South China Sea: US and allies apply pressure on Beijing but ‘they’re unlikely to go all out’

Liu Zhen and Amber Wang in Beijing, South China Morning Post

Posted at Feb 11 2021 02:54 PM

Beijing is facing more pressure from the United States and its Nato allies over its activities in the disputed South China Sea, but analysts say they do not see an increased risk of conflict breaking out.

In the latest move, the US Navy sent aircraft carriers the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz to the contested waters on Tuesday, accompanied by other warships including guided-missile cruisers the USS Bunker Hill and USS Princeton, and destroyers USS Russell and USS John Finn. It said their operations in the area showed the navy’s “ability to operate in challenging environments”.

They came a day after the French attack nuclear submarine Émeraude and a naval support ship carried out a patrol through the region.

It was the second joint operation by two American aircraft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea in seven months, and the US Navy said it was “intended to maintain US readiness and combat-credible forces to reassure allies and partners and preserve peace in the region”.

France’s defence minister Florence Parly, meanwhile, said the French patrol was “striking proof” the navy could deploy with its strategic partners for long periods and far from home.

Hu Bo, director of Beijing-based think tank the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, said the US and French activities in the waterway were an attempt to add pressure on China.

“After [President Joe] Biden took office, US allies are more confident that America will assume its international obligations in terms of checks and balances with China,” Hu said.

The Biden administration has said that China would be central to its foreign policy, and that Washington would work with its partners on a strategy for its rivalry with Beijing.

In remarks on the French naval patrol on Monday, defence minister Parly said France had exclusive economic zones in the Indo-Pacific region and intended to protect its sovereignty and interests there.

According to Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, the US Navy was sending a message that it could operate “wherever they wish and where international law allows, notwithstanding the threat from Beijing”.

He said France, meanwhile, wanted to “to show the flag for Paris’ Indo-Pacific interests”. 

“It considers itself an autonomous player in the region, often positing itself as the ‘alternative partner’ of choice for regional countries that don’t wish to align too closely with either China or the US,” Koh said.

Observers expected more such patrols by US allies, including Britain, as they push back against Beijing’s activities and militarisation in the region. Later this year, the Royal Navy plans to send aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to the East China Sea, where it will join a naval exercise with the US and Japan. Germany has also said it would send a frigate to patrol the Indo-Pacific this year.

Beijing’s claims in the resource-rich South China Sea overlap with those of several neighbours, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In September, Britain, France and Germany, all Nato members, issued a joint statement to the United Nations in favour of the 2016 international tribunal ruling against most of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. They said Beijing’s claims to “historic rights” in the waters did not comply with international law.

“This is also a sort of enlargement of Nato, and it will increase military pressure on China,” said military commentator Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor. “But some [US allies] have come to the region because of common values like freedom of navigation and overflight, rather than their national interests, so they’re unlikely to go all out to confront China.”

Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, said more naval operations in the region like the ones this week could raise the risk of collision. “There is the possibility of an accidental sea or air collision, but it’s unlikely a war will break out,” Zhu said.

He noted that the US had rejected Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea last year, and said France was reinforcing its opposition to China’s claims with its patrol this week.

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