A tense game of claim and ignore continues to play out across the South China Sea, with several nations now involved in patrols designed to deny and defy Chinese claims over the region. In this piece, Alex Stafford examines the risks associated with these operations, and the future strategy that the international community might consider in order to keep the waterways of Asia open.


Barely a week into January, the US Navy conducted what will no doubt be the first of several Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in 2019. On January 7th the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS McCampbell transited within twelve miles off the Paracel islands in the South China Sea to contest China’s “excessive” territorial claims; a claim matched by Taiwan and Vietnam. The islands currently host a major Chinese facility on Woody Island, complete with HQ-9 Surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles and an airstrip staging a contingent of fighter jets and which in May of last year played host to a H-6K strategic bomber for the first time.

The latest FONOP drew the customary condemnatory rhetoric from China, whose foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said the action “violated Chinese laws and relevant international laws, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, and undermined peace, security and order of the relevant waters.” Shortly afterwards it was reported that the PLA Rocket Force had deployed some of its new mobile TEL-borne DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) to China’s northwestern region, possibly near Alxa, Inner Mongolia. With a claimed range of up to 2,800 miles and supposedly capable of targeting ships at sea, the DF-26 should comfortably be able to strike at US ships transiting the South China Sea from deep within the Chinese interior.

The deployment of the DF-26 is not in itself overly alarming, despite the bombastic claim last December by Rear Admiral Lou Yuan of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences that the South China Sea issue could be solved by sinking a couple of US carriers. The missile is not believed to have successfully been tested against a moving ship let alone one with defensive capabilities. It is also thought to lack the necessary accuracy to hit a ship with a conventional payload, sometimes missing its target by 150 – 450 meters. But despite the propaganda purposes in trumpeting the DF-26 deployment, it is clear the US FONOPs continue to gall China and that perhaps Beijing is looking for a more robust response the the perceived incursions.

Throughout 2018 the US carried out five FONOPs in the South China Sea, which aside from the customary condemnation were met with varying responses. When the USS Mustin passed the Spratly Islands in March, China’s response was to announce military exercises in the area. The fourth operation, however, led to a dangerously close encounter between the USS Decatur and the Chinese Type-052C class destroyer Lanzhou. As the Decatur passed Gaven reef in the Spratly Islands on 30th September, the Lanzhou “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive manoeuvres accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area”, approaching within 45 yards of the Decatur’s bow and forcing the US ship to take action to avoid a collision.

The Chinese reaction to the Decatur FONOP is a little surprising, even given the variable nature of responses to previous FONOPs. Although there are significant Chinese installations in the Paracels, the Decatur was passing a comparatively unremarkable reef. The fact that Beijing regards much of the South China Sea as their indisputable sovereign territory, however, means that what it sees as foreign military incursions must meet with a robust response if China is not to lose face. As cavalier as the Lanzhou’s actions appear, experts point out that the intercept happened as the Decatur was completing its pass of the reef rather than at the beginning – which could have forced the US ship to abandon its operation and cause the US to look weak. Such a calculated change in the rules of engagement would most likely have come from the Central Military Commission, of which President Xi is chairman. Whether the incident was a one-off or a portent of a less tolerant Chinese position is yet to be seen, although the USS Chancellorsville FONOP in November which took the destroyer past the Paracel Islands met with a more restrained response from the PLAN, as have several operations since.

China’s salami-slicing tactics have gained significant degree of control over parts of the South China Sea despite international protests. Promises not to militarise the region made to the Obama administration have long since been reneged on, with new installations continuing to be built and clear rulings of international law ignored. Indeed, the situation is such that Admiral Philip S. Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told a Senate Armed Services hearing that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Although the Chinese installations could likely be swiftly destroyed in the event of a shooting war with the US, that is a solution that neither side desires. In the meantime the facts on the “ground” mean that China can exercise a degree of sea control whilst also pushing Chinese fishing and mineral exploration rights. Indeed, despite a symbolic visit to Danang by the carrier USS Carl Vinson in spring of 2018, Hanoi announced that it was abandoning a joint oil exploration project with Spanish firm Repsol due to Chinese pressure; the second time Vietnam had been forced to do so. Given the increasing risk in conducting such operations in a region where China maintains a near-field advantage, questions arise over the effectiveness of FONOPs and whether they are worth conducting given their new potential to escalate; deliberately or through miscalculation.

However, no serious observer thinks that any number of FONOPs will lead to a change in Chinese policy; that has never been their purpose. While it is truly difficult to imagine a withdrawal of Chinese forces from their artificial islands in any scenario short of war or a change of rule in Beijing, it is important that whatever excessive territorial claims China may make are not only rejected in principle but are seen to be ignored. To this end it is important that other capable nations join the US in conducting regular FONOPs to prevent the issue becoming a purely China vs US affair. At the 2018 Shangi-La dialogue held in Singapore in June, both the UK and France announced that they would be conducting a FONOP in the Spratly Islands. This was followed in September when the amphibious landing ship HMS Albion carried out a second UK operation in the Paracels, drawing condemnation from Beijing. Australian ships have also been challenged by the PLAN during while transiting the region, and Japan has engaged in naval exercises in the area that have drawn Beijing’s ire. Such events are welcome, but need to be a regular occurrence if they are to be effective. Other nations should also seek to join the US in challenging China’s claims, not least India and the European countries. The more nations that flaunt China’s demands, the increasingly untenable those demands will look. However, as Chinese power waxes, we may reach a stage where conducting a FONOP in Chinese-claimed waters could be tantamount to meeting with the Dalai Lama in drawing China’s displeasure, discouraging many from acting.

What is clear is that the US and its allies need a clearer strategy on how to cope with China’s increasingly belligerent tactics in the South China Sea. Events like the Decatur intercept need little imagination to see how a sabre-rattling display could accidentally lead to hostilities neither side intended. Although a significant incident between a PLAN and US Navy ship could be catastrophic, and so would likely tempter Beijing’s hand, China still has the power to make life in the South China Sea increasingly difficult for everyone else. FONOPs and similar operations will not end China’s militarisation, but until a broader strategic approach can lead to a solution, they should continue to be conducted by as many concerned nations as possible if Beijing’s suzerainty of the sea is not to become an accomplished fact.


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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.

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Photo credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Smith, U.S. Navy

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