Freedom-of-navigation ops will not dent Beijing’s South China Sea claims, experts say


The guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy transits the South China Sea in February 2018.

It’s too late to constrain China’s creeping militarization and sovereignty claims over dozens of islands and reefs in the South and East China seas, experts say.

China’s island-building and militarization efforts began early this decade. It now claims dozens of islands and reefs in the Paracel and Spratly islands west of the Philippines. The United Nations does not recognize China’s territorial claims, which overlap claims in the same area by Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.

The U.S. regularly challenges Beijing’s claims by sailing warships within 12 nautical miles of islands that China has built up in the Paracel and Spratly chains. So far this year, the Navy has picked up the pace, conducting at least five freedom-of-navigation operations, or FONOPS, since January: one each through the Paracels and Spratlys, and three through the Taiwan Strait, the latest March 24-25.

That’s half as many operations in three months as the Navy reported conducting in all of 2018. The Navy does not publicize all of those operations, however.

“Our goal is to make sure [China’s militarized outposts] doesn’t become a tool to operationalize an expansive illegal sovereignty claim,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Randall Schriver told the House Armed Services Committee on March 27.

Nonetheless, sailing through those seas — or flying above them as the Air Force had done with B-52 bombers at least three times in March — is probably too little, too late, said security analyst Paul Buchanan, an American, of 36th Parallel Assessments, a private, nonpartisan, strategic analysis consulting firm based in New Zealand.

“The horse has bolted,” he said during a January interview with Stars and Stripes. “The days of confronting the Chinese are long gone. It should have been done 10 years ago. Island-building has enabled [China] to claim possession of the South China Sea.”

On that point, Masayuki Tadokoro, a professor of international relations at Keio University, agreed.

“It is too late to attempt to control China,” Tadokoro said during a panel discussion March 7 sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“If we are to contain China now, it is almost impossible because of the economic importance of China and also China’s geopolitical presence” in the South China Sea, Tadokoro said.
Conceding the South China Sea to China would imperil free trade in an economically important region, Buchanan said. About $3.37 trillion worth of goods — 21 percent of all global trade — passed through the area in 2016, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power project.

In that area alone, China has claimed 27 reefs and islands, building outposts for military and civilian personnel on 12 of them since 2014, according to the center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Many of what were once bare reefs and uninhabited islands are now military bases, some with missiles, warship docks and landing strips.

Buchanan said Beijing could continue to allow free transit of the South China Sea to benefit trade, but, so far, has treated the sea as its own.