On January 7, 2019, the Arleigh Burke class US guided-missile destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Island chain. The American side said that this behavior was to challenge China’s excessive expansion of maritime claim and maintain normal use of the waterway under the regulation of International Maritime Law. The U.S. navy ships’ entering China’s regional waters again not only poses severe threat to China’s maritime safety, but also hurt the friendly political atmosphere under which the Sino-US trade negotiation is being conducted.
Since 2015, the operations declaring freedom of navigation have become the US’s measure to substantially intervene into South China Sea issues, and this had been carried forward by President Trump. At present, this kind of operation has been upgraded from tactical tools to strategic weapons in US’s maritime policies, with the features in both tactical and strategic level. In fact, this has become one of the most severe maritime challenges China faces now, and has suppressed China's actions in the South China Sea.
The operations declaring freedom of navigation has become an important tool for the US to carry marine competition with China. Around July to December in 2017, US’s freedom of navigation focused on providing political and “legal” support to the South China Sea Arbitration. Since 2017, maintain the South China Sea contestable for a long time is a crucial part of Trump’s International and Indo-Pacific strategy. The issue of “freedom of navigation” is the major legal and ethical foundation for US to maintain and expand military presence and show their military power.
Objectively, the US’s operations declaring freedom of navigation are not targeting China, but specifically, the operations declaring freedom of navigation on the South China Sea is US’s initiative to target China, with a political characteristic and military form. From a macro perspective, maintaining US’s ability to intervene into the South China Sea issue and guide its development carries systemic inertia of US’s previous South China Sea policies, represents US’s interest claim and core requirement in Sino-US relationship and marine governance, and is US’s important jetton and strategic tools in Sino-US international strategic competition. The Trump government emphasizes more in achieving the operation effect in scale and entity than the Obama government, so they substantially increased the frequency of cruise on the South China Sea. The Trump ‘s “freedom of navigation” on the South China Sea shows hegemony, contains bullying attitude and tries to break China’s bottom line. This represents the US’s tactic of highlighting its regional strength in global landscape and is a new form of expansion of the US’s international interest.
The multidimensional impact of US’s operations declaring freedom of navigation
For China, those operations pose strategic pressure on China. The US’s measure is to creating troubles for China frequently in its territory, so that they can take the lead in influencing the South China Sea situation and Sino-US maritime exchange. Besides, those operations have challenged China’s South China Sea claim and China’s rights and interest there, changing sea areas under China’s jurisdiction to sea areas China claims to have jurisdiction. This changes the construction of Chinese discourse system from a objective status to a subjective status. China’s operations in South China Sea areas, especially the Spratly Islands, will be forced to slow down.
For regional influence, it has stirred the South China Sea situation, making other countries be on guard against and try to challenge China’s claims and operations on the South China Sea. Besides, it leads the Southeast Asia countries to find a strategic balance between China and the US, avoiding those countries standing with China. In addition, it can damage the negotiation of the Code of conduct in the South China Sea. The US tried to impose its will in the Code via a third party.
For global influence, China and the US are strategic power that can affect the global landscape, so their confrontation at sea will harm the global stability. Countries all around the world have more confidence on the US’s power in maintaining marine rights, thus the US gains more advantage in international marine competition. Major countries, including the UK, France, Australia, Japan and India, will further increase their support to the US at sea and at diplomatic level.
US South China Sea policy development trend
The US is testing China’s bottom line on the South China Sea and take it as jetton to increase their strength. The US’s capriciously action will result in China’s active or even hard response. The regional situation will enter a “soft nervous” situation.
Firstly, the US’s South China Sea policies will be more progressive. Operations declaring freedom of navigation and military exercise are becoming important measures for the US to realize concrete policies and strategic objectives. On one hand, the US will follow the result of South China Sea Arbitration and try to find the bottom line of China of China’s claims at sea. On the other hand, the US is likely to challenge China’s bottom line, forcing China to tacitly approve and accept it through low-intensity activities such as humanitarian assistance exercise.
Secondly, the intensity of the US three-dimensional "operations declaring freedom of navigation" may be further enhanced, and the synergy between air, water and underwater operation will be further improved. Warships, military aircraft, submarines and unmanned submarines will be used to set difficulties for China.
Thirdly, The US will take further actions that reflect its needs, and develop and create customary ocean laws. The characteristics of American international law that evolved under the rules of “voyage and overflight freedom” will become more apparent, and China must take effective measures to curb it.
The situation in the South China Sea is returning to a new "stimulus-response" state. The US still holds the strategic initiative, and to some extent, China has returned to a state of passive response. Under the constraints of the Sino-US trade war, China needs more strategic wisdom on how to break through the soft strategic dilemma caused by "freedom of navigation." Maintaining the status quo of “stimulus-response” should not and will not be China’s strategic bottom line in the South China Sea.