Defending Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea

on August 17 | in Asia-Pacific, Foreign Policy, Military

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Sino-U.S. ties certainly appear to be fraying these days, with Chinese land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea (SCS) being met by U.S. military freedom of navigation (FON) activities in these waters. Washington’s willingness to confront China naturally will raise tensions, but left alone Beijing would have kept pressing its claims anyway, leaving us exactly where we are now, or worse.

America must continue to confront aggressive Chinese efforts in this area because Beijing almost certainly will seek to enforce sovereignty over these newly established islands, restricting international freedom of navigation.

The key for the United States will be to maintain FON operations but to also determine that U.S. military assets will sail within 12 nautical miles of these new islands regardless of saber-rattling by Beijing. Washington nevertheless should hold off doing joint patrols with other regional actors and leverage the threat of a coalition as a cost to any future Chinese effort to restrict FON.

Without establishing red lines or communicating clear costs, Washington will only keep playing to Beijing’s strategy: advance only to retreat temporarily when it feels that relationships and China’s international image could be significantly hurt.

Pushing Back Has Its Benefits

In the span of just over a year, China has solidified its presence in the Spratly Islands by dredging up sand and dumping them on reefs—the damage to these endangered ecosystems alone is deplorable—to create new islands, and then constructing military facilities on them. This is Beijing’s “salami slicing” strategy, securing small victories that in isolation do not spark a huge backlash, but when added together substantially change realities on the ground in China’s favor.  Now, it would seem Beijing cut itself the thickest piece of cured meat yet.

In response, the United States has conducted high-profile FON operations, including reconnaissance flights near these artificial islands, but never within 12 nautical miles of them. This appears to have produced a slight tempering in Chinese reclamation activities, including first a Chinese foreign ministry announcement in June that the People’s Republic is almost done with its island building quest. More recently, Foreign Minister Wang Yi during this month’s ASEAN ministerial meetings said land reclamation efforts are “complete.” 

This would not be the first time that the risk of destabilizing U.S. and regional ties has led Beijing to temporarily scale down efforts to advance its claims. Although the threat of inclement weather and the completion of exploration activities were official excuses for pulling their oil rig from Vietnam’s EEZ last year, I tend to agree with other experts that souring ties with Vietnam and negative international publicity in great part drove Beijing to back off. Indeed, a period of heightened tension, which included Chinese businesses being targeted by protesters in Vietnam, eventually gave way to high-level bilateral visits after the rig retreated back to Chinese waters near Hainan island.

And it is for similar reasons, specifically the upcoming state visit by President Xi Jinping to the United States in September, that we should expect a cooling in Chinese efforts to advance its SCS claims—at least until Xi returns to China.   

A Start, But Not Enough

So why can’t we chalk this up as a success? The Chinese foreign ministry statement referenced earlier also noted Beijing would still continue to outfit the new islands with military facilities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s claim at ASEAN is also dubious because, at the end of the day, even if China stopped its island building, that does not necessarily mean it will halt constructing facilities on them.

Ultimately, it is not China’s island building alone that threatens freedom of navigation. Rather, it is what they do with these new features — specifically how they enforce their perceived sovereignty over them — that is the problem. Other SCS claimants have outfitted islands with their own facilities and airstrips after all, but have not acted to restrict freedom of navigation. China’s artificial islands are already a reality. The key now is to shape how China uses them.

Again, to date the U.S. government has not come within 12 nautical miles of these new features. Under international law, real islands generate a maritime buffer zone of that distance. But these are, of course, artificial islands. By just debating whether or not to get within 12 nautical miles of these features, Washington is only helping to legitimize China’s claims. By not blowing right through that 12 nautical mile zone, the United States signals to Beijing that it can probably get away with trying to regulate who sails or flies over these waters.

Timing Key in Imposing Costs

The idea of joint patrols is not a bad one, but it should be viewed more as a cost that could be imposed on China if it takes steps to restrict freedom of navigation. Certainly Washington should be communicating its red lines to China and specific measures it would pursue if these are crossed. China declaring an ADIZ or any sort of exclusionary zone in the SCS should definitely be on the top of that list.

In the meantime, the United States needs to exercise its right to sail and fly over the SCS. Furthermore, Washington should tell Beijing that while it won’t take sides on the sovereignty issue that, it will in no way stay neutral on any attempt to restrict FON. Any Chinese challenge on this front would only compel Washington to build a coalition against said actions that would hurt Beijing’s image and relationships, including by stepping up patrols with other regional partners.

Joint patrols should therefore be viewed as a powerful stick against future Chinese actions to limit FON and arguably are more of a liability if deployed at this point in time. Specifically, bringing Japan into the equation, a non-claimant that China has historical baggage with, risks giving Beijing an excuse to escalate tensions to placate a domestic audience, including by declaring another ADIZ. Indeed, official Chinese press suggests that joint patrols between Japan and the United States in the SCS is a Chinese red line.

This is not to say Washington should prevent Tokyo or any other actor from performing their own patrols. That would be tantamount to China trying to restrict Washington’s FON operations, and the U.S. government should be clear about that reasoning with Beijing. Washington should also feel comfortable helping to boost these countries military capabilities, including through arms sales, as part of normal relations with other states. Indeed, China has usually highlighted the legality of its arms sales when facing pushback over its own weapons-purchasing customers.

Fear of Containment Produces A Dangerous Mindset

As important as it is to stand strong on FON, it is also important for Washington to not hamper opportunities for China to play a larger leadership role in the world. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, for example, is in large part due to Beijing’s frustration with its failure to secure a larger voice in established institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. This reinforces a zero sum mentality in China, where it feels obliged to play a larger role not so much for the sake of resolving complex international problems, but to ensure it is not being left out and its interests compromised.

In fact, China claims its reclamation efforts in the SCS are aimed at promoting regional cooperation on humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. There may be an element of truth to this, although it is almost certainly not the main driver of their recent activities. Regardless it would still be worth taking them up on the offer. If the Chinese are being even slightly genuine, possibly new avenues for dialogue and cooperation could be opened. If not, then their bluff would be called as soon as they decline or stall any concrete action towards deepening cooperation on shared humanitarian concerns. 

Washington has a better shot at preserving FON by pursuing a strategy that focuses on sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s new artificial islands, as justified under international law. This avoids unnecessarily forcing China to further provoke by patrolling the SCS with Japan, possibly a Chinese red line. China’s sharp rhetoric against a stepped up U.S. FON activities is rising in hopes that Washington will actually be deterred from responding.

More important than just responding, however, Washington must make sure it has a sustained strategy in place to safeguard FON that does not stop at the first sign that China is retreating. Otherwise, America risks playing right into China’s salami-slicing tactics in the SCS.

Gabriel Alvarado is a former political analyst with the U.S. government. He currently works at Crumpton Group LLC, a boutique strategic advisory firm.

photo: screenshot from the PLA-N’s latest recruitment video, “Our Dream”

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