On 1 July, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and Coast Guard began exercises in the South China Sea that included practice of amphibious assaults. They were held in a declared temporary maritime exclusion zone (MEZ) southeast of Hainan and “in portions” of the China-controlled but Vietnam claimed Paracel Islands. https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/china-conducts-naval-drills-in-south-china sea/#:~:text=On%20Wednesday%2C%20the%20Chinese%20People’s,focused%20around%20amphibious%20assault%20activities.
The US Pentagon lambasted China saying that “conducting military exercises over (sic) disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to_ _easing tensions and maintaining stability.” It charged that “such exercises also violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [DOC] to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability. It concluded by urging” all parties to exercise restraint and not undertake military activities that might aggravate disputes.” The Philippines and Vietnam also objected. These criticisms were both hyped and hypocritical.
The U.S. promptly demonstrated its lack of restraint by deploying two of its most prominent symbols of power –air craft carrier strike groups– into the South China Sea. According to a spokesman for the US Seventh Fleet,” the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups are conducting dual carrier operations in the South China Sea”. However, “the presence of two carriers is not in response to any political or world events”. https://www.channel3000.com/us-navy-to-send-two-aircraft-carriers-and-several-warships-to-south-china-sea/This is nonsense.
The carriers’ deployment was obviously a response to the perceived ‘China threat’. It is destabilizing because it aggravates tensions with China in its ‘near seas’. This mismatch of rhetoric and action will not be lost on Southeast Asian countries that have expressed concern with such power projection. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/asean-nations-express-concern-over-us-china-tensions-in-south-10847704 ; https://ww.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2173174/south-china-sea-asean-beijing-continue-wrk-towarss-code ; https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/mahathir-tells-us-no-warships-in-asean-waters-but-small-patrol-boats-are-fine
Let’s parse the relevant statements by the U.S. and others to determine the details of the problem.
First it is not clear exactly what they are objecting to—the area covered by the MEZ, the content of the MEZ; or the exercises themselves –or all of these. Assuming the MEZ covers the same area as the one declared in 2016, a fringe does extend over the Paracels and their territorial waters. But even then the issue is not straight forward.
Sovereignty over the Paracels is disputed between China (and Taiwan) and Vietnam. But China has occupied them since 1974 when it seized them from South Vietnam. Ironically, at the time, South Vietnam requested assistance from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but it was denied.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Paracel_IslandsThe US State Department said “We have no claims ourselves and we are not involved in the dispute’ It is for the claimants to solve among themselves” https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5952220/albuquerque-journal/. So the U.S. complaint would be a bizarre twist of its past position and rhetoric in that it is now implicitly questioning China’s sovereignty over the Paracels.
Of course Vietnam formally and loudly objected because it has revived its long dormant (some might say weak and futile) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1958_diplomatic_note_from_phamvandong_to_zhouenlai.jpg claim to the Paracels. It called the exercises “a violation of sovereignty that could be detrimental to Beijing’s relationship with ASEAN.” https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/world/2020/07/02/vietnam-protests-chinese-military-drills-in-south-china-sea/
The latter is unlikely since the dispute involves only Vietnam and China(and Taiwan) and ASEAN has tried to steer clear of it.
If the US’ and Vietnam’s objection is because China is using the islands as a partial base and target of its exercises, that is not new and hardly newsworthy. https://news.usni.org/2016/07/07/chinese-military-south-china-sea-no-sail-zone-nothing-new This is certainly not the first time China has exercised in that area. Apparently the hyped US reaction is needed now to boost confidence among its ‘friends’ and allies in its staying power in the region https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/07/04/asia-pacific/two-us-aircraft-carriers-south-china-sea-china/ or perhaps– in a dangerous Machiavellian move– to purposefully provoke China.
If the US objection is because the MEZ’s mandatory restriction of access to ‘international waters’ is a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, that is a rather technical point. China’s MEZ wording does make the avoidance by other ships and aircraft of the area mandatory while the U.S. claims that it only “recommends” that they stay away. But in practice the U.S. does not allow foreign military aircraft or vessels –particularly submarines—to get close to its aircraft carriers. Moreover that is not what the Pentagon said was the problem.
If the US and others are complaining about China’s exercises using the EEZ extending from Hainan or the Paracels (assuming the latter can legally generate one) then there is no prohibition on that – whether disputed or not– assuming the exercises did not violate the UNCLOS regimes for peaceful purposes, consent for marine scientific research and environmental protection. Indeed the U.S. does the same – including in the South China Sea. It would be the height of hypocrisy if the U.S. is asserting that China is violating a Treaty that itself has not ratified and may regularly violate. And if the exercises were in an area beyond any country’s claimed EEZ, unrestricted freedom of navigation applies. htthttps://muse.jhu.edu/article/754326/pdfps://muse.jhu.edu/article/754326/pdf; https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XVT74SB/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
If—as some suspect—the real objection is that China undertook another military exercise in the South China Sea while the world is distracted by the pandemic, this would be the height of hypocrisy.
The U.S. well knows that China perceives the South China Sea as being well within its perceived ‘sphere of influence’. It is an historically vulnerable underbelly ringed by American bases that must be turned into a “natural shield for its national security.” https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/voa-news-china/why-china-sure-match-us-aircraft-carriers-disputed-asian-sea; https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3083194/why-us-continues-stir-south-china-sea-despite-covid-19-body-blow
Indeed, as the US knows, China is trying to defend itself against what it sees as a potential enemy
In May 2019 the US, Japanese, Indian naval ships and the Philippines conducted military exercises in the South China Sea. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-usa-japan-india/us-japan-india-and-philippines-challenge-beijing-with-naval-drills-in-the-south-china-sea-idUSKCN1SF0LS In March 2019, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee that capturing islands will be “critical for us to project power in the context of China”. https://www.stripes.com/news/troops-practice-island-seizing-in-the-pacific-amid-us-china-tensions-1.573799 In April 2020 the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy held joint operations in Malaysia’s claimed EEZ—apparently without its required permission. https://www.nbr.org/publication/foreign-military-activities-in-asian-eezs-conflict-ahead/ These exercises included the amphibious assault ship America. https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/lha6/Pages/US-Navy-Royal-Australian-Navy-team-up-in-the-South-China-Sea.aspx Given Dunford’s proclamation these exercises were threatening and thus destabilizing.
The Philippines chimed in saying the exercise were “highly provocative.” But it is not clear as to what exactly the Philippines –a non-claimant to the Paracels – was concerned about. Its Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin piously “_ _urged [China] to adhere to the rule of law and their commitments to international instruments such as the 2002 DOC. https://globalnation.inquirer.net/189213/locsin-warns-of-severest-response-if-chinas-army-drills-in-scs-spill-over-to-ph-domain#ixzz6RGmoL72R
But the Philippines continued construction on Thitu violates the same DOC clause that it and the U.S. cite. Indeed, both Vietnam and the Philippines reclaimed features and “militarized” them years ago. Moreover, the Philippines used a naval vessel in its standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal – a clear threat of use of force and thus a violation of the UN Charter, UNCLOS and the DOC. Those that live in glass houses should not throw stones.
In sum, these reactions are hyped and hypocritical. Worse, the US utterances and gestures are likely the desperate, disingenuous gasps of a failed and dying regime and should be ignored.
A version of this piece first appeared in the Asia Times. https://asiatimes.com/2020/07/reaction-to-chinas-military-exercises-hypocritical/