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AN ANALYSIS OF THE US FONOP EXERCISES & CHINA’S RESPONSES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA (2020-23)

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

By Sruthi Sadhasivam, Sejal Mehta & Varshini S

Image Courtesy: Instytut Boyma


Article : 19/023


Introduction

China and the US are two of the most significant powers in the South China Sea. In this light, it becomes imperative to take cognisance of the maritime endeavors undertaken by these countries as they have serious implications to the region and the rest of the world. The paper specifically analyzes the role of China and the US by scrutinizing US FONOP exercises and China’s response to the same.


The data comprising the US FONOP exercises in the South China Sea (SCS) and the ensuing China’s response during the period, 2020-23 has been presented in a tabular form. Firstly, the paper seeks to analyze the nature of the US navigation exercises (frequency of the exercise, activities undertaken during the exercise and duration of the exercise). Secondly, the paper examines the nature of China’s perception and responses to the US FONOP exercises for the time period 2020-23.


Finally, by using this data, the paper intends to find out if the US and China have achieved their respectives objectives in the South China Sea.


The rationale behind US FONOP exercises in the South China Sea (SCS)

The U.S. Freedom of Navigation Exercise conducted since 1979 upholds the principle of Freedom of Navigation (Freund, 2017). The FONOP exercises reinforce the internationally recognised rights and freedom of the U.S. to fly, sail and operate wherever international waters allows, thereby challenging unlawful and excessive maritime claims by countries. The U.S. discredits China’s claim over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea over specific claims corresponding to straight baselines that are not drawn in accordance with the international law and jurisdiction over airspace above the exclusive economic zones. The other areas that the US is opposition to China’s position is the need for prior permission for innocent passage of military ships through the territorial sea and the implied claim to territorial sea and airspace around features not so entitled (i.e., low-tide elevations)(Department of Defense, 2023, 2-5).


The U.S conducts routine operations in the South China Sea (SCS) to uphold its geostrategic interests. For instance, China’s military assets in the first island chain of the SCS could curtail the US to intervene militarily during the Taiwan crisis or similar events. “ The Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) region constitute 38 percent of the world’s oceans. If these excessive maritime claims were left unchallenged, they could restrict the ability of the United States and other countries to conduct routine military operations or exercises in more than one-third of the world’s oceans” (Congressional Research Services, 2023). This indicates that the US government perceives itself as a maritime police officer that seeks to confront the norm breakers by challenging their unreasonable maritime claims and in the process upholding the maritime rights of all nations in the South China Sea.


Along with upholding freedom of navigation, the US intends to secure its economic rights in the South China Sea. Major commercial shipping routes pass through the South China sea (Chen et al., 2017,306). Some of those routes link the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. “As of 2016, an estimated $3.4 trillion worth of international shipping trade passed through the SCS every year.” The US Department of Defense (DOD) claim that “the South China Sea plays an important role in security considerations across East Asia because Northeast Asia relies heavily on the flow of oil and commerce through the South China Sea shipping lanes, including more than 80 percent of the crude oil [flowing] to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.” In addition, the ECS and SCS contain potentially significant oil and gas exploration areas” (Congressional Research Services, 2023).


In sum, the US perceives the South China Sea (SCS) as a global common and uses its FONOP exercises to reiterate the same. FONOP is used as a means to challenge countries that make illegal claims in the high seas and which the US perceives as violating its maritime sovereignty. It legitimizes its FONOP exercises by citing the UNCLOS (which the US is not party to). Along with upholding territorial rights, the FONOP exercises are conducted by the US to ensure the free passage of goods across the SCS. Apart from standing up for its rights, the US seeks to also support its Southeast Asian counterparts in securing their rights over offshore resources in the South China sea. From analyzing the objectives of US’s FONOP exercises, it can be deciphered that the US intends to act as the supervisor in ensuring the lawful uses of the sea and airspace of the SCS.


The rationale behind China’s endeavors in the South China Sea

Since 2013, China has built seven artificial islands in the South China Sea amounting to 2470 acres of new land (Huang, 2022). It lays claims over several islands, banks, reefs and a shoal including Pratas Islands, Paracels Island, Spratly Island, Macclesfield Bank, Scarborough Shoal, Hughes Reef, Johnson Reef and the like.


China uses its historical maps from the Song and Ming dynasty to lay its claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands emphasizing the nine-dash line as part of China. China uses historicity to build on its claims (Pradhan, 2022). The nine-dash line (incorporated in maps released by China) indicates that the ocean, islands and reefs surrounding the South China Sea (SCS) belongs to China (Shukla, 2020). As per the Chinese maps, the nine dash line covers around 90% of the 3.5 million square kilometer of the SCS (Lague, 2012).


According to China, the content in UNCLOS is heavily influenced by the US. China claims that the international arbitration panel invalidated its historic claim to the SCS. Moreover, it strongly believes that China was persuaded to agree to compulsory dispute settlement in the SCS. China wants like minded countries to issue a joint UNCLOS document that would oppose compulsory arbitration (Valencia, 2023).


In sum, it can be said that China bases its claims on the South China Sea (SCS) citing its historical control over the region. China establishes artificial islands and militarizes them to secure its assets in the SCS domain and to assert its maritime sovereignty. Finally, China intends to unilaterally exploit natural resources of the SCS as it perceives the maritime domain as its territory. Most importantly, China views the SCS dispute as an Asian dispute and thereby considers outside interference, especially the activities of the US in the SCS as an act of establishing navigational hegemony. China desires to resolve the SCS dispute through regional actors and forums (Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Commonwealth of Bahamas, 2023). For instance, recently, China and the ASEAN countries decided to conclude the non-aggression pact, an effort to prevent escalation of disputes in the South China Sea. (The Hindu, 2023).


The US FONOP Exercises (2020-23) & China’s Response: An Analysis






















The chief objective of the paper is to analyze the behavior of China and the U.S. in the South China Sea in the context of US FONOP exercises and China’s responses to the same during the period of 2020-23. The paper begins by making general observations of the tabular data and gradually moves to explain the specificities of the same.





Note:

Highlighted in red- changes in China’s response from 2020-23

Highlighted in yellow- changes in US FONOP exercises from 2020-23

State actor's behavioural changes have been observed for the time-period: 2020-2023


An overall glance at the tables would indicate that the nature of exchanges between the U.S. and China during 2020-2023 over the FONOP exercises has been over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, indicating that these islands are perceived as paramount to the security interests of both the states. The Spratly archipelago is crucial to Chinese interests as three reclaimed islands (Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross) are fully militarized with warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and radars (The Guardian, 2022). The Paracel Islands houses 20 outposts of which the woody island is the largest. These islands are part of China’s anti-access/ area denial strategy to keep Washington out of intervention in case of conflict (ANI, 2021). Therefore, it becomes imperative for the United States to establish its rights and freedom to traverse these waters and conduct routine military operations to challenge the excessive maritime claims of China. Additionally, the South China Sea is crucial for the U.S.’s economic interests as major commercial shipping routes pass through this region (Congressional Research Services, 2023).


Upon closer inspection of the data presented, it is significant to note that destroyers are the primary vessels that have carried out the FONOP exercises in the South China Sea during the period 2020-23 with an exception being the 29 April 2020 FONOP exercise where a Ticonderoga class guided missile, cruiser USS Bunker Hill was used for the same. During this time, China declared that the Paracels and Spratly Islands will constitute administrative districts. Thereby, the usage of a cruiser by the US indicates that the situation in SCS is more volatile in comparison to other times.


Similarly, the Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville (renamed USS Robert Smalls) was deployed in November 2022 to carry out the FONOP exercise near the Spratly Islands post its passage across the Taiwan strait on August 28, 2022. The Ticonderoga class guided missile cruisers are the most expensive as well as the most powerful surface combatants in the world with multiple target capabilities (Navysite.de, n.d.). Therefore, from the deployment of such vessels during times of escalated tensions, it can be inferred that the U.S. is combat-ready to act against any reactive actions of China whilst traversing the disputed waters.


The US conducted the highest number of FONOP, 8 exercises in 2020 in comparison to 2021, 2022 and 2023 (Larter, 2022). Amidst covid pandemic, China surged its military activities in the South China Sea (SCS). China harassed and sank fishing boats of the Southeast Asian nations, imposed its unilateral fishing ban across the region, deployed survey vessels in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. (Stilwell & Phạm, 2020) These activities triggered the US to extend a strong response to China, by increasing its FONOP exercises in the SCS.


The year 2020 also witnessed a series of contentious exchanges between the two major powers. In August 2020, China accused the US of sending its spy planes into a no fly zone when China was conducting its naval drills in the Bohai Sea (Huang, 2020). As a result, China fired two missiles including an aircraft-carrier killer into the SCS. This pushed the US to send its USS Mustin (DDG-89), a guided-missile destroyer to commence yet another FONOP exercise across the Paracel Island (LaGrone, 2020).


The paper moves to discuss some specific observations made with regards to some FONOP exercises in the South China Sea (SCS) and China’s response to the same.


The data collected from Tables 1.1 and 1.3 reveal that there had been two FONOP exercises conducted exclusively in April 2020 and July 2022 alone. This increased activity (2 exercises in one month) by the U.S. is to discredit China’s claim of sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands which also coincides with the escalated tensions between China and the U.S. On 21st April 2020, China announced that the Spratly and Paracel (Xisha and Nansha) Islands were to be declared as distinct administrative districts, a means to claim sovereignty over the Islands. The FONOP exercises conducted on two consecutive days (28th and 29th April 2020) in the territorial waters of the Spratly and Paracel Islands precisely discredit these claims and establish the U.S’s disposition to maintain free passage through these international waters.


Furthermore, in April 2020, a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk after getting rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel on the Paracel Island. Following this instance, the US conducted two FONOP exercises in April 2020 (Lo, 2020). Therefore, from the amplified US activity, it can be inferred that the state was assuming the role of a regional supervisor in the SCS, attempting to mend the behavior of the rule breaker- China whose act, the US perceives is in violation of the UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and rights over offshore resources.


Additionally, an aggravated response from Washington in April 2020 can be attributed to its belief that China was using the Covid pandemic period to establish its claims over the South China Sea knowing that other countries were preoccupied in ensuring the health security of their respective citizens. This reveals Washington’s willingness to act and uphold the right to innocent passage in the disputed SCS even during global emergencies.


Similarly, the two FONOP exercises conducted on the 13th and 16th of July 2022 reveal Washington’s steadfastness in legitimizing its right to freedom of navigation in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The 11th of July 2022 marked the sixth anniversary of the ruling declared by the International Arbitrational Tribunal that discredited China’s claim over the South China Sea (Reuters, 2022).This reflects the U.S’s interest in portraying its freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as in accordance with the law of the sea, UNCLOS.


In response to the July 2022 exercise, China reacted aggressively by accusing the US of meddling in an Asian dispute and demanding it to leave the region (The Diplomat, 2022). It can be inferred from China’s statement that China is perceiving the US as a foreigner in the SCS domain and shows China’s intention to deal with SCS affairs only with regional actors.

Since the beginning of 2021, China has responded to the US FONOP by “threatening to expel” US ships. However, in May 2021, China started claiming that it “expelled” the US ships. In response, we see the US dismissing China’s claims as untrue. From China’s responses, it can be inferred that China is indicating that in future it will expel US ships from the SCS. However, examining the US’s responses to China’s expulsion of its ships, it shows the US’s headstrong attitude, implying that the US will continue to do what it wants to do by completely disregarding China’s threats.


In addition, China released another statement in response to the May 2021 US FONOP exercises across the Taiwan Straits. It labeled the US action as a provocation and accused the US of sending wrong signals to “Taiwanese independent leaning forces.” Apart from the fact that the Taiwan Straits, Paracel and the Spratly Islands are located in proximity to each other, China might have clubbed the Taiwan issue with the US FONOP exercises for the following reason. China appears to not differentiate between its claims of territorial sovereignty between Taiwan and the SCS because the US is seen as a major impediment by China in pursuing its security interests in both cases. China perceives the US as a hindrance in achieving both reunification of Taiwan and asserting its sovereignty over the SCS.


Conclusion

From the tabular data and the analysis, it is evident that neither Washington would refrain from conducting the FONOP exercises in the South China Sea (SCS) nor Beijing will stop establishing its excessive claims in the South China Sea (SCS). The SCS has emerged as a theater for strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It can be noticed that while China has been unable to stall US’s FONOP exercises, the latter has also equally failed in preventing China from militarizing the SCS.

From examining the FONOP exercises and China’s responses to the same, it can be deduced that the zero sum game approach adopted by both the US and China is not the right means to ensure peace and stability in the SCS region, the end goal that both the states seek to achieve. It's troubling to note that the trajectory of US-China endeavours in the SCS is not helping establish stability in the region but rather is taking a diametrical turn by aggravating the crisis . To secure their national interests, the actions of both the great powers could result in the South China Sea becoming a major flashpoint in future conflicts.



(Ms. Sruthi Sadhasivam is Research Officer at C3S (Developed research questions and Analysis, assisted in data collection, ideated and provided the structure for the diagrams and edited the paper), Ms. Sejal Mehta is Research Intern at C3S (curated the diagram, assisted in data collection and made significant observations), Ms. Varshini S, Research Intern at C3S (assisted in data collection and made significant observations). The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)


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