Revisiting the US-China “head-on” in the South China Sea lately

Revisiting the USChina head-on in the South China Sea latelyAs an extremely valuable sea for international trade, exploitation of economic resources and guarantee of the lifeblood of civil and military maritime traffic, the South China Sea is all the more a priority in the eyes of policymakers in many countries, inside and outside the region.

Even more so, experts and leaders of many countries consider it an effective geostrategic lever, so that any country with total control over the South China Sea will have the advantage in terms of strength, supremacy and control over any other, whether in terms of economy, maritime transport, defense-security, or foreign affairs.

Therefore, China still harbours the ambition to turn the South China Sea into its “home pond”, which forces the US, the world’s leading power, to engage itself more with China. In recent years, the “fight” between these two powers over the South China Sea issue has become an increasingly boiling spot in their bilateral relations.

For the US, Washington has long made no secret of its view that the South China Sea is an area of “multiple national interests” that requires “domination and control” to serve its regional strategies, especially in preventing and containing China’s “rise”. In the context of Chinese illegal encroachment, construction and reclamation of the features in the South China Sea, the US has repeatedly and publicly criticized such acts that obstruct freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea as well as “causing instability and insecurity” in the Asia-Pacific.

The US also asserted at regional conferences time and again that it “cannot and will not accept unilateral acts of coercion to change the status quo” in the South China Sea, and that “the US continues to engage in the region for the peace and prosperity of Asia with respect for all nations upholding international law. Because we recognize no nation is an island isolated from the others, we stand with our allies and the international community to address pressing security challenges, and do so together”.

Following such strong statements, the US had stepped up the implementation of its engagement policy in the South China Sea, focusing on the followings First, promoting freedom of navigation and law enforcement in the South China Sea within the strategic framework of the “free and open Indo-Pacific”. This is a strategic measure emphasized by the US to curb China's increasing maritime power and militarization in the South China Sea.

Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, the frequency, scope and intensity of US military operations in the South China Sea have increased significantly. Accordingly, the US military has conducted 15 "freedom of navigation” activities (FONOPs). In 2019 alone, there were a total of eight wherein the US sent one or two destroyers into territorial waters or waters surrounding the Paracel Islands Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal. In addition, US submarines and air forces often conduct close-range reconnaissance near the features/rocks illegally occupied by China.

According to incomplete statistics, in 2018, B-52s deployed by the US in Guam have carried out 16 military missions over the South China Sea, 4 times higher than 2017.

Within the framework of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, the US has not only upgraded its FONOPs in the South China Sea with increased frequency and size of ships, expanded scope of activities, but also through more diverse and challenging security measures in order to increase pressure on China. Accordingly, on the one hand, US allies such as Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom, have intensified their joint actions with the US on the basis of Washington's current unilateral military operation in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the US gradually institutionalizes and normalizes law enforcement activities of the United States Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) in the South China Sea, deploying joint law enforcement at sea with coastal countries like the Philippines, Malaysia... Direct competition between the US and China in the South China Sea shows no sign of stopping.

Second, the United States is speeding up the construction of military bases and deploying forces in the area around the South China Sea, and sees this as a key measure to respond to China's military influence. According to the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report published on June 1, 2019, the US will deploy more than 2,000 aircrafts, 200 surface ships and submarines, and 370,000 military personnel in the Indo-Pacific region; planning to buy 10 destroyers in 2020-2024 to improve its military capacity against surface ships, anti-submarine and ballistic missiles. The US also proposed to buy 110 4th and 5th generation fighters, 400 modern medium-range air-to-air missiles... With the above strategy, the US considers the South China Sea and its surrounding area as the geostrategic center of its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The US has been speeding up force deployment, infrastructure building and military operations in many different forms in the area.

Third, US bilateral and multilateral exercises have been taking place more frequently in areas around the South China Sea. Statistics show that the US Indo-Pacific Command hosts more than 150 joint and bilateral exercises annually with other countries in the region, such as the Balikatan (meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder”) annual military exercises between the US and the Philippines, RIMPAC exercises, CARAT exercises (with Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia...). The most recent Malabar exercise took place from September 2 to September 6, 2019 - the first time the US Navy and 10 ASEAN Navies conducted a joint maritime exercise, right beyond the “nine-dash line” to avoid escalating tension with China.

Although the exercise was identified by the participants as not to target China, it was understood that they were meant to counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Therefore, in the event that China continues to take encroachment actions in the South China Sea, it would not be surprising that the US will increase the frequency of joint exercises in the South China Sea and its surrounding area, possibly entering disputed waters in the South China Sea for joint exercises to create a “precedence” before the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) is signed.

Fourth, there is the Taiwan factor. Ever since Mr. Trump became President, the US has consistently used the “Taiwan card" in its relations with China. On August 20, 2019, the US announced plans to sell Taiwan 66 new generation F-16 fighters and related equipment, totaling up to US$8 billion. In the recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the US not only considered Taiwan as one of the four important partners in the Indo-Pacific region, but also addressed Taiwan as a “nation". In order to enlist the US support for the concept of “Taiwan independence” and “anti-Chinaism”, since May 2016 to date, Taiwan has occasionally signaled the possibility of leasing Itu Aba Island to the US. The Itu Aba Island that Taiwan currently occupies is located at the center of the Spratly Islands, about 130km from Mischief Reef, 170km from Fiery Cross Reef and 60km from Subi Reef.

Reportedly, the ports around Itu Aba Island can dock ships of 3,500 tons, even tens of thousands of tons, with runways for C-130 transport aircrafts on the island. The island is eligible for takeoffs, landings, and mooring of some US military vessels. In the context of the US promoting step by step the implementation of the strategy of “free and open Indo-Pacific”, especially as the Democratic Progressive Party continues to rule in Taiwan, if cornered by China, Taiwan might rely on “humanitarian aid” and “international cooperation” to open the door for the US to Itu Aba island, assisting the US in reducing China’s geostrategic advantage in the area, thus increasing the ability to monitor Chinese activities in the South China Sea, weakening the latter's growing maritime power. This is clearly a heavy-weighted card that the US has not thrown down.

With the US’ increased involvement in the South China Sea, China also strives to strategize, sparing no trick in the book to stop outside forces from interfering while breaking down internal forces with intense tactics as follows:

First, China sees COC negotiation as an opportunity to take further steps in the South China Sea. Currently, China and ASEAN are negotiating on the COC. However, this process reveals many disagreements and problems, especially when China sets three conditions: (1) The 1982 UNCLOS must not be applied in the content of COC negotiation; (2) Countries outside the region wishing to exercise in the South China Sea must get permission from China; (3) Countries in dispute in the South China Sea are not allowed to cooperate in exploiting resources with countries outside the region in disputed waters. With these three conditions, China looks to forming a future COC bending under its plan to facilitate its next steps in the South China Sea with the ultimate goal of “monopolizing” the region.

Second, China will continue to apply its tactic of gaining from null, calling on parties to put aside disputes and cooperate in order to turn other countries’ waters into Chinese. It should be recalled that more than 8 months ago, in May 2019, China repeatedly sent survey and escort vessels to violate Southeast Asian countries’ exclusive economic zones, harassing and hindering oil and gas exploitation activities in the South China Sea. China also tried to create pressure on Malaysia to force the latter to agree to joint maritime exploitation.

Consequently, from early July to end of October 2019, China blatantly sent Haiyang Dizhi 8 geological survey ship to operate and hinder oil and gas exploitation activities between Vietnam and other countries at the Vanguard Bank, an area completely under the sovereignty of Vietnam without any dispute between China and Vietnam, as the latter has been conducting oil and gas cooperation activities with foreign partners for many years here. This action serves many purposes, as Beijing wants to turn the area from non-dispute into a dispute, forcing Vietnam to “set aside dispute and conduct joint exploitation” with China. Should Vietnam agree to this, the area will automatically be seen as under dispute?

At the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 31, 2019, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the “incidents” occurred in the “disputed” waters between China and other countries, when in fact they are Beijing’s blatant violations in Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s EEZs. By shuffling definitions, Wang Yi wants to draw a conclusion: China also has the same rights as Vietnam or Malaysia with respect to the resources in the waters that belong to the other two countries’ EEZs. However, Wang Yi could not support his claims.

On September 18, 2019, when asked about the latest clashes in the South China Sea, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said that China had “sovereignty and jurisdiction over the related waters”, though he did not indicate what “related” meant.

Third, China will continue to take advantage of ASEAN’s consensus principle to divide the Association on the South China Sea issue. Due to the diversity of national interests and foreign relations among ASEAN members, the principle of consensus is included in Article 20 of the Association's Charter. This principle ensures equality of sovereignty among members and prevents any member from being excluded in important ASEAN decisions; allowing members to participate in regional activities without sacrificing domestic political interests; helping ASEAN maintain unity, assuring members’ security when joining ASEAN.

However, China has taken advantage of this principle to divide ASEAN’s unity, weakening ASEAN's ability to act effectively in solving the South China Sea issue. A number of important ASEAN conferences held in 2012, 2016 and 2017 failed to issue a joint statement regarding China's illegal activities in the South China Sea. If ASEAN could not overcome this problem, China will continue to encroach, fully utilising the “breaking one after the other” technique on ASEAN countries in resolving sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.

Looking back at what the United States and China have been planning and acting in the South China Sea in recent years, the US-China fight is not just for mastership of this rich and privileged sea, but more profoundly, it is a fight for control and dominance of the Asia-Pacific as a whole. Furthermore, it is a power scramble for the No. 1 position in the future. Therefore, like it or not, the South China Sea has always been a “hotspot” on the US-China chessboard. In the context that both powers have not been able to fully “acquire” the South China Sea to serve their ambitions and strategic goals, the US-China battle on this waters has not yet ended. The South China Sea may still stir, and regional security outlook may still be bleak.