How America and Japan are Pushing Back Against China in the South China Sea

May 24, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaSouth China SeaJapanMilitaryNavy

How America and Japan are Pushing Back Against China in the South China Sea

In recent years, the Pentagon has sharply criticized Chinese moves to place weapons on dispute island areas of the South China Sea, a move which further complicated U.S.-China tensions in the highly-disputed region.

US & Japan show force together in South China Sea to Counter China; Pentagon officials say satellites have confirmed that the Chinese have placed surface-to-air missiles on island-like structures in the area.

US and Japanese ships have completed a joint show of force in the contested region of the South China Sea in an overt attempt to illustrate allied cooperation and interoperability - and challenge China's aggressive stance in the region, service officials said. 

Earlier this month, ships from the U.S Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) completed a "passing" exercise, or PASSEX, in the area; this included personnel exchanges, cross-deck flight operations, communications exercises, division tactics, a tracking exercise and photo exercise, according to a statement from the Navy's Destroyer Squadron 7 Public Affairs. 

Participating for the U.S. Navy was the littoral combat ship USS Coronado. Ships participating from Japan included the Izumo-class helicopter destroyer JS Izumo (DDH-183), with embarked Escort Flotilla One Command Element, and the Takanami-class destroyer JS Sazanami (DD-113). Personnel exchanges were conducted through cross-deck helicopter operations utilizing Coronado's embarked MH-60S and the SH-60K Seahawk onboard Izumo.

The three ships conducted precision maneuvering events and communication exercises while underway, both focused on ensuring the two navies are prepared to work together efficiently in future operations, the Navy statement specified. 

"My ship, JS Izumo, the largest ship in the JMSDF, has high capability in support of HA/DR (humanitarian assistance/disaster relief) activities in this region," Capt. Yoshihiro Kai, commanding officer, JS Izumo, said according to a US Navy report. "This bilateral exercise improved our teamwork, tactical skill and readiness."

Although it has now been many months since the US Navy conducted a "freedom of navigation" exercise designed to specifically counter China's territorial assertions in the South China Sea, stepped up US-Japanese presence and collaboration in the area unambiguously sends a "deterrence" or "counter-balance" message to China. 

The PASSEX, therefore, while seemingly routine upon initial observation, is without question taking place in a broader context of continued tension in the South China Sea arising from China's territorial ambitions. China's claims, particularly in the Spratly Island vicinity, are of course known to be vigorously challenged by the US and its many allies in the Pacific. 

In recent years, the Pentagon has sharply criticized Chinese moves to place weapons on dispute island areas of the South China Sea, a move which further complicated U.S.-China tensions in the highly-disputed region.

“Commercial imagery indicates that China has deployed a surface-to-air missile system on a disputed outpost in the South China Sea. We are concerned that these actions are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive,” a Pentagon spokesman told Scout Warrior at the time when news of these weapons emerged. 

DoD officials have further explained that continued Chinese actions and territorial claims in the region are not in keeping with international laws, rules and regulations. Further militarizing the region is a source of substantial concern for Pentagon officials.

Surface-to-air missiles, in particular, are of grave concern given their ability to reach aircraft in the vicinity. Also, while there were reports that China was placing artillery weapons on island-like claimed structures a while back, the presence of surface-to-air missiles brings an even more significant threat. 

“We continue to encourage all claimants to clarify their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law and to commit to peacefully manage or resolve their disputes, including through the use of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms, such as arbitration,” the Pentagon official added.

The area is question is a group of highly disputed islands south of China in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands.  The small islands in the area, some of which are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, are rich in resources and of strategic geographical importance in the Pacific region.

Pentagon officials have widely criticized an ongoing Chinese effort to erect artificial structures nearby or on top of its claimed island territories in the Spratly Islands. Called “land reclamation” by the Pentagon, the activity has added more than 2,000 acres to island territories claimed by China. Navy P-8 surveillance planes have captured video footage of China’s land-reclamation activities in the area.

The ongoing “land reclamation” by China in the area appears to be a rather transparent attempt by China to reinforce and bolster extended territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In fact, Pentagon officials have said the Chinese are building airstrips for military operations and placing weapons on the island such as artillery systems. Adding surface-to-air missiles only complicates this equation.

“We call on South China Sea claimants to publicly commit to a reciprocal halt to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and new militarization of disputed features,” a Pentagon official familiar with the tensions told Scout Warrior.

U.S. Navy destroyers have sailed within 12 miles of island territory claimed by China in the South China Sea in a clear effort to refute sovereignty claims made by China and assert what the Pentagon calls “Freedom of Navigation” exercises.

China’s further militarization of the area further underscores the possibility of increased U.S.-China tensions. Along these lines, Navy and Pentagon officials tell Scout Warrior that patrol exercises within the disputed 12-mile border of Chinese-claimed areas, will continue in coming weeks and month.

"We've been clear. The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world. We believe in the freedom to exercise this right in the air and at sea," a Navy official told Scout Warrior.

A prior exercise conducted by the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, took place in the vicinity of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands as a way to challenge excessive maritime claims, a Pentagon statement said.

At the time, Chinese ships shadowed the U.S. Destroyer as it passed through, Pentagon officials said.  

The U.S. routinely operates in the area and this kind of shadowing is not unusual, officials said.

While the Pentagon does not officially take a position regarding the many territorial claims in the contested island areas of the South China Sea, senior Department of Defense officials do not recognize island territories expanded by man-made or artificial structures to represent legitimate or legal territorial expansion.

“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas. The excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” Pentagon officials told Scout Warrior in a statement shortly after the patrol took place.

The U.S. opposition to some territorial claims is purely aimed at opposing artificial island building, as Pentagon statements emphasize that the U.S. does not take a position regarding naturally-land features in the South China Sea.

Last year, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter repeatedly said the U.S. would not be deterred by illegal Chinese territorial claims. The USS Curtis Wilbur’s transit is a clear demonstration of this position. More transits are on the horizon.

Continued Chinese provocations in the South China Sea increase the risk of disrupting the balance of the U.S.-China relationship away from a broader context of collaboration and pushing it more substantially toward an intensifying military rivalry.

While the ongoing problems do not appear likely to result in military confrontation, the U.S.-China relationship seems to fall along two distinct, yet interwoven fault lines; one trajectory seems to be leading toward growing disagreements over actions in the South China Sea, and yet this stands in a delicate or precarious balance with fast-growing good-will, port-visits and military exercises between the two countries.

U.N. Law of the Sea Convention

The U.S. position is grounded in several key provisions of the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, which specifies that man-made or artificial structures do not define or “constitute” legitimate island territory. The Law of the Sea also specifies that sovereign territory of a given country extend 12 miles off the coastline.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a “naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide.” Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says “artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas.”

“No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law. This operation demonstrates, as President Obama and Secretary Carter have stated, the United States will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe,” a statement from a Pentagon official to Scout Warrior said following the US Navy transit at the time.

According to a report in the Associated Press, Chinese Defense Ministry called the U.S. Navy passage “unprofessional and irresponsible” at the time of the incident.

In the past, senior leaders from China’s People’s Liberation Army have asserted that the South China Sea “belongs to China,” echoing an often-mentioned mentioned Chinese territorial claim – called the nine-dash-line dating back many years – indicates that the South China Sea in its entirety is Chinese territory.