Author : Premesha Saha

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 27, 2019

The United States has stepped up its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea as a response to China’s efforts to further enforce its claims in the disputed sea.

Is the South China Sea issue flaring up again?

The United States has stepped up its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea as a response to China’s efforts to further enforce its claims in the disputed sea. The US has already conducted two FONOPs this year. The USS McCampbell sailed near the Paracel Islands in January, the USS Spruance and the USS Preble sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratlys on 11 February. According to a Defence Report, Washington conducted five FONOPs last year and four in 2017.

In a recent statement for the US Naval Institute News, Naval Commander of the US INDOPACOM, Admiral Phil Davidson was quoted as saying, “the U.S. will maintain the recent pace of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea aimed at challenging China’s territorial claims. China’s effort to extend its territorial and economic influence was a bigger long-term threat to the free movement of trade and people in the region than North Korea.”. Besides the US, countries like Britain is also deploying HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the heavily disputed South China Sea in a joint mission with the US. UK had also sailed the HMS Albion Royal Navy warship through the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea on route to Vietnam in 2018. For the second time on February 18, 2019 the US and UK navies conducted maritime security exercises drills in the South China Sea. The first joint drill was held in January this year involving the US Navy’s guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell and Royal Navy’s frigate HMS Argyll. Other countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and France, are also beefing up their South China Sea operations in cooperation with the US. These operations are undoubtedly irking Chinese sentiments. Though the potential for a direct conflict between the US and China in the South China Sea is limited, but according to Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army Colonel at the Munich Security Conference 2019, “China was facing growing pressure from freedom of navigation operations and would send more vessels, including coastguard ships, to the South China Sea.”

Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian countries have been engaging in confidence building and trust building exercises with China like the Framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) was adopted in 2017 and the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise was inaugurated in 2018.

Though Southeast Asian countries have traditionally not been in favor of entering into bilateral negotiations with China with regard to the dispute, but in recent times, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to solve the dispute with China through bilateral talks. Similarly, the Vietnamese government had too said in April 2018 that “it would be willing to hold talks with China to resolve disputes in the area in accordance with international law.”  China and Thailand have also been having discussions on the South China Sea issue. Both the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Thai Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai had agreed during their strategic consultations that the “South China Sea situation is becoming stable and the momentum has been strengthened in boosting dialogue, managing differences and deepening cooperation.” Countries like Singapore, Thailand have expressed their appreciation over the statements by both the Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Li Keqiang in Singapore in November 2018, that the COC talks should be completed within the next three years. Therefore a stark change in the approach of many of the Southeast countries can be seen. They had mostly demanded an immediate conclusion of the COC as ASEAN and China have been engaged in discussions on a potential COC for nearly two decades. But presently a three year timeline proposed by China has become acceptable. Hence, if the FONOPs being conducted by the US and its allies and partners in the South China Sea is being taken positively by the regional countries is a question that needs to be asked.

The negotiations for a COC on the South China Sea will take place at the platform of the ASEAN in the latter half of February this year. In view of this and the background provided above, two issues need to be analysed. First, what impact will these growing number of FONOPs have on the upcoming COC deliberations? Second, why has there been a shift in the approach of the Southeast Asian countries towards FONOPs and China’s actions as well as statements with regard to the South China Sea issue?

According to recent reports, Vietnamese population, intellectuals are appealing to the US for helping thwart China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. There are statements from the Philippines, where acceptance and appreciation has been expressed if countries like the US, UK, Japan, France, Australia, New Zealand and even India would want to patrol the South China Sea with the intention of upholding the FON rights. But, additionally it has been pointed out by the Philippines that if during the course of the patrols the contested areas are approached then the dispute would only spark.  Even scholars like Collin Coh of RSIS Singapore and Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy of the Nanyang Technological Unive< style="color: #333333">rsity have expressed that the FONOPs will not be enough to restrain China’s ambitions in the region and in the South China Sea. With more countries getting involved in the dispute, it can escalate the tension and increase the possibility of minor skirmishes.

For the US these FONOPS can be due to show its influence and dominance in the Pacific, but for the Southeast Asian countries the need now is to maintain calm, peace, unfettered access and FON in their regional waters.

A minimization in the number of FONOPs at least till the deliberations of the COC continue will therefore be a welcome move. The change in attitude of the Southeast countries can be due to the Trump administration’s ‘unpredictable Asia Policy’.

US’ pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his absence from two key Asia Pacific summit meetings last year was not received well by the regional countries. Then the end of 2018 also witnessed the signing of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA). The ARIA not only talks of the US’ relations with China, India, the ten member states of the ASEAN, and Northeast Asian allies Japan and South Korea, but also draws attention to the South China Sea issue.  Another reason can be to keep China engaged in discussions in the ASEAN on the South China Sea issue. China has for long tried to keep away the South China Sea issue from being brought up at the platform of the ASEAN.

READ: The Quad in the Indo-Pacific: Why ASEAN remains cautious

The ASEAN countries are aware that keeping China involved in political and diplomatic deliberations is the best available option for them.

The road to the conclusion of the COC will not be an easy one. According to a Report by an Expert Working Group of the CSIS entitled, “Defusing the South China Sea Disputes: A Regional Blueprint”, it was mentioned that in the single draft negotiating text that was agreed to by the ASEAN countries in 2018 important hurdles can be noticed like “geographic scope, potential dispute settlement mechanisms, and details of resource exploration and development”. The viable option will be to persuade China to abide by agreements on areas like ensuring of fishing rights and territories; fisheries management and environmental cooperation in the South China Sea; joint marine research; resource management  (cooperation on oil and gas production in the South China Sea).

Most importantly there should be agreement on avoiding clashes with both regional and extra-regional countries in the disputed waters; maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight; resolving disputes through peaceful means; and refraining from occupying, inhabiting or constructing facilities on uninhabited features. The COC should currently be looking into dealing with the immediate triggers for conflict. The ASEAN countries are willing to take small steps at a time. They are aware that coming to an agreement that would be acceptable to both sides will require many rounds of negotiations. It will be a time consuming process and thus the timeline of three years proposed by China might be an acceptable proposition at the moment.

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Premesha Saha

Premesha Saha

Premesha Saha is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Her research focuses on Southeast Asia, East Asia, Oceania and the emerging dynamics of the ...

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