The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain transits through the South China Sea while conducting a freedom of navigation operation. Photo: Markus Castaneda / US Navy

As the South China Sea once again heats up, dangerous wishful thinking, hypocrisy and pure nonsense have kept pace. Decision-makers and those who advise them need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

While the US and China have turned up the temperature of their rivalry for dominance there, also adding fuel to the fire is the involvement of US allies in the political scrum. France, the UK and Germany have announced they will be deploying warships that will transit the South China Sea.

This has led to some confusion regarding the purpose of these transits and in particular whether or not they are “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) aimed at China.

FONOPs are US Navy operational challenges with warships and warplanes against claims it believes are excessive – that is, they are inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The mission of the newly deployed UK aircraft-carrier strike group, according to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, is “flying the flag of Global Britain – projecting our influence, signaling our power, engaging with our friends and reaffirming our commitment to addressing security challenges of today and tomorrow.”

To most Southeast Asian countries, this language exudes colonial attitude and an old-fashioned display of power. But the fleet will likely not undertake FONOPs.

Nevertheless, Richard Javad Heydarian, a frequent pundit on the South China Sea, says, “The UK’s deployment of an aircraft-carrier strike group is part of emerging multilateral freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea pointed at China.”

US Navy Captain Tuan N Pham also contends that US allies and partners “have stepped up their presence and operations in the South China Sea in support of freedom of navigation.” This is their own wishful thinking and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues.

There is a clear distinction between normal passage of warships on the high seas and FONOPs. Like most other countries bordering the South China Sea, China is understandably uncomfortable with foreign warships on its doorstep. But it does not object to passage of such vessels through the high seas of the South China Sea or even waters under its jurisdiction – provided they do not violate its laws or UNCLOS.

To say that Britain’s deployment is a “freedom of navigation” operation is to repeat the US red herring that China is violating such freedoms. The US cleverly conflates the concept of commercial freedom of navigation with its military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes in, over and under China’s exclusive economic zone.

China has not and likely will not in peacetime interfere with commercial navigation. China does, however, object to US military probes when it believes they violate UNCLOS.

The US does challenge what it considers China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea like closing baselines around the Paracels and its regime requiring prior permission for warships to enter its territorial waters. But this only contributes to the conflation and confusion of the two freedoms.

Despite US entreaties, none – except the UK, once and unlikely to be repeated – have undertaken FONOPs against China and are unlikely to do so, either alone or with the US.

A FONOP by Royal Navy ships would be a provocative political statement and would likely send already troubled UK-China relations into a tailspin.

But the UK has purposefully avoided angering Beijing by announcing that it will not pass through the sensitive Taiwan Strait. Ironically, under UNCLOS, it has the right to do so, but unlike the US, which seems to enjoy provoking China, it is wisely choosing not to do so. Based on this decision, it is unlikely that it will undertake FONOPs during its passage through the South China Sea.

Germany has declared outright that one of its warships’ planned transit of the South China Sea will not enter the claimed territorial seas of any features there. Nevertheless, further confusing the issue, the US hailed this “support for the international rules-based order.”

According to French Indo-Pacific commander Rear-Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, “France does not conduct ‘FONOPs’ and does not intend to take part in territorial disputes, but aims to preserve the right given to any nation to sail, patrol and operate without constraints in the international air-sea commons [the high seas].”

Wishful thinking and misinformed pundits aside, hypocrisy is emanating from the highest levels of government.

Referring to the South China Sea situation, the Group of Seven countries – the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Japan – expressed “strong opposition to any unilateral actions that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order, such as the threat or use of force, large-scale land reclamation and building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes.”

While this was clearly aimed at China – and probably proposed and pushed by the US – these accusations could apply to other claimants, and some to the US as well. All the other South China Sea claimants except Brunei have undertaken “unilateral actions that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability.” These include “land reclamation and building of outposts” and their use for military purposes.

Vietnam occupies some 22 outposts – compared with China’s eight – and its military, maritime militia and coast guard are deployed to the area. The Philippines and Malaysia have constructed military outposts and deployed their coast guards and navies to the disputed area.

On their face, these deployments are threats to use force, a violation of UNCLOS and the UN Charter. If the concern is violation of principle as stipulated in the agreed ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, all are guilty.

The US is also undertaking “unilateral actions that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability.”

Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo piously proclaimed that Washington “opposes any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes” or to “make might right.” But that proclamation came on the heels of the first US deployment to the South China Sea in six years of two of its most iconic symbols of power, aircraft-carrier strike groups and a nuclear-capable bomber, operating together.

While Washington criticizes Beijing for not adhering to an arbitration panel’s legally binding decision against it, the US is hardly a paragon of virtue in such matters. In 1986, the US refused to abide by a legally binding decision of the International Court of Justice that it had violated international law by supporting the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors.

Moreover, as the US singles out and bashes China for its non-conformity with what it declares to be the international order, it neglects to call out similar “violations” by its “allies and partners” that it is purportedly defending against China’s depredations.

As for adherence to UNCLOS, the claims by the Philippines to a large swath of features and sea as Kalayaan, and that of Malaysia to various “rocks” because they lie on its claimed continental shelf, are not supported by UNCLOS and are not compatible with it. Also all claimants save Brunei have damaged the environment and overfished in the disputed area.

But the US stands out as the prime taker of unilateral actions that undermine regional stability, threaten use of force and violate the international order. Its belligerent “freedom of navigation” operations are an attempt to enforce its unilateral interpretation of a treaty – UNCLOS – that it did not ratify. This violates the “international order.”

This is the hypocrisy. Then there is some pure nonsense.

US Navy captain gets out of his depth

Captain Pham begins his recent CIMSEC (Center for International Maritime Security) China-threat piece cited above with a fantastic red-herring scenario of what he thinks the future will be like if the South China Sea becomes “China’s de facto home waters.” But it already is its “home waters” in the sense that it has several naval bases on its South China Sea coast and on occupied features in it – and depends on it as an economic lifeline. Yet none of Pham’s worst fears have been realized.

Moreover, some of the details of Pham’s scenario are ridiculous. China recognizes that the Natuna islands are Indonesian. Malaysia also recognizes Indonesia’s claims to the islands, so it is unlikely it would enter joint development with China in Indonesia’s claimed waters. Also his suggestion that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would rework a meeting agenda “based on guidance from Beijing” is an insult to ASEAN and underestimates its agency and diplomatic skill.

But Pham then uses this titillating scenario to warn of China’s attack on the “rules-based liberal international order that has provided global prosperity and security for over 70 years.” This is standard US government malarkey. Apparently to him, Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan and all other US violations of the “international order” never happened. More worryingly, Pham uses this red herring to call for US military action “now.”

Pham is obviously convinced that China is the “evil empire.” His summary of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s thinking is biased fantasy. He accuses China of using the cover of Covid-19 to expand its aggressive activities in the South China Sea. But in fact, China simply continued the pace of its activities there. It was the US that markedly stepped up its military presence and action during the Covid outbreak.

Pham then goes on to recycle his recommendations for US action. These have been suggested before and fortunately have not gained traction, for good reason – they are reckless, dangerous, and not in the US best interests of the US.

In short, the US can only provide support to those states that want it, whether it be militarily, legally or technically. Not many do. The few that may are reluctant to confront the giant neighbor they will have to live with long after the US presence in the region has withered.

The most unrealistic of Pham’s proposals is that the next Rim of the Pacific Exercise should be held in the South China Sea. Unless China is invited and accepts, this would be a recipe for political disaster.

Another of Pham’s wild ideas is to prompt China to overreact and overreach, “necessitating a strong response from the US and the international community.” This would be quite risky and could backfire by sparking a reaction beyond Washington’s will and capability to contain. This belongs in the same trash bin as his proposal to bring Russia into the fray.

Pham also argues that the “most effective and enduring way to dissuade and deter Beijing in the South China Sea is to impact its economy.” He says the US should do this by helping the rival claimants raise “China’s operating costs in the South China Sea.”

This sounds very much like a proposal to bleed China dry through an arms race as the US did with the Soviet Union. But an arms race with the soon-to-be-largest economy on the planet is not a good idea. China is not the Soviet Union, and if it comes to a defense-spending contest, the US is likely to lose.

Pham suggests that the US support rival claimants’ legal challenges to China. But their own maritime claims have some serious weaknesses. Also, as Pham seems to acknowledge, this would be the height of hypocrisy unless the US ratifies UNCLOS, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Regarding “maritime domain awareness,” it is refreshing that Pham acknowledges it for what it is – a US appeal to regional countries to cooperate in intelligence collection and sharing targeting China. That is one reason many are reluctant to do so.

Another reason is that they do not want to share information that could be used against them by other Southeast Asian countries. As the adage goes, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Despite this fountain of wishful thinking, hypocrisy and pure nonsense, one hopes that wiser heads will continue to prevail in US decision-making on the South China Sea.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.