Beijing, be warned. Germany’s sending a frigate. The UK has an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Australia’s joining India in part of a Pacific tour. And now, the US has deployed its most potent battle group in decades.
“China’s military will take all necessary means to deal with (any provocation) resolutely and effectively,” Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian warned last week.
“China is not afraid of any provocateurs. Neither Britain nor Germany has the power to fight China in the South China Sea. I believe they are very clear on this,” the editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times Hu Xijin proclaimed in a video dialogue.
But it’s not just Britain and Germany. It’s also India, Denmark, France, Japan, the United States and Australia. And, to a lesser extent, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
All are taking part in international co-ordination and co-operation exercises as the warships circle through the troubled region.
Beijing’s wolf-warrior media has singled out the US for the most intense criticism. But Australia also gets a mention.
“Since the US views China as its top strategic competitor, it needs to follow the rules of the great power’s game and keep a distance from China’s strength,” it declares. “Japan and Australia, in particular, must be warned that they need to keep their distance and that it is dangerous for them to provoke China by following the steps of the US.”
Germany’s frigate, the Bayern, left its home port on Monday on the first leg of its voyage to Southeast Asia. During the next seven months, it will exercise in the Mediterranean, join the anti-piracy effort off Somalia, and poke its nose into the South China Sea. Along the way, it will visit Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Australia.
It’s the first German naval visit to the region in almost two decades.
On Wednesday, four Indian Navy warships pulled out of harbour on a two-month tour of duty to Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. The task group, which includes a guided-missile destroyer and a frigate, has been given the mission to “expand security ties with friendly countries”.
The brand new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has already passed without incident through the South China Sea. It is leading a multinational group of destroyers and frigates on a 42,000km voyage, including combat exercises involving Japan, France, Australia, and the US.
But the largest assembly of warships is coming from America.
All three of its advanced Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarines slipped into the Pacific at the same time last month. Their destinations and missions are not likely to be revealed.
But, this month, the US Navy is making a much more visible statement.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson has put to sea leading one of the largest fleets in over a decade. With it is the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champion and six Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers – USS Chafee, USS Dewey, USS Higgins, USS Michael Murphy, USS O’Kane and USS Stockdale.
Most recent US aircraft carrier deployments have been a fraction of this size.
Beijing has warned the German and British warships against taking “wilful actions” against China during their deployments to Southeast Asia. It has accused them of joining “the US’ political mobilisation of the West”.
But there is a reason for the growing display of global displeasure.
Beijing has built several artificial islands out of non-territorial reefs and sandbars in the South China Sea. It has put military-grade airfields, ports and barracks on most of these – along with heavy gun and missile defences.
It’s using these islands to assert ownership over their 12 nautical mile (22km) ocean boundaries and claiming “archipelago” island chain rights by connecting these territorial dots.
However, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not consider tidal reefs and sandbanks territorial soil. Turning them into artificial islands doesn’t change this.
And that’s even before taking into consideration the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration 2016 ruling that rejected Beijing’s claim of historical ownership over the entire sea as being without basis.
Beijing has ignored both rules-based judgments.
It insists Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia have no territorial rights to the South China Sea. It makes similar claims against Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea.
So far, only the US has been willing to sail its warships through Beijing’s claimed 12 nautical mile (22km) boundaries around its artificial islands and the Taiwan Strait. Britain, France, Japan and Australia have so far largely limited their warship manoeuvres to less contested waters.
Friends in need
“It’s good to talk about our values, but it’s even better to prove it,” says German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. “The frigate Bayern is heading towards the Indo-Pacific – a sign of stability, prosperity and a rule-based, multilateral order. Together with our valued partners in the region, Germany is showing its presence in the Indo-Pacific and setting an example of solidarity.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by New Delhi. “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 …” an Indian defence ministry statement reads.
But, while asserting their rights to international shipping lanes within Beijing’s arbitrary “Nine Dash Line” claim, both India and Germany are unlikely to provoke Beijing directly.
Despite months of speculation, Britain’s aircraft carrier task force last month steered clear of China’s artificial island fortresses. Nor did it approach Taiwan. Instead, it crossed through the “Nine Dash Line” on its way to the Philippine Sea.
Beijing has applauded London’s tact.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted a source “close to the People’s Liberation Army” as saying the People’s Liberation Army had been “satisfied with the British carrier strike group’s low-profile naval presentation”.
“China hopes navy vessels of other nations abide by international law when sailing across the South China Sea, respect the rights and sovereignty of the coastal nations, and avoid actions that damage regional peace,” China’s foreign ministry added.
Equal and opposite reaction
China has responded to this increase in international naval activity by hold yet military exercises of its own. Between Friday and Tuesday, a vast 100,000sq km in the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands has been declared “off-limits” for a live weapons drill “as a response to the joint Indo-Pacific military exercise”.
“We must prove to the US and its allies that we love peace, but we are not afraid of a war with the US in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. We are determined and capable to fight until the end and defeat it if these areas are attacked by the US.
“If the US deploys its military forces to the South China Sea, no matter how many warships they send, they will only be like a group of rabbits partying obliviously while China’s guns aim at them.”
But among these belligerent words was something of a backdown.
Global Times editor-in-chief Hu said the UK, Dutch, Indian and German warships would “not create a conflict with China” as long as they pass through the area “normally in accordance with international law”.
Previous wolf-warrior diplomacy had sought to deny the right of any international warship to access the broad Nine-Dash Line claim; essentially barring them from the South China Sea.
But the Global Times drew the line at its artificial island fortresses and, by implication, the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands.
“The South China Sea is an international waterway where countries enjoy freedom of navigation. However, it is located next to Chinese islands and reefs that are part of China’s core interests. China will not tolerate for a long time the US playing a geopolitical card to showcase its hegemony,” he said.
“We strongly hope that the commanders of those warships have the strategic awareness of maintaining their country’s relations with China and will not take willful actions in the South China Sea.”
By Jamie Seidel