Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Increased U.S. Focus on the Indo-Pacific

Amy Zeng
Thursday, September 19, 2019, 8:00 AM

From Sept. 2 to Sept. 6, the United States conducted its first-ever joint naval exercise with all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX), co-led by the U.S. and Royal Thai navies, consisted of pre-sail activities in Thailand, Singapore and Brunei, as well as a sea phase in the South China Sea and other international waters around Southeast Asia.

ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (Source: Flickr/Official U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jimmy Ong)

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From Sept. 2 to Sept. 6, the United States conducted its first-ever joint naval exercise with all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX), co-led by the U.S. and Royal Thai navies, consisted of pre-sail activities in Thailand, Singapore and Brunei, as well as a sea phase in the South China Sea and other international waters around Southeast Asia.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of AUMX at the Sattahip Naval Base in eastern Thailand, Rear Adm. Kenneth R. Whitesell said the multilateral exercise demonstrates U.S. commitment to the “continued security and stability of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” A total of eight warships, four aircraft and 1,260 personnel participated. U.S. forces taking part included the guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108), the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery (LCS 8), a P-8 Poseidon aircraft and three MH-60 helicopters. The exercise simulated realistic scenarios designed to reinforce interoperability in warfare areas such as visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS), maritime domain awareness (MDA), formation ship handling and maritime asset tracking.

Although the U.S. has held both bilateral and multilateral naval drills with Southeast Asian nations in the past, the AUMX represents the first time Washington has held drills with all 10 members of ASEAN. The drill is widely seen as imitating similar moves by China and responding to China’s proactive naval diplomacy.

In October 2018, the first ASEAN-China maritime exercise took place off the coast of Zhanjiang in southern China’s Guangdong province. Although the name suggests the exercise was ASEAN-wide, only five ASEAN countries (Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) sent ships, and four others (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar) sent observers. More recently, in April 2019, China and ASEAN nations held the Joint Maritime Drill 2019 in Qingdao, a city in eastern China’s Shandong province; this exercise coincided with celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Six ASEAN countries (Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Laos) participated in the drill, with Indonesia and Laos sending observers.

The AUMX appears to be just one of a series of signals in recent months that the United States will be paying greater attention to the Indo-Pacific. On Aug. 27, about a week before the AUMX began, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called for expanding base locations in the Pacific, calling the Indo-Pacific “our priority theater.” Earlier in August, right after the United States formally pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Esper said he wanted to deploy intermediate-range conventional missiles in the Pacific region “sooner rather than later,” preferably within months.

In Other News...

In Politics

On Aug. 29, following reports of the high-profile standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard vessels over a lucrative offshore oil block, the U.K., France and Germany issued a joint statement calling for restraint in the South China Sea. The three countries expressed their concern that the current situation in the South China Sea could “lead to insecurity and instability in the region.” Without naming China or Vietnam, the statement said the legal framework set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “must be carried out.”

Also in late August, during his fifth visit to China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte raised the two countries’ territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In response, Xi asked Manila to “put aside the dispute” and not be influenced by “external interference,” an apparent reference to pressure from the United States. Xi also reiterated Beijing’s position that it did not recognize the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea from 2016, which, among other things, rejected China’s claim of historical maritime rights over areas within the Nine-Dash Line.

During the same meeting, Xi called for China and the Philippines to move ahead with a plan to jointly explore oil and gas and to finish negotiations regarding a code of conduct for the South China Sea by 2021. According to China’s state news agency Xinhua, the parties have set up an intergovernmental “joint steering committee” consisting of diplomats and energy officials, as well as a working group between relevant enterprises on oil and gas exploration.

Speaking to reporters in the Philippines on Sept. 10, Duterte said that Xi had promised the Philippines a majority stake in a joint oil and gas venture that could fall within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), provided that it ignores the 2016 arbitral decision.

With regard to negotiations over a code of conduct for the South China Sea, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in an interview that China had eased up on its previous demands to restrict the presence of foreign military powers and foreign involvement in oil and gas projects in the disputed region. Xi has expressed hopes that the code of conduct could be completed in three years. China and ASEAN officials recently said they have completed the first of three expected rounds of negotiations.

During the week of Sept. 8, India and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to launch a new Indo-Pacific shipping route extending from the port city of Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, to Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India. The shipping route will partly traverse the South China Sea. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the route fit under India’s “Act East” policy designed to deepen its political and economic ties with Southeast Asian countries.

India and Russia also issued a joint statement suggesting the two countries could ramp up their partnership in military and technological spheres. This statement comes a year after New Delhi purchased S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems from Russia in a $5 billion deal.

On Sept. 12, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Malaysian counterpart, Saifuddin Abdullah, in Beijing. Wang said afterward that the two countries have agreed to set up a joint dialogue mechanism for South China Sea disputes. In July, China and Malaysia resumed construction on a train project in northern Malaysia, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, after a year-long suspension.

In Operations and Technology

On Aug. 28, a U.S. destroyer conducted at least the fifth freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) this year in the South China Sea. USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) sailed within 12 nautical miles of both Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, which are occupied by the Chinese military. Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Japan, said the operations were carried out to challenge excessive maritime claims made by China and preserve access to the waterways under international law.

About two weeks later, on Sept. 13, the destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer sailed near the Paracel Islands, known in China as the Xisha Islands, in a similar operation. According to Mommsen, the operation challenged territorial claims, including what she described as excessive Chinese claims around the Paracel Islands. China described the American patrol in the disputed areas as an “act of trespass” and “expelled” the destroyer in response. According to Senior Col. Li Huamin, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, the PLA Navy and Air Force shadowed, identified, monitored, warned and expelled the destroyer.

On or about Sept. 5, China moved a huge crane vessel named Lan Jing near the Vietnamese coast in an area within the latter’s EEZ. Lan Jing, thought to be the largest of its kind in the world, belongs to the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation and has previously been used to install large oil rigs and other offshore structures in the South China Sea. Observers have noted that Beijing’s move forces Vietnam to spread thin its already limited maritime capacities.

The littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) left San Diego earlier this month carrying the U.S. Navy’s new Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a weapon that analysts say could tilt the balance of power in the South China Sea. According to Raytheon, its developer, the NSM is a sea-skimming cruise missile guided by an independent MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter drone, making it tough to spot on radar. In addition to the Gabrielle Giffords, the United States plans to arm more than 30 vessels with the new missiles, according to U.S. Navy officials.

Beijing has deployed a network of drones to watch over the islands and reefs of the disputed South China Sea. The network is run by the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources and covers uninhabited islands as well as the vast open waters of the area, according to the ministry’s South Sea Bureau. Consisting of numerous unmanned aerial vehicles carrying high-definition cameras, road-mobile communication vehicles and a satellite-based maritime information communication network, the air-land system will play an important role in “disaster observation and emergency response,” said the bureau.

Observers note that the drones could have military implications. Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explains that the surveillance upgrades could help China should it decide to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the region. Peter Dutton, a retired U.S. Navy officer and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, also commented on the drones’ “obvious use to improve awareness both of what is on the sea and what is in the air.”

Amy Zeng is a JD student at Harvard Law School. She holds a B.A. in Economics from Harvard College.

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