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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 304

The U.S.-China Conflict over Maritime Dominance and Korea’s Response Measures

Kang Byung-chul

The competition between the U.S. and China for maritime dominance gets fiercer each day, leading to large and small maritime conflicts. If an armed conflict takes place between the two countries, it is highly likely that such clash may accidently occur in the sea.

On the surface, the major controversial issues of the U.S.-China conflict may seem to stem from a difference in the interpretation of the legal status in international law. However, it should be considered as an extension of the competition between the two countries for regional hegemony. 「The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Political Working Regulations」 came into force as a military law in December 2003, and these established ‘legal warfare’ as a branch of the so-called ‘Three Warfares’ alongside ‘media or public opinion warfare’ and ‘psychological warfare.’ China is considered to avoid the armed conflict in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait and engage in the ‘Three Warfares’ instead. As the U.S.-China maritime dispute would evidently lead to a fierce war, China intends to protect its interests in the sea through the Three Warfares.

Although the U.S. staged its aircraft carrier drills in the West Sea of Korea in November 2010 immediately after the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, it since then has refrained from heading its carriers to the West Sea out of concerns over increasing tensions with China. As the situation has recently gotten worse, from the U.S. nuclear-powered USS Nimitz-class Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier (CVN-72), the F-35C stealth multirole combat jet, F/A-18 Super Hornets, Hawkeye early warning aircraft, etc. entered the West Sea on March 15, 2022 to conduct naval exercises. Not only did the U.S. proactively conduct joint naval exercises by staging aircraft carriers in the West Sea, but it also revealed that the U.S. was considering installing a homeport of its warships in South Korea, indicating the extension of the U.S.-China hegemonic competition to include the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and West Sea. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday mentioned the possibility of staging joint naval drills with aircraft carriers in the West Sea. USNI NEWS, the military news service of the U.S. Naval Institute, reported that during a conversation at an online forum on January 12, 2023, Adm. Gilday acknowledged that “The West Sea is hot issue. If the U.S. Navy conducts drills in the West Sea, the point of deterrence is to convince any particular adversary it’s not worth it to make a move.” When asked if homeporting U.S. warships in South Korea was under consideration, he said “I would never take any option off the table. Options will be discussed with the Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.”

The main issues of maritime conflict between the U.S. and China are as follows. Free deployment of aircraft carriers and fighters in the global ocean and their power projection are the core interests of the U.S. Thus, the U.S. argues that the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) guarantees the right of states to navigate the seas freely. On the other hand, some coastal states including China oppose this argument. A huge difference in perspective is found when it comes to the operations of naval warships. For instance, the U.S. says that warships and aircrafts are entitled to innocent passage in ‘international waters’ to conduct operations. It argues that ships and aircrafts of all states have the right to enjoy freedom of navigation in ‘international waters’ according to customary principles of international law. Here, international waters refer to seas out of the breadth of the territorial sea of states up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. The U.S. is even stressing the right of innocent passage in the territorial sea of states. One of the biggest reasons for the U.S.-China conflict with regard to the use of seas is the interpretation on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EEZ was introduced along with UNCLOS signed in 1982. Under the EEZ, states have control over the maritime jurisdiction on waters alongside high seas and territorial waters, although such control is restricted. As the name ‘exclusive economic zone’ implies, UNCLOS recognizes that coastal states have the sovereign right to exclude other states and solely enjoy their economic rights. It is considered that UNCLOS recognizes the sovereign right to use natural resources in the seas, but they are not entitled to enjoy such rights on waters. If the right of coastal states to control their waters is reinforced, they will be given an authority to control the waters like territorial seas. Among the states that signed UNCLOS, about 10% held reservations as an expression to limit the scope of the convention to be applied to them to restrict military activities in their EEZ. The list of countries that held reservations include Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ecuador, India, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Portugal, Thailand, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Military activities in an EEZ have become a contentious issue in maritime conflict since UNCLOS took effect. The conflict between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus originated from the same reason. As for the U.S.-China conflict in the South China Sea, it also comes from a difference in point of view on military activities in the EEZ, creating a sense of imminent crisis.

The U.S. Navy continues to affirm its ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise in the South China Sea. China said that the USS Benfold illegally entered China’s Paracel territorial waters without the approval of the Chinese government on July 13, 2022, and that the Southern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in charge of the South China Sea organized sea and air forces to follow, monitor, warn, and drive it away. The U.S. 7th Fleet said on July 16, 2022, that USS Benfold carried out a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands. At the conclusion of the operation, the U.S. 7th Fleet claimed that “This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, and Taiwan.” The innocent passage that the U.S. argues for is that foreign ships are entitled to navigate the territorial seas of coastal states freely provided they do not disrupt the law, peace, order, and safety of the coastal states. Thus, the U.S. Navy argues that the demands by China and other coastal states to require other countries to seek permission and provide a notice in advance for innocent passage violate international law. China has developed artificial islands in the South China Sea in an attempt to extend their sovereign right, and the U.S. Navy continues to deploy its destroyers and carry out the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea that pass through territorial waters and EEZs of China, a dismissal of such attempt. China condemns the U.S., saying, “The move seriously damaged the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and the norms of international relations.” As a maritime powerhouse, the U.S. keeps arguing for freedom of navigation, and China condemns such actions by the U.S. and threatens the U.S. warships and military aircraft that conduct FONOPs in its EEZs’ territorial waters. Both countries provide rational arguments for why their activities are legitimate under the recent framework of international laws, and often engage in armed protests to establish the legitimacy. Specifically, China criticized the U.S. for attempting to interpret UNCLOS in its favor, even though the U.S. Senate rejected to ratify the convention. The U.S. strongly argues that its freedom of navigation in international waters is legitimate regardless of China’s condemnation.

The U.S. and China have continued to raise disputes over the Taiwan Strait. This 400 km long, 150 km~200 km wide strait is a strategic location separating the island of Taiwan and China. As Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after defecting in the Chinese Civil War, U.S. Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. drew a line down the middle of the strait to avoid cross-strait conflict (between China and Taiwan) in 1955. Based on the notion of a median line, the U.S. argues that “many parts of the Taiwan Strait are high seas” and continues to send its warships there to pass through the Taiwan Strait, once per month on average since 2020. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on August 2, 2022 and stayed there for a night, which deepened the U.S.-China rupture significantly. Enraged, China mobilized the Eastern, Southern, and Northern Theatre Commands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct joint live fire drills in six zones encircling Taiwan’s territorial waters and air, partially restricting the flight routes and port functions. During the 72-hour military exercise, which took place from 12 PM on August 4 to 12 PM on August 7, 2022, Dongfeng (DF)-15B ballistic missiles fired from mainland China flew over Taiwan, and Chinese warships and fighters crossed the median line that actually serves as the country’s border several times in attempts to neutralize it. On August 4, 2022, the Chinese military launched a total of eleven DF-15 ballistic missiles into six waters near Taiwan’s northern, southern, eastern, and western coasts that were determined as ‘no-fly zones (NFZs).’ Some of them flew over Taiwan’s capital Taipei, Kaohsiung in the South, and Taichung in the central Taiwan and fell into the eastern coast, and the remaining five missiles fell into its EEZ.

Although China has accepted the median line in the middle of the Taiwan Strait to maintain the ‘status quo,’ it now argues that the country ‘will not allow the activities of foreign warships in the Taiwan Strait as it belongs to the coastal water of China under the one-China policy.’ The dispute that occurred in the Taiwan Strait this time is considered as China’s attempt to destroy the status quo. Regarding the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin already said on June 13, 2022, “The Taiwan Strait is the internal waters, adjacent zone, and EEZ of China. Thus, China has sovereign power, sovereign right, and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.” He also pointed out that “The words ‘international waters’ do not appear in UNCLOS. The fact that related states call the Taiwan Strait ‘international waters’ is nothing more than an excuse for engaging in the Taiwan issue to threaten the sovereign right and safety of China.” Despite the strong condemnation of China, the U.S. insists that the Taiwan Strait is international waters, and that it has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy freedom of navigation there. For its part, freedom of navigation is a matter that will determine the fate of a country. For instance, the U.S. still has not ratified UNCLOS for fear that its ratification will undermine and delay its global power projection. For the U.S. to exert its power and influence throughout the world, it is predicted that the country will stick to its stance of protecting international law that allows it to arrive anywhere it wants without interference of coastal states.

It can be said that Korea and China manage the elements of maritime conflicts in the West Sea and East China Sea relatively well. The fact that the countries stably maintain the status quo in the West Sea and East China Sea reflects that the two sides are satisfied with the current situation to a certain degree. Nevertheless, there is also a possibility that China may attempt to change the status quo. Rather, both the U.S. and South Korea will try to change the current situation first for strategic reasons. Otherwise, an unexpected deterioration of existing issues such as large and small fights over illegal fishing that often take place in the West Sea, etc. may provide an opportunity to change the current situation. Efforts to reinforce naval power including intensified U.S. naval drills in the West Sea or installing a homeport of U.S. warships may take place to change the current situation. We have already witnessed how the Russia-Ukraine war was caused by heightened tensions while the two sides attempted to change the status quo. Similarly, there are several cases in many parts of the world in which situations were worsened to engage in a dispute as the risky situations collapsed in a certain period.

If Korea or China attempts to change the status quo in the seas, high tensions will be continued and may lead to armed conflicts. Thus, it is necessary in peaceful times to prepare response measures in advance. China continues to traverse the virtual median line of the overlapped EEZs and deploy its warships to our territorial waters, as the borderlines are not drawn clearly, and Chinese warplanes continue to enter the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) without approval or prior notice. We need to discuss with China to reach a proper agreement to avoid conflicts. So far, South Korea has handled such issues peacefully by raising complaints through diplomatic channels, etc. without causing friction. When a crisis occurs or a party tries to change the status quo, we should refrain from using military power and decide to have diplomatic negotiations. Also, there is a need to discuss the code of conduct that provides detailed guidelines to reduce maritime friction.

USNS Charles Drew (T-AKE 10), a logistics ship of the 7th Fleet, arrived near Kuk-To Island (Donghang-ri, Yokji-myeon, Tongyeong-si, Gyeongsangnam-do, Korea) on March 31, 2021 to conduct a freedom of navigation operation. At that time, the U.S. raised an objection to the argument of South Korea regarding the excessive straight baseline. It said that it was an attempt to advocate for the rights, freedom, and legitimate use of the seas recognized by international law. Considering this reality, there is a need to revise relevant laws and regulations that allow the state to restrict or monitor the military activities of foreign warships and aircrafts in coastal areas of Korea to the extent that the country can conduct joint military drills with the U.S. as planned, and UNCLOS and the logic of ‘freedom of navigation operations’ argued by the U.S. can be applied.

The U.S. strongly desires to access seas promptly, as the country needs to project its power to proactively engage in international issues to end disputes and stabilize the parties concerned. As such, it is urgently necessary to find creative solutions that satisfy both freedom of navigation for prompt power projection of the U.S. and sovereign jurisdiction to protect our coasts. Without support by the international community, arguments over rights are nothing more than crying into the void, and it is necessary to reinforce naval power to protect our maritime interests. Thus, it is urgently needed to positively and proactively review the option of introducing nuclear submarines and a Korean aircraft carrier.

After receiving his Doctorate of Philosophy in Political Science from Jeju National University, Doctor Kang Byung-chul (qshuba@naver.com) served as general manager of the research department and research director for the Society of Ieodo Research, research professor at the Defense Research Institute of Chungnam National University, collaboration professor at Jeju International University, and senior researcher and visiting researcher of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. Currently, he serves as research director of Korea Institute for Peace and Cooperation.

  • Ian Easton(2017), The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (Arlington, VA: Project 2049 Institute).
  • Robert. Beckman(2013), “The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 107.
  • Stokes, Bruce(2010), “China’s New Red Line at Sea,” National Journal, 3 July 2010.
  • Thayer, Carlyle A.(2010), “Recent Development in the South China Sea: Grounds for Cautious Optimism?” RSIS Working Paper, No 220.
  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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