Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Flexing Muscles, U.S. Deploys Great Green Fleet to South China Sea

Lawfare Staff
Friday, March 11, 2016, 2:18 PM

In a symbolic show of force, the United States dispatched “a small armada” to patrol the disputed waters of the South China Sea, according to the Navy Times.

USS John C. Stennis participates in a replenishment at sea last Friday in the South China Sea (U.S. Navy/MC2 Andrew Holmes)

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In a symbolic show of force, the United States dispatched “a small armada” to patrol the disputed waters of the South China Sea, according to the Navy Times. Anchored by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis and its 7,000 sailors, the strike group also included two Japan-based cruisers (USS Antietam and USS Mobile Bay) and two destroyers (USS Chung-Hoon and USS Stockdale). In addition to conducting routine operations, the Stennis launched 266 air sorties, and all five ships participated in an advanced-biofuel replenishment at sea—part of the Navy’s Great Green Fleet initiative to transform energy consumption and increase operational capacity. In total, the patrol lasted for five days.

The muscle-flexing elicited significant rhetorical blowback from Beijing. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi made clear that this “show of force” was unwelcome in the region, and reiterated that the South China Sea islands are an “integral” part of China’s territory that “every Chinese [citizen] is obligated to defend.” Likewise, Cui Tiankai, the PRC Ambassador to the United States, warned against repeating the same kind of “strategic misjudgment” that forced Washington to pay “a very heavy price” during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Additionally, over the weekend, PRC spokeswoman Fu Ying pinned the blame for the increasing militarization of the South China Sea on the Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia” doctrine.

Taking the wind out of the sails of the Great Green Fleet’s symbolic assertion of American dominance in the Asia Pacific, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assesses that the PRC’s recent military buildup in the South China Sea has brought Beijing closer to asserting “substantial military power” over the region. The revelation came on Tuesday when the office of Senate John McCain published an unclassified letter penned by Mr. Clapper in response to a written request from the Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman. Directly countering China’s denial that it had militarized the disputed waters, the letter concludes that, “[b]ased on the extent of land reclamation and construction activity . . . China has established the necessary infrastructure to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defense of its outposts.” It adds that “[t]hese capabilities could include the deployment of modern fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), and coastal defense cruise missiles, as well as increased presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface combatants and China Coast Guard (CCG) large patrol ships.” Over at The Diplomat Franz-Stefan Gady provides an overview of the Clapper letter's other highlights.

In other news…

United States

The USS Antietam arrived in Manila on Tuesday for a scheduled port call “in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.” During the visit, Seventh Fleet Commander Joseph Aucoin called on Beijing to be more transparent about its objectives in the South China Sea. Admiral Aucoin also disclosed plans to approach the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) about deeper military-military dialogue based on last year’s Code for Unplanned Encounters in the Sea.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force announced that Washington and Canberra are engaged in talks over deploying long-range American bombers to Australia. The discussions reportedly include the possibility of introducing B-1s to Australia, as well as expanding the existing contingent of B-52s. Although no firm decisions have been reached, Australian Defense Minister Payne suggested that a plan “is in development and will lead to increased rotations of U.S. Air Force elements through Northern Australia” PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei expressed China’s concern over the negotiations and called for bilateral cooperation that does “not jeopardize a third party’s interests.”

On the subject of the skies, General Lori Robinson, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, announced that the U.S. Air Force will continue daily flyover missions above the South China Sea, despite the recent deployment of Chinese surface-to-air missiles to the region. General Robinson also encouraged other nations to follow America’s’ lead in asserting the freedom to fly through international airspace “or risk losing it throughout the region.”


National People’s Congress spokesperson Fu Ying announced late last week that a years-long acceleration in defense spending is set to taper off in 2016. A budget report released on Saturday revealed that the annual increase in the military budget will be 7.6%—a six-year low, down from a 12.2% increase in 2014 and a 10.1% increase in 2015. Major General Chen Zhou explained that “a single-digit rise following years of double-digit growth is a prudent, moderate move,” especially given China’s worst GDP projections in 25 years. The Party-controlled Global Times took the unusual step of expressing “disappointment” with the modest increase, but it also called for understanding.

On Monday, The Diplomat published new satellite imagery revealing a sharp increase of dredging and land filling at the PRC-held North Island in the Paracels. Experts suggest that if these reclamation efforts continue, the feature could accommodate a runway similar to the one China built onFiery Cross Reef.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that the Philippines v. PRC maritime arbitration “has become tainted and gone astray” and reiterated Beijing’s position that the Philippine claims are “unlawful, unfaithful and unreasonable.” On a more conciliatory note, Mr. Wang expressed his willingness to explore a cooperative mechanism with littoral states in South China Sea to “maintain and build our common home.”

Luo Baoming, Communist Party General Secretary of Hainan Province, asserted that the operations of Chinese fishermen prove China’s maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea. He further revealed that Beijing has actively encouraged fishermen to trawl deep into disputed waters “because they need to fish to live” and confirmed plans to develop mobile internet on fifteen PRC-controlled islands and reefs.


Military budgets were also on the minds of Taiwanese defense officials this week. In a rare public comment on the South China Sea disputes, Defense Minister Kao Kuang-chi noted his concern over increasing military budgets and weapons procurements in the region. He also lamented military deployments to disputed features and joint maritime drills in disputed waters.

Confirming similar reports from the Mainland, Taiwanese media claim that Beijing plans to decrease the cap on Taiwan-bound tourists by a third over the next three months. Bilateral prospects seem sunnier with Tokyo, after the Taiwan-Japan Fishing Commission affirmed existing rules that provide fishermen from both countries joint access to the East China Sea.


Several Chinese official took aim at Tokyo this week over its growing role in the South China Sea. In response to reports that a Japanese submarine and two warships are scheduled to visit the Philippines and Vietnam, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei accused Japan of attempting to “return to the South China Sea through military means.” The Japanese Self-Defense Forces described the port calls as a training exercise for young officers and denied any desire to patrol the South China Sea. Mr. Hong also stated that China was on “high alert” after news that Manila would lease five training plains from Japan. More significantly, on Wednesday, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that he doesn’t “see any grounds for optimism” in Sino-Japanese relations and accused “two-faced” Tokyo of constantly trying to make trouble. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responded by reiterating Tokyo’s openness to dialogue with China and defending past statements regarding China’s “unilateral attempt at dominance by force.”


President Benigno Aquino III tapped his current Cabinet Secretary, Jose Almendras, as the next PH Foreign Minister. This follows the resignation of Alberto del Rosario last month over health concerns, which became effective on Monday.

Contrary to remarks made by Admiral Harris last week, PH Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr., declared that Manila will not be involved in naval exercises with the United States, Japan, and India. He instead emphasized Manila’s desire to work with ASEAN to adopt a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and called on all parties to stop “aggressive actions” that would exacerbate regional tensions.


Responding to a recent tender from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation inviting bids for oil blocks in Vietnam-claimed waters, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh reiterated that “Vietnam will defend its sovereignty, rights and interests” during a press conference late last week. Over the weekend, a Vietnamese fishing crew alleged that members of a Chinese vessel boarded their ship and subsequently destroyed fishing nets, food, and fuel.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

The Straits Times hosted a fascinating exchange this week over China’s refusal to participate in the Philippines v. PRC maritime arbitration. Chen Xiaodong, the PRC Ambassador to Singapore, insists that his country’s decision to reject the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is not only lawful, but it actually demonstrates Beijing’s commitment to international law, as Manila has merely asserted territorial claims, which fall outside of the scope of UNCLOS. In response, international law expert Robert Beckman acknowledges that the underlying issue indeed stems from competing claims over territorial sovereignty but points to the PCA’s Award on Jurisdiction as evidence that the Tribunal will restrict its merits decision to disputes over the interpretation or application of specific UNCLOS provision, as provided for in the 1982 treaty.

Also addressing the maritime arbitration, German Professor Stefan Talmon notes in a Global Times op-ed that China could counter an adverse merits decision by denouncing UNCLOS, as permitted in Article 317 of the Convention. Although this would not discharge the PRC from obligations that accrued while it was a party to the treaty, such a move would insulate Beijing from similar future claims brought by other claimants in the Asian Pacific. Elsewhere at Global Times, the Party-controlled paper took aim at U.S. Admiral Harry Harris for “fan[ning] the flames of confrontation” with countless “China-bashing words” and failing to “safeguard peace in the South China Sea” since assuming his role as Commander of PACOM in 2013.

Turning to broader disputes in the South China Sea, Michael Fuchs argues in this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine that, given the ineffectiveness of America’s strategy of incentivizing compromise over competing maritime claims, Washington must instead “cut to the chase and pursue a bilateral agreement with Beijing to stabilize the security situation.” Forbes contributor John Lee instead suggests that Europe’s lack of a strategic presence in the South China Sea leaves the EU (or at least individual member countries) better positioned to reel in militarization and the use of coercion to resolve territorial disputes. And AMTI’s Adam Liff looks at the importance of “restraint” (克制) in the Asia Pacific.

Over at The Diplomat, Greg Austin examines the threat Beijing poses to commercial shipping in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Jonathan Odom refutes one of the “Five Myths About China’s Missile Deployment on Woody Island” raised by Jin Kai in his post at The Diplomat last month. Specifically, Commander Odom (USN) addresses what he deems to be four fallacies in Mr. Kai’s case against U.S. FONOPS in the South China Sea.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email us with breaking news or relevant documents.

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