What is clearly an information war with China over the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic becomes something more serious when geopolitical interests are closer to home. The situation in the South China Sea has become more ominous as China exerts pressure on its neighbors over claims of sovereignty for numerous islands, which Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines all believe they have legitimate claims to. For the United States, the issue is two-fold. First, regardless of competing claims among the regional countries, the U.S. has a national security interest in keeping the sea lanes open. Second is letting friends and allies in the region know that the U.S. is as ready to respond to mischief in the South China Sea as it ever has been, despite COVID-19 outbreaks on U.S. naval ships. Make no mistake: China is a strategic problem for the U.S. and the West. Consequently, President Trump’s administration is taking a more direct, proactive approach toward China than did his predecessor, indicated by the National Security Strategy declaring China a great power competitor.
The South China Sea is one arena in which the competition is unquestionably existential. Keeping the channels open is critical to global commerce, and this body of water cannot be held hostage by China. The two South China Sea islands that are particularly troublesome are the Spratly and Paracel groups, both of which are claimed by China and Vietnam. In recent years China has been creating artificial islands in and around the Spratly Island Group, and the United States is concerned the military buildup on the newly constructed islands will be used to constrict sea-borne traffic.
China’s aggressive actions have become more blatant and potentially deadly. For Malaysia, commerce includes oil exploration in the contested area. Recent reports by the U.S. State Department show China’s repeated harassment and provocative actions aimed at a Malaysian state oil company exploration vessel. The State Department called the activities “bullying” and “destabilizing.” One case of the Chinese threatening behavior included harassing a Philippine naval ship and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Ely Ratner, a fellow for China studies, presented the specter of China’s actions:
“If left unabated, the cumulative effect of China’s expanding influence in the South China Sea will make it increasingly difficult for the United States to defend its interests in Southeast Asia: U.S. security partnerships will weaken, the U.S. military will be left with fewer access and presence agreements, and neither regional institutions nor international law will substantially constrain China’s behavior.”
The other challenge for the U.S. is to maintain confidence among its friends and allies in the Western Pacific. The U.S. must tamp down any notion spread by Beijing that America’s capability to respond in the region has been reduced because of the Wuhan COVID-19 infection onboard U.S. Naval vessels. As reported in Stars and Stripes, Collin Koh, a naval operations subject matter expert, explained that the contagion that hit the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its subsequent removal from operations had sewn doubt in the minds of regional partners regarding the readiness of the U.S. to respond. As Koh put it:
“Chinese state media has been adding to the is through its own propaganda and possibly disinformation campaign that focuses on arguing that the U.S. military is seriously undermined by the pandemic and therefore not in any position to come to the rescue of Beijing’s rivals in the South China Sea, amongst other flashpoints.”
In the past, the Navy routinely conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) with little fanfare. However, to address the propaganda head on with action, the U.S. Navy has communicated widely its FONOPS. Making its presence known, the U.S. has conducted four FONOPS in the first quarter of this year, compared to eight in all of 2019. For example, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry sailed close to the Paracel Islands, and the USS Bunker Hill passed by the Spratly Islands. At the same time, the USS Montgomery operated in close proximity to the Malaysian West Capella drilling ship. The West Capella had been the target of harassment by Chinese vessels.
The South China Morning Post took notice of the U.S. operations in an article, titled, “US-China tensions in the South China Sea fueled by an increase in military operations.” As the article described the U.S. Navy’s activities, they included “39 flights over waters near China,” including a flight near Hong Kong. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pointed out that the operations are an increase in the “military investment in the region.” He went on to say, “it’s a way by which you maintain a degree of strategic predictability to ensure the readiness of your force but garner a higher degree of operational unpredictability.” FONOPS and military air operations create unpredictability for the Chinese.
The U.S. Navy will continue to operate in the Western Pacific at a tempo that establishes clearly U.S. intensions to be a formidable force in the region. China should be on notice that the South China Sea is not its own personal lake.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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