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Lessons from the South China Sea

Feb 07, 2022
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

On Jan. 24 a United States F-35 stealth fighter jet crashed on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, injuring seven people. The jet glanced off the flight deck and then fell into the sea. Now the U.S. Navy faces the complex task of retrieval from the depths of the sea. 

About three months ago, on Oct. 2, the USS Connecticut nuclear-powered submarine, struck an unknown object in the South China Sea and sustained serious damage. Ten sailors were injured.

According to news reports, the stealth fighter is one of the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal and cost around $100 million. Of course, the deck of the carrier must be restored to perfect condition before it can be used again, though it was said the damage was superficial. The submarine in the other case also required repairs.

These two accidents in the South China Sea will require billions of dollars to be paid out, not only for repairs but for the welfare of more than a dozen injured crew members. U.S. taxpayers will naturally ask why they have to pay for such losses and may question policymakers about the lessons to be drawn.

First, the so-called freedom of navigation operations by the U.S. in the South China Sea are counterproductive to American strategic goals. The increasingly frequent naval operations are intended to show off superb U.S. military might to China and other Asian countries. Regrettably, the above-mentioned accidents within four months show the opposite. They tell the world that the fighting capacity of the most advanced navy on the planet may be something akin to a line in an ancient Chinese poem: “How sad that he had to die before he gained victory.”

Second, U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea have proved detrimental to peace and stability in the region. They are also harmful to the maritime environment. Even though the situation in the South China Sea has been peaceful and stable, and sea lanes are free and safe for passage, the U.S. has increased its military operations in the region. The damaged U.S. submarine and fighter jet have aroused worries in neighboring countries about environmental pollution, all the more because the U.S. often gives ambiguous information on the subject for the sake of evading responsibility.

Third, U.S. policy on territorial disputes in the South China Sea has reached dangerous levels. To maintain its dominant position, the policy has become more hegemonic, more selfish and more arrogant, with no credibility to speak of. Make no mistake: There is a clear record that America’s official position is that it takes no position on the territorial disputes. But then there has been one change after another.

It is astonishing to know that, according to a recent public statement by U.S. Navy officials, the U.S. wants to play the role of international judge and supreme emperor so that it can deprive the coastal countries of their rights to their internal waters, territorial seas, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf areas. It has also asserted that freedom of navigation rights includes sailing to within 12-miles — the territorial limit — of a nation’s coastline as recognized by international law.

U.S. naval ships carrying out freedom of navigation missions are free to engage in innocent passage without authorization or advance notification. As the U.S. is not a party to any of the disputes in the South China Sea, and because the U.S. Congress has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is ridiculous to do this. The U.S. will be held accountable for any accidents resulting from its naval operations in China’s territorial waters, as they encroach upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — as, for example, the USS Benfold guided missile destroyer did on Jan. 20 in the Xisha Islands.

Fourth, U.S. Navy operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait have seriously damaged bilateral relations and mutual political trust. It has also become a major obstacle for dialogue and cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries. It is not realistic to expect China to agree to serious talks and cooperation about naval activities on the sea when the U.S. insists on infringing on China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and legal maritime rights.

The U.S. is going in the wrong direction as it   obstinately tries its best to contain China through its Indo-Pacific Strategy. U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan region have been proved misguided and have become a strategic burden. Members of the U.S. Navy can hardly avoid unpredictable accidents in the South China Sea and the Taiwan region. It is high time for the U.S. to look back and draw some meaningful lessons. 

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