The U.S. sent another clear and loud message to China last week: The South China Sea is an open sea, and it’s prepared to keep it that way by performing freedom of navigation exercises in China’s backyard, in the waters separating the Taiwan Strait and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“Routine transits through these waters, which the U.S. and the rest of the world recognize as international waters, have happened for many years but have a different feel this year,” Juscelino Colares, professor of business law and co-director of the Frederick K. Cox International Law Center, told International Business Times. “With U.S. and Taiwanese trade diplomats meeting next week to discuss closer digital and agricultural trade ties, the Chinese Communist Party has ratcheted up its usual bellicose and expansionist rhetoric.”
In recent months, the PRC Navy has bolstered its presence in the disputed Strait waters, both a threat to Taiwan and to freedom of navigation on international waters (under international law).
“The CCP and their military have repeated baseless claims to the 100-mile-wide Strait as their internal waters,” Colares added. “One would hope that last month’s incident, where a Chinese navy pilot flew in front of and within 20 feet of the nose of a U.S. Air Force spy plane (over international waters) is not followed by the Chinese naval antics. The world is turbulent enough and scarcely needs this kind of provocation.”
Geopolitical analyst Irina Tsukerman, president of Scarab Rising, thinks the U.S. presence in the South China Sea demonstrates Washington’s resolve against Beijing’sgrowing aggression in the region, which threatens freedom of navigation and the formidable volume of trade in the area. “Assertive language and show of strength also signal reassurance to key allies, threatened by China’s imposition on their national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” she told IBT.
Tsukerman points to recent tensions between China and the Philippines, a U.S. ally, over disputed South waters. They have prompted a Philippine court to void a joint oil exploration agreement with Beijing, which makes the escalation of China’s hegemonic activity in the area more likely.
Nonetheless, she thinks it will take more than harsh language and occasional exercises to contain China’s aggression in the region. “Recent reports point to the strong possibility of the U.S. running out of anti-ship missiles in the event of an open confrontation with China,” she explained. “This information available to China signals that the U.S. is not likely to escalate tensions with China and will avoid direct engagement, leaving Beijing free to do as it pleases for the time being. Other reports warn the U.S. that a bigger fleet is much more likely to win the confrontation; China has been growing its naval capabilities at a rapid pace, while U.S. comparative advantage on its navy is being erased by outdated equipment and poorly maintained vessels.”
Moreover, Tsukerman believes Beijing’s recent breakthrough in quantum computing could be a game changer in China’s cybersecurity capability. It will put China ahead of the U.S. on all security and defense issues. “To prevail, the U.S. needs to reassess and overhaul its naval capabilities and to invest heavily into rapid innovation and improvement of its maritime capabilities,” she concluded.