Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: U.S.-China War of Words Continues but Still No Action

Zack Bluestone
Friday, October 16, 2015, 3:21 PM

Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth patrols near the Spratlys (Photo: MC2 Conor Minto/U.S. Navy)

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Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth patrols near the Spratlys (Photo: MC2 Conor Minto/U.S. Navy)

This week the United States appeared to inch closer to a direct confrontation with China over island reclamation in South China Sea. On Monday, the New York Times reported that American officials have briefed regional allies on plans to conduct freedom of navigation (FON) patrols in the vital waterway. At least two U.S. allies confirmed that they had been told of the planned patrols. The Philippines backed the FON operations, based on a belief that they will help maintain stability in the region. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario explained that the “failure to challenge false claims of sovereignty would undermine this order and lead China to the false conclusion that its claims are accepted as a fait accompli.” Australia adopted a more nuanced position after several weeks of aggressive comments by the recently-reshuffled Liberal Party government. Trade Minister Andrew Robb announced that Australia would take no part in the U.S. patrols, although Foreign Minister Julie Bishop later said that Australia is “on the same page” with the United States regarding the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the volley of antagonistic rhetoric between Chinese and American officials continued. Chinese MFA Spokeswoman Hua Chunying declared last Friday that the PRC “will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.” In response, on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made clear that the United States “will fly, sail, and operate wherever the international law permits [and] will do that at the times and places of [its] choosing, and there’s no exception to that.” On Thursday, Ms. Hua fired back, criticizing “high-profile display[s] of military strength and frequent and large-scale military drills by certain countries and their allies in the South China Sea.” She further asserted that military facilities on the PRC’s artificial islands are “for defense purposes only.” Also on Thursday, PLA Rear Admiral Yang Yi warned in an op-ed that the PLA would deliver a “head-on-blow” to any forces caught “violating” China’s sovereignty and accused the United States of “ceaseless provocations” in the South China Sea. CNO John Richardson responded by clarifying that FON patrols are “part of routine navigation in international waters, consistent with international rules there: I don’t see how these could be interpreted as provocative in any way.”

Plans to challenge to China’s “Great Wall of Sand” have existed for months, and The American Interest provides a good backgrounder on why the United States, at times, has shown some hesitation to move ahead with FON operations. Additionally, Newsweek’s Jeff Stein covers the recent U.S.-PRC rhetorical sparring from a Chinese perspective, relying on a series of interviews conducted during his recent trip to China to explain why Beijing isn’t backing down on the South China Sea. Speaking off the record, one senior Chinese military official bluntly stated, “There are 209 land features still unoccupied in the South China Sea and we could seize them all.”

In other news…

United States

The Straits Times reports that the United States is stepping up aid for maritime law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield recently confirmed that the U.S. initiative will provide more than $100 million to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia—a four-fold increase over the program’s total expected budget. The funds are to be used for both equipment and vessels. Although Mr. Brownfield sought to play down the connection between the funding and tensions in the South China Sea, the Straits Times notes that the PRC uses coast guard vessels to pursue its military objectives and thus implies a linkage between the program and regional maritime disputes.


Amid increasing tensions with the United States, the PRC will host two international security forums, which the Washington Post suggests will serve as opportunities for China to promote its views, explain its policies, and improve its security image. The events begin today, with an informal meeting of ASEAN-member defense ministers, followed by the Xiangshan Forum, which will address Asian-Pacific security, maritime issues, and counterterrorism.


Takeshi Onaga, the governor of Okinawa, revoked permission for construction to continue on a local U.S. military installation—the latest setback in PM Shinzo Abe’s push to relocate USMC Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko Bay. Although Governor Onaga cited “legal flaws” with a permit issued by his predecessor, the move was likely driven by local opposition to the new base. Government officials in Tokyo plan to appeal the decision, but experts suggest the matter will probably be settled only after years of litigation. Just last week, former Japanese FM Yohei Kono called for a phase-out of all U.S. military installations in Okinawa, according to The Asahi Shimbun’s Shunichi Kawabata. Mr. Kono—who was foreign minister when controversy erupted over the Japan-U.S. SOFA after the abduction and rape of a Japanese schoolgirl in 1995—lamented that a new base would virtually guarantee an American presence in Okinawa for a full century after the end of WWII and argued that Tokyo “should steer toward a direction to eventually rid Okinawa of U.S. bases.”


Taiwan plans to increase its coast guard presence Taiping (or Itu Aba), a small island in the disputed Spratly Islands. Coast Guard Chief Wang Chung-yi confirmed that Taiwan’s port construction remains on track and claimed that the facility, which will include an airstrip and hospital, is part of Taiwan’s effort to bolster its humanitarian aid role.


Khaosod reports that Vietnam accused China of violating its maritime territory again this week, based on the construction of two lighthouses on the disputed Cuateron and South Johnson reefs. Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh reaffirmed the claim that “Vietnam has full legal and historical evidence for its indisputable sovereignty over” the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

According to Quang Ngai of Thanh Nien News, a fishing boat was attacked and robbed by Chinese authorities near the Paracel Islands. If confirmed, this would bring the total number of alleged attacks and robberies to 26 since May. The spate of attacks has prompted two Vietnamese experts to call for negotiations with China over the disputed islands. For its part, China has asserted that PRC “authorities have the right to take law enforcement measures in accordance with the law on boats that have illegally entered” what China considers to be its territorial waters.


The foreign ministers of India and the Philippines announced in a joint statement that New Delhi supports Manila’s decision to bring claims against the PRC at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague over freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the South China Sea. The statement, released at the conclusion of the nations’ third joint commission meeting on bilateral affairs, reiterated “the importance of the settlement of all disputes by peaceful means.” Sachin Parashar of the Times of India suggests that the endorsement lends further diplomatic clout to the Philippines in advance of a jurisdictional ruling anticipated before the end of the month.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Given the likelihood of imminent FON operations, several related pieces are worth a read. Mira Rapp-Hooper confronts two pervasive myths about FON patrols, while The Diplomat’s Graham Webster explains the significance of the twelve nautical mile limit. Meanwhile, The Economist compares U.S. and Chinese naval power in the context of simmering tensions in the South China Sea.

According to Ashley Townshend of the Asia Sentinel, most observers expect the Permanent Court of Arbitration to find that it has jurisdiction to hear the Republic of Philippines v. People’s Republic of China maritime case. Townshend further predicts that the tribunal will make a narrow ruling against China on the merits, which he suggests could serve as a catalyst for resolving broader tensions in the South China Sea.

Julian Ku explains why “following international law” cannot alone solve the freedom of navigation problems in the South China Sea, particularly not those between the U.S. and the PRC.

Over at The Diplomat, Greg Austin considers which of the South China Sea islands provides the greatest military value. Also, Prashanth Parameswaran interviews Rear Admiral Charlie Williams and offers a nice summary of recent U.S.-sponsored military exercises in the Asia Pacific, as well as other strategic insights into the region.

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 Zack Bluestone with breaking news or relevant documents.

Zack Bluestone is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy and Vice President of the National Security & Law Association. Zack has worked in all three branches of the federal government, including legal internships with the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commissions at the U.S. Department of Defense, the Office of the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Federal Courts. Zack graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University with B.S. in Foreign Service and earned his MBA from the University of Oxford.

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