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Political Motives Behind U.S. Military Operations in South China Sea

Mar 29 , 2016
  • Hu Bo

    Senior Fellow of the Pangoal Institution

In the past year, the United States has begun to flex its military muscle in the South China Sea and showed a sign of acceleration. On May 20, 2015, a US Navy P8-A Poseidon, a surveillance and submarine-hunting aircraft, flew over the airspace of islands and reefs where China was conducting construction activities. After that, the United States has been repeatedly hyping that it would carry out “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOP) in the Nansha Islands (known as the Spratly Islands) areas. To date, it openly admitted that it has conducted two FONOPs in the South China Sea. On October 27, 2015, the US Navy sent the USS Lassen,a guided-missile destroyer, to the waters within 12 nautical miles of the Zhubi Reef (known as Subi Reef) among the Nansha Islands; on January 30, 2016, the USS Curtis Wilbur, another guided-missile destroyer, intruded into the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters of the Zhongjian Island (known as Triton Island) of the Xisha Islands (the Paracel Islands). In addition, the strategic weapons of the US military, including a B-52 bomber andthe USS John Stennis aircraft carrier strike group, also performed patrol missions in the South China Sea region, in a bid to show off a strong US presence in the region.

With regard to the US military operations in the South China Sea, there are two sharply different views in China. Those who are optimistic believe that the US military operations in the South China Sea make no sense at all, because they could not hinder China’s island and reef construction activities there. But the pessimists say that the US military operations represent considerable military pressure on China. If China does not compromise, the US military would continue to elevate its confrontational levels, and there emerges a possibility that China and the United States might engage in military conflicts in the South China Sea.

There are reasons for both schools of thought. While the optimistic see the US military operations as bravado moves, the pessimistic see the risk of a spiraling escalation in the situation there. The two views, however, fail to take the whole picture into consideration and fail to see the essence of the issue.

By analyzing the situation, it’s easy to figure out that the US operations in the South China Sea are nothing but one political or diplomatic show after another. The United States knows best of all that it could not directly obstruct China’s sovereign activities in the South China Sea, and what it has attempted to do is to increase China’s costs for such sovereignty-defending activities through military, political, diplomatic and media tools, so as to put China in a difficult and embarrassing situation diplomatically. No doubt, the media always pay close attention to military face-offs or conflicts, but in reality, war is not something imminent. The US military operations could, no doubt, be meant to be a deterrent, but they were primarily meant to serve as tools for accomplishing Washington’s political and diplomatic goals, along with diplomatic and media maneuvers.

On the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, the United States always claimed that the FONOPs are of no different than such operations in other regions across the world, and the United States applies the unified code of conduct to all of such operations. Some Chinese media reports and experts seem to have bought the US argument, saying that the main motives of the US military in the region are to challenge China’s “excessive maritime claims” and it’s not worth of making a storm in a teacup over such operations.

But the recent US military operations in the South China Sea were very extraordinary. Even by the standards and tradition of the US Navy, these FONOPs were all conducted in a high-profile manner, and looked like challenges China’s territorial claims. It is true that the United States conducts dozens of FONOPs each year all over the world, but the operations are usually carried out in a quiet and low-key manner, and details about these operations are always kept secret. Its recent FONOPs in the South China Sea, however, were exceptionally high-profile. The US military even deliberately disclosed specifics about the operations to the media, and encouraged mass media to sensationalize and hype about its operations so as to direct attention of all to the FONOPs.

With the deployment of advanced weaponry and coupled with extensive media coverage, the US military has put on a show similar to a Hollywood blockbuster. The general public and political forces in both the United States and China also got involved, and the military operations have evolved into political issues in both countries. In the United States, the White House and the military tried to create a crisis atmosphere with a sense of a looming “China threat”, and attempted to polish a strong image for the US military in safeguarding its national interest.

And as for China, the United States could, through swaying the Chinese public opinion, exert its influence on China’s domestic political process. It had the intention of getting a growing number of Chinese into debating China’s policies on the South China Sea, and of obstructing China’s elite class from reaching consensus on the South China Sea issue. The FONOP operations by the US military, viewed by many in China as an insult, were also meant to undermine the authority of the Chinese government and leadership, and create extra difficulties for the Chinese government.

For the United States, such operations are useful diplomatic tools, serving its goals of killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, they could exert pressure on China, and on the other hand, they would also help appease its allies and partners such as the Philippines and Vietnam in the region.

The politicization of the US operations in the South China Sea is also intended to test China’s policies. The United States often blames China for conducting activities that it claims threaten peace, and for expanding the gray areas between peace and war. In fact, such statements could be more appropriately used to describe the South China Sea policies of the US military. It first arrived at the Nansha Islands, and then sailed to the Xisha Islands; it first operated in what it claimed to be the low-tide elevation areas, and then conducted FONOPs in undisputed territorial waters of some islands. In carrying out the FONOPs in the South China Sea, the United States clearly followed a cautious approach of taking one step first to test responses before making the next. In terms of rhetoric, the US military was always in high tone; in specific operations, however, it tried to be cautious and keep things low-profile. This is a clear-cut strategy of testing China’s response and policy bottom line.

In the face of US military operations in the South China Sea, China naturally should be prepared militarily. Due to the complexity and a politicized trend of the US military operations, China should look beyond these FONOPs, and should fully realize the political motives and impact of the US military operations, and should adopt and apply all options to counter and expose the traps set by the US through such military operations.

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