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Washington’s Provocations in the South China Sea

Photo by Official U.S. Navy Page | CC BY 2.0

On May 23 the Washington Post reported that “The Pentagon disinvited China from participating in a major naval exercise . . .  signaling mounting US anger over Beijing’s expanded military footprint in disputed areas of the South China Sea.” Explaining its righteous indignation, the Pentagon’s spokesman, Lt Colonel Logan, said that emplacement of military systems was “violation of the promise that [Chinese President Xi Jinping] made to the United States and the world.”

Three weeks before this signal of virtuous disapproval, on May 1 the US media network CNBC let it be known that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three of its islands in the South China Sea. It was fed the information by US intelligence agencies, or, as, CNBC coyly put it “sources with direct knowledge of US intelligence reports.” In other words it was a deliberate leak in order to ramp up anti-China sentiment internationally while providing an opportunity for Washington to splash a provocative oar in the water.

As intended, the White House promptly commented that “We’re well aware of China’s militarization of the South China Sea. We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this and there will be near-term and long-term consequences.” This statement was made four days after “US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew a training mission over the South China Sea” as ”part of the US Air Force’s routine ‘Continuous Bomber Presence’ in the region.”

The Pentagon’s “Continuous Bomber Presence” is focused on the South China Sea, which is 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) from the eastern coast of mainland America.

What would Washington say if China maintained a “Continuous Bomber Presence” off the west coast of the United States?  Or if Russia had a “Continuous Bomber Presence” in the Caribbean?

According to the Pentagon, “since 2004, Air Force bombers such as the B-1, the B-52 and the B-2 Spirit have been in continuous rotations, providing nonstop stability and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region . . . They provide a significant rapid global strike capability that enables readiness and commitment to deterrence . . .”  It is official policy that the United States sends nuclear-capable bombers to fly round China’s coastline in order to demonstrate its “global strike capability.”

It was therefore no surprise when China stated on May 18 that “a division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.”

Further, China has given priority to developing air defense systems, and has installed HQ-9 missiles in and around the South China Sea.  These travel at four times the speed of sound and can destroy aircraft at a height of 27 kilometers, or some 90,000 feet, and it is becoming increasingly likely that the nuclear-capable B-52s and all the other US strike and electronic warfare aircraft that trail their coats around China may one day witness (briefly) its capabilities being demonstrated.

Washington’s justification for the Pentagon’s aerial forays and equally frequent naval maneuvers in and around the South China Sea is that they are intended to demonstrate the principle of “freedom of navigation.” According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), such freedom “is exercised under the conditions laid down by this Convention and by other rules of international law.”  The main factor to be considered in this context is that, as pointed out by the Voice of America, “the US has not accepted UNCLOS because of opposition from Republicans in the Senate.”  It has yet to ratify the Treaty whose statutes are accepted by 161 other countries. (China ratified it in 1996.)

Yet the United States considers it has the right to quote the Convention as justification for its aggressive aerial and naval operations in and around a vast stretch of water through which enormous numbers of merchant vessels pass every year, totally unmolested.  There has not been a single instance of Chinese interference with the passage of a commercial ship through the Sea, and it is not expected that there ever will be such an intervention.  But US combat aircraft and ships continue to challenge China in the region.

It is not unusual for the United States to refuse to accept the legality and purpose of an international accord and then criticize or even penalize others for allegedly transgressing, ignoring or otherwise failing to abide by the accord’s intentions and stipulations.

In addition to Washington’s refusal to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea, it rejects a host of other international treaties, not least being jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which is responsible for investigating allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The National Security Adviser to President Trump, John Bolton, made his opposition to the ICC clear by writing that the United States should welcome the opportunity to “strangle the ICC in its cradle” or “tell the ICC that “you are dead to us. Sincerely, the United States.”  No administration in Washington will ever consider placing any citizen at risk of prosecution by an international authority for an alleged criminal act, no matter its gravity or provability.

There is small wonder, therefore, that the Pentagon’s policy on the South China Sea rests more on practicing its “global strike capability” than on seeking to promote international trust and understanding.

China’s sovereignty over several islands in the South China Sea is contested by some of the countries in the region, but this has nothing to do with the United States, which has not the remotest claim to any of them, nor the slightest justification for becoming involved. There is nothing in the UN Charter that specifies any right on the part of the United States to take unilateral action to enforce observance of the conditions of an international accord.

But this does not prevent Washington from confrontational meddling in the South China Sea (and elsewhere around the world), as evidenced by its policy on Freedom of Navigation which “consists of a two-pronged complementary strategy to maintain the global mobility of US forces and unimpeded commerce by protesting and challenging attempts by coastal States to unlawfully restrict access to the seas.”  The Pentagon considers it has the duty to mount “operational challenges against excessive maritime claims.”

“Excessive,” that is, in the eyes of Washington, which has not ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea, yet declares it “will exercise and assert its rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”

President Obama had it right when he said “We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by our United States Senate.”

Washington’s confrontational antics are not in accordance with international law and have no purpose other than to goad China to respond with military action.

China is not going to sit back and allow itself to be provoked indefinitely, and the threat by the White House that there will be “near-term and long-term consequences” for China’s defense preparedness could well be realized, but probably not in the manner envisaged by the Pentagon’s war-planners.

There are rocks ahead for the Pentagon in the South China Sea.

A version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on May 23.

 

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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