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US Sending Ships to South China Sea to Teach Beijing, Not Fight It

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, left, greets U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 18, 2019.

An unusually strong surge of U.S. Navy activity this month in the South China Sea shows that Washington is trying to teach China a set of rules for operating in contested waters, official statements and scholars say.

The Navy sent two ships into the Asian sea, which is increasingly controlled by China but disputed by five other countries, last week after China sent its first domestically produced aircraft carrier into the same waterway for research and testing.

Washington wants to show China that it must keep the economically and politically strategic sea open rather than trying to take tracts of it for exclusive use, the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the analysts say, although experts see little threat of armed conflict.

“The United States is trying now to shape and shift Chinese behavior, and that’s really hard,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

“This comprehensive pressure is a way to start to shift the behavior of the Chinese in a way that doesn’t spiral out it of control into some kind of conflict,” he said.

Spike in naval presence

The Chinese aircraft carrier passed through the Taiwan Strait November 17 to conduct research and “routine training” in the “relevant waters of the South China Sea," Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency said a day later, citing a People's Liberation Army spokesperson.

The carrier caught attention around Asia and in Washington because it’s China’s second carrier overall and the first it has built on its own. China seldom announces it has sent a carrier to the sea.

The U.S. Navy sent its two warships to the sea on November 20 and 21, it said in a statement. It described both missions as “freedom of navigation operations,” without giving details about what either ship did.

The USS Gabrielle Giffords, a littoral combat ship, approached Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, the statement said. China has developed and occupied the reef for its own use, including military installations. The second U.S. ship, the USS Wayne E. Meyer, a destroyer,
sailed near the Paracel Islands, a chain controlled by China but that control is disputed by Vietnam.

The U.S. Navy usually sends one ship at a time, with intervals of a month or so.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam dispute all or parts of China’s claims to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that stretches from Hong Kong south to Borneo. They prize the sea for its fisheries, energy reserves and shipping lanes.

International attention has fallen on China over the past decade because it keeps the strongest armed forces among the six claimants and maintains the most advanced infrastructure, such as military aircraft hangars, among the sea's hundreds of tiny islets. Beijing cites historical records to back its claims.

Trying to show China

Beijing dismissed a 2016 ruling against it by a tribunal constituted under the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over the South China Sea world arbitration ruling that asked it to follow international maritime laws.

FILE - Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this video image taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the U.S. Navy, May 21, 2015.
FILE - Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this video image taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the U.S. Navy, May 21, 2015.

The November 20 U.S. mission was to show that Mischief Reef as a low-tide islet is not “entitled to a territorial sea,” meaning exclusive use of surrounding waters, under international law, the Navy’s statement said.

By going to the Paracels, Washington wanted to show “international law does not permit continental States, like China and the United States, to establish baselines around entire island groups,” it said.

U.S. officials will constantly monitor China at sea, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan. “It’s a continuous effort to show the U.S. is very much adhered to the freedom of navigation operations,” he said. He also said that China probably sent its newly commissioned aircraft carrier to the sea as a practice run rather than as any kind of provocation.

No one expects China to quit its maritime claims, but eventually China and the United States might reach a “shared understanding of rules of behavior” for disputed seas, Nagy said.

He compared that outcome to Cold War U.S.-Soviet understandings.

“The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond,” Pacific Fleet spokesperson Rachel McMarr told VOA.