What’s new in the US South China Sea policy?

Whats newAt escalating Chinese aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, US South China Sea policy has undergone drastic changes, confirming the US’ commitment to the region. Recent US policy adjustments on the South China Sea are as follows:

First, top US officials, including the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and other members of Congress, have condemned China, one after the other, for taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to push forth their acts of encroachment, coercion and bullying towards neighboring countries in the South China Sea. To prove their point, the US has since dispatched its powerful naval forces (amphibious ships, destroyers, missile defense ships, frigates, submarines...), as well as its air force (long range strategic bombers), to the South China Sea.

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, such intense and rapid activities of the US navy and air forces are meant to convey a tough message to Beijing, clearly demonstrating Washington's intention of siding with coastal countries in the South China Sea, supporting their rights to exploit energy resources in their lawful waters, while condemning China of pressuring and bullying its neighbors.

China has since dispatched the Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship group, along with other maritime vessels, including militia ships, to intrude in Malaysian waters, threaten and harass the drillship West Capella operated by Malaysia’s Petronas. At the end of April, 2020, the United States has sent many amphibious ships and the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry for drills with Australian warships in this area.

In early May 2020, the United States further dispatched two coastal combat ships – the USS Montgomery and USS Gabrielle Giffords, Independence-class Navy littoral combats ships and USNS Cesar Chavez supply ship – to the area where the Haiyang Dizhi 08 and other Chinese maritime and militia vessels were operating within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

This is the first time that the United States dispatched warships to areas where Chinese vessels are threatening other countries’ oil exploration activities in the South China Sea. It is worth noting that there is a wide range of US warships in this area. In contrast, when the same group of Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship group was aggressively infringing on Vietnam’s petroleum operations in its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf for nearly 4 months (from the beginning of July to the end of October 2019), the US did not send even one warship to this area.

Many observers argue that such a move is evident of the United States' full support for other countries’ resource and energy exploitation activities in the South China Sea. This is a new feature in the US South China Sea policy. Against the backdrop of Beijing’s escalating aggressiveness, Washington wants to make known its disapproval of China’s “big fish eats small fish” policy, as it disregards international law in the South China Sea.

Second, apart from not mentioning the long-standing US policy of not taking sides in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, since the beginning of 2020, the US has shifted its focus on many activities in the Paracel Islands, where China has fully occupied and repeatedly asserted “complete Chinese sovereignty”, and not accepting any dispute. Three out of the five US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea since the beginning of the year were deployed in the Paracel Islands, with the most recent two conducted exactly 1 month apart (the 28th of April and 28th of May).

During the May 28, 2020 FONOP in the Paracel Islands, Anthony Junco, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet spokesperson, was quoted as saying in a statement, “by conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea.” Some observers believe that, with this new move, it is clear that the US no longer holds a "neutral" position on the issue of sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, but has since rejected China's sovereignty claim. Hanoi could take advantage of this new addition in Washington’s South China Sea policy.

Third, the goal of US FONOPs in the South China Sea is to protect freedom of navigation based on international law and promote compliance with the 2016 PCA award on the South China Sea dispute. The US has always believed that the objective of FONOPs in the Paracel Islands is to disrupt the straight baseline which China outlined. With the latest FONOP on May 28, 2020 within the Paracel Islands by the USS Mustin (DDG 89), the US once again confirms such belief by gaining entry within 12 nm of Woody Island (the largest feature in the Paracels, even larger than Spratlys’ Itu Aba) and Pyramid Rock.

The PCA’s ruling on July 12, 2016 did not issue decisions regarding the status of the features in the Paracels, but with the US Navy’s FONOPs, especially that on May 28, 2020, the United States considers the features in the Paracel Islands to fall under the same regime as those in the Spratly Islands. This new US move is intended to promote the implementation of the PCA’s 2016 award on the features in the Spratly Islands.

Fourth, a worthy new feature in the US South China Sea policy is reflected in a diversified strategic approach, with the combined use of multiple forces and means, to create an unpredictable outcome for the other party in the South China Sea.

The US has dispatched some of its latest warships (amphibious ships, destroyers, cruisers, coastal combat ships, submarines, aircraft carriers, etc.), as well as the Rockwell B-1 Lancer supersonic heavy bomber, from different bases (either on the American continent or Guam) to conduct activities in the South China Sea. The Pentagon's diverse and unexpected techniques are aimed at preventing Beijing’s expansion and monopoly of the South China Sea.

In general, these new features in US policy on the South China Sea are beneficial to countries in the South China Sea in dealing with China's aggressiveness and belligerence in the region.