US-China Tensions Escalating

Clashes between the US and Chinese navies in the South China Sea have intensified.

Amidst daily distractions from presidential scandals and the on again, off again summit with North Korea, tensions between the United States and its most potent geopolitical competitor have escalated.

In news I somehow missed last week, we disinvited China from our biggest naval exercise in response to their continued flouting of international law.

USNI News (“China Disinvited from Participating in 2018 RIMPAC Exercise“):

The U.S. military has disinvited China from participating in the upcoming Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii, a Defense Department spokesman announced.

Citing actions in the South China Sea that run counter to international norms and a pursuit of free and open seas, Department of Defense spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would not be participating in the exercise despite its participation in submarine safety and other non-warfighting components of the exercise in previous years.

“The United States is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region. As an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea we have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise. China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise,” Logan said.

“We have strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, and electronic jammers to contested features in the Spratly Islands region of the South China Sea. China’s landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island has also raised tensions,” he continued.

“We believe these recent deployments and the continued militarization of these features is a violation of the promise that President Xi made to the United States and the World not to militarize the Spratly Islands.”

This is a significant reversal from the previous policy:

China participated in the 2016 exercise despite tensions at the time. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in April 2016, “Our approach to security in the region, as I indicated there, has always been to try to include everyone, so that’s our basic approach. So even as we stand strong and improve all of our systems and stand strong with our allies – and develop new partnerships with countries like India and Vietnam that we don’t have decades of experience with, like the Philippines; they’re all coming to us, in part because they’re concerned about China – but we’re still taking the approach of, everybody ought to work together here. So if the Chinese want to participate, I think it’s the right place for us to be. Come on, and instead of standing apart from everybody and isolating yourself and excluding yourself, try to be part of the system of cooperative nations that have made, as I said, the Asian miracle possible.”

In 2012 China was invited to participate in the 2014 exercise - where the PLAN sent four invited ships and one uninvited spy ship - and soon afterwards the U.S. invited China to rejoin them again in 2016. Despite South China Sea tensions and other friction between the two countries, naval leaders have long spoke of the importance of rehearsing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief drills together, communicating at sea to avoid collisions, and practicing safe ship handling and rescue drills in case of an emergency.

Quite so. While we tend not to do a lot of ground force operations with competitors, the thinking vis-a-vis naval exercises has long been that, because the oceans are part of the “global commons,” learning to operate seamlessly in peacetime is sufficiently important to override other concerns. This is particularly true in the case of the PLAN, which has only had significant “blue water” capability for a relatively short time.

That thinking is changing. And, unlike so many other issues, it doesn’t seem to be a function of President Trump’s id.

Business Insider (“China’s navy ‘warned off’ US warships that sailed through disputed South China Sea“):

China’s military took “immediate action” on Sunday against “unauthorized” sailing by US warships in South China Sea waters claimed by Beijing.

China’s defense ministry said in a statement that two US warships, the Antiem guided missile cruiser and the USS Higgins destroyer, entered disputed waters around the Paracel Islands before the Chinese navy intervened in what it considers to be a “serious infringement on China’s sovereignty.”

“Chinese military took immediate actions by dispatching naval ships and aircrafts to conduct legal identification and verification of the US warships and warn them off,” Wu Qian, defense ministry spokesman, said.

The spokesman also called the US move “provocative and arbitrary,” which he said “undermined strategic mutual trust between the two militaries.”

China has held de facto control over the Paracel Islands since 1974, however Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to the area. The US warships reportedly came within 12 nautical miles of the islands.

The US Navy routinely conducts what it terms “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPS, in international waters illegitimately claimed by others. A more neutral term is “show of force.” Essentially, we’re daring China to enforce its claims to the territory.

As China has gotten more powerful, it has been more aggressive in pursuing its claims to the Spratleys, Paracels, and other territories in the South and East China Seas. The United States has ramped up its FONOPS there. China has gotten more aggressive in responding to these operations, including conducting overflights. Thus far, cooler heads have prevailed and this game of cat and mouse has not resulted in casualties.

FILED UNDER: Asia, National Security, World Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Given the Chinese appear to consider the South China Sea vital to defense and commercial interests, there’s very little chance they’ll back off controlling it, no matter what pressure the U.S. brings to bear.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: Given the number of our allies and partners who have the same interests, we have little choice but to continue pressing. Everyone’s commercial interests can be sustained with these seas being treated as a global commons. China’s expanded military interests, not so much. One hopes that this can be resolved short of war.

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  3. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner: I agree with you, I’m just not sure they do or are even psychologically able to do something that might make them look weak or unable to defend the country’s interests. They’ve invested so much effort in making the China Sea a national waterpark the public backlash against any perceived backpedalling might be dangerous.

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    It would seem to me that “show of force” might be a less neutral term than “freedom of navigation operation,” but it may simply be that I don’t understand the meaning of “neutral” in this case.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: “Show of force” is the traditional terminology and is value-neutral. “Freedom of navigation operation” is a value-laden way to describe what the Chinese not unreasonably perceive as provocation.

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  6. jog267 says:

    There is nothing unreasonable or provocative about US actions here. Would you have labeled this particular freedom of navigation operation ‘provocative’ 2 years ago? 10 years ago? 25 years ago? The true provocation is the attempt by the Chinese to force a change in the status quo. It is THAT which is unreasonable.

    Perhaps the US should occupy a reef, build a naval station, and deem the surrounding waters sovereign US territory… THAT would be provocative.

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  7. Ben Wolf says:

    @jog267: We did. It’s called the Caribbean.

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    @jog267:
    You want to bear in mind that it’s we who have them boxed in by sea with Japan (Okinawa), Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. And Guam if they get past all of that. The Chinese navy you’ll notice, is not in Catalina.

    That said with US power and prestige in a steep slide under the jackass-in-chief I doubt there’s much we can do. Trump is for sale, and where he’s not for sale he’s a bumbling fool, and no sane person wants him to be in charge during another Cuban missile crisis, so frankly we might as well stand down because we have nothing close to the strength or intelligence needed in the White House. Unless Trump magically disappears in the next few months we are well and truly screwed in Asia, might as well gracefully concede.

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  9. jog267 says:

    Just who was the jackass-in-chief who accepted China decision to fortify and militarize reefs in the South China Sea without consequence? What nation doesn’t view China’s actions here as provocative?

    Again, I ask… at what point in time did it become ‘provocative’ for the US to conduct a freedom of navigation operation such as this?

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  10. An Interested Party says:

    Just who was the jackass-in-chief who accepted China decision to fortify and militarize reefs in the South China Sea without consequence?

    And what consequence should have delivered for that?

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  11. jog267 says:

    @An Interested Party

    I’d refer you to President Trump’s policies for guidance.

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  12. An Interested Party says:

    I’d refer you to President Trump’s policies for guidance.

    Ohh…like whoring himself (and by extension, our country) to China…yeah. that’s a great policy there…

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  13. jog267 says:

    I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

    Perhaps he’ll have more flexibility after he’s re-elected.

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  14. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps he’ll have more flexibility after he’s re-elected.

    Uh huh

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @jog267: I’m not saying there’s anything unreasonable about US actions here. And, clearly, China’s salami-slicing is more provocative than our sailing our fleet wherever we damn well please in what UNCLOS recognizes as international waters. I’m just saying that what we term “FONOPS” are a classic show of force, deliberately designed to send a message to the Chinese. That’s inherently provocative.

    Nor, as I explicitly state in the post, is this a complaint about Trump administration policies. This is a natural continuation of longstanding, bipartisan US policy. The escalation was initiated by China and we’ve responded in kind. We can’t cede these claims to the PRC. But they may well have more appetite for a full-blown war over these territories than we do.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @An Interested Party: I believe it was an attempt at humor, referencing Barack Obama’s comment to Dmitry Medvedev in 2012.

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  17. An Interested Party says:

    @James Joyner: Ahh, an attempt…I’ll bet this person thinks that Obama’s comment to Medevedev is even worse than what Trump has done…

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