By Invitation

Stand-off in the South China Sea

The US and China are in a war of nerves over maritime order


On Oct 27, the US Navy destroyer Lassen conducted a freedom of navigation (FON) operation in the South China Sea within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island reclaimed by China on the Subi Reef. The United States took this action in order to defy China's claim that foreign vessels must obtain permission from the Chinese government to navigate in these waters.

The US demonstrated a strong resolve to preclude any counter actions that China could effectively take. The Lassen was equipped with a powerful Aegis radar system and anti-air guided missiles, and was accompanied by a P-8A Poseidon and a P-3 Orion patrol aircraft capable of tracking down surface vessels and submarines. The patrol aircraft provided protection and reportedly took record of the operation.

After the action was taken, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said that the US had conducted the FON operation as part of a larger effort to achieve three strategic goals: First, to demonstrate its determination to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows; second, to convey the message that the militarisation in the South China Sea must be halted and the disputes resolved peacefully; and finally, to strengthen cooperation with US allies and partners in the maritime domain.

The US was firm but cautious. During the operation, the Lassen's fire control radars were turned off, it flew no helicopters and US maritime patrol aircraft stayed away from the 12 nautical mile limit, according to a Defence News report. Washington also ordered the Lassen to navigate inside the waters surrounding disputed islands claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. The message was that it was not about China, but about the freedom of navigation.


China's response to the US operation was restrained at sea and harsh on land. A Chinese guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship shadowed and gave warnings to the Lassen, but they did so at a safe distance, according to US officials. According to Defence News, a US Navy source even said that the Chinese naval vessels were "professional".


On land, the Chinese leaders played it tough in order to fend off possible criticism of China giving in to US pressure. The Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the US for "illegally" entering Chinese waters without permission.

China's Vice-Foreign Minister summoned the US ambassador and said that the patrol was "extremely irresponsible". A Foreign Ministry spokesman also warned that if the US continued to "create tensions" in the region, China might be forced to increase and strengthen the building up of its "relevant abilities".

These recent events have clarified China's stance that China does actually claim sovereignty over the waters around artificial islands, demands that foreign vessels obtain permission to navigate there, and has a willingness to support its claims both militarily and diplomatically. It is unfortunate that China interprets international law based on its parochial interests, but now that China's positions are clearly stated, we can finally engage in a serious debate.

On the positive side, the US chief of naval operations and the commander of the Chinese navy spoke for more than an hour in a video teleconference on Oct 29, just a few days after the FON operation. The two naval chiefs agreed to abide by the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues), which China, the United States and other Western Pacific nations signed last year.

On the negative side, a deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army general staff warned on Nov 2 that if US warships entered the waters around artificial islands, China would take "all necessary measures" to protect its sovereignty and maritime interests. An editorial in China's Global Times also argued that if US vessels took further actions, it would be necessary for China to "launch electronic interventions, and even send out warships, lock them by fire-control radar and fly over the US vessels".

In fact, China has already demonstrated some of the possible actions it could take in the future.

While China's navy was "professional" during the recent FON operation, its "merchant" or "fishing" boats were not. When the Lassen entered the waters claimed by China, one of these boats came out from the artificial island and crossed the Lassen's bow and circled around it. Associate Professor Andrew Erickson, from the US Naval War College, has assessed that the operators of those "fishing boats" were actually maritime militia.

The Cues is good only with navies. It does not apply to unidentified maritime militia forces.


US government officials have already predicted that the FON operations in the South China Sea will continue. Though not part of the FON operations, two US B-52 bombers flew in international airspace in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands early this month, to which a Chinese ground controller issued verbal warnings.

When US President Barack Obama visited Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit a few weeks ago, he reiterated his commitment to freedom of navigation, and boarded a Philippine navy ship that the US had provided to show the unity between the two allies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered strong support to the US FON operations when he met Mr Obama there, and suggested that Japan would consider assigning broader missions to the country's Self-Defence Force in the South China Sea. Before Mr Abe made these remarks, the Vietnamese Defence Minister had met his Japanese counterpart in Hanoi and invited Japanese naval vessels to visit the Cam Ranh Bay base in the South China Sea, and the two ministers agreed to hold a joint naval exercise for the first time.


The US initiated the FON programme in 1979 during the Cold War, and actively conducted operations in strategically important areas such as the Black Sea in order to force the Soviets to accept freedom of navigation, according to historian David Winkler at the US Naval Historical Foundation. The US annually issued an average of 110 diplomatic protests and conducted 35 to 40 FON operations between 1979 and 1992, he wrote.

It was in 1989 that the Soviet Union finally allowed foreign vessels to exercise innocent passage through its territorial waters. It took 10 years for the Soviets to accept the freedom of navigation. We will see how long it will take the Chinese to do the same.

•The writer is professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo and currently a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline Stand-off in the South China Sea. Subscribe