The United States Navy sent two warships – the guided missile destroyer USS Higgins and the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam – sailing within 22 kilometers of the Paracel islands in the northern part of the South China Sea (SCS) last Saturday. They maneuvered near the islands of Tree, Lincoln, Triton, and Woody, as part of their international operation to assert “freedom of navigation” in international waters.
Only a few weeks ago, Woody island was in the news as the site of a heavy Chinese military buildup – the installation of missiles with a range of 545 kilometers. Woody is near China’s Hainan island but also close to Vietnam’s shoreline to the west. The Vietnam Foreign Ministry issued a statement: “Vietnam requests that China, as a large country, show its responsibility in maintaining peace and stability in the East Sea, and cease all militarization activities, including the installation of missiles.”
Way down in the southern part of the SCS, China also installed missiles on three islands in the Spratlys, just west of Palawan. Several Philippine officials, including acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, have asked that the Philippines file a protest but we have not done so thus far.
The US has no interest in the conflicting claims to islands and reefs in the SCS, but it is determined to assert freedom of navigation in the sea, through which about $5 trillion in trade passes each year on ships of various nations. It was in assertion of this freedom that the USS Higgins and the USS Antietam sailed close to Woody and the other Paracel islands last Sunday.
China reacted to the US ships maneuvering in what it claims to be its territorial waters and sent the Chinese Navy which, the state news agency Xinhua said, “warned them to leave.” The encounter ended peacefully enough but the US is expected to keep sending its warships to the South China Sea and its planes over its waters, in assertion of “freedom of navigation.”
The problem boils down to China’s claim that most of the South China Sea is Chinese territory and it has sovereignty over its waters and its islands. It thus comes into conflict with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei which claim islands near their shores and within their Exclusive Economic Zones under the Law on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In the absence of an authority acceptable to all, which can mediate the opposing claims and enforce its decision, the problem is expected to continue indefinitely. The Philippines may have won its case in the Arbitral Court in the Hague, which rejected China’s claims in the SCS, but it realizes, like the other small-nation claimants, that it cannot challenge China’s military might.
It is only the US which can match this might and so it keeps sending its ships to the South China Sea to assert freedom of navigation in the area. One of these days, we fear, these encounters at sea will get out of hand.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterrez was speaking of the US-North Korea problem when he said “one mechanical, electronic, or human error could lead to a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities.” He could be speaking as well of the dangerous uncertainty that prevails today in the South China Sea.