The USS Nimitz is representative of the kind of hard military power that the US is now putting aside in favor of different tools of technological and commercial coercion, Photo: Elliot Schaudt/US Navy

In the latest sign of continuity in US policy in Asia, the newly-inaugurated Biden administration is toughening its stance on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.  

In its latest Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, the Pentagon deployed the guided-missile destroyer USS Russell well into the 12 nautical mile zone around the Chinese-claimed islands in the Spratlys. 

Only weeks earlier, another US warship, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John McCain, conducted a similar operation in the Paracel Islands, which is contested by China and Vietnam. The Biden administration also oversaw the Pentagon’s first dual-carrier operation this year, featuring drills by the Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Groups in the area. 

The new US leadership’s expanded naval deployments to the area have coincided with toughening diplomatic posturing. The US State Department lambasted Beijing’s recently-passed controversial China Coast Guard Law, calling it a source of deep “concern” and likely part of the Asian superpower’s broader effort to coercively “assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.” 

Beijing’s new maritime law has provoked outrage among US’ allies in Asia, since it calls on China’s massive fleet of coast guard forces, along with auxiliary paramilitary vessels, to use “all means necessary,” including shooting at “intruders,” across the contested waters.  

The latest moves by the US in the contested area came on the heels of US President Joe Biden’s characterization of the Asian powerhouse as America’s “most serious competitor” because of its allegedly direct assault on the post-World War II “global governance” structures established under Washington’s leadership. 

Though expressing his openness to “work with China when it benefits the American people,” the new US president has largely adopted the former Trump administration’s aggressive pushback against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness in Asia. 

Joe Biden’s administration is increasing the pressure on China with more US Navy ships visiting the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Major naval operations

In its first month in office, the Biden administration has conducted at least three major naval operations in waters near China, which is by far the most robust American show of force in the past decade. 

Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Russell was only the latest American warship to challenge China’s excessive claims in international waters. 

“This freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan,” a statement by the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said.

Over the past four years, on average the US conducted almost half a dozen such operations annually, a dramatic escalation from the Obama administration’s unfulfilled promise of at least quarterly FONOPs in the mid-2010s, with only two such operations in 2015 and only three in 2016. 

From practically zero operations in 2014, the Trump administration escalated the operations to as many as six in 2017 and nine in 2019. Based on current trends, the Biden administration could be well on track in matching, if not surpassing, its Republican predecessor in directly challenging Beijing’s expansive claims in adjacent waters, reflecting an increasingly hawkish turn in Democratic foreign policy on China. 

Washington claims that such deployments, whereby US warships deliberately ignore China’s territorial sea claims around contested or artificially-reclaimed land features, are essential to constraining the Asian superpower’s maritime ambitions and, accordingly, protecting the legitimate and lawful interests of smaller claimants as well as external powers.  

US 7th Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Joe Keiley criticized China’s “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea” as posing a “serious threat to the freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations. ”  

This US Navy photo from October 7, 2019, shows the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (L) and the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer and ships from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP/Erwin Jacob V Miciano/Navy Office of Information

‘Innocent passage’

The Pentagon also warned China against “the unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage,” describing its FONOPs as consistent with prevailing international law and the right to “innocent passage” for warships through international waters. 

“China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines each claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratly Islands. China, Vietnam and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all states – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea,” the 7th Fleet spokesman added, portraying its latest FONOPs as essential to upholding international law in the South China Sea. 

“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed” by countries such as China in international waters, the Pentagon claims. 

The State Department, meanwhile, has also upped the ante by voicing “concern” over China’s recent moves, especially authorizing coast guard forces to use force against rival claimant states in adjacent waters. 

The text of the new Chinese law, according to the State Department, “strongly implies [it] can be used to intimidate the PRC’s [China’s] maritime neighbors.” 

“We remind the PRC and all whose forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime forces act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities,” said state department spokesperson Ned Price. 

“We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea,” he added. 

In response to the Biden administration’s tough policy in the South China Sea, China accused the US of “seriously violating China’s sovereignty and security, gravely undermining regional peace and stability, and deliberately disrupting the good atmosphere of peace, friendship and co-operation in the South China Sea.”

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly has dispatched an attack submarine to the disputed area. Photo: AFP/Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC

‘Free access operation’

There are signs that other key US allies are joining in, concerned with implications of China’s naval assertiveness for regional security. Earlier this month, French Defense Minister Florence Parly revealed that the country had already dispatched an attack submarine to the disputed area, while Britain and Germany are expected to also conduct major drills in waters adjacent to China in the coming months. 

Separately, a Royal Canadian Navy warship also conducted its own “free access operation” through the Taiwan Strait en route to joint exercises with counterparts from the US, Australia and Japan. 

Michael Shoebridge, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), recently warned “what’s different now, though, is that with this new [maritime] law [China President] Xi [Jinping] has told his coastguard to be wolf warriors at sea – and to use force, including lethal force, to assert Chinese interests.” 

Among the US’ major allies, Japan seems to be the most troubled by China’s latest move, with several Chinese Coast Guard vessels entering contested waters in the East China Sea shortly after the passage of the new “open fire” law. 

Tokyo described the Chinese coast guard’s latest deployments deep into the Japan-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as “regrettable” and warned any act of intimidation or violence by Chinese maritime forces is “absolutely unacceptable” and will be met with corresponding countermeasures. 

“These activities are a violation of international law,” exclaimed Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, describing the contested rocks and atolls as Japan’s “inherent territory.”