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U.S. Carriers Send a Message to Beijing Over South China Sea

“China is just pushing on all fronts,” a former defense official told Foreign Policy. “I’m worried at some point that the dam is going to break somewhere.”

A U.S. F/A-18 hornet fighter prepares to land while other fighter jets fly behind during a routine training aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea
A U.S. F/A-18 hornet fighter prepares to land while other fighter jets fly behind during a routine training aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea on April 10, 2018. Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

Faced with increasingly brazen Chinese efforts to exercise control over the entirety of the South China Sea, the U.S. military is using a series of big aircraft carrier operations to show allies that the United States isn’t about to turn its back on the hotly contested region.

Over the weekend, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz sailed into the South China Sea, another challenge to China’s claims of maritime sovereignty in the area that have been consistently challenged by American allies. More than a routine passage of the type meant to assert the right to free navigation, the exercise reportedly included the use of jets, reconnaissance planes, and helicopters, while Chinese sailors held competing drills near the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Current and former defense officials worry that China has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to ramp up its efforts to militarize the so-called nine-dashed line, Beijing’s sweeping claim to sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea, a conduit for trillions of dollars in annual trade and a potential motherlode of oil and natural gas. 

Since earlier this year, while the United States and other countries were grappling with the spread of the pandemic, China has systematically stepped up its efforts to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, installing floating and land-based monitoring systems on and around artificial islands, browbeating neighbors such as Vietnam and Malaysia that sought to drill for oil, and crossing sabers with Philippine warships. China has also redoubled its administrative reach in the South China Sea, which could give it greater ability to turn atolls and islets into an extension of the mainland.

China’s ongoing aggression in the South China Sea has gotten a boost as the economic headwinds from the pandemic, which originated in China, has given Beijing more incentive to fuel nationalism through aggressive foreign-policy actions. 

“It seems as though their foreign-policy adventurism has not in any way been clipped since coronavirus,” said Randall Schriver, who served as the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs until December 2019. “Stoking nationalism is helpful for a time when they’re struggling at home.”

The high-profile U.S. carrier operations are seen as a way to signal continued U.S. resolve, after another carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was laid up in Guam for two months after nearly 1,000 sailors contracted the virus. 

“I think there were some questions after the Roosevelt was out of commission for a bit as to whether our capacity to do things was diminished,” said Schriver, who is now chairman of the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on U.S. policy in Asia. 

“It’s a long-term play to demonstrate that the Chinese haven’t changed the nature of that water.” 

The U.S. deployment is driven in part by demands by America’s allies in the region to push back more against China’s behavior. Schriver said allied navies have reported an uptick in threats from the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Chinese coast guard in attempting to transit the sea; Chinese vessels regularly shadow and threaten ships transiting what are still international waters. The surge in American exercises has been driven by demand from allies, particularly Vietnam and Taiwan, and especially renewed interest from the Philippines to push back. 

The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, had under President Rodrigo Duterte become increasingly cozy with China, even moving to abrogate a military forces agreement with Washington this February. But the growing threat from China has Manila rethinking—it has put the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement on hold for now while it seeks U.S. muscle to counter Beijing.

“China is just pushing on all fronts,” another former defense official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told Foreign Policy. “I’m worried at some point that the dam is going to break somewhere. This business will get out of control.” 

Since the accession to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012, Beijing has taken a more aggressive stance toward its neighbors and territorial disputes—at a cost. Last month, it was involved in deadly border clashes with India in the most heated showdown between the two nuclear neighbors in decades, and economic ties between the two countries soured. A new national security law for Hong Kong will bring the city to heel, but it risks hurting Beijing’s ability to access international trade and capital markets. Former U.S. officials wonder at what point China’s own economic self-interest could rein in its land grab in one of the world’s most important waterways.

The thing I’ve never understood about China is since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has kept the sea lines available for everybody,” said Ray Mabus, a former Navy secretary during the Obama administration. “If they start messing around with sea lanes and trying to close them down, they’re going to do themselves pretty incredible economic harm, which I don’t think they can take right now.” 

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued the Trump administration’s renewed push against China’s claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea, calling the moves “completely unlawful” and arguing that the so-called nine-dashed line had “no coherent basis” in international and maritime law. The United States had not previously taken a position to explicitly reject Beijing’s claims.

The use of multiple carrier strike groups is a step up from the usual use of smaller surface ships to assert navigational rights in the region, and it’s a departure of sorts from how the Pentagon operated under former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who urged the department to cut back on the use of the U.S. military’s most visible power-projection platform. 

Using pairs of the multibillion-dollar ships serves several purposes. Operating in pairs, they can defend each other and conduct 24-hour flight operations, whereas a single flattop can only operate about half that time. And pushing America’s big nuclear carriers into the South China Sea offers Washington a chance to underscore China’s relative weakness in one area of naval competition where the United States has an unquestioned superiority over the rapidly growing, and technologically improving, Chinese navy.

“The U.S. can do high-end multi-carrier operations, with the not so subtle dig at the Chinese that their carriers are not at the level,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served on the Navy headquarters staff during his time on active duty. China has two conventionally fueled aircraft carriers with less capability to conduct flight operations than the massive U.S. nuclear supercarriers. “It’s a way of demonstrating to the Chinese that they’re still far behind in this capability area,” Clark said.

But the use of carriers in the Pacific also shows an ongoing paradigm shift in the way that the Pentagon conducts operations, after past Navy studies conducted with Iranian military expatriates showed that the large ships did little to deter Iran in the Persian Gulf, Clark said. Given the threat of Chinese surface-, land-, and submarine-based missiles, carriers are more likely to be used for sea control where they can operate outside of extended Chinese weapon ranges, he said.

Complicating matters, the United States still hasn’t reached a level of mutual understanding with China about what military actions are out of bounds in the South China Sea, from “shouldering” vessels aside forcibly to non-kinetic attacks, or combat patrols of air defense zones. Some organizations have called for the United States to establish a code of conduct with China in the South China Sea, giving the Pentagon a series of options to respond to Chinese provocations. 

The lack of mutually agreed rules on how to handle confrontations in a crowded stretch of water comes as U.S. officials fret about the vulnerability of their biggest naval assets. For years, China has poured resources into anti-ship missiles, especially so-called carrier killers that could take out the expensive ships from a distance, potentially forcing them to operate even farther away from the islands where the United States is eager to show the flag.

“Nobody can deny that a U.S. aircraft carrier carries a shit-ton of striking power,” said the former defense official. “The problem is it’s also vulnerable and the Chinese have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it vulnerable.” 

“It’s kind of like the old Dirty Harry question,” the former official said. “Do they feel lucky?”

Update, July 13, 2020: This article was updated with new U.S. policy developments regarding the South China Sea. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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