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Increase in South China Sea Naval Activity Expected to Provoke Beijing

FILE - A Royal Australian Navy guided-missile frigate (L) sails with three US Navy ships in the South China Sea, April 18, 2020. (US Navy photo)

An increase in world naval activity in the disputed South China Sea will prompt the strategic waterway’s largest claimant, Beijing, to send more of its own ships as a way of showing others it won’t retreat, experts say.

Two Indian navy warships and a Vietnamese navy frigate held exercises last week that started at a port in Vietnam and extended into firing drills and helicopter moves further at sea, the Indian Defense Ministry said on its website. It said the exercises were “in continuation with ongoing deployment of Indian Navy ships in the South China Sea” and “would be another step towards strengthening India-Vietnam defense relations.”

Among other exercises in or near the sea, a Royal Canadian Navy warship joined Australian, Japanese and U.S. naval vessels for a coordinated workout in January. Ships from Australia, India, Japan and the United States scheduled their annual Malabar exercises near Guam – the U.S. territory closest to Asia – for August 26-29.

Since about the start of the year, warships from eight countries with no actual maritime claims have passed through or near the South China Sea.

China claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, overlapping waters five other governments also claim. Chinese officials point to maritime documents dating back to dynastic times as support for their claim. The others cite a United Nations convention on sea usage.

People’s Liberation Army Navy ships are expected to travel the sea more often and step up the frequency of exercises, scholars believe. China already held naval exercises near its southern coast this month, following a round in January and another in March.

Officials in Beijing have indicated they hold exercises largely in response to U.S. movements. The People's Liberation Army Southern Theater Command "will always remain on high alert" and "resolutely safeguard" China's sovereignty, a senior colonel said in August last year after it had "warned off" a U.S. guided-missile destroyer.

China fears the dispute is becoming more “internationalized” because of the spike in foreign navy operations and that it has lost its clout to discuss sovereignty disputes one-on-one with other Asian states, said Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

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Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – all militarily weaker than China – lay claims in the sea. They value the sea for its fisheries, undersea fossil fuel reserves and marine shipping lanes. Vietnam and the Philippines have spoken out against China's ship movement and land reclamation at disputed islets.

“The more foreign vessels, the more need that China will identify for military exercises to show it’s not scared [and] it’s vigorously using military capability to define and defend national interests,” Sun said.

China will probably react to each foreign exercise with something comparable, though actual clashes are unlikely, said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City.

“What happens after these [foreign] ships come into the South China Sea really depends on China’s reaction, because always China tends to overreact to every vessel passage in the South China Sea,” he said.

Countries from outside the region often pair their exercises with statements opposing a single country’s control of the whole sea, another irritant to Beijing.

The Southeast Asian maritime claimants now “have some leverage” and are “not taking on China alone,” Sun said. A country such as Vietnam might now feel “emboldened” to step up its drilling for undersea oil and gas, she said.

“It is gradually offsetting China’s dominance in the region and also offsetting or attacking China’s hegemonic desire in that part of the world,” Sun said.

China would bolster its own exercises along with diplomatic protests against the non-Asian naval exercises, said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. The country is likely to “act professionally” to avoid any wider conflict, though, he said.

“They will make a lot of noise,” Lockman said. “They will react. But I think they are also wary about prompting anything bigger.”