Tensions Simmer in the South China Sea

May 6, 2016 | Erica Evans, The Cipher Brief
Photo: claffra

China sent a major signal to the U.S. last week, when it turned away the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and accompanying vessels from making a routine port call in Hong Kong – the first time in nearly a decade that China has refused entry to an American military ship. The message to the U.S. was in essence, “this is our turf and we’re in charge.”

The denial of port entry comes just two weeks after Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter criticized China’s military build up in the South China Sea while onboard the Stennis near Scarborough Shoal. Carter was accompanied by Voltaire Gazmin, the Philippines defense minister.

Territorial disputes are nothing new in the South China Sea, home to sea-lanes that support $5 trillion a year in trade. For decades, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries have sought to stake their claim to various uninhabited islands for strategic purposes as well as rights to fishing and oil reserves.

Throughout it all, the U.S. has refrained from officially supporting individual claims while remaining committed to protecting freedom of the seas. However, China upped the ante when it began creating artificial islands, building airstrips and installing military equipment that dwarf the facilities operated by other countries on their South China Sea holdings.

Euan Graham from the Lowy Institute for International Policy explained, “China’s strategic interest in the South China Sea is longstanding, preceding even the current communist regime in Beijing. What has changed is China’s impressive maritime capability.”

In order to deter China from using its increased capability to bully neighbors, the U.S. has conducted two “freedom of navigation operations” since the fall of 2015 in the South China Sea and is expected to conduct a third soon. Other U.S. activities include joint naval patrols and air operations with the Philippines, which began in March and April. But as tensions continue to escalate, there have been calls for an even more robust response to stop China’s expansion.

Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific, advocates such an approach. According to the Navy Times, he has recommended that the U.S. invest more in submarines and long-range surface missiles for the region and also consider launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of the man-made islands. Others are urging the Obama administration to rescind China’s invitation to attend the international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercise set to take place at Pearl Harbor this summer. However, the Navy Times also reported that the Obama Administration does not necessarily agree with these recommendations.

Meanwhile, China’s military announced Wednesday that they will carry out more exercises in the South China Sea this month, using advanced warships and submarines. And, while an international court of arbitration in The Hague is expected to issue a ruling in favor of the Philippines’ claims that China is illegally occupying the Scarborough Shoal, China has indicated that it will not accept such a ruling and has refused to participate in the proceedings.

China does have some nations on its side. Russia has voiced it support for countering U.S. influence in Asia and agrees that territorial disputes should be handled bilaterally, not on an international stage. Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, have also sided with China against internationalizing South China Sea disputes.

But if the disputes are left up to China and its opponents, then the Philippines, Vietnam, and others will be forced to choose between abandoning their claims and fighting to defend their interests. In reality, the choice is non-existent, because none of them can compete with China’s military might.

According to President and CEO of BowerGroupAsia, Ernie Bower, “the region wants to see much deeper engagement from the rest of the world to balance what they fear may be overzealous plans by China to dictate regional rules, redefine sovereign borders and maritime delineations, and to undercut or ignore international law.”

Accordingly, Vietnam and the Philippines are strengthening ties with the U.S. Besides continuing to offer encouragement to its partners in the region, however, U.S. options also appear to be limited.

In an article for the Diplomat, William Frasure, a Professor of Government at Connecticut College, wrote, “China and the rival South China Sea claimants must be aware of how problematic it would be for an American administration to rouse public support for a military confrontation with China over obscure bits of rock and sand in a corner of the world that, to most Americans, is quite remote.”

According to Frasure, China is confident it can continue unimpeded by the U.S. as it slowly asserts its maritime dominance in the region with the construction of artificial island, docks, and landing strips, and the introduction of new equipment like surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets. And as long as China avoids a direct attack on an American ship or plane, and continues to take small steps, it may indeed succeed in gradually establishing supremacy in South China Sea waters.

Erica Evans is a Journalism Associate with The Cipher Brief.

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