Tensions in the South China Sea are intensifying as American interference in the region increases. The “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOP) have been taking place with an increasingly shorter interval between operations, demonstrating a strong interest on the part of Washington to permanently occupy the region, forcing China to retreat its maritime positions on its own zone of influence.
Washington shows an aggressive attitude towards Beijing and may increase American activities in Asia.
Recently, for the third time since Biden took office as President, a US flag warship conducted an operation in the disputed South China Sea. The ship used this time was the guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke USS Russell, which skirted the Paracel Islands on February 17. The ship’s intention is simply to promote a FONOP, with no major military objectives publicly specified. In a statement on the case, Lieutenant Joe Keiley, spokesman for the American Navy, stated that “The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle. As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all States, the United States will continue to defend those rights and freedoms”.
Beijing had previously said it would take the necessary steps to ensure its security and prevent further American military operations in its maritime zone, but such measures have not been announced yet. There is still a war of narratives, as Beijing claims that American ships that have passed by the Sea this year have been expelled by Chinese security forces (without any American reaction or confrontation, however), which is denied by Americans, who claim to have carried out their operations without any hindrance. Clearly, we can see that both countries desperately try to create a dominant narrative. China wants to show the world that it has its own special interests in the region, and the US says it wants more nations to feel safe to cross the Sea without the Chinese endorsement, showing that “nothing will happen”.
Washington sees Chinese territorial claims in the South Sea as a threat to freedom of navigation and therefore justifies the sending of warships to the region. According to American military thinking, this attitude does not represent a real affront to China, as Americans believe they have the right to monitor international maritime standards, acting as “global maritime police”. This type of thinking had begun to suffer some criticism from Trump, who changed the focus of confronting Chinese growth from a military confrontation path to a commercial and tariff dispute. But, with Biden and his administration, it is highly likely that Washington will not only resume the ideal of global police but will also act in a much more aggressive way in this regard, especially in the seas, where the US has historically had a hegemonic status.
The justifications used by Washington are always full of legalism. Warships are sent to the coast of a foreign power “in the name of international law”. The American armed forces, accustomed to exercising the function of global police, believe to play an important role in complying with international navigation standards. In this way, if a territorial dispute is preventing the movement of people and goods and hampering the flow of trade, Washington can simply conduct a “FONOP”. But this view of international standards is absolutely distorted. International law has its own methods for dealing with violations of international norms and for no country is given the function of a controller of the global order.
The very validity of the “FONOP” concept is absolutely questionable. There is, in fact, the principle of “freedom of navigation” (FON) in international law, but at no time do international documents provide for such a thing as a “freedom of navigation operation”, this being a narrative invented by countries interested in winning space in areas claimed by other countries. Washington is the only country that currently has an official and complex military program focused on promoting such operations in all disputed areas of the world, which is absolutely contrary to international law. Such disputes must be resolved with the means available at the UN, not through unilateral US action.
Therefore, the “legal” justification for maritime interventionism must be ignored and the case must be analyzed from a strictly political point of view. Biden on several occasions, both during the campaign and after the election, affirmed his commitment to deepen US ties with his Asian allies – which are precisely the countries that have disagreements or disputes with China. Sovereignty over the South China Sea is included in this issue, as it is one of the most controversial topics in Asian geopolitics. China has historically claimed sovereignty over the South Sea, but this has been condemned by several neighboring countries. Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam criticize the Chinese sovereignty in the region and claim their space, considering that they also have access to the Sea and therefore should supposedly have the right to occupy it.
Moreover, a highlight that makes the region the subject of major disputes is its commercial importance. The South China Sea is a key route for world maritime trade, where a cargo volume of 5.3 trillion dollars passes annually. With China controlling the region, Beijing gains an extremely advantageous position economically – which provokes interests and criticism on the part of the other countries with access to the Sea. Even more emphatically, the country that is most opposed to the Chinese presence is the Philippines, which is the reason for a historical rivalry. The dispute between Beijing and Manila has reached several peaks of tension in recent years – mainly last year, when the Philippines felt threatened by several Chinese operations in the region and the Philippine government said it would request American military support to face China. In that occasion, Trump remained silent; Biden would certainly do something.
Certainly, no tension between China and the US can be elevated to a status of war, since any confrontation between powers with such nuclear apparatus becomes impossible, but that does not prevent several conflicts from arising. Recently, Biden announced the formation of a Pentagon-led task force to deal with China and its “diverse problems” – which include issues such as the maritime dispute, alleged human rights violations, “unfair” trade rules, among others. Beijing, for its part, denied the American accusations that would justify Biden’s attitude and even made promises of greater economic openness, showing a more peaceful stance. But how long will this posture last? With three FONOPs held in less than a month with the new American government, what can Beijing expect for the near future? How far will American naval interventionism reach in the Chinese coast?
In addition to the American presence in the Sea, regional tensions will certainly increase. Encouraged by American actions, naval forces of the countries that claim the South Sea will carry out more and more operations. With emphasis on the Philippines, which have the greatest interest in the Sea and are willing to increase the confrontation with China, provided they receive international aid.
Expectations are not good and Chinese responses can be varied. If these operations become a real problem for Chinese interests, Beijing can respond severely and even a conflict could occur between the two countries.
Contributed by Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.