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US Brings New Partners into South China Sea Drill

May 21, 2019
  • Peng Nian

    Assistant Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Last week, soon after two American warships sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea (SCS), the US Navy announced that it had conducted a joint drill with its allies and partners, namely Japan, Philippines and India. According to spokespeople for the US Seventh Fleet, a guided missile destroyer from the US, a helicopter carrier and a destroyer from Japan, a destroyer and a tanker from India, and a Philippine patrol vessel participated in the drill.

It is the first time that these four countries held such military exercises in the contested SCS, demonstrating America’s enhanced military deterrence and diplomatic pressure towards China, as well as rising tensions in these waters.

In fact, although the US has invited its allies to join in the so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ operations (FONOPs) in the SCS ever since President Donald Trump assumed office in 2016, few countries responded. On the one hand, these states are reluctant to provoke China. On the other hand, they have maneuvering room to maintain a balancing act between China and the US.

Yet, these nations were under increasing American pressure to do something in the SCS due to the rising US-China tensions.

Just two months ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that “[a]s the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.” This pronouncement put the Philippines into a difficult position where it faces a high risk of getting involved in the conflicts between the US and China in the SCS.

The Philippines, therefore, must follow America’s policy in the SCS, however selectively or partially, in order to continue to obtain U. defense assistance. But Manila has also tried to avoid irritating Beijing--perhaps explaining why only one Filipino patrol vessel appeared in the military exercise.

Nonetheless, the Philippines’ navy would like to strengthen defense cooperation with the US in the near future, so as to resist Chinese military presence in the region. Moreover, the pro-America lobby in Manila has gained some momentum to sabotage Sino-Philippines relations by making use of the SCS issue in the recent mid-term elections in the Philippines.

The US has attempted to contain China by rearming the Japanese army and expanding its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Hence, the US has repeatedly demanded Japan’s participation in the FONOPs in the SCS, in order to deter China from “militarizing” the islands in the disputed waters.

 Japan, America’s closest ally in Asia, has been committed to modernizing its military and pursuing greater autonomy in overseas military operations with the help of the US. From Tokyo’s perspective, following America’s lead by participating in FONOPs in the SCS would be the best choice to reduce the threat from China in the East China Sea while strengthening its security relationship with the US.

In fact, Japan has always been a strong supporter of American FONOPs in the SCS ever since the Obama administration. After President Donald Trump came to office in 2017, Japan has consolidated its military ties with the US under the “Indo-Pacific” strategy (IPS) in which policy coordination on FONOPs is a key element.

Within this context, Japan decided to send the JS Izumo helicopter carrier to attend the joint drill, intending to enhance its leverage against China’s rising military presence at sea. Additionally, by positively responding to America’s policy in the SCS, FONOPs included, Japan would also expect to receive some measure of relief from US pressure in the trade negotiations between the two countries that began on April 15.

India, the newest participant in these drills, is also the most important partner that Washington wants to draw into in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad 2.0), as well as the emerging IPS. During a recent visit to New Delhi by US Chief of Naval Operations John M. Richardson, the US sought to deepen cooperation with India under the IPS framework. By promoting pragmatic collaboration between the US and Indian armed forces in the areas of joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and logistical assistance in the Indo-Pacific region, with the SCS included, the US could maintain its military superiority and thus resist China’s military expansion in the region. 

Despite the fact that India is geographically far removed from the SCS, it has gradually involved itself in the SCS by jointly exploring oil and gas resources with Vietnam in disputed waters. Moreover, New Delhi has started to expand defense cooperation with Japan and some Southeast Asian states under its “Look East Policy” over the past decade, so as to increase its military presence in the Pacific region and contain China’s efforts in pushing westward. For instance, India has held joint military exercises with Japan and ASEAN states in the East China Sea and Indian Ocean respectively. The Indian military has also made great progress in fostering closer ties with the US armed forces since Prime Minister Modi took office in 2014.

Given the fast-growing military-to-military relations between India, the US, and Japan, it is no surprise that India participated in last week’s joint drill led by the US in the SCS. And it is likely that India will increase its involvement in the SCS by strengthening policy coordination with the US, Japan and ASEAN states.

The US, of course, would like to further expand its network of allies and partners both in the SCS and the whole Indo-Pacific region through reinforcing cooperation relationship with Japan, India, and ASEAN. As Commander Andrew J. Klug, captain of the destroyer USS Lawrence said, “Professional engagements with our allies, partners and friends in the region are opportunities to build upon our existing, strong relationship.”

Such efforts may become significant components of America’s apparent containment strategy towards China, thus posing new challenges for Beijing. China, on the one hand, would be faced with intensified military competition in the SCS, requiring a strengthened military deployment as well as defense cooperation with its partners. On the other hand, Beijing will continue to exercise restraint so as to maintain stability in the SCS.

Nevertheless, the US has to be aware of rising nationalism in Chinese society caused by its renewed “tariff war” against China, with serious consequences for the two countries’ bilateral ties. Ramping up FONOPs in the SCS may be part of US strategy to press China to accept tougher stipulations in a potential trade deal.

More confrontations between Washington and Beijing in the SCS are expected in the foreseeable future, with both the US and China suffering from the deterioration of their bilateral ties. Hence, it is urgent to call for restraint from both sides so as to reduce friction, rather than creating new tensions in the region.  


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