WASHINGTON (Circa) Tensions are rising in the South China Sea as China builds up military resources in contested waters and the United States Navy asserts its presence in the region, but experts warn amid a growing list of Chinese aggressions, opportunities to halt Beijing’s maritime power grab may be dwindling.
CNN released footage Friday recorded from a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane flying over the waters at the heart of the dispute. While the air combat crew scanned artificial islands constructed by the Chinese military from 16,500 feet overhead, the aircraft received six separate warnings demanding that it leave the area.
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"Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding," a voice said over the radio each time.
"I am a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state," the crew responded. "In exercising these rights guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard for the rights and duties of all states."
Navy officials brushed off the warnings, telling CNN the U.S. has been conducting these flights for decades and neither country’s position on control of the waterway has changed.
“China now has a sizable presence in these areas of the Spratly Islands that are still disputed politically and legally and claims the U.S. should get out because this is Chinese sovereignty,” said John Ciorciari, an associate professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and author of “The Limits of Alignment: Southeast Asia and the Great Powers since 1975.”
Increased U.S. interest in surveilling the South China Sea follows rapid growth of Chinese military development on artificial islands in waters that the international community maintains do not belong to China. Beijing claims territory stretching one thousand kilometers from its southern shores have been part of the country for more than 2,000 years.
Since the 1940s, China has insisted a vaguely-established nine-dash line marks the borders of its domain. According to a 2009 Chinese map, that line runs close to the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan, all of which also claim sovereignty over parts of the sea.
In the last three years, China has built several artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago chain between Vietnam and the Philippines. The plane carrying the CNN crew flew past four of them: Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef. Despite the warnings, the plane was able to spot radar installations, power plants, runways, and nearly 100 vessels.
“Until recently, China lacked the military capacity to project control or maintain a large presence in the South China Sea,” said Daniel Kliman, senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and author of “Fateful Transitions: How Democracies Manage Rising Powers, from the Eve of World War I to China’s Ascendance.” That has changed as China built up its navy, coast guard, and maritime militia.
China has attempted to blame the U.S. for its hastened expansion of the islands, which President Xi Jinping had promised then-U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 he would not militarize. The U.S. has stepped up freedom of navigation exercises in the waters near the islands in the last year.
“The U.S. military presence by the South China Sea far exceeds the total military strength of China and other littoral countries. Straying away from the wide sea lanes in the South China Sea, the U.S. warships deliberately trespassed into the neighboring waters of China's relevant islands or reefs from time to time,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a May 31 news conference. “They prettify it as ‘freedom of navigation operation.’”
We will sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows.https://t.co/eNv210JCfM
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Since January, the U.S. has sent several Navy destroyers and B-52 bombers near the artificial islands. China has responded with threats, live fire drills, and the largest naval parade in the country’s history. In June, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis accused China of “intimidation and coercion.”
The Philippines has also raised concerns about a rise in Chinese radio warnings to its aircraft and ships to stay out of waters over which both countries claim sovereignty. According to The Associated Press, Philippine military aircraft received at least 46 warnings last year while patrolling near the artificial islands in the Spratly chain.
There have been some seemingly positive developments recently as well. Last week, Chinese and Southeast Asian navies held their first joint computer-simulated drills to coordinate force deployment and nautical maneuvers. Actual joint military exercises are planned in China this fall.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have reported progress in ongoing negotiations for a mutual code of conduct. Diplomats said last week they had achieved a “breakthrough” in agreeing upon an initial draft of the rules. Kliman is skeptical of China’s sincerity in these negotiations.
“In my view, this is very much China playing for time where it’s negotiating but nothing really moves forward,” he said.
The contested region of the South China Sea holds great strategic and economic significance, and the ramifications of the struggle over its control extend around the world. A major global shipping route runs through it and it is believed to contain trillions of dollars’ worth of untapped oil and gas reserves.
“The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2010.
Ciorciari pointed to several reasons why the freedom of the waterway matters to the U.S.
“The primary reason this is a U.S. interest is this area is a prime corridor for international commerce,” he said.
It is also important that countries in the region and the rest of the world witness the U.S. standing up for international order and international law and trust that the U.S. is a reliable ally. According to a June 2017 report in Foreign Policy, doubt about U.S. support is one reason the Vietnamese government backed down in a dispute with China last year over a deep water drilling project.
“If the U.S. is seen to just lie down and let China have its way, the U.S. will lose credibility,” Ciorciari said.
The South China Sea has been a simmering flashpoint for international conflict since the mid 20th century. The tensions have boiled over into violence occasionally, including clashes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and 1988 that left dozens of Vietnamese sailors dead, and experts fear an accident or misunderstanding could trigger another confrontation.
All of the countries bordering the sea are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes a 200-mile exclusive economic zone for coastal nations. They have disagreed on how to interpret it, though.
“The law of the sea issues are muddled by the fact that the zones, the maritime domains that would be covered by international law overlap to a large degree in that area… There’s no simple legal formula to determine the outcome,” Ciorciari said.
China’s neighbors have attempted to challenge its claim of sovereignty over the waters through arbitration under the UNCLOS. In 2016, a tribunal at The Hague ruled that China has no historical rights to control territory extended to the nine-dash line. China has rejected that ruling, and little has been done so far to enforce it.
“International mechanisms for resolving this in an impartial fair manner have been rejected by China,” Kliman said.
Beijing has been able to take advantage of a lack of unity between its smaller neighbors, none of whom have the military might to do much of anything on their own.
“It’s very challenging for the non-Chinese claimants to align against China because often they have territorial disputes against each other,” he said.
Officials say China’s aggression in the South China Sea is part of a broader strategy aimed at overtaking the U.S. as the world’s strongest superpower.
"At the end of the day they want every country around the world, when it's deciding its interests on policy issues, to first and foremost side with China and not the United States, because the Chinese are increasingly defining a conflict with the United States and what we stand behind as a systems conflict,” Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s East Asia Mission Center said at the Aspen Security Forum last month.
Kliman, who previously served as an Asia expert at the Department of Defense, also placed the maritime dispute in the context of a challenge to the U.S. and the international order by China.
“Chinese actions in the South China Sea and Chinese actions on trade are all symptomatic of a larger ambition,” he said.
As temperatures rise in the South China Sea, the relationship between the U.S. and China is growing more complicated in other areas as well. The two countries are imposing increasingly stiff tariffs on more and more of each other’s goods and Chinese cooperation will be essential to enforcing sanctions against North Korea and Iran.
“I know when senior U.S. officials see their Chinese counterparts, they have to choose which issues to raise in their meetings and where to expend political capital,” said Ciorciari, who once worked in the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of International Affairs.
Although the Trump administration has upended or reversed many Obama-era policy positions, it largely has continued the approach to the South China Sea struggle that Obama adopted toward the end of his second term.
“That I think reflects the fact the U.S. does not have great options,” Ciorciari said. “The U.S. does not want to fight a war over these islets.”
Short of military action neither side desires, there are some steps the U.S. can take, including imposing sanctions on companies involved in development of the artificial islands or helping other countries in the region build up their capacity. According to Kliman, though, it would be a mistake to view this conflict in isolation from China’s other military, economic, and diplomatic transgressions against the international community.
“It’s all of one piece,” he said. “It’s a China problem. It’s not a South China Sea problem.”