Upping the Ante in the South China Sea
Commodore Gopal Suri

The political climate in the South China Sea has become more charged with the US Navy sending a destroyer, the USS Lassen, on a Freedom of Navigation patrol (FONOP) within 12 nm of the Subi Reef, a Chinese occupied natural formation in the contested Spratly Islands. The destroyer followed up this patrol with similar ones in the proximity of Vietnamese and Philippine held reefs in the Spratlys. Expected reactions have flowed thick and fast from the Chinese with diplomatic activity gaining pace. The American Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, was summoned by the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui on Tuesday and was told that “this action by the United States threatens China's sovereignty and security interests and endangers the safety of personnel and facilities on the reef, which is a serious provocation”1. The Chinese Ambassador to the US also issued a strong statement saying that this was a “very serious provocation politically and militarily”2.

The American operation has been on the planning board for some time and gained traction after the recent visit of the Chinese President to the USA. The operation could have been accelerated by the recent foray of the Chinese fleet into American territorial waters in early September this year. American allies like the Philippines have also been calling for resumption of the FONOPs which had been discontinued by the Americans in 2012. Renewed Chinese construction activity on some of their occupied reefs like Subi, Mischief and Fiery coupled with fears of possible declaration of an ADIZ over this area would have definitely added to the American anxiety to contest Chinese claims. The Americans have indicated that this is not a ‘one off’ operation and in all probability, will become a regular patrol undertaken by the US Navy. The choice of ship, in this case, is an interesting one especially considering that the USS Lassen is a Flight IIA Arleigh Burke class DDG. The US could have chosen to send one of the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) based at Singapore but chose the more potent DDG to possible send a strong and clear message of its intent. The US Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) had clearly indicated such intent when he said that nobody owns the South China Sea in an interview to Defense News.

Legal Status of the Reefs

The artificial island, Subi Reef, in the current limelight is not a natural ‘island’ as recognized by international maritime law but is what is called a ‘low tide elevation’ ,i.e. a formation which is visible to an observer only at low tide. China had occupied the feature in 1988 but had begun serious reclamation efforts only in 2014. Satellite photographs of the reef indicate reclamation work underway for a likely airstrip while it already has a helipad and possible radar facilities as also accommodation for about 200 troops. The other features in the Spratlys, occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines, are also similar though the scale of reclamation is vastly lower. However, the legal status of these so called ‘artificial islands’ is that of low tide elevations which do not warrant a demarcation of territorial waters or an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, the occupying state can declare a safety zone intended for ensuring the safety of navigation as also that of the artificial island and any structure.

Chinese Reactions

The official Chinese reactions have been on predictable lines in keeping with the trends seen in earlier incidents. However, one aspect that stands out is the Chinese behavior at sea. The Lassen, during her patrol was followed by two PLAN ships, a Luzhou class destroyer and a patrol vessel. The Chinese Defence Ministry said that the two Chinese warships shadowed the Lassen and gave warnings to the U.S. warship "according to law"3. US defence officials confirmed the same and said that the two ships followed the Lassen at a safe distance throughout her 72 nm (115 km) passage and bridge-to-bridge radio communication was maintained with the Chinese as the Lassen approached Subi Reef. Such orderly behaviour at sea, conforming to international seamanship standards, is a welcome change from the harassing tactics adopted by the PLAN during the Cowpens incident of 2013. It is also a reflection of the understanding between the two navies which is an outcome of the increased interaction in the past few years. Official Chinese reaction preceding the event was also rather toned down when the Chinese foreign minister had commented on the FONOP saying that “If true, we advise the U.S. to think again and before acting, not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing”. The Chinese media has also been rather muted in its reaction with jingoistic ranting conspicuous by its absence. On the other hand, there has been a fairly mature appraisal with the state run Global Times suggesting that China should ‘stay clam’4. The paper even hints at a possibly questionable Chinese contentions when it says that “China hasn't announced its territorial baseline in the South China Sea, making the legal meaning of Sino-US contention in the South China Sea vague”. It therefore appears that the Chinese may not be ready for a possible confrontation, especially when a number of regional states have very vociferously voiced their discomfiture with Chinese actions in the Spratlys. The Chinese initiative for establishment of a Maritime Silk Route is also sure to have prodded them to maintain a rather composed outlook without resorting to the theatrics of the past. It also indicates a more assured Chinese government which is unlikely to be dictated by jingoistic nationalist fervor and may adopt a more nuanced approach while dealing with such incidents.

American Anxiety

The United States is the de facto global power which has a reckonable political and military presence in the area. The United States does not take any position on the sovereignty disputes of the various nations in the South China Sea. However, it has treaty commitments to its allies which necessitate a muscular response in the face of perceived infringement of internationally accepted norms of sovereignty. In the extant situation, China’s continued assertiveness in its sovereignty claims and ensuing actions have been a continuing cause of worry to the Philippines, an American ally, as also other states involved in the dispute. Though China has not made any legal claims to territorial waters around its occupied reefs, its actions have been speaking otherwise. Statements from Beijing asserting its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea have further hardened such perceptions.

The Americans have always viewed freedom of navigation as an inviolable right and have been self-professed protectors of this freedom in the world’s oceans. The US DoD conceived the FONOPs in 1979 with this objective in focus. Cessation of the FONOPs by the USN in the South China Sea in 2012 was followed by a spurt in Chinese land reclamation activity though an inter relation between the two events may be coincidental. The US is therefore of the view that such ‘illegal’ claims of sovereignty if unchallenged will severely erode US credibility and may also lead to tacit acceptance of such claims.

The US also has some well-grounded fears in the military dimension. The continued Chinese construction activity on these ‘islands’, especially the large airstrips, are indicative of future deployment of military aircraft. Considering earlier Chinese actions, declaration of an ADIZ in the future by the Chinese cannot be ruled out. This could lead to avoidable situations which have the potential to snowball into a conflict especially with other nations like Vietnam, which are equally sensitive about their maritime rights. Despite assurances from the top Chinese leadership like Gen Fan Changlong at the recently concluded Xiangshan Forum that these facilities were primarily intended as aids to navigation, none of the parties is inclined to believe such statements.

Regional Reactions

The Americans have been leaning on Australia and Japan to undertake similar patrols in the region but nothing has yet emerged from these dialogues till now. The Philippines has been emphasising the importance of these patrols for some time now, primarily because of its own interests compounded by its limited maritime law enforcement capability. The Lassen foray has therefore already stimulated some action in the region and a sampling of the opinions of the region is worth scrutiny.

The Filipinos have been the most vociferous proponents of the American FONOPs, even goading the US to undertake these patrols citing the necessity for a ‘rule based order’ in the region and the hence the necessity to challenge Chinese claims of sovereignty which had the potential to upset this ‘order’. The Filipino President has been quoted as saying that these patrols will help established a ‘balance of power’ in the region and there was ‘no issue’ with such operations. The other interested party, Vietnam, has not yet voiced any opinion though it would be safe to assume that they may not be against such actions. However, actions of the Vietnamese in response to any increase in Chinese assertiveness, on account of this patrol, would be worth watching closely since it could portend a possible rise in the level of conflict.

The Indonesian President, currently in the US, has called for restraint by all sides in the interests of peace and stability. This is expected sincethe Indonesians do not have an intrinsic interest in the area and have been, at best, ambiguous in their approach of playing ‘an active role’ in resolution of the dispute.

The Australian reaction has been rather measured with the Defence Minister stating that Australia had “a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea” while going ahead with planned naval exercises with the Chinese Navy. The Australians have however always supported freedom of navigation and hence it appears that the new leadership is weighing its options for undertaking such patrols in the future considering the American pressure and its willingness to confront China.

The other American ally in the region, Japan, has greater stakes considering its dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. However, it has yet to take a stand on these patrols since it is has just passed its controversial security legislation. Hence it is unlikely to undertake such patrols in the near future till such time further clarity emerges from the Chinese as also the Americans.

The U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region released in January this year had affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. India has since not proffered any opinion on the ongoing fracas which is the politically correct stand considering that we do not have any intrinsic interest in the area other than the upholding the principle of freedom of navigation which underpins the flow of global trade through this vital area.

What does the Future Portend ?

The Chinese reaction has been fairly tame when compared with past incidents implying that Beijing does not intend to ‘raise the ante’ at least not immediately. Their current economic condition coupled with their recent outreach has necessitated adoption of this approach rather than the usual jingoistic one. Even if one were to assume the legitimacy of the Chinese claims, for the sake of argument, the FONOPs do not in any way impinge on the sovereignty of any nation, in the context of prevalent international law. However, the Chinese have been known to interpret such law to their convenience to play to the gallery so as to support their domestic constituencies and other actors in this regard. Such ‘crowd pleasing’ in the present scenario could be counterproductive and seriously undermine their own initiatives like the Maritime Silk Road even before they get off the starting block.

The need of the hour for the Chinese is to lower tensions and instill confidence in their neighbours in the region. The recent Chinese offer to conduct joint naval exercises with the ASEAN nations is a step in the right direction. Such exercises will serve to build up confidence and also dispel pre-conceived apprehensions. Kickstarting the stalled process of finalising a code of conduct under the aegis of the ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ will preclude the risk of escalation of likely future situations. The Chinese also need to be more forthcoming about their plans for future construction in these disputed islands and be more definitive in their actions about not ‘militarising’ the region so as to dispel apprehensions in the region.

The Americans have clearly indicated that they are in for the long run with the FONOPs likely to continue. In all probability, the Australians will join this effort after carefully weighing their options. China will continue to raise the diplomatic pressure on this issue to cater to its domestic constituency. The likelihood of repetition of a Cowpens incident is low considering that both the navies have had extensive discussions on the issue. China is also a signatory to the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) agreed during the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) in 2014. The only wild card in this game of maritime brinkmanship continues to be the possibility of an increase in Chinese assertiveness which could lead to conflict with an equally prickly party like Vietnam. The Americans clearly have their work cut out in maintaining a fine balance between assertion of the freedom of navigation and avoidance of precarious situation when issues of sovereignty may rise to the fore as a result of these operations.


  1. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-10/27/c_134756136.htm, Accessed on 28 Oct 15.
  2. http://english.cri.cn/12394/2015/10/28/4061s901594.htm, Accessed on 29 Oct 15.
  3. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/28/us-southchinasea-usa-idUSKCN0SK2AC20151028, Accessed on 28 Oct 15
  4. http://en.people.cn/n/2015/1028/c90000-8967826.html, Accessed on 28 Oct 15

Published Date: 30th October 2015, Image Source: http://www.ndtv.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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