On July 1, China’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy and Coast Guard began exercises in the South China Sea that included practice of amphibious assaults. They were held in a declared temporary maritime exclusion zone (MEZ) southeast of Hainan and “in portions” of the China-controlled but Vietnam-claimed Paracel Islands.
The Pentagon lambasted China, saying that “conducting military exercises over [sic] disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to … easing tensions and maintaining stability.” It charged that “such exercises “violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [DOC] to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
It concluded by urging “all parties to exercise restraint and not undertake military activities that might aggravate disputes.” The Philippines and Vietnam also objected.
The US then demonstrated how China should behave by ordering two its most prominent symbols of power – aircraft-carrier strike groups – into the South China Sea. According to a spokesman for the US Seventh Fleet, “the presence of two carriers is not in response to any political or world events.” This is hypocritical nonsense.
The carriers’ deployment is obviously a response to the US-perceived “China threat.” It is certainly not a good example of restraint. Moreover it is destabilizing because it aggravates tensions with China.
It is not clear exactly what the critics are objecting to – the area covered by the MEZ; the content of the MEZ; the exercises themselves, or all of these. Assuming the MEZ covers the same area as the one China declared in 2016, it does extend over a fringe of the Paracels and their territorial waters. But even then, the issue is not straightforward.
Sovereignty over the Paracels is disputed between China (and Taiwan) and Vietnam. But China has occupied them since 1974 when it seized them from South Vietnam. At the time, South Vietnam requested assistance from the US, but it was denied. The US State Department refused the request, declaring, “We have no claims ourselves and we are not involved in the dispute’ It is for the claimants to solve among themselves.”
So the current US complaint is a bizarre twist to its past position and rhetoric in that it is now implicitly questioning China’s sovereignty over the Paracels.
Vietnam loudly and formally objected because it has revived its long-dormant (some might say weak and futile) claim to the Paracels. It called the exercises ”a violation of sovereignty that could be detrimental to Beijing’s relationship with ASEAN.” The latter is hype, since the dispute involves only Vietnam and China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nation has tried to steer clear of it.
If the objection is that China is using the islands as a base for part of its exercises, that is not new and hardly newsworthy. This is certainly not the first time China has declared an MEZ and exercised in that area. Moreover, Vietnam has long had a military presence on disputed features in the Spratlys and presumably has carried out exercises. Perhaps the concern is not the principle but the scale of the disputed territory and exercises – or who is doing it.
If the US objection is because of the MEZ’s temporary mandatory restriction of foreign access to “international waters,” that is a rather technical point. China’s MEZ declaration does make the avoidance of the area by other ships and aircraft mandatory while the US claims that it only “recommends” that they stay away.
But in practice the US does not allow foreign military aircraft or vessels – particularly submarines – to get close to its aircraft carriers. Moreover that is not what the Pentagon said was the problem.
If the US and others are complaining about China’s exercises using the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending from Hainan or the Paracels (assuming Beijing can legally generate one), then there is no prohibition on that – whether disputed or not – assuming the exercises did not violate the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) regimes for peaceful purposes, consent for marine scientific research and environmental protection.
Indeed, the US does the same – including in the South China Sea. It would be the height of hypocrisy if the US is asserting that China is violating a treaty that Washington itself has not ratified and may regularly violate. And if the exercises were in an area beyond any country’s claimed EEZ, unrestricted freedom of navigation applies.
If, as some suspect, the objection is really that China undertook another military exercise in the South China Sea, this would be the height of hypocrisy. In May 2019 US, Japanese, and Indian naval ships along with the Philippines conducted military exercises in the South China Sea.
In March 2019, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that capturing islands would be “critical for us to project power in the context of China.”
In April 2020 the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy held joint operations in Malaysia’s claimed EEZ, apparently without its knowledge or required permission. These exercises included the amphibious assault ship America. Given Dunford’s proclamation, these exercises were threatening and thus destabilizing.
The Philippines chimed in saying China’s exercises were “highly provocative.” But it is not clear what exactly the Philippines – a non-claimant to the Paracels – was concerned about. Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin “urged [China] to adhere to the rule of law and their commitments to international instruments such as the 2002 DOC.” But the Philippines has repeatedly and continuously violated the same DOC clause that it and the US cite.
In sum, these reactions are hyped and hypocritical.