In a recent development of the tensions in the South China Sea, Australian navy helicopter pilots claimed to have been hit with laser beams from Chinese fishing boats during a recent Indo-Pacific Endeavour military exercise in the South China Sea. Accompanying observers of the military exercise suspected that the laser might have come from a Chinese maritime militia boat, alluding that the fishing boat might be nothing more than a disguise. The Chinese side believes that it was probably because the helicopter's flight altitude is too low, and the fishermen were using infrared laser flashlight for illumination purposes. After the incident, and siding Australia, the U.S. military brought up an incident last year where China pointed lasers at U.S. military pilots at the Djibouti base.
This situation is not common in interactions between China, the United States and America's allies in the past. In May 2017, the U.S. navy launched the freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, the first of its kind since Trump assumed presidentship. Since then, the FONOP of the United States in the South China Sea has gradually become the norm. Previously, the way China and the United States interacted in the South China Sea was that, the U.S. Navy regularly launched FONOP in the South China Sea or sent military aircraft over the disputed seas while the Chinese warships verified, identified, tracked or expelled the U.S. warships and military aircraft, and used diplomatic channels to protest. Since the USS Dicatur incident however, China and the United States have strengthened their crisis control in the South China Sea. China has also shown its professional side when it warned the U.S. military ship and military aircraft against intruding into islands controlled by China. On September 30, 2018, the USS Dicatur launched the FONOP within 12 nautical miles of Gaven Reef of the Spratly Islands. A Chinese warship stopped and tried to expel the American vessel, and the two warships almost collided.
As it stands, China and the United States face four major challenges in the South China Sea. First, the U.S. military frequently implements FONOP. Although both China and the United States have displayed attitudes of restraint and professionalism, it is likely that there will be "accidents" in the long run. In the first half of this year alone, the U.S. military conducted three FONOPs. On May 6 this year, USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon destroyers of the U.S. navy sailed within 12 nautical miles from the Gaven Reef and the Johnson South Reef of the Spratly Islands, challenging China's "excessive maritime claims" and claiming that it aims to "preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law". Previously, the destroyer USS Preble also entered the maritime zone of Spratly Islands within 12 nautical miles in January this year. In February, USS Spruance and USS Preble entered the Second Thomas Shoal of the Spratly Islands and the adjacent waters of the Mischief Reef.
Secondly, the United States "encourages" the countries contesting China's claims in the disputed South China Sea to raise issues against China, and there are plenty of examples to back this claim. However, because of the low credibility of the Trump administration, and taking into account that the Philippines and other countries are turning towards China, this approach of the U.S. in these two years have not been effective. This does not mean that the risk has disappeared. China hopes to negotiate the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) with the ASEAN countries within three years, and subsequently utilize the COC to stabilize the South China Sea. However, the U.S. believes that COC negotiations may marginalize its role on the South China Sea issue. Moreover, before an agreement is reached, there is likely to be a dangerous period. The United States will use the contradictions between these countries and China to instigate the South China Sea issue, thereby reviving the troubles in the South China Sea.
Thirdly, as stated at the beginning of this article, actions such as military exercises conducted by the United States and its allies in the South China Sea may raise unexpected risks. Due to the occurrence of several confrontations between China and the United States, the crisis management between the two countries can be considered as being relatively mature. However, the same cannot be said for interactions between China and U.S.' allies, where there could be some unexpected risks. If an accident occurs, the possibility of serious confrontations and even conflicts between China and the United States will increase greatly.
Finally, under the background of the U.S.-China trade dispute, issues such as the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the North Korean nuclear issue will cause knock on effects and catalysis to become more prominent. In addition, the risks will also increase. When Trump first came to power, he had a short honeymoon period with the North Korean nuclear issue, and the South China Sea issue had yet to become a major affair between China and the United States. However, as the North Korean nuclear situation eases, the U.S.-China economic and trade conflicts have begun to take the spotlight. Under such a background, the U.S. government will use the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait issues to force China to yield to it. From the second half of last year to present, the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act and the Taiwan Assurance Act by the Congress are typical examples. In the future, one can expect the United States to continue exerting its strength in the South China Sea.
The U.S.' policy of dealing with China in the South China Sea has not changed. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said that Chinese leaders promised to then President Barack Obama back in 2016 that they will not militarize the South China islands. However, given that China has now violated its commitments, the United States will call for collective action to hold Beijing responsible. Dunford also said that infrastructure on the Chinese-claimed reefs in the South China Sea has developed to the extent that it can provide military capabilities to China, and the U.S. will not acknowledge this.
In the future, the United States will not slow down FONOPs. Instead it will further increase their frequency, scale and offensiveness in order to use them to deter China from continuing to strengthen its military deployments and actions in the South China Sea. At the same time, the United States needs to demonstrate its military presence in the South China Sea through FONOPs as a clear signal to its Asia-Pacific allies and partners. This is also to dispel these countries' concerns that the United States may pull out from the Asia-Pacific.
Final analysis conclusion:
At a time when U.S.-China trade frictions are intensifying and the relations between the two countries are in a crisis, it is particularly necessary to control the risks in the South China Sea. The dangerous actions of the United States and its allies to provoke China will not necessarily succeed every time. If collisions between the two occur, it may lead to a serious and uncontrollable result in the relations between the United States and China.