Sea Change in the South China Sea
The United States has shifted its position in the South China Sea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “the world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire …America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”
The Importance of America’s Actions
This means that while the US officially remains neutral, they have sided with other claimants like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam against China. This decision comes with numerous implications including the status of Chinese artificial islands, the importance of Freedom of Navigation patrols and the consequences and dangers of an aggressive Chinese foreign policy. In particularly, it suggests that instead of need for more caution in response to Chinese aggression, there is a block forming against them.
One of the most frequent points of contention in the region involves the artificially built islands and contested claims in the South China Sea. The region has considerable oil and natural gas reserves and includes traditional fishing regions of the population. As a result, the region includes frequent clashes between fisherman and China’s militarized coast guard. China regularly sends oil exploration vessels with armed escorts in what should be the exclusive economic zones of neighboring countries.
An artificial island brings with it territorial claims extending 12 nautical miles and, at least according to the creator of the island, an exclusive economic zone. On top of territorial claims to economic resources these islands could be used as launching pads or key defenses in a potential war. These artificial islands include advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks that can handle blue-water ships, submarine bases and large runways that can support their advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F-22 and F-35.) Keep in mind they are doing this in the Spratlys and other islands in the South China Sea that are vigorously disputed. (It’s true that other nations have done so as well, but not to the extent that China has and definitely not with the same degree of militarization.)
Because these islands are proclaimed as Chinese territory, Freedom of Navigation patrols are incredibly important. These are legal maneuvers taken in international waters instead of the 12 nautical miles included in the territorial limit. When the U.S. performs a Freedom of Seas operation, they send an important signal of strength and peace. Because the islands are disputed, the US performs these operations to reaffirm the importance of international law. These prevent the de facto recognition of this territory as China’s. Thus, the statement from the United States in some ways is simply an affirmation of what the Freedom of Navigation Patrols already indicate.
The Inchoate Anti-China Coalition
But it is different in more important ways. It combines with other recent events to suggest a new block is forming against China. Presumably, the United States is willing to tolerate and maybe even forgive non-Chinese artificial islands in the region. The statement from Pompeo is a direct repudiation of aggressive Chinese action. This makes foreign policy analysts wring their hands that this will increase tension with China (as though the fisherman of the neighbors don’t already face harassment from the militarized Chinese coast guard), but ignores the long term trends that favor America and its allies.
Analysts say that militant Chinese aggression with India, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia have driven otherwise friendly or neutral countries straight into America’s arms. While they are smaller Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam have shown an indication to work with each other and the United States. Australia has so much tension with China that they are increasing their defense spending. They are focusing on longer range anti ship and new hyper sonic missiles. Both of which directly relate to China’s increasing reliance on blue water naval warships and missile systems. Vietnam has hosted American aircraft carriers several times, including the USS Theodore Roosevelt just a few months ago (in between its crew battling the coronavirus.) While their militaries are still dwarfed by China, there is a growing sense among them that they will individually collapse if they don’t collectively resist and like Vietnam, they have been growing closer to the US.
The result that is most important regards China’s aggression. Many people worry that China will bully its way into getting what it wants, build up island after island until they present the world with Chinese control of the area. But the US newly sided with China’s opponents, the Freedom Navigation operations, and the consolidating block suggests that China has created a wall of opponents around them that will constrain their aggression and adventurism.