This US Navy photo shows the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, and ships from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in formation while conducting operations in the US 7th Fleet area of operations on October 6, 2019, in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP / Erwin Jacob V Miciano / Navy Office of Information

The UK, Germany, France and India have deployed warships that have transited or will transit the South China Sea. Many say this convergence is intended to demonstrate their collective and coordinated will and capability to defend the existing “international order” against China’s illegal claims and bullying. 

But while Washington may have thought – or wanted the world and Americans to think – that these countries were in united support of its crusade to contain China, they each had their own motives and their messages were mixed.

But before analyzing the details of the messaging, it is important to clear up some confusion regarding the purpose of these deployments. Some have implied that they are freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims. They are not. 

FONOPs are formal pre-programmed operational challenges with warships and warplanes against claims the US believes are inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), such as prior permission to enter a territorial sea, closing baselines around the Paracels, or claims to low-tide features.

Whatever it is that Beijing is claiming with its nine-dash line, it has no objection to normal passage of warships through the South China Sea. To imply that such passages are a challenge to China’s claims or FONOPs is inaccurate.

The confusion stems in part from the United States’ disingenuous conflation of freedom of commercial navigation with its military priorities there – freedom to probe China’s defenses and to attempt to intimidate it into abandoning its claims.

The US implies that China’s objection to its military probes and FONOPs is a threat to commercial navigation. But – other than temporarily closing off high seas for the safety of navigation during military exercises – China has not interfered with commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime.

This US Navy photo shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducting under-way operations on April 28, 2020, in the South China Sea. Photo: Samuel Hardgrove / US Navy / AFP

China, however, does object by word and deed to what it perceives as the US military’s abuse of “freedom of navigation,” its violations of UNCLOS and its intimidation and coercion in enforcing its own interpretation of UNCLOS provisions – even though it is not a party to that treaty.

The US has for many years been pressuring others in and outside the region to join its FONOPs there, without success. US allies including Australia, Japan and the Philippines have so far declined such US requests.

They all have their own particular reasons for doing so but a common one is that they do not see China’s claims as a threat to commercial traffic or their security, despite Washington’s dire warnings to the contrary.

The UK is the only country that has answered the call – and that was a unilateral one-off. In 2018, HMS Albion undertook a FONOP that violated China’s closing lines around the Paracels, one of Beijing’s most egregious claims.

Perhaps London was trying to please the Americans but avoid serious provocation by refraining from challenging China’s sovereignty claims to low tide features. In any event, given the political and economic blowback from China, it is unlikely to do so again under current circumstances.

In September 2020, France, Germany and the UK jointly submitted a note verbale to the United Nations emphasizing “the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas” in the South China Sea. Given this context, the deployments certainly send a collective political and strategic signal – the latter intended or not.

Beijing perceives the South China Sea as being well within its “sphere of influence.” For China, it is a historically vulnerable underbelly that must be turned into a “natural shield for its national security.”

It also provides relative “sanctuary” for its second-strike nuclear submarines. They are its insurance against a first strike – something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed. So to China, these deployments mean that the US and its allies want to deny it the defensive buffer and sanctuary of the South China Sea.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy holds live fire drills in the South China Sea. Image: Agencies

The strategic problem is that China’s military controls its near seas including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and the US and its allies will not be able to get to a conflict there in time.

Given this background, what specific messages did the deployments send in terms of what they are willing and capable of doing about that?

The US Pacific Command organized joint exercises with the militaries of Australia, Japan and the UK in the Philippine Sea. According to the Pacific Command, this Large Scale Exercise 2021 signaled “to our competitors [that] the US military remains ready for the high end of warfare expressly because of its global commitments.”

This was the largest military exercise in the area since the Cold War. The US clearly intended to demonstrate its capacity and will to both China and to its allies and friends in Asia. It hoped that its partners would do the same.

UK treads cautiously

But did they? The UK sent its premier aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group to sail through the South China Sea. China warned it not to undertake any “improper acts” – and it complied. It explicitly avoided sailing within the 12-nautical-mile territorial seas of China’s claimed features.

The UK’s actions and reassurances diluted the United States’ intended message by not challenging China’s claims to some of the disputed features that the US says are illegitimate. 

The UK also announced that the strike group would not sail through the sensitive Taiwan Strait, an act that China would consider politically provocative. Ironically, under UNCLOS it has the right to do so – but unlike the US, which seems to enjoy provoking China, it chose not to.

In sum, the message sent by the UK naval deployment was definitely mixed and muddled. Further confusing the message, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin questioned the wisdom of Britain undertaking such a mission so far from its own region where its capabilities could be more efficiently and effectively applied.

He seemed to be cautioning the UK to be careful and not start something it cannot finish.

Germany plays both sides

Germany’s message was even more tentative and mixed. For the first time in nearly 20 years, Germany deployed a warship, the frigate Bayern, to the region and through the South China Sea.

As it set sail, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “We aim to be involved and to take responsibility for maintaining the rule-based international order.”

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer declared, “The message is clear, we are raising the flag for our interests and values.” This is “important” because “for our partners in the Indo-Pacific, it is a reality that sea routes are no longer open and secure….”

This was nonsense both in fact and in intent. In truth, Germany tried to hedge to please both the US and China.

It sent the Bayern because of pressure from the US. But it assured China that it would not undertake any provocations or confrontations. It pledged to confine its transit to traditional sea lanes and that it would not enter the Taiwan Strait. It also pointedly said it would not participate in the massive US-organized joint exercises in the Philippine Sea.

German crew waves from aboard the frigate “Bayern”, which will spend seven months in the sea area between the Horn of Africa, Australia and Japan, August 2, 2021. Photo: AFP via DPA / Sina Schuldt

It even went one step further to mollify China by requesting a port visit in Shanghai. But because that port call would have occurred before it entered the South China Sea (on its return journey from Japan), it conveyed to some that Germany was implicitly requesting China’s approval of the transit.

Ironically, China rejected the request pending a better explanation of why Germany was sending the Bayern to the region in the first place. So Germany’s hedging backfired, and it now may be forced either to further muddle the message or anger China.

India wary of red lines

Now India is sending a naval task force to the South China Sea. “The deployment of the Indian Navy ships seeks to underscore the operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries towards ensuring good order in the maritime domain,” the navy said.

The vessels will have individual military exercises with Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia and then join those of the US, Japan, Australia in the annual Malabar exercises.

But India’s participation in a security arrangement against China is not certain. India is steadfastly non-aligned and moreover does not measure up to US preferred standards of democracy and human rights. These differences could present serious obstacles to a closer security relationship.

Moreover, China can use its economic might and pressure on its disputed land boundary to prevent India from being actively involved in a security grouping against it. The deployment may be a counter to China’s pressure on their common border in Ladakh. But India is unlikely to cross a red line and challenge Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

The Indian Navy’s INS VIkrant aircraft carrier leaves the Cochin Shipyard for sea trials. Photo: Indian Ministry of Defense

Despite the political and strategic signaling, China is unlikely to be militarily intimidated by the occasional transits of a few naval vessels sending mixed messages.

In response, Beijing announced a simultaneous large-scale military exercise in the northwestern South China Sea involving a variety of services and weapons. There is a rumor that it may even include test firing of its “carrier-killer missiles” as it did last year in the same area. That would be an escalation of the messaging “war.”

Where is this mixed messaging contest likely to go – and end? It certainly is not going in the right direction, and mixed messaging only contributes to the risk of conflict.

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.