How Close Was the Latest Close Call in the South China Sea?

The U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur, an AEGIS class guided missile destroyer, in Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province in September 2005, when delegates gathered in Beijing for resumption of the North Korean nuclear talks. Last Saturday, January 30, 2016, this same vessel sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the South China Sea, provoking Chinese official protest.
Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

From ChinaFile

China claims the sailing of a U.S. Navy warship on Saturday into what it calls its territory was needless provocation and an attempt at causing trouble amongst China’s neighbors. What precedent is there for these close calls in disputed maritime territories to escalate? How close was this close call? Had things in fact calmed down in recent weeks as the Chinese official press claimed, only to be stirred up again needlessly by this Freedom of Navigation sail? What’s at stake, in real terms: Numbers of shipping containers? Potential energy assets? The U.S.-China status quo? Lives? —The Editors

The public response by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to the recent U.S. Navy “freedom of navigation” operation (FONOP) is interesting. On Saturday, January 30, the day the operation took place, a spokesperson stated that the operation violated a 1992 Chinese law requiring foreign warships to seek prior approval from the Chinese government before entering China’s territorial seas. Accordingly, Chinese personnel on the island the U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur sailed past last weekend responded with “monitoring and shouting at the ship.”

On Monday, February 1, however, a different MoFA spokesperson provided a different description of China’s response, saying Chinese troops and naval ships immediately identified the U.S. destroyer and swiftly warned and repelled it. This new description is identical to the one provided by the defense ministry in its public response to the sail and may have simply borrowed.

It is possible that the Foreign Ministry’s initial description of Chinese response was inaccurate because it was not as privy to what happened on the front lines as was the Defense Ministry, although this would suggest a troublesome lack of coordination between the two ministries in managing the South China Sea situation. A more plausible explanation, however, is that the Foreign Ministry was compelled to provide a stronger narrative of China’s response because nationalistic voices inside China are already criticizing the government for being too soft. Yet, the stronger response of “warning and repelling” in fact revealed China’s relevant restraint. Such restraint was also displayed last October in its “monitoring, tracking, and warning” response to the U.S.S. Larsen’s FONOP sail near Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. In neither case did China’s naval or coast guard vessels try to intercept or ram U.S. ships.

Chinese restraint is good news for regional peace. Beijing is sending the message that it doesn’t want a fight with the U.S. over these operations. But at the same time, it is deeply unhappy with U.S. military assertions. And, under mounting nationalist pressure, there is no guarantee that Beijing will be able to maintain restraint in responding to future FONOPs. If the U.S. continues to press China without at the same time showing conciliatory gestures, Beijing may come to the conclusion that it has no choice but to arm the islands in order to fend off U.S. threats.

China has no problem with freedom of navigation as a general principle of conduct at sea. But it has a big problem with FONOPs as a U.S. military policy. Who gives the U.S. the right to use military power to enforce its own interpretation of freedom of navigation? Is military power really the best way to safeguard freedom of navigation? Who should be responsible in the event of conflict? These are all legitimate questions China—and many other countries—can ask about FONOPs. The U.S. should seize the current window of opportunity offered by Chinese restraint and start a serious strategic dialogue with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Further muscle-flexing may have tragic consequences.

© ChinaFile

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Feng Zhang is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations, Deputy Director (Higher Degree by Research) of the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a member of the executive committee of the Australian Centre on China in the World based at the ANU. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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