By Zachary Haver
The United States has deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the South China Sea, just days after President Joe Biden took office, drawing a rebuke from China against Washington for the display of force.
But over the weekend, China was engaged in its own show of military might, as it flew an unusually high number of warplanes in airspace south of Taiwan. China also passed a law last week authorizing its coastguard to use force against foreign ships, which caused jitters in Southeast Asia.
Together, the developments point to heightened tensions in South China Sea less than a week after the Jan. 20 inauguration of Biden, who inherited an already sore relationship between Washington and Beijing.
The U.S. Navy announced on Saturday that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea to conduct routine operations including maritime strike exercises and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units.
“With two-thirds of the world’s trade travelling through this very important region, it is vital that we maintain our presence and continue to promote the rules-based order which has allowed us all to prosper,” said the strike group’s commander, Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo, in a news release.
The strike group includes the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a guided-missile cruiser, two guided-missile destroyers, and other assets.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that “it does no good to regional peace and stability for the United States to frequently send military vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to show off muscles.”
In Washington, the boot was on the other foot. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed concern Saturday about China’s efforts to intimidate its neighbors, specifically Taiwan, and vowed that the U.S. would “stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region.”
‘CCG ships are much larger’
The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, spoke out over China on Friday authorizing the China Coast Guard (CGG) to use force against foreign vessels infringing on China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque reminded China of its obligations under international law, and expressed hope that both China and other South China Sea claimants would refrain from “actions that would worsen the situation.”
“While a country has sovereign power to pass laws in its territory, these laws still must follow its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to which China is a signatory,” Roque told reporters.
“And under this international law, use of force is generally prohibited except for two well-defined exceptions by way of self-defense,” he said, noting that this could only occur when armed troops enter China.
Even before this new law, the CCG already had a reputation for confronting and sometimes clashing with fishing boats and other ships of neighboring countries in contested waters in the South China Sea.
China has maritime and territorial disputes with Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan in the South China Sea. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the disputes, Beijing’s claims overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Roque urged completion and then adherence to a Code of Conduct – referring to an agreement that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have been negotiating to manage tensions in the South China Sea. China’s lack of enthusiasm for a multilateral solution to the disputes has persistently hindered these talks.
‘Major impact on Malaysia-China relations’
Experts viewed China’s new coast guard law, which comes into effect on Feb. 1, as a worrying escalation of the South China Sea disputes.
“The new law raises the risk of armed confrontation at sea between Chinese coast vessels and Southeast Asian maritime law enforcement agencies as the CCG is China’s principal tool for asserting its territorial and jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea,” said Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“CCG ships are much larger and more heavily armed than regional coast guard vessels,” Storey added.
Dr Ramli Dollah, a security expert from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), said “this issue will have a major impact on Malaysia-China relations in the South China Sea.” He added that there has been frequent close contact between the CCG and Malaysian enforcement agencies.
But Collin Koh, a maritime security and geopolitics expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the new law doesn’t signify a new policy by China, but “is supposed to give legitimate cover” to existing behaviors, such as intimidating the Philippines at Thitu Island and Vietnam at Vanguard Bank.
Philippine opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Manila’s Department of National Defense (DND) should be prepared for more aggression from China.
“The DND already needs to have a strategy for when worse comes to worst. Does the new law mean they will shoot our fishermen vessels? China should ease tensions in the West Philippine Sea not escalate them,” Hontiveros said in a statement as she called on the government to ensure that the Philippines follows an independent foreign policy.
“There should be no special relationship with any countries right now … especially with China,” she said. “Our country shouldn’t be beholden to any foreign power, whether in the West or the East.”
Although the Philippines is a longtime U.S. ally, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer ties with Beijing since assuming office in 2016, and has steered clear of confronting China over its conduct at sea. That’s despite a successful legal challenged Manila mounted against China’s sweeping South China Sea claims before Duterte took office, and continuing reports of Chinese aggression against Filipino fishermen.
“The Philippine government must decisively denounce this law and protect the Filipinos against Chinese aggressors,” fishermen’s group Pamalakaya leader Fernando Hicap said of the new law. He described it as a “serious threat” to Filipino fishermen.
The Chinese Embassy did not reply to requests for comment.
Last week, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian stressed the benefits to Manila of economic cooperation between China and the Philippines, given the sharp growth in Philippine exports to China and in Chinese investment in the Philippines.
Marielle Lucenio and Nonoy Espina in Manila, Jojo Rinoza in Dagupan City, Philippines, and Hadi Azmi and Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur, contributed to this report.