On Sunday, two US Navy warships sailed through and near the Paracel group of islands claimed and occupied by China in the South China Sea. This was Washington’s latest freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) to counter what it claims are Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in these waters. In response, China’s Defence Ministry stated that the vessels did not have permission from the Chinese government for passage, and described the action as a serious infringement on China’s sovereignty.
The timing of this operation is significant. It occurred only a few days after the Pentagon disinvited China from participating in this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) in Hawaii. This was a response to what Washington views as Beijing’s continued violation of international norms with its ongoing militarisation of South China Sea islands, including the installation of missile systems on islands in the Spratly group, as well as the landing of heavy bombers on Woody Island in the Paracels.
The choice of the Paracels for the latest American FONOP is also significant. Unlike the ambiguous nature of American FONOPs around the Spratly Islands or Scarborough Shoal, operations in the Paracels send what Washington believes to be a clear legal message. They challenge two claims by China: its straight baselines around the Paracel (Xisha) Islands; and its requirement for prior notification of a warship exercising the right of innocent passage through its territorial sea.
Two ships were used for the operation, one a guided-missile cruiser, while previous American FONOPs in the South China Sea have only involved a single destroyer. This could be interpreted as a stronger message from Washington, and perhaps a greater deterrent to a Chinese challenge.
The Paracels lie across an established shipping route between Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the north, and the Singapore Strait in the south. Despite US implications to the contrary, China has never attempted to restrict navigation through the group.
Vessels transiting through the Paracels pass well within 12 nautical miles of various features in the group. I did so myself several years ago when travelling in a large container ship from Hong Kong to Port Klang in Malaysia. At the time, there were other merchant ships also sailing near the islands. Over the years, warships of various countries, including the US, have also probably done so without being challenged by China.
It becomes more problematic when warships sail around within the group, conducting what a media report of the latest incident referred to as “manoeuvring operations”, rather than simply passing through the islands. Arguably these operations, depending on their nature, may have constituted what the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) refers to as activities “not having a direct bearing on passage”, and thus were contrary to the right of innocent passage.
American operations in and around the Paracels would be welcomed by Vietnam. Vietnam also claims this island group, but independent commentators usually regard the Chinese claim as superior, largely because of North Vietnam’s earlier acceptance of Chinese sovereignty and the principle of state succession.
The Paracels comprise two separate island groups: the Amphitrite group to the east, and the Crescent group in the west. Chinese forces occupied the Amphitrites after the Second World War and then drove South Vietnamese forces off the Crescents by force in 1974. Woody Island in the Amphitrites is relatively large by South China Sea standards and has a major airstrip and extensive military and civil facilities. China is also developing the island’s tourism potential.
While the South China Sea is of great strategic importance to China, the Paracels are particularly significant. They lie about 200 nautical miles to the south-east of Hainan, and provide a useful forward operating base for the projection of power into the South China Sea. Surveillance systems based in the islands would be well-placed to monitor surface and sub-surface naval activity coming from China’s naval bases in Hainan.
The latest incident follows a pattern of increased military activities in the South China Sea in recent months by China and the US. In March and April, both countries undertook extensive naval exercises in the sea. China’s exercises involved its aircraft carrier and more than 40 warships, while the US had three aircraft carrier battle groups exercising at different times.
A worrying trend of “tit for tat” activities continues between the US and China. The current distrust between Beijing and Washington in the South China Sea inhibits bilateral relations more generally, including an ability to deal with situations in North Korea and Taiwan, and more generally across the world.
The South China Sea certainly matters to Beijing, but, in relative terms, rather less so to Washington. Among the Southeast Asian countries, it’s probably only Vietnam that would have welcomed the recent American FONOP in the Paracels. Other Southeast Asian counties would likely be concerned about this escalating militarisation of the South China Sea by both the US and China.
A Chinese speaker at a jointly hosted Chinese–American conference in Beijing last week on Cooperation and Engagement in the Asia-Pacific Region argued that the legal substance and functions of freedom of navigation operations were often “lost in translation” between the US and China. Some dialogue between these powers to reach a common understanding of issues of disagreement would be an important regional confidence-building measure.