A flagship Chinese research organization recently said U.S. military forces had an unusually intense presence in the South China Sea last year as Washington sought to check Beijing’s maritime expansion.
“The intensity, in terms of the scale, number and duration of the U.S. military activities in the region in 2020 was rarely seen in recent years,” the March 12 report, An Incomplete Report on US Military Operations in the South China Sea in 2020, said.
“To begin with, military forces deployed to the South China Sea were of large scale and long duration,” according to the report, issued by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii confirms 10 warship passages into the sea last year following 10 in 2019. Just five were logged in each of the two years before 2019. In July, the U.S. Air Force also acknowledged sending a B-52 Stratofortress bomber to join two aircraft carriers in a South China Sea exercise. Command spokespersons would not answer a request for comment on whether 2020 was an unusual year overall.
Analysts say U.S. forces effectively slowed China’s militarization of the sea as well as any ambitions to expand or capture islets. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam vie with Beijing’s claims to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway. China has the strongest armed forces among regional powers, prompting other claimants to look toward the United States for support.
“The reality is of course [China] would like to carve out a sort of sphere of influence and a sort of a buffer zone and the U.S. is of course trying to break through both of these,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs specializing in Southeast Asia.
Beijing cites historical usage records to back its claims to about 90% of the sea, which is prized for fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. China has alarmed the other Asian claimants by developing contested islets for military infrastructure and sending its ships into their exclusive economic zones.
Washington does not have a claim to the sea but keeps an eye on China as a rival superpower and potential threat to U.S. allies such as Taiwan and the Philippines. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration ramped up Navy ship passages, called freedom of navigation operations, to show the South China Sea is open internationally, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has said.
U.S. military activity is not new but might have reached a new high last year because Trump was “gung-ho against China,” Oh said. The Trump administration sparred with Beijing over trade and technology sharing, as well as China’s geopolitical reach. Current U.S. President Joe Biden has followed Trump’s South China Sea strategy since taking office in January.
Southeast Asian claimants to the sea, all militarily weaker than China, welcome the U.S. maritime presence but worry that too much of it will prompt China to sustain its own, said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.
“It is both a deterrent as well as a way for China to say, ‘look we are there because of the Americans,’” Lockman said.
Last April, a U.S. warship joined one from Australia to flex “muscle in sensitive waters near China’s survey ship in the South China Sea to show that they had Malaysia’s back and provoke a China-Malaysia ‘standoff,’” the March 12 report says.
China will keep building up its position at sea but will not be able to stop the U.S. activity, analysts say.
“In Beijing, they know very well that the U.S. and its allies have the naval supremacy Indo Pacific-wise and also in the South China Sea, and they know very well that an incident would have very serious consequences,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Ocean Policy Research Institute.
China will still deter the Southeast Asian states from exploring for gas or oil, keep the sea open for Chinese fishing fleets and consider landfilling more semi-submerged reefs, Oh forecast.
“In summation, China will complain vocally, continue with its military buildup, deploy new and more modern forces there, but they will not be able to do much to oppose the freedom of navigation operations by the U.S., its allies and other U.S.-aligned powers,” Bozzato said.