“April Sees Heightened Chinese and US Naval Activities in the South China Sea” by Ian Storey

2018/46, 26 April 2018

Although tensions between China and the Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea have subsided significantly since mid-2016, the contested waters remain an arena of growing strategic competition between the US and China. High-profile naval activities by both countries in the area during April underscored this reality.

During 5-12 April, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-Navy) conducted a series of manoeuvres off Hainan Island. The drills culminated in a massive display of naval power involving 48 warships, 10,000 personnel and 76 aircraft. The largest display of Chinese naval prowess since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the flotilla included the aircraft carrier Liaoning, guided-missile destroyers, frigates, corvettes, supply ships and six nuclear-powered submarines.

This impressive display of naval power was reviewed by President Xi Jinping from the deck of the destroyer Changsha. Xi, who is also chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission and who recently had his presidential term limits removed, declared that China’s need to have a strong navy “has never been more urgent than today” because “a mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. More than half the warships which took part in the review were commissioned after President Xi took office in 2012. Some of the vessels went on to conduct drills in the Taiwan Straits and in the East China Sea where China is in dispute with Japan over sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The naval exercises were designed to showcase the PLA-Navy’s growing operational capabilities and determination to uphold the country’s territorial and maritime jurisdictional claims. The show of force should also be seen as a response to the increased tempo of US “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Under President Donald Trump, the US Navy has conducted six FONOPs in and around Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea—two more than during the whole of the Obama administration. China has protested the FONOPs as a violation of its sovereignty and warned that it will increase its military presence in the South China Sea to meet the US challenge.

During the PLA-Navy exercises a US aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt transited through the South China Sea on its way from Singapore to Manila. The Roosevelt was one of three US aircraft carriers undertaking presence missions in Asian waters. While the Roosevelt’s transit was uneventful, three Australian warships sailing in the other direction en route to Vietnam had their presence in the South China Sea challenged by the PLA-Navy. According to media reports, the challenge was “polite but robust”. Although the Australian government has not released details of the incident, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the warships were exercising the right of freedom of navigation in accordance with international law, a practice that seems increasingly at odds with China’s assertion of “historic rights” in the South China Sea, including the right to regulate the naval activities of foreign countries.

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

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