The latest US demonstration of non-compliance with China’s demands in the South China Sea could be seen as a message of support to the outgunned Southeast Asian nations contesting China’s position, writes Sarah Kirchberger.
On 27 October the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen entered into waters close to an artificial island built on the Chinese-occupied Subi Reef in the South China Sea. According to US officials it was carrying out a freedom-of-navigation operation in accord with international law.
The ship seems to have deliberately entered the ’12 nautical mile zone’ around the reef claimed by China, and available analyses suggest that Subi Reef was carefully chosen to demonstrate that the US will not respect any maritime claims made around artificially fortified reefs. The operation was sharply criticised and termed illegal by China’s Foreign Ministry on the same day.
Looking beyond the specifics, what could be behind such maritime muscle play? And is there a risk of escalation?
First, it’s worth noting that this is only one among a series of ‘close encounters’ between the US and China during the past years. Many of those were triggered by routine US surveillance activities, and some were connected with Chinese attempts to declare various kinds of ‘zones’.
In April 2001, a US surveillance aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet whose pilot perished. This caused a major diplomatic rift, even though the Chinese pilot was later found responsible.
In March 2009, the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable was harassed repeatedly by Chinese paramilitary and civilian vessels while operating in international waters off Hainan.
One further incident seems somewhat comparable: in November 2013, when China had just declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) including the airspace over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the US promptly let two B-52s cross this airspace unannounced. The fly-by demonstrated that China was unable or unwilling to enforce its ADIZ.
The second issue to consider is timing. The basis for the present disagreement originates from China’s ‘U-shaped’ or ‘Nine-dotted line’ claim which holds that essentially all the land features in the South China Sea are Chinese sovereign territory. Several notes verbales submitted to the UN in 2009 have additionally made maritime claims of territorial waters emanating from those rocks, shoals and reefs.
The Chinese position was officially challenged in July this year when the Philippines opened a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The court’s impending ruling will for the first time clarify whether China’s position is compatible with international law.
Meanwhile, a US State Department study in 2014 suggested that UNCLOS grants the right to make maritime claims only around uncontested sovereign territory – which the Spratlys clearly are not – and only to islands able to sustain human life, a condition most rocks and reefs in the Spratly archipelago do not meet. Not itself a signatory to UNCLOS, the US has consistently maintained that it will not accept restrictions imposed by other countries’ maritime claims on its freedom of navigation.
With the Chinese claim currently under legal investigation, and given the possibility it might be found untenable partly or wholly, this is a particularly sensitive time for the US to challenge China’s expanding maritime presence.
Then there’s the situation in China itself where the government is under considerable domestic pressure to enforce its hold on the Spratlys. As Bill Hayton notes in his recent book The South China Sea, the U-shaped line claim has pretty much been promoted to the status of a secular religion (p. 267). Backpedalling could prove near impossible given powerful nationalist sentiment built up through decades of propaganda.
Beijing is unlikely to accept any ruling not in its favour, even though China is a signatory to UNCLOS. An official rebuttal of China’s claim by an internationally recognised court of law would certainly strengthen the moral position of other claimants and make the Chinese position much more difficult to maintain. It is therefore likely that the ongoing case causes considerable uneasiness in Beijing.
Finally, the current incident must be seen in light of China’s recent maritime behavior.
The Lassen incident came after a period of intensified Chinese fortification activities in the South China Sea. Satellite images published in 2014 and 2015 have shown runways, airstrips and hangars being built on artificially fortified islands in increasing numbers. In the perception of many Western and regional observers, China has been quietly encroaching upon the South China Sea, factually enlarging its presence to the detriment of other claimants who don’t have comparable resources to command.
In addition to the newly erected structures, observers have noted China’s streamlining of civilian and paramilitary forces under the newly established Coast Guard with some alarm. Andrew Erickson in particular has drawn attention to China’s Maritime Militia, a little understood force consisting of civilian and paramilitary vessels.
Regional observers have pointed out how in the various island conflict scenarios it is facing, China seems to calibrate its maritime behavior very carefully depending on the opponent’s capability level and alliance status. In the South China Sea, China seems to consciously exploit the fact that it has no equally capable opponent or alliance structure to contend with.
Resisting all efforts to negotiate a multilateral agreement and insisting on bilateral negotiations, China automatically puts smaller countries at a disadvantage. It certainly didn’t dispel any ‘China Threat’ perceptions in Southeast Asia when China’s then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010 that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
Simply going by the number of human casualties caused by each claimant country in all the conflicts in the South China Sea so far, China undoubtedly takes the lead in terms of aggressiveness displayed.
Taking all these factors into account, the latest US demonstration of non-compliance with China’s demands in the South China Sea could be seen as a message of support to the outgunned Southeast Asian nations contesting China’s position.
The risk that this and similar actions could lead to an actual naval confrontation between the US and China seems low given the effective lack of punitive measures employable by China without risk of self-destruction. Further low-key incidents, especially involving China’s Maritime Militia, are however likely to occur much more often in the future.