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The US is testing China’s red lines in the South China Sea. What does it hope to achieve?

2020-11-06 15:39:49       source:NISCSS

October 24, 2020

US-China relations have plunged to their lowest level in decades and both powers are on the brink of a clash in the South China Sea. Yet, despite the danger and delicacy of the situation, and vehement Chinese warnings, the US is ramping up its military activities and testing China’s “red lines” and patience.


Why is the United States risking confrontation? Maybe China hardliners in the Trump administration think it will help the president’s re-election bid. Or perhaps, this is “normal” military posture around a distracting presidential election to ensure China does not miscalculate.


Whatever the reason, the US is pushing China’s buttons and China is responding – making a clash increasingly probable.


Provocative US military activities include increased spy plane probes, repeated aircraft carrier strike group deployments, more military support for Taiwan, and freedom of navigation operations, which are its main antagonistic action.


Earlier this month, the US undertook such an operation – its eighth this year – near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands, a particularly sensitive area where China has a major base and the administrative capital for its claimed South China Sea possessions. The US action was also seen as supportive of Vietnam’s stepped-up campaign against China for the islands, which it also claims.


This comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 13 that the US “will support countries all across the world who recognise that China has violated their legal territorial claims”, vowing to “use all the tools we can”.


US FONOPs purport to demonstrate and protect freedom of navigation and to challenge claims that violate that principle. But the US is disingenuously conflating freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom of military vessels to intimidate and spy on countries – in this case, China.


The US knows China has never interfered with commercial navigation freedom, but it continues the charade to aggravate China and win support in the region and beyond.

The US destroyer John S. McCain, which took part in the latest operation, is part of the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group, which recently entered the South China Sea for the third time this year. This came right after the USS Barry sailed through the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea – the 10th such transit of a US warship this year.


Such warship transits, which the US views as perfectly legal, tread close to China’s “red line” claim of sovereignty over Taiwan – especially in conjunction with US arms sales to Taiwan and a visit by a US cabinet official. The US Navy said the transit showed “US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the same vague verbiage it uses to justify other provocations.


China vehemently protested against the McCain freedom of navigation operation, which the People’s Liberation Army called a “blatant navigation hegemony and military provocation” that “seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, and gravely jeopardised peace and stability in the South China Sea”.

President Xi Jinping put an exclamation mark on China’s mood by urging his military to “focus your minds and energy on preparing to go to war”.


Despite US denials, its freedom of navigation operations against China have always had a political purpose. They are not necessary to bolster the US legal position.


Faced with claims it considers illegal, any country can effectively show non-acquiescence through verbal or written diplomatic communiqués – an option that seems sufficient for other nations, including the maritime powers whose rights the US claims to be protecting.


Indeed, diplomatic protest rather than “gunboat diplomacy” is more consonant with the United Nations Charter, which requires that its members “shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered”.


Warships that challenge territorial sea regimes could be seen as threatening the use of force against a state, which is a violation of the UN Charter.


Moreover, US freedom of navigation operations are ineffective in that they have neither changed China’s policies nor stopped Chinese actions that the US considers unlawful or “bullying”. Some observers also see them as wasteful, as the US Navy can better use the time to train for serious conflict.


Even worse, they can be politically counterproductive. When the US Navy sent several warships into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone during a “stand-off” between a Malaysian contracted drillship and a Chinese vessel, Malaysia could not be sure if the US was coming to its aid or challenging its maritime claims.


Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said: “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations, which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”


This confusion could have been avoided if the US were not so arrogant about its freedom of navigation operations, which have also targeted the claims of all littoral members of Asean, except Singapore and Brunei. These Asean members are unlikely to approve of such US operations, at least not against themselves.

Other opportunities for US military involvement are looming. The Philippines has declared it will restart petroleum exploration on Reed Bank – which China also claims – and will defend its right to do so. The US has reassured its ally, the Philippines, that it will come to its aid if its forces are attacked by China in the South China Sea. The stage is set for a confrontation.


The US seems to be pushing China to stand down from its claims and occupations or defend them militarily. This “put up or shut up” strategy is quite risky. It may not elicit the response the US wishes, unless confrontation is what it wants. If this is the US intent, it had better be prepared for wider and longer-term conflict in the South China Sea.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.