How the US got it wrong on the latest South China Sea incident

Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page from United States of AmericaMass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk/U.S. Navy / Public domain

The recent US statement criticising China’s actions in the South China Sea is inaccurate and hypocritical. It misrepresents China’s claims and blames Beijing for ‘offenses’ that Vietnam has also committed, all while the US itself has continued its aggression in the area amid the pandemic.

By Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China

The US State Department regularly criticizes China for its policy and behaviour in the South China Sea. Most of the time its statements contain elements of truth interspersed with the usual criticism of China. However, the April 6 statement on a recent incident in the area stands out because of its false and unsupported accusations as well as its hypocrisy.

The statement expressed serious concern about “reports of the PRC’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands.” According to US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, “This incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims.” 

China has indeed tried to assert claims to the area inside its “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. But the China-Vietnam dispute over the Paracels and their attendant maritime zones is quite separate from China’s dispute with Vietnam and other ASEAN claimants over the Spratly Islands and resources there.

China’s claim to the Paracels is not part of its nine-dash line claim. The Paracels are a separate group of islands in the northwestern South China Sea that China has occupied for 45 years since it seized them from South Vietnam in 1974.

The US statement also conflicts with its claims that it does not take sides in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. It also ignores how, during the pandemic, the US has continued to use displays of naval force to impose its unilateral interpretation of maritime law—including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it refuses to ratify.

China often arrests Vietnamese fishing boats within the 12-nautical-mile (nm) territorial waters  and 200-nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Paracels. This is not new. But the collision with and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat is relatively rare and thus prompted the US statement of concern—and got the attention of analysts and the media.

China enforced a valid claim to maritime territorial waters

Nevertheless, it is not clear who was at fault. Vietnam claims that China’s maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sunk its vessel. But China claims that the boat entered its territory illegally, refused to leave and then crashed into the Chinese boat after “suddenly turning sharply.”

China’s coast guard rescued the fishermen and then also captured and towed three other vessels into port. The vessels were fishing near Woody Island—the location of Sansha, China’s administrative capital for both the Paracels and the Spratlys. The 2.1-square-kilometre Woody Island has a population of more than 1,000 as well as roads, banks and a small airport that accommodates both civilian and military aircraft.

Fishing off this particular island in violation of China’s laws and claim to sovereignty is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. This in itself does not justify intentionally sinking a violator’s boat—if that is indeed what happened—but it helps explain why it happened.

China was trying to enforce its claim to the Paracels, its attendant maritime zones and resources therein. Such a claim is not “illegal,” but is in keeping with the UNCLOS. It is true that China claims territory around the Paracels inside what are known as enclosing “straight base lines” in maritime law, a breach of UNCLOS. But Vietnamese vessels frequently fish in what would be China’s legitimate 12 nm maritime territorial waters and 200 nm EEZ—assuming the Paracels features belong to China.

State Department allegations target Beijing but ignore US naval aggression

The State Department statement goes on to link this incident to a series of Chinese actions “since the outbreak of the global pandemic” such as establishing “new research stations on military bases.” But China’s claims to features above high tide are as legitimate as those of several other states.

Like the other claimants, China claims the right to build such installations on its territory. All other claimants to features in the South China Sea—Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam—have built military bases on those they occupy.

The statement concludes by urging China to focus on “supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction” to take advantage of other states. This implies that these actions were timed to exploit the “distraction” and prompted some media and analysts to expand on this theme. Carl Schuster, for example, the former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, accused China of using the situation to assert dominance.

“I think China is exploiting the US Navy’s coronavirus challenges to improve its position in the South China Sea by giving the appearance it can and will operate there at will while the US is hamstrung,” he said.

Schuster noted that after the US Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group departed the area during the pandemic, China launched large-scale naval exercises in the South China Sea. This analysis is quite a reach. If there was any connection between these two events at all, the exercises were in response to the strike group’s presence, not its withdrawal. However, the building of marine science installations and the exercises were likely planned long in advance.

This allegation also oozes hypocrisy. During the pandemic, the US has continued and even increased the frequency of its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) that use warships to challenge China’s claims to some low-tide features as sovereign territory. The US also challenges China’s regime requiring prior permission for warships to enter the territorial seas of its occupied high-tide features. 

The US has conducted two FONOPs since the coronavirus epidemic broke out in China, one on January 25, which violated China’s claims around the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, and one on March 10, which violated China’s prior permission regime for waters around the Paracels. China could see these FONOPs as threatening the use of force if it does not comply with the US government’s unilateral interpretation of a convention it refuses to ratify.

But US ships undertaking FONOPs also challenge Vietnam’s regulations of its claims around the Paracels and the Spratlys. Vietnam has long imposed rules, similar to those of China, that warships must receive prior permission before entering its territorial waters, but the US navy has repeatedly rebuked these rules. 

Vietnam has also militarized many features that are not above water at high tide and thus cannot be claimed as ‘territory’. The US FONOPs that challenge China’s claim to such features are also challenging Vietnam’s claims—claims which the statement ignores.

Given that both countries, according to the US, are violating the same rules, the statement seems to be favouring Vietnam in the dispute, regardless of what actually happened last week. At the very least, this hypocritical and presumptive statement adds to the already increasing tension in the region.

About the Author

Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China