A series of voyages by multiple Western allies in mid-2021 through a disputed Asian sea will incite China, the waterway’s largest claimant, to shadow the foreign ships, hit back at the countries behind them and possibly hold a live-fire drill, analysts say.
At least eight countries have indicated since late July plans to send navy vessels into the resource-rich South China Sea, which stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo Island, in support of keeping it open internationally rather than ceding it to Chinese control.
The HMS Defender destroyer, part of a British carrier strike group, reached the South China Sea last month, domestic media reported. It’s scheduled to join vessels from France, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and the United States for joint exercises near the sea. India for its part plans to send four ships over two months, according to its Ministry of Defense website.
France, the U.K. and Canada sent ships to the same sea earlier in the year.
On August 2, Germany’s Bayern warship set out for six months in Asia including the South China Sea, the German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “The message is clear: we are standing up for our values and interests together with our partners and allies,” she said in a Twitter post.
These voyages alarm China. A world arbitration court ruled in 2016 that China had no legal basis for its “nine-dash line” that it uses to back a claim to about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway, but officials in Beijing rejected the decision.
In response to the latest foreign visits, China will start by protesting diplomatically or through domestic English-language media, said Derek Grossman, senior analyst with the U.S.-based Rand Corp. research organization. It could get tougher by following the foreign ships, he told VOA.
“That’s easy to complain about it in public through official and unofficial channels,” Grossman said. “There’s going to be some complaining, but I think sort of at the higher end of the spectrum you can see Chinese ships tailing German and Indian, British ships in the South China Sea.”
None of the countries sending ships this summer claims the sea, which is prized for fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. China contests the sea instead with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Backed by Asia’s strongest armed forces, China has rattled other claimants by landfilling islets for military installations. Beijing occasionally sends vessels into the maritime exclusive economic zones of its rivals.
India, Japan and European countries are following a U.S. lead by sending warships, some analysts say. Washington, a superpower rival of Beijing, doubled the number of its “Freedom of Navigation Operations” in the sea in 2019. U.S. officials hope to stop China’s expansion in the contested sea, where some of the smaller countries are historic American allies.
“It’s almost like a flock mentality — they see more and more of their friends making baby steps into this part of the world, they follow suit,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
India’s defense ministry said its ship deployment “seeks to underscore the operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries towards ensuring good order in the maritime domain.”
Chinese defense planners should view the foreign ship movement as “shows of flag” with coordination such as “parallel cruising” rather than a direct military threat, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army Navy may respond with more missile tests without hitting anyone, he said.
This month China already announced it was planning live fire, “aircraft carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles exercises in the sea.
“They may try again the anti-ship ballistic missile firing, since they have a pretty huge range, but I don’t see the gathering of Chinese navy assets in those areas [as foreign ships pass],” Huang said.
China accuses the United States of going too far and hints at avoiding conflict.
“In the regional waters, there is no room for confrontation, zero-sum games, or bloc rivalries,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in a July 31 commentary posted to its website. “The so-called ‘China threat’ is merely one of the many tricks adopted by Washington to deliberately smear China, sow discord between regional countries, and contain China’s development.”
Officials in Beijing will resent India and the European governments as “extraterritorial countries” and come out with “forceful responses,” Oh said. But in calibrating its responses, he said, China will consider too that France, Germany and the U.K. are major trading partners.
“I think what China would do is to very carefully have differentiated responses to all these different countries,” Oh said. “But, of course, China could not do too much as well because these are major trading partners.”
Western-allied navies for their part might venture to the center of the sea but keep a distance from “sensitive areas” held by China, said Carl Thayer, Asia-specialized emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia.