinese are not so naive as to believe the US will ease off its competition with China in the South China Sea amid the pandemic. That is why China has calmly dealt with US operations, both in the air and at sea, amid the viral outbreak.


How will the US conduct its operations in the South China Sea during and after the Covid-19 outbreak? First, the US will continue its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea about twice every three months, a largely symbolic programme that does not require many ships.

Second, the US will cancel or postpone joint military exercises and other military activities with its regional allies. For example, it recently cancelled the Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) exercise with the Philippines. And the possibility of the Rim of the Pacific exercise, a biennial event, being held on time is slim.


Third, the US Indo-Pacific Command still has enough surface ships for military activities in the South China Sea, despite the lack of aircraft carriers. Although the possibility remains low for its carrier strike groups to again sail through the South China Sea in the next one to two months, it has enough vessels stationed in Japan, Singapore and Guam to maintain its military presence there.


Fourth, the US will step up its deterrence operations against China’s activities in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea amid the pandemic. Recently, US military vessels and aircraft conducted high-profile activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea with the clear intention to deter China in this extraordinary time.


The coronavirus is still spreading globally, with profound implications for international politics, economic relations and global governance. Its impact on US-China relations has so far been negative. It has slowed neither competition nor decoupling between the two countries in trade, science, technology, or industrial and supply chains. As the US presidential election approaches, the China issue is certain to be hyped.


More maritime military operations in the South China Sea will showcase the US administration being tough on China, pandering to the electoral constituencies at home and strengthening ties with its allies internationally.


Other claimant states, backed by frequent US interventions, have taken unilateral action in disputed areas in the South China Sea. It is worrying that these negative and interconnected factors have brought turbulence to a South China Sea situation that had been stabilising and improving.


The South China Sea is the common home of all its littoral states, not least China. It is a major platform for China and Asean to build a maritime community with a shared future. Enduring peace and stability in the South China Sea serves the interests of countries in the region and meets the shared expectations of the international community.


In the face of growing US military provocation during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, China needs to focus on enhancing its capacity to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea.


In addition, China should expand the civilian functions of South China Sea islands. The recent establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts under Sansha city, approved by the State Council, represents an important step in that direction. Furthermore, Beijing should consolidate its maritime forces and adapt to the changing mode of military operations at sea.


Meanwhile, China needs to pursue maritime cooperation with other littoral states in the South China Sea, building more consensus and speeding up negotiations on a code of conduct.

In this way, littoral states can jointly develop a regional order based on equity, transparency, openness and cooperation, and protect the South China Sea from turbulence or disruptive changes again.

Wu Shicun is the President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, China.