How the South China Sea Could Heat Up Again in 2017

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How the South China Sea Could Heat Up Again in 2017

The South China Sea could heat up as the year goes on.

How the South China Sea Could Heat Up Again in 2017
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Inez Lawson.

Earlier this week, I discussed U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ inaugural trip to Asia, focusing largely on his remarks on the South China Sea at a press conference with his Japanese counterpart, Tomomi Inada, in Tokyo. As I noted, Mattis’ public comments mostly reaffirmed the Obama-era status quo of U.S. policy toward the region, mollifying concerns about remarks made by then-Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing implying that the U.S. would attempt to blockade China. Tillerson has since clarified that his comments applied to actions the United States should take “if a contingency occurs” in written comments to Senator Ben Cardin (his remarks are available in PDF here; see page 48).

Return of the FONOPs

Mattis’ comments in Tokyo — particularly his note that the issue was “best solved by the diplomats” — were seen positively in Beijing, where Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, expressed approval of the notion that diplomacy (preferably bilateral and exclusively between the claimants) was the right approach in the South China Sea. I suggested in my earlier article, though, that Mattis’ assurances should not be taken as a total reassurance that the Obama-era approach toward the South China Sea would persist. Indeed, the Trump administration is still reviewing the previous administration’s policy along many lines and approaches could change.

Interestingly, supporting this idea, the Nikkei Asian Review, citing Japanese official sources, notes that Mattis was far more forceful with Japanese officials in private than he was during the press conference. According to the NAR, “Mattis apparently likened Beijing’s quest for regional influence to imperial China’s subjugation of its neighbors.” More interestingly, Mattis purportedly outlined specifics about the U.S. freedom of navigation program in the South China Sea:

Multiple sources said that Mattis said America would no longer be that tolerant of China’s behavior in the South China Sea. He pledged to take an active role in protecting freedom of navigation, suggesting a more aggressive stance than the previous administration in an effort to restrain military buildup. Specifically, the U.S. is set to increase the frequency of patrols within 12 nautical miles of man-made islands China has constructed in the sea.

Starting in October 2015, the Obama administration carried out four freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to challenge excessive claims by China and other claimant states. The FONOPs took place in the Spratly and Paracel Islands alike and tested a variety of claims that are excessive under customary international law, including a requirement of prior notification for innocent passage and China’s illegal baselines in the Paracels. The Obama administration intended to keep up a regular drumbeat of FONOPs, but failed to do so. The fourth and most recent FONOP — that of the USS Decatur in the Paracels in October 2016 — came after a delay of 164 days from the USS William P. Lawrence’s May 2016 FONOP near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys.

That Mattis signaled U.S. resolve to resume and keep up FONOPs in the South China Sea under the Trump administration seems quite likely. If the NAR‘s report is correct, we could even see the first U.S. FONOP to unequivocally assert high seas freedoms around Mischief Reef — the one Chinese Spratly possession that is not entitled to a territorial sea per last July’s ruling by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration and has no other feature within 12 nautical miles that could be interpreted as a “rock” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A high seas assertion FONOP would be regarded as exceptionally provocative by China, which sees the U.S. freedom of navigation program as a ruse for U.S. “militarization” of the South China Sea. The United States, in line with its policy of not taking a position on the sovereignty of features, argues that the program is simply about clarifying rights afforded to all countries under international law by protesting excessive claims.

One common misconception is that U.S. FONOPs are designed as a tool of deterrence. But be that as it may, China gets a vote in how U.S. FONOPs are perceived and this is largely what prevented the Obama administration from fully committing to their application as, for example, U.S. Pacific Command would have liked. PACOM should have little trouble helping Mattis convince the Trump White House to pursue FONOPs with more gusto. For an administration that seems intent on pushing against China on fronts ranging from Taiwan to trade, while seeking its compliance on North Korea, however, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea may fall to a lower rung on the ladder of strategic priorities than it did under Obama.

Back to Scarborough Shoal?

Meanwhile, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reiterated his country’s expectation that China could start land reclamation and island-building activities at Scarborough Shoal — something the United States feared in the first half of 2016. The U.S. Navy may well have successfully deterred China from commencing dredging at Scarborough Shoal last year, but Beijing could always choose to play that card. Given the drastic change in the Philippines’ diplomatic approach to China under President Rodrigo Duterte, it’s unclear how Beijing assesses the costs and benefits of commencing reclamation at Scarborough Shoal now.

For example, Duterte has been quite conciliatory on the South China Sea issue — goiing as far as to declare parts of Scarborough a marine sanctuary — but the nationalist backlash that Chinese island-building at Scarborough would likely generate could scuttle good Manila-Beijing ties in the short term. Instead, China may choose to maintain the status quo that has persisted with the Philippines since roughly last July, which has included diplomatic rapprochement with Duterte’s administration without either pursuing serious escalation in the South China Sea or significantly pulling back on the Chinese coast guard’s activities there.

Scarborough Shoal does have immense tactical value for China. While its existing possessions in both the Spratly and the Paracels give it a high degree of flexibility with respect to military aviation, a facility at Scarborough would effectively sit on the doorstep of Subic Bay, where U.S. and Philippine forces would base significant capabilities that would come into play in any serious South China Sea contingency. Beijing could extend its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities into the eastern reaches of the South China Sea by placing an over-the-horizon radar system at Scarborough as it has done on some of its possessions in the Spratlys.

The prospect of Chinese reclamation at Scarborough Shoal was always worrying as it would have marked Beijing’s first land reclamation work at a previously uninhabited feature. With Donald Trump at the helm in Washington, however, the start of dredging at Scarborough would turn into a sink-or-swim test of U.S. resolve, potentially encouraging a president with an already negative outlook on China to escalate dangerously. This is possible even if both Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte take little interest in the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty — Duterte because of his ongoing anti-Americanism and Trump because of his general disdain for alliances.

Back to a Slow Boil in 2017?

Looking back at 2016, the first and second halves of the year could not have been more different for tensions in the South China Sea. The year began with high levels of Chinese naval and maritime law enforcement activity in the southern reaches of the nine-dash line, anxiety over the impending result of the Hague ruling (which emerged finally in July 2016), and U.S. trepidation that reclamation work at Scarborough Shoal was imminent. The latter half of the year was shaped largely by Duterte’s unexpected overture to China and chill on the U.S.-Philippine relationship. In this context, the international pressure that many analysts had expected China to feel after the Hague ruling never quite came to pass; China never suffered the sort of reputational costs for its behavior in the South China Sea that it could have. Finally, apart from the Decatur‘s FONOP and rhetorical support for the binding nature of the July ruling, the Obama administration largely filed away the South China Sea portfolio in the latter half of the year.

The Trump administration could put the South China Sea on a trajectory to slowly heat up as the year goes on. If Mattis’ commitments to Japanese leaders in private, per the NAR report, are accurate, expect to see a tick-tock of FONOPs in the South China Sea followed by angry Chinese reactions. It’s unclear if this administration would take the inadvisable step of rethinking the fundamental basis of U.S. policy in the area and start to take a position on the sovereignty of features, but the Trump administration certainly has shown itself to be willing to break with convention. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Steve Bannon, one of the few men with the president’s ear throughout the day, sees a U.S.-China war as an inevitability.

As this year develops in the South China Sea, there’s ample room for U.S.-China tensions and tensions between China and the smaller claimants to pick up again. The Obama administration’s risk-averse nature and global cooperation with China moderated its behavior in the region; the Trump administration appears far less risk averse and hasn’t spoken much about cooperation with China on a global level. Regional states should ready themselves for what could well be an unusually volatile year in the South China Sea.