China’s increased aggression in the South China Sea

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Chinas increased aggression in the South China SeaAccording to the US’ Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia – Reed Werner, since mid-March 2020 when the US’ aircraft carrier returned to Guam, China’s fighter jets have “harassed” the US’ reconnaissance aircraft in the South China Sea for at least nine times. At sea, an escort vessel from China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier fleet operated in an “unsafe and unprofessional way” near the US’ destroyer USS Mustin in the South China Sea in April 2020. The abovementioned activities have concerned states in the region and beyond, especially when the Sino-US relations still remain tense due to a wide range of issues from economic, trade, to cyber security and pandemic and neither China nor US showed any sign of decreasing their military presence in the South China Sea.

To avoid confrontations, at the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) held in Qingdao – China in April 2014, 21 member states signed the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). The Code provides guidelines on necessary means of communication for naval ships and aircraft in unplanned encounters at a specific waterway. Despite being a signatory to CUES, China has always been ready to confront audaciously the US’ naval and air force in the South China Sea because Beijing aims at undermining Washington’s influence in the region. In August 2014, a China’s J-11 fighter jet “performed aerobatics” near the US’ P-8 Poseidon – a surveillance and submarine detection aircraft – in the South China Sea. The J-11 fighter was occasionally seen to fly just about 9 meters away from the P-8 Poseidon. Such distance was considered to be dangerous. In May 2015, the China’s guided-missile frigate Yangcheng (FFG-546) tailed the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) of the US navy when this ship was patrolling near the Spratly Islands. After establishing an Air Identification Defence Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013, China has been harboring its ambition to set up a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea.

Given the Covid-19 outbreak, China considers the pandemic an “opportunity” to increase its controlling power in the South China Sea while other states are currently straining every nerve to battle against the fatal threat. The US’ Department of Defence believes that all adversaries of the US, especially China, are taking advantage of the current global crisis to conduct more activities. Accordingly, China has been increasing its military activities in the South China Sea, notably, in March 2020, Chinese naval force conducted a military exercise simulating direct confrontation with foreign aircraft and warship in the South China Sea in preparation for future mid-air or maritime “confrontation”. As stated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily – the official newspaper of the Chinese PLA – the military simulation included exercises for undefined foreign aircraft detection supported by vessels and expulsion of foreign aircraft from the so-called “airspace” of China. Furthermore, China was ready to “fire missiles at foreign aircraft to prevent Chinese warships from being attacked”.

The South China Morning Post reported that the US conducted hundreds of reconnaissance, espionage, and supervision activities near the coast of China annually. The number and extent of these activities have been increasing particularly in recent months. To be specific, the US operated 39 flights in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. The number is three times bigger than that of the same period last year. More importantly, in a rare move, the US aircraft has twice operated near the Special Administrative Region- Hong Kong, which was located close to Mainland China. The US navy has also undertaken 4 patrolling missions to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the first four months of 2020 while last year, they did this for only eight times. In April 2020, the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry, and the amphibious assault ship USS America of the US navy joined another guided-missile frigate of Australia in a military exercise near the area that Malaysian drillship West Capella is operating. This is also where Malaysian ships, while operating in Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), have been repeatedly threatened by Chinese naval ships, coast guard ships, and fishing ships in recent months .

In early May 2020, the combat ship USS Montgomery and the replenishment vessel USNS Cesar Chavez of the US Pacific Fleet (USPACFLT) also operated near the Malaysian drillship West Capella. Most recently, on May 12th 2020, the independence-class littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) of US navy was spotted off southern South China Sea and near the drillship West Capella.

In comparison to the year 2019, the US has increased its presence in the South China Sea. For what reasons? Regarding this issue, many experts explain that: 1/ China’s aggressive and irrational actions since the beginning of 2020 that are regardless of international law have threatened the sovereignty of regional states; threatened and jeopardized the interests of other stakeholders in the South China Sea including the US. This explains the increased number of abovementioned activities undertaken by the US to “contain” Beijing. 2/ This is also the sign for the fundamental “deterioration” of Sino-US relations. The US and China have fallen into the so-called “new type of cold war” state for the past few months, said Mr Shi Yinhong – counsellor to the State Council of China. In other words, recent tensions in the South China Sea are simply part of the entire deteriorated relations between China and the US in different fields namely trade, cybersecurity, Taiwan, world order, and competition for influence in Asia. 3/ The US wants to demonstrate its reaction to China’s wilful “disregard” for other states’ request that China stops its aggressive and “expansive” actions in the strategic waters such as the announcement of illegal sovereign claims, the construction of artificial islands, the illegal militarization in the South China Sea, and so forth. According to Mr Timothy Health – a senior researcher at RAND Corporation, the US’ army enhances its activities in the South China Sea partly because its diplomatic efforts to resolve conflict with China have failed. The US has no choice but to take action to prove the US’ seriousness in maintaining international status of the South China Sea and reaffirm the US’ commitment to its allies. 4/ This move of the US aims at sustaining international order in the South China Sea. As mentioned by the commander of USPACFLT May 7th 2020, the US commits itself to maintain rule-based order in the South China Sea and will continue defending the freedom of navigation in line with international law and China must stop bullying other Southeast Asian states to monopolize oil, natural gases, and offshore fisheries because lives of millions of people in this region depend on these resources. 5/ Increasing its military presence in the South China Sea is how the US “reciprocates” for China’s increased military threat to Taiwan. In recent months, China’s military aircraft have operated near Taiwan’s airspace for six times, forcing Taiwan to deploy its fighters to expel these aircraft. China's Liaoning aircraft carrier has operated near the island of Taiwan for two times this April. 6/ The US also wants to prove the readiness of its army to operate in the region despite Covid-19 pandemic, due to which, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was anchored. On May 1st 2020, the US deployed four heavy bombers B-1B with hundreds of soldier to Guam for “China-deterrence” mission. 7/ The US wants to comfort its partners and allies given China’s recent coercive actions in the South China Sea.

China has always blamed external factors, especially the US, for escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Pro-China scholars support such argument. They are keen on criticizing and provoking the US on Chinese and international media. Suppose the US is the prominent factor that creates tension in the South China Sea, if the US does not make a move, would China “stay still”? The answer is no because different from what China has been “propagating”, it is very unlikely for them to make concessions and acknowledge other states’ claims or “turn over a new leaf” and uphold the rule of law, and accept its limited sovereignty in the South China Sea. Even when ASEAN states “turn their back” to Washington or Washington itself “gives up”, China’s ambition to “dominate” the South China Sea will remain. By then, in the South China Sea, it may be China who “rule the roost”.

How should the US respond to China’s aggressive and coercive actions in the South China Sea? Many experts vote for the internationalization of the South China Sea issue. They also believe that the presence of different states, external powers, especially the US, is necessary for three reasons, as presented below.

First, the South China Sea is not only a place of sovereign interests to littoral states but also a significant international sea route of the world. In fact, waters beyond territorial waters of littoral states, such as the EEZ, Continental Shelf, or International Sea represent legitimate rights of third parties including the US, Japan, EU, India, or any other states in the world, even landlocked states. Therefore, undertaking Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and conducting joint military drill or patrol, if not violating international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS 1982), cannot be considered unreasonable engagement.

Second, China cannot use the South China Sea as its “security shield” to “dominate” this sea area. As a matter of fact, sovereignty claims of many states, including ASEAN member states are legal; thus, they shall enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction rights that are in consonance with UNCLOS 1982. For this reason, the South China Sea is also their pivotal interest and “security shield”. To preserve the mutual security of the South China Sea, states including ASEAN member states and China must adhere to the common “rules”, especially UNCLOS 1982. Through all the events related to the South China Sea up till now, for example, the 2016 Ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea, it can be seen that China is the only state that exhibits unlawful and aggressive behaviour. Without the presence of the US and other states, China will act as if it is "on top of the world" and continue to occupy maritime features in the South China Sea.

Third, if there was any state attempting to divide ASEAN member states in the negotiation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), that must be China. UNCLOS 1982 is a significant legal foundation that helps ASEAN and China reach an agreement on how to behave in the South China Sea. However, Beijing has always implemented the so-called “divide and rule” strategy, and opted for bilateral negotiations so that they can easily pressure other states and gain advantages in the COC negotiation. For the last 20 years, Beijing has been endeavouring to put off COC while expanding and occupying maritime features, constructing artificial islands, and militarizing the South China Sea. Concomitantly, China uses economic interests to entice the Philippines into “putting the conflict aside, opening for joint exploitation”. In fact, China wants to make the Philippines’s sea its own. Therefore, if the Philippines agreed to partake in “the joint exploitation” with China, it would create a dangerous precedent, encouraging China to move forward and be tougher in threatening and intimidating other states in the region.

As China takes advantage of its economic strength to “divide” ASEAN member states, concurrently increases the presence of different forces, especially military force in this sea area to make South China Sea its “backyard pond”, the absence of the US and other states will push its allies, such as, the Philippines, Taiwan, and its partners in the South China Sea into the state of “policy dilemma”. The Philippines may have to either partake in the risky “putting the conflict aside, opening for joint exploitation” game or be threatened and bullied with China’s old tricks like ramming fishing boats or harassing maritime economic activities. China will never “leave the South China Sea alone” even when the US decides to take a step back in this sea area.

Therefore, to make the South China Sea a region of peace, stability, and development or a source of benefit for the entire world, regional and external states must promote solidarity and join hands with each other, act on the basis of international principles and norms, especially the UNCLOS 1982; and be determined and persistent in the battle against China’s ambition.