US should desist from roiling South China Sea

By Yue Liu Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/17 15:33:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On February 11, as China still soaked in the spirit of the Spring Festival, two US Navy warships - the guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble - trespassed into the South China Sea, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Nansha Islands. In January, the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Xisha Islands. Intensified operations manifest new dynamics of US policy on the South China Sea. During first year of Trump administration, the most pressing security issue in Asia-Pacific  was North Korea nuclear crisis. However, since the beginning of 2018, the US has prioritized the South China Sea issue in its agenda. Signs show that Trump's South China Sea policy is taking shape with its unique features. 

An array of significant policy documents released by Trump's government has endorsed the "zero-sum" approach. The US National Security Strategy (2017) concludes that "great power competition returned". It warns that China is becoming a powerful challenger to "American power, influence and interests" in Indo-Pacific and around the world. This "China-skeptic" thinking is also reflected in the US National Defense Strategy (2018). Both documents use harsh words to exaggerate the so-called "China threat." They depict China as a "rival" and "strategic competitor" to the US. Moreover, in the Preventive Priorities Survey 2019, the risk of "an armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants" is ranked as "Tier I" in US preventive priorities. 

The Pentagon has strengthened military deployments in the west Pacific and has stepped up deterrent activities in the South China Sea. An important dynamic is that the US is intensifying the "Freedom of Navigation Operations" (FONOP). In 2017, it carried out four FONOPs. The number is even more in 2018. In the first two months of 2019, US warships have already been to the South China Sea twice, signaling an increased frequency. 

Conducting high-profile activities in South China Sea is another way of US military muscle flexing. For example, in the summer of 2018, the US launched the "world's largest international maritime exercise" - Rim of the Pacific. RIMPAC is a biennial naval exercise that China had joined in 2014 and 2016 during Obama's tenure. However, Trump's government excluded China from last year's exercise considering China's actions "inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise."  

Washington has taken a more active stance toward Southeast Asia, trying to restore and consolidate security relationships with regional countries and allies. 

What is worth noticing is the improving relationship between the US and Vietnam. In March last year, the USS Carl Vinson made a historic call at Vietnam, berthing in Da Nang, a major US military base during the Vietnam War. It was the first time a US ship of this size visited Vietnam since the war ended in 1975, and the docking of the giant vessel represented the largest US military presence in Vietnam since then.  In 2018 RIMPAC naval exercise, while China was rejected, Vietnam was invited for the first time. Taking steps to strengthen military ties with Vietnam is a distinct signal sent by the US that it is dedicated to making Vietnam another "outpost" to check China's growing influence in the South China Sea and Asia-Pacific region.

But Trump's hard-line policy on the South China Sea has been counterproductive for regional stability. Indeed, it is the US which has been escalating tensions in the South China Sea by increasing military deployment in the region.  

Such moves by the US military are escalating tensions in the region, which is increasingly unwelcome there. If Washington does not have the intention to confront China strategically, or increase the risk of the outbreak of military clashes with the nation, it should exercise some restraint on its moves in China's coastal waters.

The author is PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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