The American guided missile destroyer USS Dewey was reported as having carried out a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ or FONOP in the South China Sea on May 24. According to the US Naval Institute the undertaking involved manoeuvres «within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef for about 90 minutes zig-zagging in the water near the installation. At one point during the operation, the ship’s crew conducted a man overboard drill».
Mischief Reef is 900 miles from the mainland of China, and 12,000 miles from the mainland of the United States. It has been built up by China from a sandy pile of rock into a habitable base and lies in the Spratly Island chain which is claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, both members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN.
A week before the United States sent a warship to «demonstrate that Mischief Reef is not entitled to its own territorial sea regardless of whether an artificial island has been built on top of it» there was a meeting attended by representatives of China and all ten ASEAN countries. The purpose was to continue discussions aimed at establishing a code of conduct in the South China Sea, and on May 18 an announcement of progress was made. It was stated that all concerned nations «uphold using the framework of regional rules to manage and control disputes, to deepen practical maritime cooperation, to promote consultation on the code [of conduct] and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea».
As stated by the head of the Chinese delegation, deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin, «the draft framework contains only the elements and is not the final rules, but the conclusion of the framework is a milestone in the process and is significant. It will provide a good foundation for the next round of consultations». It wasn’t a breakthrough in agreeing about allocation of territory or anything like that — but it was indicative of peaceful progress in an important matter affecting regional countries.
In 2012 the countries involved had agreed that «the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability in the region» and issued a statement that included reaffirmation of «their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations».
All these countries are, of course, signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, according to the Voice of America «provides guidelines for how nations use the world's seas and their natural resources. It also contains mechanisms for addressing disputes».
But the United States of America, whose coast is 12,000 miles from the South China Sea where its ships zig-zag in ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations, and its electronic warfare aircraft roam the skies forcing China to activate its mainland defensive radars so that they can be identified as future targets, refuses to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Berkeley Journal of International Law notes perceptively that «Although ratification of UNCLOS is unlikely today given staunch opposition to it in the Senate, the treaty remains an essential instrument of international law, particularly for resolving international maritime disputes. America’s abstention from the treaty is significant in this context, since as the preeminent naval power in the world it should hold a leading role in shaping the law of the sea. Instead, other nations are playing a larger role». But the US Senate is not known for a logical approach to international affairs, and its reaction is usually confrontational.
On May 10, just before the China-ASEAN conference and the zig-zagging antics of the USS Dewey, several US senators, including the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to President Trump expressing concern that the US Navy had not carried out patrols «upholding freedom of navigation» in the South China Sea since October 2016. This caused them to «urge your administration to take necessary steps to routinely exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which is critical to US national security interests and to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region».
There has been no instance of any international commercial vessel being in any way denied passage through the South China Sea. There has never been a case in which any nation in the world has had cause to protest that one of its transiting merchant ships has been approached or in any fashion intimidated, endangered or even mildly disconcerted by the actions of a Chinese warship. There hasn’t been a single Chinese zig-zag.
These US Senators appear unable to understand that for China to take such action would be economically disastrous. The New York Times records that «$5.3 trillion worth of goods moves through the sea every year, which is about 30 percent of global maritime trade. That includes huge amounts of oil and $1.2 trillion worth of annual trade with the United States». Surely these representatives of the American people, elected presumably because of their outstanding levels of intelligence, flexibility, shrewdness, self-discipline and overall integrity, can see that if there were any real threat to passage of mercantile craft in the South China Sea there would be a catastrophic impact on making profits?
Even if they are not intelligent or shrewd or possess any of the other qualities desirable in a national legislator, they should realise that if the world’s financial community thought there was a threat to merchant ships in the South China Sea then insurance rates would go through the roof. There would be worldwide rocketing of commodity prices and a massive financial crisis. That is basic enough for even the dumbest senator to understand.
The only overflights in the region that have drawn attention have been the coat-trailing provocative electronic warfare missions of US military aircraft. There has not been one occasion on which an overflying civil aircraft has experienced interference of any sort.
Maintenance of peace and furtherance of prosperity of the region are being handled satisfactorily by regional countries, as demonstrated by the recent amicable gathering of Asian nations who agreed to «jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea». The major problem in the region is interference by warships and military aircraft of the United States. There is little doubt that China’s deputy foreign minister had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he told the media he hoped the China-ASEAN consultations would not be «subject to any outside interference», because he knew very well that cordial agreement between China and other Asian nations concerning the South China Sea would be anathema to Washington.
The Congress and the Pentagon are marching in step, as evidenced by the declaration of the senators that «We are encouraged by the statement made by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of US Pacific Command, during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 26, that he expects new FONOPs to take place soon. We also share Admiral Harris’s assessments that ‘China’s militarization of the South China Sea is real’ and that ‘China continues its methodical strategy to control the South China Sea’».
Much of the world believes that the United States, 12,000 miles from the South China Sea, is the country that wants to control it. Methodical strategy might be the way to go about it, but
as we have seen in the swathe of nations from Afghanistan to Libya, by way of Iraq and Syria, the strategy of the United States is not methodical. But it is decidedly confrontational. And disastrous.