Aggressive U.S. Maneuvering in the South China Sea Is Upstaged by an Unexpected North Korean ICBM Test
USS Stethem docked in Shanghai in 2015 (Photo: Wall Street Journal, via Zuma Press)
Events in East Asia escalated quickly in a week that started with an American naval patrol in the South China Sea. On Sunday, the USS Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, a part of the disputed Paracel archipelago, which is controlled by China and which Taiwan and Vietnam also claim. The People’s Liberation Army dispatched two missile frigates, a minesweeping vessel and two J-11B fighter jets to track the USS Stethem as it passed the Paracel Islands.
The U.S. naval patrol marked not only the second confirmed Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea in six weeks, but it also followed a series of recent actions by the U.S. government that have angered Beijing: announcing a $1.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, labeling China one of the worst human trafficking offenders in a State Department report, and imposing sanctions against Chinese individuals and entities accused of helping North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. The FONOP also took place hours before U.S. President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping by phone.
According to regional security analysts and media reports, the timing of the patrol suggests that the purpose of the FONOP was to increase pressure on China to reign in North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. In fact, while the White House readout of the phone call portrayed a cordial conversation, President Trump reportedly warned his Chinese counterpart that the United States is prepared to act on its own to stop North Korea. While it is unclear whether President Xi directly raised the FONOP during the call, Xi alluded to the naval patrol in his warning to President Trump that “bilateral relations [between China and the U.S.] have been affected by some negative factors.”
China’s public reaction to the FONOP was swift. By Sunday evening, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a statement on its website condemning the FONOP as a “trespass of China’s territorial waters.” The statement, which was repeated nearly verbatim during a press conference the next day, accused the United States of violating “Chinese law and relevant international law” and characterized the FONOP as “a serious political and military provocation.” Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of National Defense denounced the FONOP as a “serious offence” that “undermined mutual strategic trust and the political atmosphere for the development of mutual military relations.” The Chinese military also vowed to step up air and sea patrols in the South China Sea in response to the FONOP. The party-run Global Times tabloid used similar language in its warning to the U.S. that such “provocations cannot change the present situation in the South China Sea.”
The Trump administration’s argument that China should take more seriously the threat posed by Pyongyang was unexpectedly bolstered on Tuesday when North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Some experts believe that the missile, which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, is capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii or even the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. In response to the test, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for “global action” to stop North Korea and declared that any country hosting North Korean guest workers, providing economic or military benefits to North Korea, or failing to implement relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions is “aiding and abetting” North Korea. In New York, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a similar warning at an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. In addition to raising the specter of unilateral military action against the North Korea, Ambassador Haley proposed U.N. sanctions against “any country that does business with” North Korea. Haley further stated that the United States is drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution that could cut off North Korea’s access to foreign currency and oil.
The ICBM test also set off a flurry of action by the U.S. Department of Defense. First, Secretary of Defense James Mattis assured Japan of the U.S.’s ironclad commitment to defending Japan during a phone call with his Japanese counterpart. Japan is reportedly considering buying an American missile defense system, possibly the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Then in South Korea, the United States Eighth Army together with South Korean military personnel conducted a missile exercise, firing surface-to-surface missiles into the territorial waters off the East Coast of South Korea. According to the New York Times, the show of force was requested by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who told President Trump that the response to the ICBM test had to be “more than statements.”
Following a meeting at the Kremlin between President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the foreign ministries of Russia and China issued a joint statement calling for a suspension of North Korea’s ballistic missile program and for a moratorium on large-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea. The statement also urged the United States to immediately halt the installation of the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea.
These developments set the stage for the G20 meetings this weekend in Hamburg, Germany. President Trump is scheduled to meet separately with President Putin and President Xi, and to meet over dinner with both President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G20 meetings to discuss North Korea. However, the broad consensus among military and regional experts is that the U.S. has few good options to stop North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
In Other News…
Japanese and Chinese officials met in Fukuoka last Thursday and Friday to discuss maritime issues, making varying degrees of progress on different fronts. The two countries agreed to develop an air and maritime contact mechanism in the near future to avoid accidental conflicts between their coast guards and navies. The agreement was timely: just a few days later, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized China after a Chinese information-gathering vessel passed through the Tsugaru Strait, which connects the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese foreign ministry said that the Chinese ship had entered Japan’s territorial waters; China’s defense ministry responded that “[t]he Tsugaru Strait is a non-territorial strait and therefore, international ships such as naval ships have the rights of navigation . . . Japan has ulterior motives with its accusations and hyping up of the situation.”
On the possibility of jointly developing offshore gas fields along the maritime border between Japan and China, however, little progress was made.
At a news conference in Beijing, officials from China and the Philippines touted the growing ties between the two countries. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the relationship had entered a “golden period of fast development.” Wang said that the increasing trade and investment between the countries was mutually beneficial, and that the two sides were working together to avoid maritime disputes. “Our two countries have set up a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea issue and also a mechanism for cooperation between the coast guards,” Wang reported. “If anyone wants to reverse the current progress it will harm the interests of the Philippine people and that is not what we would like to see.” Wang’s counterpart, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, spoke approvingly of China’s investment in the Philippines’ infrastructure, as well as the avoidance of disputes in the South China Sea.
Even while the Philippines was courting China, however, the Philippine Navy conducted a joint patrol with the U.S. Navy in the Sulu Sea, south of the Philippines, an area in which the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf is known to operate. The patrol runs counter to President Duterte’s previous statements that he would end joint naval patrols with the United States in the South China Sea.
Elsewhere, speaking to reporters, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the Philippines would “protest” the military structures that China has been developing in the Spratly Islands.
Separately, former Philippine House Speaker Jose de Venecia, who currently chairs the International Conference of Asian Political Parties standing committee, suggested in a speech that South China Sea nations should suspend their disputes over sovereignty in favor of cooperation and development, particularly in the area of hydrocarbon exploration.
On its way to Hong Kong, China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning passed into the Taiwan Strait on Saturday. Taiwan’s army scrambled jets and naval ships to shadow the ship as soon as it entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Taiwan’s defense ministry urged Taiwan’s public to remain calm, and said that it would “keep close watch of all the movements” of the Liaoning and its accompanying vessels. The Chinese ships left the Strait on Sunday.
Ian Cross, an industry consultant at Singapore-based Moyes & Co., said that Vietnam had contracted with an international petroleum development company to begin drilling in waters claimed by China. According to the BBC, this move by Hanoi caused a Chinese military delegation to abruptly withdraw from a trip to Vietnam. At the time, China’s General Fan Changlong cited issues with the “working arrangements” to explain his decision to cancel his trip to Hanoi.
This week, two U.S. Navy ships called at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh International Port for joint naval drills with the Vietnamese Navy.
Analysis, Commentary and Additional Information
In light of the FONOP conducted by the USS Stethem, Anders Corr describes in Forbes the “new normal” in the South China Sea: since 2015, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has shadowed 100% of all reported U.S. Navy ships operated in the South China Sea. Explaining that shadowing is part of China’s area denial strategy, Corr argues for U.S. and European economic sanctions on China to push back on its extensive claims in the South China Sea. Ankit Panda in his piece in The Diplomat explains that a FONOP is a tool poorly suited for coercing China to give up its claims or to be more proactive on North Korea. On North Korea, Professor Stephan Haggard of University of California San Diego examines Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposal for achieving peace on the Korean peninsula.
This week’s commentary also looked at what may be driving China’s actions in the South China Sea. The answer, according to Ralph Jennings, may be science. Writing in Voice of America, Jennings makes the case that China’s use of technology in the South China Sea is motivated by not only a quest to secure natural resources, but also a desire to gain the respect of other countries and the admiration of its citizenry. As for the broader issue of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, U.S. Air Force Captain David J. Geaney explains in Foreign Policy that under China’s Anti-Secession Law, a Chinese leader could face criminal charges for scaling back China’s territorial claims. Moreover, he says, the Chinese Communist Party must aggressively defend its territorial claims since its legitimacy is predicated on strong leadership in the face of foreign pressure.
Finally, for anyone in need of a quick refresher on FONOPs in the South China Sea, Eleanor Freund of Harvard University’s Belfer Center published a thorough and user-friendly guide. And on the one-year anniversary of the South China Sea Arbitral Award, Carl Thayer takes an in-depth look at the award’s impact—or lack thereof.
Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Sarah Grant with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.