Expect a Heavier US Presence in the South China Sea, But What Can It Achieve?

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Expect a Heavier US Presence in the South China Sea, But What Can It Achieve?

Administration objectives are still unclear, but maintaining the regional status quo may be the most realistic.

Expect a Heavier US Presence in the South China Sea, But What Can It Achieve?
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released

New reports suggest that the United States is set to maintain a significantly more assertive presence in the South China Sea to counter Chinese claims and activity in the region. While proponents believe that the military presence in the region was insufficient during the Obama Administration to deter China’s massive island construction campaign in the Spratly Islands, the reported proposals are unlikely to roll-back current Chinese positions. The Trump Administration still needs to clearly define its objectives in the South China Sea and what its desired status quo is, and how expanded military presence will achieve it without inadvertently provoking China to build up its position further.

Early remarks by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearings and follow-up comments by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer implied that the United States might seek to block China’s access to the island bases it has built up in the last several years, especially among the reefs in the Spratly Islands, and militarily defend other territory from incursion. Many analysts feared position implied tactics that China could construe as acts of war, or could at least foment a major crisis until it was revealed recently that Secretary Tillerson had amended his own remarks to specify that the U.S. only needed to be able to block China’s access to its islands in the event of a conflict.

But before that revelation, Secretary of Defense James Mattis tempered concerns about provoking China by telling reporters on an official trip to Japan that there was no need for “military maneuvers” in the South China Sea. He emphasized that the disputes required exhaustive diplomatic resolution and not military action. And while he emphasized the role of the military in supporting diplomatic efforts, his remarks left some wondering if he was signaling that even current military presence might be scaled back.

However, reports on his private meetings with Japanese officials suggested the U.S. is actually likely to begin a more assertive presence in the region and conduct much more frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations.

The United States Navy operates in the South China Sea in two principal ways, ‘presence’ operations and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS). Transits, patrols, and training exercises constitute presence operations. Simply being physically present in a region communicates interest and attention from the U.S. government, and permits a rapid response or projection of force if required. The ability to respond quickly to a contingency deters others from taking actions that the United States might consider destabilizing or threatening.

Freedom of Navigation Operations, on the other hand, are not chiefly a military function. These operations are designed to assert maritime transit rights where a coastal state asserts jurisdictions or attempts to impose restrictions that are inconsistent with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. While individual FONOPs were rarely reported on for most of the program’s existence, they have earned substantial media attention since the United States began conducting them around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea in the fall of 2015.

The Navy is believed to have conducted four such operations against China’s reclaimed islands since then. Many analysts, and even powerful politicians like Senator John McCain of the Armed Services Committee, criticized this pace as insufficient to have a meaningful impact, while the Obama Administration was reportedly worried that too many FONOPs would needlessly provoke China. Consistent with the reports from Secretary Mattis’ Japan trip, Navy officials recently told the independent Navy Times that plans for substantially expanded FONOPS have been sent to President Trump for approval.

However, as Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Navy Times,  the Trump Administration needs to define what it wants any increased patrols or FONOPs to actually achieve.

China’s bases in the South China Sea are now a fact. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, told interviewers in January that he thought it was too late to undo China’s occupancy of the islands without military conflict. Sailing more warships around those islands more often might acclimate China to a heavier U.S. presence in the region, but it will not induce China to abandon them.

Many analysts assert that the massive infrastructure China has built on its artificial islands in the Spratlys constitutes effective militarization, despite a 2015 pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping not to. While the islands have the capacity to host fighter or bomber squadrons, theater ballistic missiles for use against land targets, and long range anti-ship cruise missiles to threaten adversary fleets, China has not deployed any such power projection capabilities to them yet. For now, they only have communications and sensor facilities, and limited self-defense emplacements. It is in the interest of peace in the region for those airplane hangars and weapons emplacements to remain empty.

Meanwhile, any significant shift in the tempo of military operations or presence can invite instability. If the pace reduces, competitors may feel emboldened to take actions that were deterred under a more robust U.S. presence. If the pace significantly increases, a competitor might interpret it as a provocation or a threat that demands response or a counter-buildup. This can cause a classic ‘security dilemma’ where each side increases its operations out of a defensive concern about the other, raising both the likelihood and stakes of a crisis in the process.

The question now is whether substantially increased U.S. presence in the South China Sea and a higher tempo of FONOPs will deter China from deploying power projection capabilities to its islands, or motivate it to do so faster. If it turns out to be the latter, those same more frequent U.S. patrols will not prevent Chinese warplanes from landing or weapons-laden ships from docking, either. If China subsequently does pursue unambiguous militarization of its Spratly bases, the only way the military can prevent it would be to physically “block access” to them, inviting the very risk of conflict that worried analysts about Secretary Tillerson’s original remarks.