May 12, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Beijing is seeking to expel the US from the South China Sea

May 12, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Beijing is seeking to expel the US from the South China Sea

As the United States struggles to defeat the coronavirus at home, the Chinese Communist Party is utilizing its growing military power in an attempt to expel U.S. naval vessels from waters that Beijing falsely claims to own. The CCP’s actions underscore the continuing need for the U.S., even in the midst of a pandemic, to deploy credible military power in the Indo-Pacific to defend freedom of navigation rights central to core U.S. economic and security interests.

U.S. naval vessels conducted back-to-back freedom of navigation operations late last month in the South China Sea. These operations consist of U.S. naval vessels sailing peacefully where international law permits, in order to contest what the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet correctly calls Beijing’s “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims.” The USS Barry conducted such an operation near the Paracel Islands, and the USS Bunker Hill conducted one near the Spratly Islands.

Beijing claims that it responded to the USS Barry by deploying ships and aircraft to evict U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters. The types and numbers of any Chinese aircraft and vessels launched are unknown, but they would fall under the jurisdiction of the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, which oversees the South China Sea. Undeterred, the USS Bunker Hill proceeded with its operations near the Spratly Islands.

Despite tough talk from the Chinese military, the U.S. vessels completed their planned transits unhindered, and Chinese defense officials issued statements typically unconstrained by facts. The Chinese defense ministry called the U.S. a “troublemaker” and “the biggest force in pushing militarisation in the South China Sea.” Without a hint of irony, a PLA Southern Command spokesperson chided Washington by urging it to “focus on its own business with pandemic prevention and control, make more contributions to the global fight against the COVID-19, and immediately stop military operations that are detrimental to regional security, peace and stability.”

The coronavirus, which has killed tens of thousands of people in the U.S., originated in Wuhan, China, likely inflicting more international casualties due to a lack transparency from the CCP. And despite a 2015 assurance from China’s President Xi, the CCP has militarized the South China Sea islands. This decision, combined with Beijing’s bullying techniques, instigated the ongoing regional crisis.

Located in the western Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea is a key commercial gateway in the Indo-Pacific region, accounting for more than $3 trillion in total trade annually. Six nations have competing claims and interests in the South China Sea, but China is the only nation with sweeping claims of sovereignty over virtually the entire region. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague unambiguously and unanimously rejected China’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Despite this, China has created 3,200 acres of new land in the South China Sea, transforming rock outcroppings barely breaking the surface of the water into sprawling military outposts brimming with runways, ports, fighter aircraft, radars, and naval guns.

Not satisfied with simply building military power in the region and waiting for the military balance to shift sufficiently in its favor, the CCP has systematically sent its Coast Guard and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia to attack and bully others in the region. In fact, earlier this year, China’s Coast Guard rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel operating in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, accusing Vietnam of fishing “illegally” in international waters.

Countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines can expect more of the same if the U.S. is evicted from the region. China may not yet have sufficient power to deny the U.S. the ability to transit the South China Sea’s vital trade routes, but Beijing is working hard to change that. Such a development would resurrect a dangerous practice of “might makes right,” contrary to the international laws and norms that have advanced peace and prosperity in the U.S. and in the world.

It would be unwise to assume Beijing will be happy indefinitely with issuing tough statements alone. The Chinese communists have pursued a comprehensive and formidable military modernization campaign that has eroded U.S. military supremacy.

Despite significant progress in the last few years in slowing this erosion, a gap between U.S. ends and means has widened. In March, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command delivered a report to Congress warning that the military balance of power with China continues to become “more unfavorable.”

If the economic impacts associated with COVID-19 cut the resources available for the Department of Defense in the coming years, the Pentagon may not be able to field vital modernized weapons currently under research and development.

If that happens, America’s military supremacy may disappear, and the CCP may conclude it has the military muscle to back up its tough words with tangible actions.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Maj. Liane Zivitski is a visiting military analyst. Follow Brad @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. Views expressed or implied in this commentary do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other U.S. government agency.

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Issues:

China COVID-19 Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy