Recently, China's actions in the South China Sea have been widely labeled as “assertive” or “coercive” in the United States. The prevailing view in US strategic circles, including many senior officers, is that China seeks to control the entire South China Sea through “tailored coercion”1, “salami-slicing tactics”2 and the “Grey Zone of Coercion”3. However, leaving aside the question of the real Chinese strategy in the South China Sea, these descriptions would actually be applicable to the recent US response to Chinese policy. The US is using a steady progression of small, incremental steps to impose costs on China while avoiding an escalation to military conflict. In fact, the actions and policies of the US in the South China Sea are more assertive and dangerous than China’s.
On October 27, 2015, the USS Lassen (DDG-82) conducted an innocent passage transit within 12 nautical miles of Zhubi (Subi) Reef. On January 30, the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Zhongjian (Triton) Island. Both of these incidents were done with the intention of “challenging China’s excessive maritime claims.”
The justification sounds good, and the operations themselves were restrained, but in actuality they are self-contradictory. In the former case, China has not clarified its maritime claims on the Nansha (Spratly) Islands. It was instead the US that assumed China’s claim of 12 nautical miles of territorial waters and then decided to challenge it. No wonder even US experts and lawmakers alike were confused about what exactly the US navy was challenging.
In the latter case, Zhongjian island is clearly entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and China has already established its basepoints and baselines. Moreover, Zhongjian island was never a hot issue in the South China Sea dispute and China has not carried out land reclamation on it as it has with Zhubi reef. Thus, it is puzzling why the US navy would want to pick it as a target.
The US may refute that it has the right to challenge any excessive maritime claim in the whole world, according to its own interpretation and in the name of FONOPs. But, regardless of the policy merits of FONOPs, the problem with the Lassen and Wilbur operations is that they were too politicized and provocative. These operations were neither usual nor professional, especially coming from the US navy. Although the US navy has conducted FONOPs all over the world, including the South China Sea, before, those operations were always kept in a much lower profile, most of them quiet and away from the media. The abnormality of the Lassen and Wilbur operations makes us wonder whether the US call for maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is at least in part propaganda towards pressuring China and also for receiving a bigger budget for the US navy.
Meanwhile, the US government has mobilized the media to lend support to FONOPs. On May 20 last year, a CNN team was given exclusive access to join in the surveillance flights over the waters near the Nansha Islands, and the Pentagon encouraged the CNN team to record responses from the Chinese naval and coast guard personnel on site to raise public awareness about the challenges posed by the islands. Before the USS Lassen’s operation around Zhubi reef, CNN and other media outlets constantly reported about the intentions and plans of the operation based on anonymous sources from the US navy.
In short, the Pentagon has used the mass media to great effect in publicizing and politicizing FONOPs. The consequence of this politicization is that it is reducing the policy maneuvering room for both US and Chinese policymakers, compelling them to adopt tougher measures and so raise further tensions in the South China Sea. That is hardly good news for regional stability.
Another feature of FONOPs which we should not neglect is strategic probing. Whatever the publically declared purposes of FONOPs, their practical consequence is that they are eroding China’s policy bottom lines and testing China’s tolerance in the South China Sea. Such strategic probing has now occurred from Nansha to Xisha, and from air to sea. It’s a big question whether China can sustain its tolerance for long.
Unlike the Taiwan Strait, where China and US have clear bottom lines known well by either side, both sides’ policies toward the South China Sea are not entirely clear. Each is suspicious of the other’s strategic intentions. The US suspects that China wants to control the South China Sea and drive US forces out of Asia, while China worries that the US is using the South China Sea issue to contain its rise. As China’s power continues to grow, this kind of strategic mistrust is getting worse with the changing balance of power in the Western Pacific.
The best way to ease potential risks in this highly uncertain strategic environment is to conduct serious and frank dialogue and communication between the two sides. If each side is trying to use force to test the other's bottom line, the situation in South China Sea will become very tense, and possibly even out of control.
Up to now, China has never expanded its sovereignty claims, and has never militarily provoked the US. Most of its actions, including land reclamations, are to strengthen its necessary capabilities at sea. Some counter-actions, such as the Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) operation in 2012, were reactions to provocations from other countries. US actions in the South China Sea in the past couple of years have targeted China directly, even though it is not a claimant country. In Chinese eyes, the US has all but given up its neutrality in South China Sea disputes, and is acting provocatively to challenge China by assertions of its military power. US probes into China’s policy bottom lines in the South China Sea may seem reasonable to many US analysts, but it is creating strategic uncertainty fraught with risks.
1. The challenge of responding to maritime coercion. Retrieved from http://www.cnas.org/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/CNAS_Maritime1_Cronin.pdf
2. America's Asia challenges: China, air-sea battle and beyond. Retrieved from
3. Panel: China establishing a “grey zone of coercion” in South China Sea. Retrieved from