The volatile politics of the South China Sea continue to make waves.
China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have been fighting over this azure stretch of the Pacific for more than a century, but tensions have increased markedly in recent years as China, claiming the South China Sea as its own, has built on some 250 islands there.
Now the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a US think tank, has warned that China was building new military facilities on the disputed Spratly archipelago, off the coast of Phillipines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
On June 29 the organisation reported on its website that new satellite images show that missile shelters, communications facilities and other infrastructure are “near completion”, including those on Mischief Reef, which has been a symbol of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea since the country occupied it in 1995.
The AMTI report could increase tensions with the United States, which insists that this trade route remain under international control.
Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were supposed to discuss the situation during their first meeting at Mar-a-Lago on April 5 2017. But the launch of 59 Tomahawks in Syria and growing tensions on the Korean peninsula completely overshadowed the maritime issue.
Freedom of navigation
On May 24, the US triggered a confrontation cycle in the South China Sea by sending the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey to pass through the contested waters, sailing close to Mischief Reef.
It was the first military maritime exercise in eight months and the first of Trump’s presidency.
American patrols in the South China Sea had been a regular practice under the Obama administration since 2015.
The South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) is a US military program, open to regional allies (including Australia, Japan and the Philippines), in which the US leads maritime exercises in the area.
FONOPS is aimed at reiterating the inalienable principle of freedom of navigation in international waters laid out in the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China disputes this application of the UN declaration and perceives FONOPS as essentially a unilateral American endeavour. The State Department asserts that the US can and will exercise its freedom of navigation on worldwide, without interference by any other country.
Warships, it has affirmed, should enjoy the same freedom as any other vessel, meaning free access to both exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and territorial seas without permission from the relevant coastal state.
China, which has also been in bilateral talks on the South China Sea with the Phillipines since early this year, has a different interpretation. For Beijing, military vessels cannot enter a coastal state’s territorial seas without official permission.
It also claims that military ships in EEZ territorial waters are unlawful and suspicious, and only non-military vessels enjoy the right to passage.
The clash of unilaterality is clear here. For the US, ensuring the freedom of navigation throughout Asia-Pacific region is a national prerogative and a matter of vital importance.
As such, China – specifically, its military activities on some of the disputed South China Sea islands – is clearly its main obstacle. A confrontation appears unavoidable, but thus far interactions have cleverly been kept on a safe track because no US allies in Asia have joined the FONOPS exercises.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative’s assertion that “Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time” may unsettle that balance.
Trump’s interest in the South China Sea
FONOPS, too, is often seen as a challenge to China’s claims in the South China Sea.
In fact, the freedom of navigation-focused operations are not explicitly aimed at questioning Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. But the US has a clear interest in preserving its role as a regional hegemon, and FONOPS could be seen as a provocation of Beijing and its divergent maritime stance.
During his first months in office, President Trump was accused of neglecting the South China Sea dispute and undervaluing the maritime routes encompassed in the Chinese Nine-Dash line. As the New York Times has reported, the Pentagon has on two occasions turned down requests by the US Pacific Command to conduct operations in the disputed waters, in February and April.
Trump’s cabinet has given every sign that it will continue the South China Sea policy developed under the Obama administration. On February 4 2017, Secretary of State James Mattis reiterated the importance of the South China Sea on the American agenda. Several months later, Admiral Harry Harris assured that the FONOPS in the South China Sea were planned as usual.
Timing has thus far been key in the waltz between Washington and Beijing. The US needs China’s support in facing a growing number of global challenges, from terrorism to North Korea.
And with Trump already pushing China on trade, evidently his weapon of choice for addressing the nations’ multifaceted bilateral relationship, the administration may have thought it strategic to avoiding outright pressure on Beijing regarding the South China Sea.
FONOPS is part of this geopolitical balancing act. Relaunching operations in the region in May allowed the US to reassure Asian allies about its continued presence and gave China the chance to criticise the US for jeopardising regional peace, thus bringing that FONOPS cycle to a close.
Now, with the new US-reported satellite images of Chinese military development released, the ball is again in Washington’s court.
This article, originally published on June 14 2017 with the headline “Dispute over warship in the South China Sea is a return to ‘business as usual’ for US and China” has been updated to reflect the latest developments in the South China Sea.