In South China Sea, a Tougher U.S. Stance

Rejecting China’s "Great Wall of Sand," the U.S. Navy will patrol near man-made islands constructed by Beijing.


The United States is poised to send naval ships and aircraft to the South China Sea in a challenge to Beijing's territorial claims to its rapidly-built artificial islands, U.S. officials told Foreign Policy.

The United States is poised to send naval ships and aircraft to the South China Sea in a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims to its rapidly-built artificial islands, U.S. officials told Foreign Policy.

The move toward a somewhat more muscular stance follows talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last month, which fell far short of a breakthrough over how territorial disputes should be settled in the strategic South China Sea.

A final decision has not been made. But the Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after Chinese opposition ended diplomatic efforts to halt land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the waterway. The timing and details of the patrols — which would be designed to uphold principles of freedom of navigation in international waters — are still being worked out, Obama administration and Pentagon officials said.

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” said a Defense Department official.

The move is likely to raise tensions with China. But U.S. officials have concluded that failing to sail and fly close to the man-made outposts would send a mistaken signal that Washington tacitly accepts Beijing’s far-reaching territorial claims.

As the unprecedented scale of Beijing’s reclamation work came to light earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter asked commanders to draw up possible options to counter China’s actions in the South China Sea, which serves as a vital transit route for global shipping.

Now, the administration is preparing to endorse what the military calls enhanced “freedom of navigation operations,” which would have American ships and aircraft venture within 12 nautical miles of at least some artificial islands built by Beijing. 

China argues it has sovereign authority around each of its newly built islands within a 12-mile boundary, a legal argument rejected by neighboring countries as well as by the United States. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea — which Beijing has signed — does not recognize artificially constructed outposts as legitimate islands.

The expanded patrols by the U.S. Navy could mean more close encounters between American and Chinese vessels and aircraft, raising the risk of a potential collision or volatile incident.

Just days before Xi’s trip to Washington, a Chinese fighter jet flew in front of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane east of the Shandong Peninsula in the Yellow Sea. And in August 2014, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet passed within 20 feet of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft, performing a barrel roll in a maneuver the Pentagon condemned as reckless.

To avoid misunderstandings and possible crises, U.S. and Chinese defense officials have recently worked out protocols for encounters between ships at sea. And last month during Xi’s visit, the two sides announced a memorandum on rules for action when aircraft from the two nations fly in close proximity.

Apart from China’s assertive military stance in the western Pacific, American ships also must contend with swarms of Chinese fishing boats, which Beijing has employed as maritime militia to assert its territorial demands without taking explicit military action.

The United States and its partners in Southeast Asia have grown increasingly alarmed by China’s massive reclamation effort in the Spratly Islands. In less than two years, China has built outposts on top of seven reefs covering more than 3,000 acres, according to the Pentagon.

Stepped-up U.S. naval patrols would be welcomed by China’s neighbors in the region, which have sought out American diplomatic and military assistance to try to counter Beijing’s actions.

The United States has stressed it does not take a position on rival territorial claims among China and other states in the area. But it has voiced concern over tactics aimed at coercing other countries and attempts to install military bases on disputed reefs or rocks.

Washington believes that a crucial principle is at stake in the dispute over the South China Sea — the international laws and rules that serve as the foundation of the global economy.

“If one country selectively ignores these rules for its own benefit, others will undoubtedly follow, eroding the international legal system and destabilizing regional security and the prosperity of all Pacific states,” Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September.

The admiral, who oversees U.S. forces across the Asia-Pacific region, said he favored sending ships and planes within the 12-mile zone to make clear the Chinese claims to “territorial sea” carried no legal weight. The patrols had been conducted routinely until 2012, before Beijing launched its vast land reclamation work.

His comments drew an angry response from China’s Foreign Ministry, which said Beijing “opposes any country’s attempt to challenge China’s territorial sovereignty and security under the pretext of safeguarding navigation” and urged the United States “to exercise caution in its words and deeds.”

About 30 percent of all maritime trade passes through the South China Sea every year, including about $1.2 trillion worth of goods bound for American ports. And the seabed is a potentially rich source for oil and natural gas.

China has built three airstrips on its outposts in the Spratlys, installed radar and communication gear, and dredged deep ports that could accommodate large warships. U.S. officials say the construction work appears aimed at creating a military network on the man-made islands, which they fear could be used to coerce smaller countries into bowing to Beijing’s territorial ambitions. In such a scenario, China could declare an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, in the area, as it did two years ago in the East China Sea — where Beijing is at loggerheads with Japan over a group of uninhabited islands.

“All of the equipment and the airstrips that they are currently laying down in the Spratly Islands are all consistent with creating a South China Sea ADIZ,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Program.

Under an ADIZ, Beijing could demand all aircraft entering the area provide their flight route and abide by instructions from the Chinese military.

Despite satellite imagery showing long runways and helipads under construction, China’s president said during his visit to the United States last month that his country “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the South China Sea.

Xi reiterated his government’s view that Beijing has had sovereign authority over the South China Sea islands “since ancient times.”

China repeatedly cites a “nine-dashed line” that lays claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, rejecting rival claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries. That controversial demarcation line appeared in a map from the Nationalist government that was toppled in the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and is now featured in Chinese passports. But the line is based on what China calls “historical” claims that are not recognized under the law of the sea.

On a range of issues, including the South China Sea and trade disputes, the Obama administration has appealed to Beijing to abide by international law and rules — arguing that China has benefited and prospered under those rules.

But Obama acknowledged before Xi’s visit last month that China often has interpreted Washington’s policy as a bid to prevent its rise.

“As they have matured, what we’ve said to them is, ‘With power comes responsibility, so now you’ve got to step up,’” Obama said. “In some cases, they still feel that when we call them on issues like their behavior in the South China Sea, or on intellectual property theft, that we are trying to contain them.”

Despite a much touted strategic “rebalance” to Asia, attempts by the United States have failed over the last several years to persuade China to adopt a more conciliatory stance in the South China Sea.

In July, China was able to defeat a diplomatic push by the United States at a regional forum of Southeast Asian states that would have called for a halt to land reclamation and any militarization of the area. Washington had held off pursuing patrols near the man-made islands to give diplomats time to broker an agreement, but now there is a sense in the administration and among U.S. allies in the region that it is time to take action to underscore America’s position.

“I think it’s clear that there is not a good set of options for convincing, or even compelling, China not to dredge and build artificial islands in the South China Sea,” said Scott Harold, deputy director at Rand Corp.’s Center for Asia Pacific Policy.

But operating ships and aircraft near the artificial outposts would underline Washington’s stance that it does not recognize China’s legal claims or its aggressive methods of asserting them, Harold said.

“There’s a concern that if you don’t … stand up for your positions, the Chinese will take that as evidence that you are unwilling to defend what you have claimed as your principles,” he said.

It remains unclear if U.S. ships or aircraft would operate near all the man-made islands or only those that were built on top of submerged natural features that were never recognized as islands. A number of the Chinese outposts are built on rocks that jut above the water and could qualify under international law for a 12-mile boundary.

The United States has carried out “freedom of navigation” patrols for decades around the world, contesting what it considers “excessive” maritime claims by allies as well as adversaries.

In the South China Sea, other countries over the years have also dredged up sand and piled it on top of reefs or rocks to buttress their claims. But land reclamation carried out by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines adds up to an area of less than 200 acres, and it occurred over decades — not months.

“China has now reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land in the Spratly Islands,” concluded a Pentagon report on Pacific maritime security that was issued in August.

China’s push in the South China Sea is mostly a recent phenomenon and has coincided with a concerted investment in its navy, which has dramatically grown in recent years and acquired anti-ship missiles that could undercut American naval power.

But U.S. naval ships also have faced a challenge from Chinese commercial fishing boats, which Beijing has used as a low-tech tactic meant to exploit a gap in maritime law.

Fashioned into a maritime militia, fishing boats have been employed as a sort of picket line, staked hundreds of miles out at sea, providing the Chinese navy with an extra set of eyes and ears in disputed waters far from the mainland.

The fishing boats have played a key role in several incidents in recent years. In 2012, dozens of the civilian craft took part in the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which is contested by China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. And in 2009, a group of Chinese fishing trawlers also trailed and harassed the USNS Impeccable, an American surveillance ship, for days in the same area.

Effectively serving as maritime militias, the fishing boats have ties to their local governments and the Chinese military, and can be called up and deployed quickly to track and harass foreign ships sailing in international waters.

The militias “derive a lot of power right now from operating below the radar and not being fully understood or appreciated [by foreign governments],” said Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

One of the main challenges, he said, comes from how military ships deal with the fishing boats, which are manned by civilians, but which may be conducting business on behalf of the Chinese military.

A paper recently published by two researchers at the U.S. Naval War College argues that the use of the fishing boats “exploits a seam in the law of naval warfare, which protects coastal fishing vessels from capture or attack unless they are integrated into the enemy’s naval force.”

The maritime militia provides the Chinese navy “with an inexpensive force multiplier, raising operational, legal and political challenges for any opponent,” the paper states.

Photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe

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