The US challenges, clouds gather over South China Sea

US patience with China’s territorial claims has run out.

The US government eventually moved one step away from the iron rule that had been one of the American diplomatic traditions for many years.

It not only rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China sea but also clearly expressed its intention to support countries that have a territorial dispute with China.

The iron rule of American diplomacy

The iron rule of US diplomacy was to remain neutral in relation to territorial conflicts of third countries. At the same time, it is also not uncommon for Washington to provide actual support to its supporters by various means. Nevertheless, even in such situations, he remained officially neutral.

In other words, the US government has steadily avoided officially denying the claims of one of the parties to the territorial conflict and supporting the position of the other.

This iron rule also applied to the situation in the South China Sea, where China deployed enormous military power, threatened neighboring countries, and ensured military dominance over the entire South China Sea.

The US authorities expressed concern, but did not officially reject the statements of the Chinese government and did not support the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan, which are in conflict with the PRC.

Even the administration of US President Donald Trump, not to mention the administration of Barack Obama, has not expressed an official position on the conflict in the South China Sea.

FONOP, restricted by an iron diplomatic rule

Meanwhile, it cannot be said that the US did not take any steps at all. When China began building artificial Islands on the Spratly Islands, the Obama administration expressed its concerns to China. Also, it sent warships to the South China sea, beginning to implement the “Freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) strategy. The goal was to emphasize the prestige of the United States and maintain the trust of allies as well as friendly countries.

Nevertheless, President Obama was not particularly enthusiastic about the “Freedom of navigation operation.” Under him, this strategy was implemented only once every few months.

As for President Trump, after his inauguration, relations with Chinese leader XI Jinping deteriorated, so the frequency of FONOP increased slightly, but no more. However, when the US-China conflict broke out, since the beginning of 2019, the strategy of “Freedom of navigation operation” began to be initiated much more often.

The true essence of FONOP is to restrain Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over much of the South China sea. Despite this, the US could not violate the iron rule of neutrality in relation to territorial conflicts of third countries.

In this connection, warships were sent to transmit the following message: “The territorial claims of conflicting parties in the Spratly and Paracel Islands may hinder freedom of navigation on the high seas, so do not make unnecessary statements and create trouble.”

In other words, Washington did not pose a clear military threat to China, despite sending warships. For example, when China follows the artificial Islands and other coastal waters that it claims, it should steer a straight course at the highest possible speed following international principles of peaceful navigation. There was no stopping of ships, launching of helicopters and drones, radar irradiation of weapons of destruction, as well as other military actions.

As a result, there were often situations in which, when American warships approached atolls claimed by China following FONOP principles, Chinese boats would approach American ships and pursue them until they moved away from these Islands.

And each time the Chinese authorities published a statement: “The Chinese Navy expelled American warships that trampled on Chinese sovereignty and invaded China’s sovereign sea waters, creating a military threat.” (According to Chinese law, foreign vessels that want to approach or pass through the territorial waters of the PRC must warn about this in advance).


Thus, the strategy of the “Struggle for freedom of navigation” was fully formalized.

The South China Sea at a new stage

From the very beginning, when the Obama administration reluctantly approved FONOP, there were hardliners in the ranks of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps against China: “a non-military threat FONOP based on the principle of peaceful navigation will not be able to contain the militarization of the South China Sea by China, including the construction of artificial islands,” “the US should openly support allies and friends who do not have an advantage in territorial disputes with China.”

On July 13, this hard course finally came to the fore.

US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo issued an official statement expressing the following position: “All of China’s territorial claims in the South China sea do not comply with international law and completely violate the law,” “the US Government supports the position of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei regarding the exclusive coastal economic zone” (US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea).

The American diplomatic Department has seriously changed the existing iron rule. This means that China’s military deterrence in the South China Sea by the US Navy and air force, including FONOP, is entering a new stage.

The next step is to publish a position on the Senkaku issue?

The next step of the Trump administration’s increasing pressure on China is likely to affect the East China Sea. Previously, the US authorities have always remained neutral about the territorial conflict around the Senkaku.

When US officials said they were aware of Japan’s administrative authority over the Senkaku, Japanese politicians interpreted this as support and calmed down. However, the US government avoids official comments in the style of “Japan has sovereignty over the Senkaku” or “we do not recognize China’s territorial claims to the Senkaku.”

Meanwhile, a few years ago, many US military personnel began to warn that if Washington did not clearly Express its position by declaring Japanese sovereignty on the Senkaku, China would ensure military superiority in the East China Sea, as well as in the South China Sea.

If the Trump administration emphasizes that in the territorial conflict between Japan and China around the Senkaku, it does not recognize Chinese territorial claims (Taiwan also claims this archipelago, so it will not be so easy to do this), it will become a steadfast and powerful message to China.

Of course, we must not forget that the sovereignty of the Senkaku should be provided by Japan itself, not by the United States.

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Author: Steve Cowan
Graduated From Princeton University. He has been at the Free Press since October 2014. Previously worked as a regional entertainment editor.
Function: Chief-Editor
Steve Cowan

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