Illustration: Craig Stephens
Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia

US warns of South China Sea ‘provocations’ – but who is provoking whom?

  • The US denounces Chinese ‘aggression’ while relentlessly conducting probes and showing off its military might in China’s backyard
  • Were China to do the same near America’s Gulf coast, how would Washington react?
High-ranking US officials claim China’s “provocations” in the South China Sea are increasing and have warned that it is only a matter of time before such “aggressive and irresponsible behaviour” results in a major incident.

The frequency and intensity of dangerous incidents between the US and China militaries in the area are indeed increasing. And the possibility of an escalation is certainly higher following the visit to Taiwan by second in line to the US presidency Nancy Pelosi. But the US needs to pause and examine just who is provoking whom.

Jung Pak, of the US State Department’s bureau of East Asia and Pacific affairs said recently there was “a clear and upward trend of PRC provocations against South China Sea claimants and other states lawfully operating in the region”– which means the US and its allies.

Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, went further by declaring that “Beijing is systematically testing the limits of our collective resolve”, implying that this has become China’s policy.

Their statements parrot comments by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley that the “Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region”.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, seen in Washington on May 11. Photo: AP

This is clearly the latest Washington anti-China meme. But it evokes the famous exclamation of tennis star John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious!” The US certainly shares some of the blame for the situation. Let’s look at the facts.

The context is that the South China Sea is halfway around the world from Washington and is China’s “backyard”. Historically, its colonisers used the sea to invade and conquer it. China’s fundamental defence strategy is to keep potential enemies as far from its shores as possible.

To do so, China is developing what the US calls an “access/area denial strategy” designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access by the US in the event of a conflict.

The US response is a plan of action intended to cripple China’s command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (ISR). That makes ISR the “tip of the spear” for both, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas.


Mainland China conducts military live-fire drills as tensions soar over Pelosi visit to Taiwan

Mainland China conducts military live-fire drills as tensions soar over Pelosi visit to Taiwan

But China is facing an uphill struggle in implementing its strategy. The US – unlike China – already has military “places”, if not bases, for its ISR in Southeast Asia, including in the Philippines and Thailand – two US military allies – and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore.

More important to China’s existential strategy, the South China Sea provides relative “sanctuary” for its retaliatory strike nuclear submarines based in Yulin on Hainan.

These submarines are its insurance against a first strike, something the US – unlike China – has not disavowed. The US wants to deny China this “sanctuary”. It uses ISR probes to detect and determine the capabilities of China’s submarines, as well as to track and, if necessary, target them.

To China, it is the US that is being more “assertive” in the South China Sea, beginning with its 2011 “pivot”, followed by increased freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), ISR probes and projections of the epitome of power, aircraft carrier strike groups and nuclear-capable bombers and submarines.

Moreover, the US is doing all this with “attitude”. As one senior US naval officer put it, FONOPs are “an in your face, rub your nose in it operation that lets people know who is the boss”.

The Donald Trump administration increased the tempo of US military activities in the South China Sea, challenging what it saw as China’s attempts to undermine the US-led “international order”. The situation became so fraught that Beijing feared an attack on its installations. Yet President Joe Biden’s administration has continued fervently down this path and even worsened the situation.

Incidents happen when China challenges US ISR probes that it thinks directly threaten its security. The US military now undertakes an average of four ISR missions a day over the South China Sea. That’s about 1,500 a year. Some come as close as 25 nautical miles – and China understandably sees this as threatening.

The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group just passed through the South China Sea and the USS Benfold just completed two FONOPs challenging China’s claims in the Paracels and the Spratlys.

The USS Benfold conducts what Washington describes as a “routine freedom of navigation operation” in the South China Sea on June 24. Photo: US Navy via AP

Stop for a moment and consider what the US reaction would be if China mounted a similar volume of probes and projections of power off its Gulf coast. Would the US military consider them provocative and threatening, and respond accordingly?

Speaking of provocations, last week, more than 50 US and Japanese warplanes staged their “largest ever” show of force in and over the East China Sea. In an unusually threatening manoeuvre, US fighter jets crossed over the Japan-claimed median line with China, resulting in China scrambling its jets in response.
And now, despite China’s deep concerns, Pelosi visited what Beijing considers a renegade province. Again, who is provoking whom?

China must be the bigger person over Pelosi’s Taiwan visit

The US is involved in a classic “security dilemma” in the South China Sea – a situation in which the actions of one state to make itself more secure tend to make others less secure, leading to a vicious cycle of action and reaction. In the end, neither state is more “secure”.

The US needs to stop repeating and believing its own propaganda and recognise the situation for what it is, then deal with it with clear heads. Compromise on military behaviour in the South China Sea with an increasingly – and understandably – incredulous China is the only peaceful way out of this security dilemma.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China