Despite Navy requests, no operations near disputed South China Sea islands
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The U.S. military hasn’t announced any freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea since last year, signaling a break from earlier Trump administration rhetoric on curbing China’s ambitions.
The Pentagon has quashed multiple Navy requests to conduct the operations within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands and territories controlled by China but claimed by several nations, according to a New York Times report on Wednesday and a Breitbart report in March.
Pacific Command in Hawaii on Tuesday referred questions from Stars and Stripes on its FON operations to the Pentagon, which was not immediately available for comment early Wednesday.
President Donald Trump has already indicated he may be taking a softer approach with China in the hopes it will help prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons program.
After a missile test last month, Trump tweeted that “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”
Trump also declined to label China a currency manipulator, citing North Korea.
China may not want a nuclear North Korea, but its larger concerns have long revolved around U.S. troops on its border in a reunified Korea, as well as North Korean migrants flooding into China.
It remains unspoken whether a softer stance on China’s militarization of the South China Sea — where more than $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transits annually — is part of Trump’s North Korea calculus.
Lack of an Asia policy and Pentagon manpower may have been behind the lull in FON operations, said experts who spoke in March with Breitbart, a right-wing website previously run by Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Of 53 presidentially appointed positions at the Pentagon, only Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ job had been filled.
Although vacancies remain, enough time has passed to determine whether the lack of FON operations in the South China Sea is part of the White House’s new stance.
“I think we can conclude this isn’t just inertia … this is taking on the hallmarks of a conscious policy,” said Euan Graham, international security director at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.
China’s claim to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea based on “historical discovery” — a claim largely invalidated by an international tribunal that China ignored last year — has led to boat ramming, arrests and other low-level clashes between China and neighboring nations.
International officials and analysts have voiced repeated concerns that overreaction by any one party could result in a conflict that threatens peace in the region and the global economy.
“We have rebuilt China, and yet they will go in the South China Sea and build a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen,” Trump said during a campaign interview last year. “Amazing, actually. They do that, and they do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”
The Navy routinely sends its ships, most often those based with the 7th Fleet in Japan, on regular patrols through the South China Sea’s international waters. However, the White House didn’t approve FON operations, which challenge violations of international norms, for nearly three years in the South China Sea.
In October 2015, the USS Lassen transited within 12 miles of Subi Reef amid Chinese objections. As of 2012, Subi Reef was naturally sea bottom and therefore does not generate territorial waters under international law, despite Chinese claims.
Subi Reef is now roughly the size of Pearl Harbor, according to satellite imagery posted by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The Navy conducted more FON operations in 2016, with the last coming in October.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled a policy tougher than the Obama administration’s was on the way during his January confirmation hearing.
Lawmakers asked Tillerson what should be done about China’s artificial islands, which include runways long enough for its military aircraft, radar, deep harbors and self-propelled artillery.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island building stops, and, second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing in January.
That appears not to be the case thus far.
The Pentagon denied PACOM’s request to sail within 12 miles of Scarborough Shoal, according to the New York Times report. China controls access to the shoal, which lies about 120 miles from the Philippines.
Media outlets last year reported that President Barack Obama warned Chinese President Xi Jinping over developing the shoal. Facilities there would give China a perch near bases granted U.S. access by the Philippines. It would also create a large zone in the sea favorable to undersea control, analysts said at the time.
Meanwhile, China’s neighbors have struggled to unify in a bid to reduce South China Sea tensions.
At a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, draft language expressing concern about militarization was deleted from the final communique.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s staff had a hand in that, Graham said. Although the Philippines won a case against China at an international arbitral tribunal last year, Duterte has shelved its South China Sea dispute in a bid to curry economic favor with Beijing.
Other claimant nations are pursuing their interests with China at the diplomatic level, Graham said. However, none have the military clout to challenge China at sea.
“It’s unrealistic to expect any of the allies or partners to get ahead of the U.S. on freedom of navigation operations,” Graham said.