“America Pushes Back Against China in the South China Sea” by Ian Storey

2018/68, 28 May 2018

Events over the past few days suggest that the Trump administration is following through on the pledge it made in its 2017 National Security Strategy to take a firmer line against China’s military activities in the South China Sea.

On Sunday 27 May, two US warships conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the Paracel Islands which China has controlled since 1974. The USS Higgins, a guided-missile destroyer, and the USS Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, passed within 12 nautical miles of Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels. On 18 May, for the first time ever, the Chinese air force had landed a long-range strategic bomber on Woody Island.

The Higgins/Antietam operation was the seventh US FONOP in the South China Sea since President Trump took office in January 2017, and the 11th since FONOPs were resumed in the disputed waters in 2015. However, it was the first South China Sea FONOP to involve two US warships and the first to pass within multiple atolls.
China’s defence ministry called the FONOP provocative, illegal and a serious infringement of Chinese sovereignty. The state-controlled Global Times declared “The South China Sea is a place where China must not make concessions to the US. If Washington increases its military activities in the water, Beijing’s military deployments there will be strengthened.”
The FONOP took place five days before US Defense Secretary James Mattis is due to address the annual meeting of Asia-Pacific defence ministers known as the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. At the meeting, Mattis is expected to reiterate America’s commitment to regional security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Four days prior to the FONOP, on 23 May, the US had disinvited China to the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises. RIMPAC is the world’s largest multilateral naval exercise and has been held off Hawaii every two years since 1971. China participated in RIMPAC for the first time in 2014 and again in 2016. The Pentagon withdrew China’s invitation to the 2018 exercises in response to reports that Beijing had deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles to three of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. According to the Pentagon, the missile deployment was contrary to Beijing’s claims that the facilities on its manmade islands were for non-military purposes and a violation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to US President Barack Obama in 2015 that China would not militarize the Spratlys. China called the disinvitation “not constructive”.
In response to the Paracels FONOP and the disinvitation to RIMPAC, China is likely to step-up its military’s activities in the South China Sea in the coming months, possibly including the deployment of fighter jets to its artificial islands in the Spratlys for the first time. We can also expect more US FONOPs and perhaps a further scaling-back of America’s military-to-military activities with China.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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