KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 206

Recent Developments in the South China Sea: The Probability is Rising for Accidental Incidents

Wu Shicun

National Institute for South China Sea Studies, China

Despite the raging Covid-19 virus and anti-racism protests at home, the U.S. has continued maneuvering in the South China Sea since July.  

It is puzzling that since the Covid-19 outbreak the U.S. has stepped up its military operations in the South China Sea. It has conducted six Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) so far this year, compared with four in 2017, six in 2018 and eight in 2019. In addition, nearly 2,000 close-in reconnaissance operations have been conducted on China from the air this year.

 The U.S. frequently intervenes on South China Sea issues with a deep-rooted objective to contain China. The US does not wish for China to maintain stable relations with ASEAN countries nor dominate the South China Sea in the future. 

The U.S. has not relaxed its efforts to contain China in the South China Sea. Since the Obama Administration announced a return to the Asia-Pacific and introduced the “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” strategy, the U.S. has taken provocative military actions time and again in the South China Sea. 

The U.S. has kept increasing its military and diplomatic input into the South China Sea amid deteriorating China-U.S. relations. This focus has spilled over from issues related to trade, science and technology, and the political and security fields. Therefore, the South China Sea issue has become a major flash point between China and the U.S. On the South China Sea issue, the U.S maritime hegemony in the Western Pacific is at stake. 

Secretary Pompeo raised again the 2016 arbitration award initiated by the Philippines on its disputes with China over the South China Sea. The then Philippine government, led by Benigno Aquino III, was used by the US to lodge this arbitration, which even helped package part of the final verdict. Therefore, out of the U.S. strategic interests, the ruling denied most of China’s lawful and legitimate maritime rights and claims to the waters around Nansha Islands.

Since four years ago when the verdict was made, the U.S. has never accepted China’s position on denying this ruling and attempts to revive the ruling in different ways. From 2016 to 2018, the U.S., Japanese and Australian foreign ministers issued joint statements during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Related Meetings, urging China to abide by the “verdict” and its outcomes.

The U.S. cannot accept the consensus between China and the Duterte government to resolve their disputes on the South China Sea through bilateral negotiations rather than through the arbitration ruling. As President Duterte is approaching the second half of his term, the pro-U.S. and anti-China forces in this Southeast Asian country are rising. This is a good timing for the U.S. to fit in with their wishes. 

Secretary Pompeo’s press statement on 13 July indicates that the U.S. has completely abandoned its “neutral” position and adopted an opposite stand against China. The U.S. has played nearly all its cards in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, in its next step, in addition to joint exercises with its allies and partners in and beyond this region, the U.S. is likely to make some moves.

First, the U.S. may add new military bases in the South China Sea region. For example, in addition to its current military bases in the Philippines and Singapore, the U.S. may use Vietnam as a major military base and for forward deployment and action in the South China Sea through port visits. 

Second, the U.S. Coast Guard will probably make regular deployments and interactions in the South China Sea. The U.S. has already deployed two Coast Guard vessels in its Japanese base under the unified command of the 7th Fleet. In the future, the U.S. Coast Guard may intensify its forays into the South China Sea to conduct “law enforcement” in contested areas. However, according to international norms and widely accepted international practices, coastal states’ coast guards may only conduct enforcement within its own exclusive economic zone. The U.S. is not a coastal state of the South China Sea and its “enforcement” is interference with others’ affairs.

In addition to increasing its frequency, the U.S. may extend the coverage of its FONOPs to waters close to the Xisha Islands, the Nansha Islands and the Huangyan Island, potentially sending two warships per FONOP.  The U.S. may rope in extra-regional countries, particularly its allies, to build a quasi-military block and conduct joint patrol in the South China Sea. It is an unsustainable practice for the U.S. to push allies and partners to keep military pressure on China. Such U.S. allies and partners as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and even India have not formally accepted the U.S. requests. But with the U.S. carrot and stick, there is a possibility of their joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, as these countries also have their own interests there.

Some senior U.S. military officers once threatened to take military actions against the Nansha islands and reefs controlled by China, for example, using force and blowing out islands and reefs where China has conducted some construction. However, I do not think the U.S. military will act so recklessly at this moment, as it would mean war.

In its press statement, the U.S. extends open support to the positions and claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia in the South China Sea. This attempt to drive a wedge into the relations between China and these countries shows the U.S. has almost exhausted its plays in the South China Sea.

Confronted with U.S. muscle-flexing, China certainly has no shortage of countermeasures. The U.S. is keenly aware of this and its dual carriers will not act so recklessly as to take military actions against China.

I reckon that strategic decision makers in both countries are not prepared for a war in the South China Sea. Any war will be a disaster to regional peace and stability as well as to China-U.S. relations. Under modern warfare conditions, neither of these two nuclear powers will find it easy to take the first shot. As the situation in the South China Sea evolves, I am afraid that the chances are growing for an accident to be triggered.

For instance, U.S. warships and aircrafts have come to the South China Sea more often. Despite some mechanisms being in place, the situation is very dangerous under specific circumstances. For example, on September 30, 2018, the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou and the destroyer USS Decatur came within 41 meters in a close encounter in the waters off the Nansha Islands. A collision is very likely to happen and cause crew causalities due to unprofessional operations. Therefore, maximum efforts should be made to prevent a crisis, from escalating into a conflict that spirals out of control. 

In addition to regularly visiting vessels, the U.S. has Coast Guard ships in the South China Sea, as does China. There is no crisis management mechanism between the two coast guards, as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is only applied to the military vessels and aircraft. As the U.S. Coast Guard ships sail to the South China Sea and the Chinese Coast Guard vessels conduct enforcement there, what rules should be observed when they encounter? If poorly managed, a collision could occur.

In this sense, the chances are growing for an accidental incident being triggered between China and the U.S. As the U.S. intensifies its military operation in the South China Sea, China will adopt corresponding countermeasures, such as tracking, monitoring, warning and expulsion. The more intense U.S. military operations, the greater the likelihood that accidents will occur.

Wu Shicun has a PhD in history and is president and senior research fellow of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, chairman of board of directors of China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea, vice president of China Institute for Free Trade Ports Studies, deputy director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University.

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