After delaying for months, the Obama administration has authorized the US Pacific Command to send warships into the disputed South China Sea, and China is threatening to confront the naval presence as part of an aggressive buildup in the region.
However, the US military is not expected to send the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group to pass passing within 12 miles of any disputed islands that China is claiming as its territory. The carrier arrived at its new homeport of Yokosuka, Japan on Oct. 1 replacing the USS George Washington.
Instead of a carrier group, the administration is likely to send one of its new, lightly-armed Littoral Combat Ships on what the military calls FON, for freedom of navigation, operation, in the next two weeks.
The lack of large and muscular American warship presence for the much-anticipated exercise is likely to send the wrong signal to China, and to regional states are looking to the United States for support against China’s expansive and legally-questionable maritime claims.
The Navy’s last freedom of navigation operation took place in May when the Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth sailed near the Spratly Islands in the southern part of the sea. But the ship did not sail within 12 miles of any of the disputed islands that are the focus of a significant Chinese buildup. Instead, a helicopter was dispatched from the ship to fly near the island.
By telegraphing its plan for warships to intrude within the 12 miles of the islands, the Obama administration believes it can minimize any diplomatic fallout with the Chinese. The US strategic message seems to be that sailing so close to the disputed islands is normal and should not be viewed as a military provocation. China, however, is not getting that message.
The new chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, seemed to undermine US efforts to bolster regional allies with a political message of American resolve last week. Richardson told sailors aboard the Reagan that the freedom of navigation operation will be routine. “I don’t see how these could be interpreted as provocative in any way,” he said Oct. 15.
The comments reflect the overriding desire of US policymakers in the White House, State Department and to a lesser extent in the Pentagon to play down the upcoming operations. These officials are opposing all military activities in the disputed waters that could upset Beijing, as part of the President Obama’s diplomacy-first policies.
The administration for months has been under pressure to conduct the sailing operation that was sought privately by US Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris. The four star admiral is concerned that a weak US response to what he regards as China’s illegal territorial claims will be misinterpreted as quiescence unless there is a show of force in the region challenging the claims.
Harris wants to push back against China’s efforts to dominate the international waterway in the face of competing maritime claims, mainly from Vietnam and Philippines. Until a Senate hearing last month, when Harris said he had presented options for conducting freedom of navigation operations within 12 miles of China’s reclaimed islands, his appeals had fallen on deaf ears.
Recent US military activities in the South China Sea have been limited to intelligence gathering, with flights by P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and high-altitude Global Hawk drones. China, in at least one instance, used electronic warfare in an attempt to disrupt the electronics of Global Hawk flights, according to US defense officials. PLA air controllers in the region have tried unsuccessfully to order P-8s out of the region.
After reports surfaced last week that US allies in Asia were notified of the US decision to conduct naval maneuvers in the South China Sea, Beijing’s propaganda machine shifted into high gear.
State-run Xinhua, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party of China, said in a dispatch Oct. 17 that “provocative” US attempts to infringe on China’s maritime sovereignty are “sabotaging” regional peace and “militarizing” the sea.
Beijing even compared the upcoming navigation naval operations to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States demanded the removal of Soviet missiles placed 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
“What on earth makes the United States think China should and will tolerate it when US surface ships trespass on Chinese territory in the South China Sea?” the news agency blustered in a commentary.
Chinese officials outlined Beijing’s position on the upcoming US naval operation in other state-run media. Spokesmen say a military confrontation is unlikely – unless U.S. warships sail within the 12-mile zone and remain there. China’s position seems to be that it will not object to internationally recognized close ship passage. But if the ships stay within the 12-mile zone of the newly constructed islands then naval PLA warships will be dispatched to force them out.
“China will never tolerate any military provocation or infringement on sovereignty from the United States or any other country, just as the United States refused to 53 years ago,” Xinhua said.
The United States has said repeatedly that it does not recognize the disputed islands as Chinese maritime territory.
From Defense Secretary Ash Carter came the US position last week: “Make no mistake, we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits. We will do that in the time and place of our choosing.” He spoke Oct. 13.
The two competing positions are increasing the risk of what the Pentagon delicately calls a “miscalculation” – some type of confrontation that could lead to a shoot out of naval forces.
A forthcoming report by US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a panel under the US Congress, is warning that the stakes are high in the showdown.
“Tensions between China and the other claimant states, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, have the potential to spark an armed clash, which would threaten regional stability and the global economy and could involve the United States,” the commission’s annual report will state, according to a late draft of the report.
Additionally, China’s military buildup on the islands “could enhance China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities, potentially challenging the US military’s ability to freely operate in the region,” the report said, noting that South China Sea control could be aimed at disrupting US Navy efforts to defend Taiwan in a future conflict with the mainland.
The report provides new details on China’s military buildup on the Spratlys, including an airstrip on Mischief Reef and deep-water channel for warships; similar military construction and an airstrip on Subi Reef; and a runway on Fiery Cross Reef along with new piers and support facilities.
On Cuateron Reef, a second PLA helipad and sensor array was built, and on Gaven Reef, a second military facility with communications gear was set up. Johnson Reef is getting a second Chinese military facility, fuel dump and desalination pumps, and on Hughes Reef, a new harbor and military facility are part of the buildup.
China’s military activities in the South China Sea are described in the report as a “gradual, salami-slicing approach” to consolidating maritime claims through incremental actions that would not be a casus belli. The approach shifted in late 2013 with a renew urgency in land reclamation.
The coming showdown will be a test of resolve for US interests in Southeast Asia, a region that is wary of growing Chinese hegemony.
Absent a more muscular military demonstration, however, the showdown likely will end in China’s favor and seriously further undermine regional stability.
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books.