US allies may tempt fate in South China Sea

Jan 3, 2021

China is feeling increasingly cornered–both politically and militarily in the South China Sea. The presence of US allies’ navies and in particular the joining of US FONOPs there will exacerbate that sense of desperation and perhaps prompt a kinetic response from China. They need to weigh carefully the consequences of tempting fate in the South China Sea.

America and China are flirting with disaster in the South China Sea. Although there have been dangerous incidents, so far the two have avoided a head-on broad clash. Neither really wants war—at least now—and there is still some (but fading) hope on both sides that it can be avoided. But there is an incipient development that could convince China that war is inevitable and tempt it to respond accordingly. That is the joining of US allies—the U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia—in material support of US policy in the South China Sea. They are preparing to send their navies to the region and may even participate in US-led Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims.

They and the U.S. know that China perceives the South China Sea as being well within its ‘sphere of influence’. For China, it is a historically vulnerable underbelly that must be turned into a “natural shield for its national security.” Aside from this nationalistic conceptual angst, there are specific strategic reasons for China’s deep concern. The South China Sea provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its second-strike nuclear submarines. They are its insurance against a first strike—something the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed.

But US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in, over and under the South China Sea focus on detecting, tracking and if necessary targeting these submarines. China opposes these probes saying that they are a threat to its national security and that they violate international law.

But the U.S. counters that China’s position violates “freedom of navigation”. The problem is that the U.S. cleverly conflates freedom of commercial navigation with its military priority there— freedom of navigation for its ISR vessels and aircraft that search for China’s vulnerabilities. It maintains that its FONOPs in the South China Sea – nine this year targeting China – are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation that is somehow threatened by China’s claims and actions. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation. China does however object by word and deed to what it perceives as US abuse of ‘freedom of navigation’ and its “intimidation and coercion” in enforcing its interpretation.

In these circumstances, a multilateral FONOP would be a challenge reaching far beyond enforcing a controversial legal position. Indeed, China would perceive the increased presence of navies of US allies as endangering its use of the Sea as a submarine sanctuary and rendering its underbelly vulnerable.  In this construct, the participation of allies’ navies in US-led FONOPs could be the tipping point that leads China to kinetically confront them.

For many years the U.S. has been pressuring –without success–others in and outside the region to join its FONOPs there. But US allies Australia, Japan and the Philippines have so far declined such US requests. They all have their own reasons for doing so but a common one is that they do not see China’s claims as a threat to commercial traffic or their security despite US dire warnings to the contrary. The U.K. is the only country that has answered the call –and that was a unilateral one time only and drew a sharp rebuke from China.

More recently, US allies have voiced full-throated support for the US position there. The U.K., France and Germany jointly submitted a note verbale to the UN emphasizing “the importance of the unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas” in the South China Sea.

Moreover, they are putting their money where their mouth is by stepping up their naval deployments in the region. The Quad – an incipient US-led anti-China coalition with core members India, Japan and Australia– is gathering momentum and taking on a military tinge.  France has called for a “new Paris – Delhi – Canberra axis that would be respected by China as an equal partner.”  The Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Pierre Vandier,  said “We want to demonstrate our presence to the region and send a message about Japan-France cooperation. This is a message aimed at China about multilateral partnerships and the freedom of passage.”

Meanwhile, the U.K. announced that it would soon send an aircraft carrier strike group to conduct joint exercises near Japan with the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF)

Moreover, then Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi “expressed hope that a German vessel” would join exercises with the JMSDF in 2021. More pertinent, he suggested it would assist the international community’s efforts to ensure the right of passage of vessels through the South China Sea if the German warship would traverse waters” over which Beijing claims jurisdiction.

Japan itself is becoming more aggressive vis a vis China in the South China Sea. Last June in its largest show of force in the region since WWII it sent the helicopter carrier Izumo into the South China Sea for joint exercises with the US aircraft carrier strike group Ronald Reagan.

Adding Japan to the FONOP mix would be particularly dangerous. The psychological wounds of Japan’s depredations in China before and during World War II have not fully faded.

Indeed, China has stated that Japan’s more assertive behaviour “is a blatant denial of the fruits of victory of the world’s anti-fascist war and a severe challenge of post-war international order”. China sees Japan as continuing its history of arrogance and aggression by being part of a US-led “China containment” strategy. A military role in the region for what China perceives as its unrepentant former conqueror could strengthen the hand of militarists in China and undercut those who favour a ‘softer’ approach.

According to pundit Richard Javad Heydarian, “What was once a largely regional dispute has now become a full-fledged global geopolitical showdown.” While that statement is overly dramatic and premature—events do seem to be drifting in this direction.

As a result, China is feeling increasingly cornered–both politically and militarily.  The presence of US allies’ navies and in particular their joining of US FONOPs will exacerbate that sense of desperation. They need to weigh carefully the consequences of tempting fate in the South China Sea.

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