Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Disjointed Operations in the South China Sea

Doug Stephens
Tuesday, May 21, 2019, 3:25 PM

In the first weeks of May, U.S. vessels have been busy all over the South China Sea, drawing China’s ire and frustration. From May 2 to May 8, the destroyer USS William P. Lawrence joined ships from the Philippines, India and Japan in transiting through the South China Sea, performing formation exercises and other low-profile drills during the voyage.

USS Bertholf and Philippine vessels BRP Batangas and BRP Kalanggaman conduct exercises near Scarborough Shoal. (Credit: DOD/Chief Petty Officer John Mason)

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In the first weeks of May, U.S. vessels have been busy all over the South China Sea, drawing China’s ire and frustration. From May 2 to May 8, the destroyer USS William P. Lawrence joined ships from the Philippines, India and Japan in transiting through the South China Sea, performing formation exercises and other low-profile drills during the voyage.

On May 6, the destroyers USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon performed a freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) through the Spratly Islands chain, passing within China’s 12-nautical-mile territorial claim of the Gaven and Johnson Reefs. Later that day, Chinese authorities released a statement on Weibo claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over the features and demanding that the U.S. stop performing such operations. On May 15, U.S. naval operations chief John Richardson responded that China’s anger in this instance was disproportionate to the circumstances: “I’ve done the analysis and I can state with confidence that our level of operations has been consistent over the decades.”

On May 14, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf teamed up with two Philippine ships for a first-of-its-kind exercise near Scarborough Shoal. The vessels practiced search and rescue tactics as two silent Chinese ships monitored the activities from less than 3 nautical miles away. The following day, the Bertholf docked in Manila, where it remained through May 19.

In Politics

On May 6, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ordered President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to protect assets claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal. The move is apparently an attempt to stop Duterte from reversing national policy on the subject as he did in 2018 and 2016. On May 13, midterm elections in the Philippines gave Duterte’s allies a broad victory. Although his controversial drug enforcement methods and outspoken stance on maritime policy have generated significant opposition, Duterte’s faction flipped the Senate in his favor.

On May 13, the committee for resolving the maritime boundary dispute between Singapore and Malaysia held its first meeting, which it claimed was “constructive.” The two countries had determined to suspend their overlapping port limits in March and stated a commitment to working through the problem peacefully and under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

IMDEX Asia 2019, a major maritime defense conference, was held in Singapore May 14–16 and boasted the presence of 33 navies (including 25 warships), scores of public and private exhibitors, and more than 10,000 trade visitors from around the world.

In Operations and Technology

India’s rapid series of joint naval operations has continued after last month’s major AUSINDEX-19, held with Australian forces in the Bay of Bengal. On April 15, the Indian Navy partnered with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet for a submarine-hunting exercise south of the Maldives. Finally, from May 1 to May 10, India and France held Varuna 17, their largest joint naval exercise yet. The two-stage exercise began at Goa, but the second stage of the operation was performed off the coast of Djibouti, where China established its first overseas military base in 2017.

China’s navy continues to grow and upgrade its ship inventories. On May 10, two new Type 052D destroyers were launched at the Dalian shipyards, bringing the total number of Type 052Ds in or entering service to 20. On May 13, Chinese officials in Sansha announced a contract for a 1,900 ton maritime law enforcement vessel that will be stationed in the contested Paracel Islands. Finally, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s China Power blog assesses that China’s third aircraft carrier appears to be visibly under construction at the Jiangnan shipyard. This vessel will be the first Type 002 carrier; while details on the ship are scarce, reports in 2017 claimed it will have a displacement of 85,000 tons.

Lockheed-Martin has offered the Indian Air Force an exclusive contract for the F-21 fighter if they complete the proposed purchase of 114 aircraft. Unveiled in February, the F-21 is based on the F-16 platform but optimized for local production in India.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Marine Corps have indicated that plans to transfer 5,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam will be underway as early as 2024. The currently under-construction Camp Blaz will house the transferred units, bringing the total number of U.S. service members on the island to approximately 12,800.

The Marine Corps has also signed a $47.6 million contract with Raytheon to field a new land-to-sea missile system. The Naval Strike Missile platform has an effective range of more than 100 nautical miles and will support long-standing efforts to increase the Marine Corps’s ability to support Navy operations from shore.

A Chinese-funded base being built in remote Cambodia has triggered rumors of military expansion. On May 11, Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Chhum Sucheat vigorously denied that the port would have any Chinese military involvement, pointing out that the Cambodian constitution bars foreign military bases. The similarities between the construction zone in Koh Kong province and China’s Spratly Island bases had been noted two days prior by Charles Edel at War on the Rocks.

On May 14, the Malaysian Royal Navy chased and captured 14 Vietnamese fishers, claiming their vessel had trespassed in Malaysian waters. The arrested men have been transferred to the care of Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency.


At the International Maritime Security Conference, held May 14 in Singapore as part of IMDEX Asia 2019, Singaporean Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and Chinese academic Capt. (Ret.) Tian Shichen debated whether the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was purely a product of Western nations or reflected traditional Asian values. Koh argued that UNCLOS was a global endeavor, while Shichen claimed that Asian countries had been largely ignored during the drafting of the international maritime treaty. Collin Koh, a Singaporean academic, live-tweeted the discussion, as well as the rest of the conference.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has released a report this week on how the U.S. should enhance its relationships with the Pacific island nations. The long list of recommendations focuses on deepening economic and diplomatic ties between the U.S. and regional powers, especially through trade and strategic transparency.

An interview in The Diplomat previews the recent book by Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson on China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations. The two U.S. Naval War College scholars detail their holistic view of China’s strategic maritime goals and suggest that the U.S. could be doing much more to stand behind its regional allies in the face of extralegal activity.

In AMTI, Renato Cruz de Castro analyzes the political implications of Balikatan 2019, the large U.S.-Philippine joint exercise held in April. He notes that this year’s operations included significant amphibious drills, including the taking of occupied islands and airfields, and argues that it signals an approaching end to the calm in Chinese-Philippine relations.

Doug Stephens IV is a joint JD/LLM student at Harvard Law School and the University of Cambridge. He holds a B.A. in English from Liberty University and a M.A. in English from James Madison University.

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