Why 2018 Could Be the Year China and America Clash in the South China Sea

January 25, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: South China SeaChinaMilitaryTechnologyWorldFONOP

Why 2018 Could Be the Year China and America Clash in the South China Sea

More FONOPs are coming--and China won't like it one bit. 

The US military may again conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea this year as part of an ongoing strategic effort to challenge what it describes as China’s “excessive maritime claims” in the region, Pentagon officials said.

While Pentagon officials naturally did not offer any specifics regarding operations or current considerations about whether US Navy ships will again sail within the 12-mile territorial boundaries of islands claimed by China, they were clear say it is indeed a realistic possibility.

“We are continuing regular FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations), as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, Pentagon spokesman, told Warrior Maven in a statement.

Longstanding tensions between the US and China regarding conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea have, in light of North Korea and other global developments, lingered a bit beneath the radar. However, while not center stage at the moment, tensions surrounding the region have not seemed to diminish but rather take on newer focus as Defense Secretary James Mattis makes his trip to Asia.

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China is expected to figure prominently in discussions throughout Asia as Mattis seeks to solicit more Chinese help regarding North Korea. These efforts stand within a broader context of complexity between the US and China; there has been cooperation and some shared military exercises, however there is concurrently mounting tension and military rivalry as China modernizes rapidly.

A Freedom of Navigation Operation this last July followed years of escalating tensions between China and the US. US Navy P-8 surveillance plane footage of Chinese “land reclamation” or “artificial island building,” Pentagon confirmation of Chinese missiles placed in the region and reports of Chinese fighter jets passing through contested areas – are all points of tension and possible US-China conflict flashpoints which still inform the South China Sea dynamic. In a more immediate sense, they hang in the balance as Mattis seeks to strengthen ties with Asian allies.

In fact, senior Pentagon officials have told Warrior Maven that there has been some internal discussion about whether the US military should place some of its own weapons in the region, such as land-mobile artillery.

Mattis in Asia

Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently told reporters, while en route to Asia, that he expects freedom of navigation issues related to the South China Sea to emerge in meetings with Vietnamese leaders and others in the region.

“We share the Pacific. It's an ocean named for peace, we would like to see it remain peaceful so all the nations that use it, that

live here are -- are prosperous,” Mattis said. (Pentagon statement on Mattis trip to Vietnam - HERE)

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.

Expectedly, for both strategic and security reasons, plans for any upcoming FONOPs are certainly not expected to be announced, however they are by design intended to make the statement that the US military will fly, sail and operate wherever it chooses to according to international law.

“We have a comprehensive global Freedom of Navigation Operations program that seeks to challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” Davis added.

According to a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty supported by but not yet formally joined by the U.S., 12-miles off the coast of a given territory is considered to be sovereign waters owned by the respective country.

Therefore, on several occasions in recent years, US Navy ships have ventured into a 12-mile vicinity of some South China Sea territories which, according to the US and its allies, are erroneously claimed by China. These exercises have, in several instances, prompted immediate condemnation from Chinese authorities.

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.

However, the Law of the Sea Convention does not recognize artificial or man-made structures and legitimate island territories to be claimed. Therefore, the U.S and its Pacific allies do not support or agree with China’s aggressive territorial claims. In fact, citing the definition of islands articulated in the Law of the Sea Convention, Pentagon officials do not recognize the artificial structures as islands – but instead refer to the effort as “land reclamation.”

Under the U.N. Law of the Sea convention, 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."

Overall, Mattis’ trip is part of a broader strategic calculus aimed at vigorously stepping up US support to allies in the Pacific theater. A 2016 defense law, called the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, provides new funding to authorize a Department of Defense effort to train, equip, and provide other support to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, Pentagon officials have explained.

Davis emphasized that FONOPs are not designed to take a formal position regarding which country has sovereignty over a given territory, but rather aimed at ensuring maritime rights are consistent with international law – “as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”

Kris Osborn, Managing Editor of WARRIOR MAVEN (CLICK HERE), where this piece first appeared, can be reached at [email protected].