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US and its allies must be wary of provoking South China Sea conflict over freedom of navigation

2021-01-19 16:27:03       source:South China Morning Post

January 1, 2021

The United States and China are flirting with disaster in the South China Sea. Although there have been dangerous incidents, so far the two have avoided a head-on clash. Neither really wants war – at least for now – and there is still some hope on both sides that it can be avoided.


However, there is an incipient development that could convince China that war is inevitable and tempt it to respond accordingly. That is the joining of US allies – Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Australia – in material support of US policy in the South China Sea.


They appear to be preparing to send their navies to the region and might even participate in US-led freedom of navigation operations (FONOPsFONOPs) challenging China’s claims.


They and the US know China perceives the South China Sea as being within its sphere of influence. For China, it is a historically vulnerable underbelly that must be turned into a natural shield for its national security.


Aside from this nationalistic conceptual angst, there are specific strategic reasons for China’s concern. The South China Sea provides relative sanctuary for its second-strike nuclear submarines. They are its insurance against a first strike, something the US has not disavowed.


US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in, over and under the South China Sea focus on detecting, tracking and if necessary targeting these submarines. China opposes these probes, saying they are a threat to its security and that they violate international law.


The US counters that China’s position violates freedom of navigation. The problem is that the US conflates freedom of commercial navigation with its military priority there – freedom of navigation for its ISR vessels and aircraft that search for China’s vulnerabilities.


It maintains that its FONOPsFONOPs in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation that is threatened by China’s claims and actions, but China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation. China does, however, object by word and deed to what it perceives as US abuse of freedom of navigation and its intimidation and coercion in enforcing its interpretation.


In these circumstances, a multilateral FONOP would be a challenge reaching far beyond enforcing a legal position. China would perceive the increased presence of navies of US allies as endangering its use of the South China Sea as a submarine sanctuary and rendering its underbelly vulnerable. In this construct, the participation of allies’ navies in US-led FONOPsFONOPs could be the tipping point that leads China to confront them.


For years, the US has been pressuring others in and outside the region to join its FONOPsFONOPs there. So far, though, allies Australia, Japan and the Philippines have declined such requests.


They all have their own reasons, but a common one is that they do not see China’s claims as a threat to commercial traffic or their security, despite US warnings to the contrary. Britain is the only country that has answered the call, which drew a sharp rebuke from Beijing.


More recently, US allies have voiced full-throated support for the US position there. Britain, France and Germany jointly submitted a note verbale to the United Nations emphasising “the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas” in the South China Sea.


Moreover, they are acting on their words by stepping up their naval deployments in the region. The Quad – a US-led coalition with core members India, Japan and Australia – is gathering momentum and taking on a military tinge.


France has called for “a new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” that would be respected by China as an equal partner. Admiral Pierre Vandier, chief of staff of the French navy, said “We want to demonstrate our presence to the region and send a message about Japan-France cooperation. This is a message aimed at China. This is about multilateral partnerships and the freedom of passage.”


Meanwhile, the UK announced it would soon send an aircraft carrier strike group to conduct joint exercises near Japan with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF).


Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi has expressed hope that a German vessel will join exercises with the JMSDF in 2021. He also suggested it would assist the international community’s efforts to ensure the right of passage of vessels through the South China Sea if the German warship would traverse waters over which Beijing claims jurisdiction.


Japan itself is becoming more aggressive towards China in the South China Sea. In 2019, it sent the helicopter carrier Izumo to project its military power and prowess into the waters. This display was Japan’s largest show of force in the region since World War II.


Adding Japan to the FONOPs mix would be particularly dangerous. The psychological wounds of Japan’s depredations in China before and during World War II have not fully faded. China has stated that Japan’s more assertive behavior is “a blatant denial of the fruits of victory of the world’s anti-fascist war and a severe challenge of post-war international order”.


China sees Japan continuing its history of arrogance and aggression by being part of a US-led China containment strategy. A military role in the region for what Beijing perceives as its unrepentant former conqueror could strengthen the hand of militarists in China and undercut those who favour a softer approach.


According to academic and writer Richard Heydarian, “What was once a largely regional dispute has now become a full-fledged global geopolitical showdown”. While we might not be there yet, events do seem to be moving in that direction.


China feels politically and militarily cornered. The presence of US allies’ navies, and in particular their joining US FONOPs, will exacerbate that sense of unease. They need to weigh carefully the consequences of tempting fate in the South China Sea.


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

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3115813/us-and-its-allies-must-be-wary-provoking-south-china-sea-conflict