Tensions in the South China Sea continued during the last quarter of 2018. Tensions boiled over a near-collision incident between US and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea - adding fuel to the worsening ties between the two countries. On the other hand, smaller countries continued with their efforts to prevent miscalculations at sea and avoid armed confrontation.
Worsening US-China Ties fueled by the South China Sea Issue
On the last day of September, a near-collision incident occurred in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea when a Chinese Luyang destroyer approached within 45 yards of the US Navy ship USS Decatur in what the US Navy describes as an "unsafe" manner. The USS Decatur was able to maneuver in time to prevent the collision.
The day after the incident, then- US Secretary of Defense James Mattis cancelled his trip to Beijing where he was supposed to meet Chinese officials to discuss security issues. The cancellation was reflective of growing tensions between the two countries across multiple fronts.
Vice President Mike Pence joined in condemning the recent South China Sea incident and proceeded in denouncing various Chinese policies and actions including China’s ‘debt diplomacy’, and Chinese meddling in US politics. In his speech at the Hudson Institute on October 4, he spoke of China’s strategy of employing a whole-of-government approach - political, economic, military tools, as well as propaganda—to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States. Vice President Pence also slammed China for using the so-called “Debt Diplomacy” to forward its interests around the world.
China on the other hand accused the US Vice President of making “unfounded accusations.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on October 5 claimed that Pence’ remarks were nothing but based on “hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air.” She further called on the US to rectify the mistake and stop ungrounded accusations and slander against China.
The tensions were clear even during the China visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on October 8. During the meeting, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi demanded the US stop actions against China and to repair the relationship. Wang mentioned US adopting a series of actions on the Taiwan issue that harm China's rights and the “groundless” criticisms of China's domestic and foreign policies. The two sides also disagreed on who called off a security dialogue between the U.S. and Chinese defense officials scheduled for October.
On November 10, the US called on China to remove missile systems it had deployed in disputed features in the Spratly Islands. The statement came from the Pentagon, and is believed to be the first time US addressed the issue. On the same day, during a discussion to arrange the meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping later in November, top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi called on the US to stop sending ships and military aircraft close to Beijing’s claimed features in the South China Sea. However, Secretary Mattis responded by saying that the American military will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
On November 21, the Japan-based U.S. carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group arrived in Hong Kong, seen as a friendly gesture ahead of a planned meeting later that month between President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Two months before that port visit, China had denied a request by another US warship to visit the city.
Towards the end of November, however, the U.S. Navy sent the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville to conduct “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) near the Paracel islands in the South China Sea. The eventual meeting of the two leaders was hailed as a successful meeting by the White House due to the agreed 90-day truce over the US-China trade war.
Small countries and middle powers’ efforts to keep stability in the region
In ASEAN’s effort to maintain regional peace, navies of Southeast Asian countries conducted their first joint exercises with China from October 22 to 28 and even agreed to conduct a similar exercise with the US in 2019.
Days earlier, on October 19, ASEAN countries agreed to manage unexpected encounters between their military aircraft by signing a voluntary, non-binding guidelines document during a meeting of ASEAN defense ministers in Singapore. Three days later on October 22, US and China agreed in principle to the guidelines on air encounters adopted by the ASEAN countries. Military Chiefs including Secretary James Mattis and China’s General Wei Fenghe gave broad endorsement to the non-binding guidelines. The document states that “these guidelines will help reduce the likelihood of encounters or incidents spiraling into conflict in the event of a miscalculation.”
On November 8, Vietnamese expressed their strong protest against China’s planned weather stations on three of its islands, ostensibly to offer weather forecasts to fishermen in the South China Sea region, and to neighboring countries as well as passing ships. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang asserted that Vietnam has legal and historical basis for its sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracels, hence China must halt its actions.
On the 30th of November, the Southeast Asian regional grouping encountered some problems over the negotiating draft of the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct. Hanoi wanted a ban on any new Air Defense Identification Zone as well as to outlaw several actions of China in the South China Sea. (In 2013, Beijing announced a unilateral ADIZ over the East China Sea). China, on the other hand, expressed that it does not want military drills with outside powers in the South China Sea unless all signatories agree. China and ASEAN officials are set to continue negotiating over these major contentious issues.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met on December 1 during the sidelines of the summit of the G20 economic powers in Buenos Aires to reaffirm their shared values and strategic interests. On December 18, Japan acted to boost its military by approving a plan to adapt ships to become aircraft carriers and acquire new stealth fighters. Japan will be spending a record 27.5 trillion yen ($243 billion) on military equipment acquisition over the next five years – a 6.4% increase from the previous five-year plan.
The continued flexing of muscles by US and China since the earlier part of 2018 almost led to its predicted result of having miscalculations at sea. The near-collision incident between the USS Decatur and a Chinese destroyer was a clear illustration of where growing tensions might lead if unmanaged. The incident further triggered an exchange of feisty rhetoric between the US government and Chinese officials which involved various issues across multiple fronts -- Defense Minister James Mattis cancelling a meeting with Chinese officials and Mike Pence strongly calling out China over its deceptive foreign policies were immediate retaliations from the US reacting to Chinese aggression. The near-collision incident did not deter the US from conducting its FONOPs; and plans to respond via a major show of force at sea were hatched.
Despite this, the US prevented the tensions from spiraling further, mainly due to the scheduled meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. Engagement between the two sides continued such as Pompeo’s visit to China on October 8 and Mattis’ eventual meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe on October 18. The South China Sea and the North Korean denuclearization were the two important matters directing US foreign policy - the former dividing the two big powers and the latter forcing them to work together.
In the Philippines, it was initially feared that Xi Jinping’s visit to Manila would produce an agreement on joint oil exploration which could compromise Philippine sovereign rights in the South China Sea. However, despite the preparation of a framework agreement for a joint exploration agreement, no deal was signed during the Manila visit. It is important for the Philippines not to rush into such an important agreement simply to satisfy the two countries’ leaders. Substantive studies and thorough discussions amongst Philippine agencies must be held to come up not just with the right decisions but more importantly, a strategy on how to pursue the issue of oil and gas exploration in the contested area. Nonetheless, these should be done with haste as oil reserves are depleting and an alternative source has yet to be found. The issue of joint exploration of oil and gas in the South China Sea must be a major subject for discussion in the Philippine government, as well as with China and other relevant claimants in the South China Sea in 2019.