US likely to increase patrols off disputed South China Sea islands after ‘pivot to Asia’ hits choppy waters, experts say
Washington needs to reassure allies of its presence in the region after the Philippines’ apparent shift in foreign policy towards Beijing, say Chinese analysts
The United States is likely to intensify military activities in the South China Sea following last week’s naval patrol off the Paracel Islands to reassure allies after a setback to its Asia “pivot” strategy, mainland analysts said.
But any escalation could be decided by how China chose to react to the latest so-called freedom of navigation exercise, one expert said.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur sailed near Woody and Triton islands, part of the Paracels chain, last Friday, drawing a warning from Chinese warships to leave the area.
US officials revealed the manoeuvre hours after Beijing and Manila issued a joint statement announcing they would seek to resolve their territorial disputes in the South China Sea through negotiations.
Relations between the two nations have been strained since an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in July there was no legal basis for China’s claims to much of the waters. The case was bought by rival claimant the Philippines. New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing last week to help mend ties and declared his “separation” from the US.
“The US has lost a pivot in the region as the Philippines has changed its foreign policy and stopped confronting China,” Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military observer, said. “To control the damage to its hegemony and reassure allies, the US could not just sit by and do nothing.”
As long as its “pivot” to Asia remains in force, Washington will continue to exercise military power in the region, according to Hu Bo, a researcher at the Institute of Ocean Research at Peking University.
Li Jie, a researcher at Beijing’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said the US was expected to enlist the help of other countries and territories with claims to the South China Sea to challenge China. Ni pointed to US allies Japan and Australia as probable partners in future joint operations. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the disputed waters, while Indonesia says it has no territorial dispute with China.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Beijing last month, while a Chinese naval fleet docked at Vietnam’s Cam Rahn Bay port over the weekend. Malaysia’s prime minister will visit Beijing next week. “Without a pawn to move, the US will have to get its own hands dirty,” Li said. “They will have to prove they will not leave the region.”
The manoeuvre was the fourth time the US Navy had challenged China’s claims in the region in the past year. The latest sail-by was directed at Beijing’s “excessive claims” in the area, according to US officials.
What happened next depended on how China responded, Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said.
“If China chooses to challenge these operations, tensions will rise. If China merely protests then I don’t think [the two sides] will significantly up the ante,” he said.
Euan Graham, director of international security at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, said the sail-by might not have been deliberately timed to coincide with Duterte’s visit.
“If there is a political element to the timing, it is likely the administration felt it should conduct another operational assertion ahead of the US election”, and reduce pressure on the incoming leader, he said.
The USS Decatur did not enter the 12-nautical mile territorial limit of the two islands controlled by China, but it crossed a territorial baseline announced by Beijing.
The term refers to a straight line drawn around the entire chain, whereas the 12 mile limit relates to a single island.
The PLA Daily reported last week that a division deployed to Woody Island is the same one to which late PLA pilot Wang Wei belonged. Wang was flying a J-8 fighter jet when a mid-air collision occurred with a US EP-3 spy plane off Hainan 15 years ago.
The 24 American crew made an emergency landing at Lingshui and were later released. Wang’s body was never found. The Daily said the division was now equipped with much more advanced weapons than at the time of the incident in 2001.
Li said China would respond to US challenges by expanding its presence and reinforcing defences on the islands. In the future, the PLA Navy would adopt a tough posture but handle the situation with restraint, Li added. “It’s like the old saying, keep competing, but never break off.”