Simmering Tensions Between US and China

Trade Spat Moves Beyond Tariffs to New Battlefronts in the South China Sea

Simmering Tensions Between US and China

The ongoing trade war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has quickly rippled out to damage other parts of the bilateral relationship. However, while the world is focused on the economic aspect of this relationship, tensions have been steadily rising in South China Sea for years. In 2017, President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy noted, “China . . . want[s] to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” The problem pre-dates Trump’s tenure in office, but it has escalated of late.

On September 30, the USS Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Spratly Islands, specifically the Gaven and Johnson reefs, located to the west of the Philippines. China, along with a number of other countries in the region, claims the Spratlys. In recent years, China has militarized many of the disputed islands in the South China Sea by creating artificial islands, building airfields and military bases, and stationing troops—all in an effort to bully and intimidate the smaller, less powerful nations who make claims on the islands. In April 2018, Admiral Philip Davidson, currently the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, wrote, “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

To challenge these claims by China—and other nations that have a foothold in the area—the United States conducts FONOPs within the claimed areas—normally within 12 nautical miles of the rock, reef, or island. The U.S. Department of Defense provides annual reports on its FONOPs. The 2017 report provides the American rationale for conducting these operations: “Some coastal States assert excessive maritime claims that, if left unchallenged, could impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all States under international law.” And that is exactly what China is doing in the South China Sea region; thus, the U.S. conducts FONOPs. The report further explains what these operations are:

[The Department of Defense] challenges excessive maritime claims asserted by a wide variety of coastal States including allies, partners, and other nations on a worldwide basis to maintain global mobility of U.S. forces. The Program includes both planned FON assertions (i.e., operations that have the primary purpose of challenging excessive maritime claims) and other FON-related activities (i.e., operations that have some other primary purpose, but have a secondary effect of challenging excessive maritime claims). Activities conducted by DoD under the FON Program are deliberately planned, legally reviewed, properly approved, and conducted with professionalism.

It is important to note that the U.S. conducts FONOPs not just to challenge China, but also to challenge any country, including allies, that makes excessive maritime claims. China has taken the spotlight due to its excessive claims and aggressive actions and rhetoric in the South and East China Seas.
In a famous case of arbitration dispute, the Philippines successfully challenged China’s claims to its so-called “Nine Dash Line,” which China uses as historical justification for its actions in the region. The Philippines argued that China’s claims and actions violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and took its argument to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Nine Dash Line encompasses almost all of the South China Sea and reaches as far as southern Vietnam and Brunei.


The incident with the USS Decatur mentioned earlier marks the most aggressive response by the China to a U.S. FONOP. The Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the two reefs when a Chinese Luyang destroyer sailed within 45 yards of the U.S. vessel’s bow. A spokesman for the Pacific Fleet said in a statement, “A (People's Republic of China) Luyang destroyer approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea.” The Decatur had to take evasive action in order to prevent a collision.

In response to the incident, PRC spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “On September 30, without permission from the Chinese government, the destroyer USS Decatur sailed into waters close to China's Nansha Islands. In response, the Chinese Navy identified and warned the ship to leave in accordance with laws. China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters. . . .The Chinese side will take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and security.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is very protective of its claims in the South China Sea. This incident is perhaps the beginning of a new approach to U.S. FONOPs. Before, when the U.S. and China had more stable relations, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would typically shadow U.S. vessels sailing through disputed territory and even issue warnings to leave the area. But they would never act in such a radical way. That could change now that relations are at one of the lowest points in recent history. 

While the U.S. Navy says that this incident will not deter it from continuing FONOPs in the South China Sea, one has to wonder if that will be the case if Chinese ships start acting in such unsafe ways on a more constant basis. Will the United States risk collision and lives for the sake of freedom of the seas? Countries in the region can only hope so.

Days after the Decatur incident, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., on the administration’s China policy. It was the most thorough explanation by a high-level official of how it views and approaches the PRC. The speech was very aggressive and highlighted the deterioration of Trump’s “friendship” with Chinese President Xi Jinping—coming shortly after Trump made unverified claims that the CCP is meddling in the upcoming midterm elections in an effort to thwart his administration. Pence echoed those accusations.

Pence even highlighted the Decatur incident: “China’s aggression was on display this week, when a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur as it conducted freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, forcing our ship to quickly maneuver to avoid collision. Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down.”

Overall, the speech was critical of the domestic and foreign policies of the CCP, its treatment of Uighur Muslims in western China, the growing surveillance state, and the suppression of free thought and criticism. However, as the New York Times reported, the audience for the speech was not China, but the United States, since it was given during a long Chinese holiday.

Nevertheless, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the speech with its typical bluster. “The relevant speech made unwarranted accusations against China's domestic and foreign policies and slandered China by claiming that China meddles in US internal affairs and elections. This is nothing but speaking on hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it.”
Signs point to U.S.-China relations further deteriorating as neither side, especially two strongmen leaders like Trump and Xi, want to be the one that blinks or backs down. Expect the environment in the South China Sea to become more fraught and dangerous as the trade war escalates. And after Pence’s speech, it is clear that the administration is moving in an even more confrontational direction when it comes to China. We can only hope that current tensions do not explode due to a misunderstanding or accident.

*Thomas J. Shattuck is the Editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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