US ‘freedom’ patrols in the South China Sea are risky, and may backfire if China is pushed too far
Mark J. Valencia says US gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea has so far failed to have the desired effect on Beijing, and ‘routine’ freedom of navigation patrols risk dangerous misunderstandings
The Trump administration has approved a plan to “regularise” US “freedom of navigation operations” against China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. The White House will now know in advance about upcoming patrols, which will supposedly quicken the approval process. An official said this means operations will be implemented on a “very routine, very regular basis”. The US move could lead to dangerous misunderstandings and be counterproductive.
Under the Obama administration, the Defence Department (Pentagon) forwarded requests for such operations to the National Security Council (NSC), where they would often languish, over concern about getting anybody’s “feathers ruffled”, the official said. Indeed, the Obama administration paused freedom patrols in the South China Sea from 2012 to 2015 and only approved a few last year, apparently so as not to upset relations with China.
The operations were requested, considered, and approved on a case-by-case basis, a process subject to delays at each level of decision making. This sometimes resulted in their implementation being interpreted as a response to some transgression by China, rather than routine operations.
Joseph Liow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies observes that the frequency of such patrols is “often seen as a litmus test, for better or worse, of American commitment”. Indeed, many Southeast Asian countries perceive these provocative probes as political statements. Some at home and abroad argue that these patrols are the tip of the spear of a strategy to support the US hub-and-spoke regional security architecture, and to persuade China to comply with the “international rules-based order”.
This “order” includes the Hague arbitration decision against China’s “nine-dash line” sovereignty claim in the South China Sea. Indeed, despite US attempts to downplay the political meaning of the operations, most Asian nations, including China, interpret them as a signal of US resolve to remain the dominant power in the region.
— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) July 23, 2017
Early in the Trump administration, requests for freedom operations against China were still not being approved. When US anti-China analysts and politicians complained, it was explained that Defence Secretary James Mattis did not want to approve patrols there until an overall strategy was devised. In May, a bipartisan group of senators formally urged the Trump administration to restart the patrols, arguing that: “US engagement in the South China Sea remains essential to continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight and to uphold international law.”
Subsequently, the US conducted three such patrols in the South China Sea, the first on May 24, when the destroyer USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Under the new plan, patrol requests will be forwarded by the Pentagon simultaneously to the NSC and the State Department to ensure they do not conflict with any diplomatic strategy or initiatives. This is supposed to speed up approval, but therein lies a problem.
Watch: USS Stethem provokes strong China reaction
If there is disagreement or, as rumoured, unusual tension between State, Defence and the White House, a request may still be delayed or modified in favour of diplomatic concerns. This means patrols will still be approved on a politically determined case-by-case basis, and a counterproductive cycle will begin all over again.
It would start with raised expectations of aggressive navy operations, a delay in implementation resulting in recriminations from the anti-China commentariat and angst among fence-sitting “friends and allies”, and culminating in a “knee-jerk, catch-up” response.
This would confuse friend and foe alike, and could have dangerous consequences, such as underestimating US resolve – or intent.
The second problem is that freedom operations are ineffective. China has not ameliorated its claims or “militarisation” of features it occupies in the South China Sea, and is unlikely to do so, regardless of the frequency and nature of the US patrols. It may even respond to these “regularised” operations rather negatively.
On July 2, the USS Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of China’s long-claimed and occupied Triton Island in the Paracels. Harshly condemning the act, China’s defence ministry said it “seriously damaged the strategic mutual trust” and undermined the “political atmosphere” surrounding the development of Sino-US military ties. It warned that the Chinese military would bolster its efforts in the waters including “an increase in the intensity of air and sea patrols according to the extent of the threat that its national security is facing”.
Moreover, this is counterproductive to Donald Trump’s “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy. The USS Stethem incident occurred just hours before Trump called President Xi Jinping (習近平) to urge China to do more to help with restraining North Korea. Not surprisingly, Xi told Trump during the call that “negative factors” were affecting US-China relations.
As professors Peter Dutton and Isaac Kardon of the US Naval War College put it: “Conflation of routine naval operations with the narrow function of a formal FONOP needlessly politicises this important programme, blurs the message to China and other states in the region, blunts its impact on China’s conduct, and makes the programme less effective in other areas of the globe.”
Why do them at all? The US could protect its legal position by declaring it and recording its objections in diplomatic statements and communiqués, rather than resorting to what some see as “gunboat diplomacy”. The diplomatic option seems to be sufficient for many other nations whose rights the US claims to be protecting. This programme of freedom patrols against China should be re-evaluated as to its effectiveness and necessity.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China