“US-China Tensions Spill over into South China Sea” by Ian Storey

2018/92, 11 October 2018

China’s more robust response to America’s most recent freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Spratly Islands is a clear demonstration of how the intensification of Sino-US rivalry is increasingly being played out in the heart of maritime Southeast Asia.
Over recent months, it has become clear that US President Donald Trump has decided to follow through on his campaign promise to get tough with China on a range of economic, political and strategic issues. His administration has sparked a trade war with China by imposing tariffs on US$250 billion worth of Chinese imports, placed sanctions on China’s armed forces for buying weapons from Russia, renewed arms sales to Taiwan, and criticized Beijing’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang and Tibet.

On 4 October, in a landmark speech which future historians might well come to regard as the opening salvo in a new era of overt Sino-American contestation, US Vice President Mike Pence issued a stinging rebuke of Chinese statecraft. Pence accused China of interfering in America’s domestic politics, of blatantly stealing US intellectual property, pursuing “debt diplomacy” through its Belt and Road Initiative, and seeking to expel America from the Western Pacific. The Vice President suggested that America’s decades-long policy of engagement had failed to liberalize China, and while he still held out the promise of future cooperation, the speech signalled the Trump administration’s determination to assertively counter Chinese attempts to undermine US interests and influence.

Five days earlier, events had already taken a turn for the worse in the South China Sea. On 30 September, the US Navy carried out its eighth FONOP in the disputed waters since Trump took office. During a ten-hour operation, the destroyer USS Decatur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs, two of China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Both features are high-tide elevations which are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea. In sailing through those territorial waters, the Decatur was exercising the right of innocent passage. During previous FONOPs, the Chinese Navy has merely shadowed US warships and issued verbal warnings for them to leave the area. This time, however, China’s response was much more aggressive. Near Gaven Reef, the Chinese destroyer CNS Lanzhou attempted to cut across the Decatur’s bow, forcing the US warship to immediately alter course to avoid a collision. The Lanzhou came within 41 metres of the Decatur, a manoeuvre the US Navy criticized as “unsafe and unprofessional”. China called the US warship’s presence a “grave threat to China’s sovereignty and security”.

The incident was reminiscent of the early Cold War, when US and Soviet warships regularly engaged in risky manoeuvres. Such behaviour ended, more or less, in 1972 when Washington and Moscow signed the Incidents at Sea agreement by which both navies agreed to end dangerous manoeuvres and thus lessen the risk of collisions and crisis escalation.

America and China (together with 19 other countries) hoped to achieve the same outcome in October 2014 when they issued the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and a month later a code on safe maritime conduct. Since 2014, the US and Chinese navies have practiced CUES in a series of exercises.  But the actions of the Lanzhou were, at best, poor seamanship, and at worst a violation of CUES and other bilateral and international agreements to prevent collisions at sea. The incident calls into question the utility of CUES, which is voluntary. After all, what is the point of CUES if certain parties do not adhere to its provisions in tense situations at sea, situations which CUES is precisely designed to avoid?

In his speech, Pence pledged that despite China’s “reckless harassment” of the Decatur, the US would “continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand”. Press reports suggest that America may be planning a major show of military force in the South China Sea in early November, possibly including large-scale exercises and further FONOPs.

If the Decatur incident is an indication that Beijing has ordered its armed forces to use more aggressive tactics to push back against the US military in Southeast and East Asia, a serious and potentially dangerous confrontation in the South China Sea could be just around the corner.

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

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