In April 2001 the Navy of the People’s Republic of China caught an EP-3 surveillance aircraft operated by the US Navy flying in between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In response, the PRC Navy scrambled two J-8 interceptor jets to push the US aircraft back to its base on Okinawa. What happened next is a mystery and still highly disputed, but the events in the air resulted in one of the Chinese interceptor jets colliding with the US EP-3 destroying the smaller jet and severely damaging the left aileron of the EP-3. The EP-3 aircraft was able to make an emergency landing at Hainan Island where the 24 airmen aboard were apprehended by Chinese authorities. The US, in an attempt to defuse tensions, sent a letter to the Chinese ambassador expressing regret for the loss of the Chinese pilot, as well as for the US aircraft landing at Hainan without clearance. The letter did not apologize for the aircraft flying in the South China Sea in the first place as, according to Washington’s interpretation of international airspace law, they did nothing wrong.
Though the PRC’s claims to the Paracel Islands — an archipelago in the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines — are disputed by Taiwan and Vietnam, Beijing’s control of Hainan Island — just south of the Chinese mainland — is universally recognized (except for the states that do not recognize the PRC at all). The aircraft collision occurred less than 200 km (about 120 miles) from Hainan Island, which motivates this author to imagine the geographical equivalent of the reverse: a foreign surveillance aircraft being caught 200 km from the US coastline. 200 km from Miami is still the area of ocean in between the Floridian peninsula and the Grand Bahamas. The area in question would be outside the US Navy’s claimed defense zone, but I cannot imagine such a scenario playing out without the US Navy considering it a hostile incursion on US sovereignty.
The islands of the South China Sea are numerous, though scattered and small, and all of Beijing’s claims to the islands are disputed. Beijing claims both major island groups, the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Beijing also claims a large shallow reef atoll called Scarborough Shoal. Scarborough Shoal is claimed by both the Philippines and the PRC, though no settlements yet exist there. These dueling claims came to a head in April 2012, when the Philippine military arrested Chinese fishermen in the disputed waters. (It should also be said that Taiwan claims these islands as well, because the Taiwanese government believes themselves to be the true administrators of ALL of China and have adopted the PRC’s claims for themselves.)
Though the most contentious of the South China Sea claims is that of the Spratly Islands, which having six separate nations claiming the islands in whole or in part, is the most disputed territory on Earth. Beijing’s claims to the chain of islands in the South China Sea is particularly bullish, as Beijing claims the Spratly Islands in their entirety and all non-coastal waters as far south as the Riau Islands of Indonesia. The Spratly Islands are partially claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia. To enforce their claims these nations (with the exception of the Philippines) have engaged in land reclamation projects, dredging sand and laying concrete to form islands that are either wholly or partly artificial. The PRC has conducted the most extensive of these projects turning seven shallow reefs into artificial islands by 2015.
And it’s through these territory disputes that Washington has licensed itself to conduct military operations in the South China Sea under the pretext that because Washington does not recognize Beijing’s claim, the claim is entirely meaningless. The Pacific Ocean covers over 161 million square kilometers, which is itself 31.6% of Earth’s surface. There is no shortage of open ocean for bored rear admirals and overzealous fleet commanders to conduct exercises in, if that were the Navy’s only goal. Not only that, the closest US territory to the South China Sea is the Mariana Islands, over 3,000 kilometers away.
The US Navy’s reasoning for its growing presence in the South China Sea is transparent enough that even the Navy does not need to hide it. With the most recent carrier group deployment Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo told Reuters, “After sailing through these waters throughout my 30-year career, it’s great to be in the South China Sea again… With two-thirds of the world’s trade traveling through this very important region, it is vital that we maintain our presence and continue to promote the rules-based order which has allowed us all to prosper.”
On the point that a large fraction of global trade travels through the South China Sea, I agree with Rear Adm. Verissimo. The South China Sea is the primary route by which cargo from the Persian Gulf, India and Southeast Asia reaches the Pacific. Rear Adm Verissimo conveniently neglects to mention that the majority of petroleum resources that pass through the sea are bound for Chinese ports such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. And if Washington’s game is merely about protecting trade the Navy could easily gain license to operate out of the strait of Malacca, where most of the ships from the Indian Ocean pass through. But with so little US-bound trade in the South China Sea and so much ocean for the US Navy to operate elsewhere the real reason for the US Navy’s presence is revealed: Washington is not conducting naval exercises as a means of territorial defense, but rather as a means of containing Beijing.
Beijing’s seven artificial island complexes (the largest of which is 5.6 square km) have caused by far the most backlash amongst the Washington military establishment of any of the South China Sea claims. On January 30, 2021 Al Jazeera reported that the US Navy was monitoring Chinese military flights conducted by Beijing, and was accusing the PRC of aggressive behavior despite sources in the article confirming Beijing’s aircraft did not come within 450 km of US forces. The article’s authors already seem to presumed fault on the part of Beijing, seeing as how the article does not question the carrier group’s deployment thousands of miles from US territory, and gives Washington the first and last words by claiming it is Beijing destabilizing the world with military patrols in their own sphere of influence. In reality, Washington and Beijing operate nearly symmetric forces in the South China Sea, with one notable exception. Beijing is operating in and near its own claimed territory. Washington is not.
Washington conducts what it calls “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (or FONOPs) in the South China Sea. These FONOPs have resulted in near-misses between US Navy and PLAN warships. The most notable of these occurred in September 2018, when the USS Decatur came within 40 meters of a PLAN destroyer that had been assigned to shadow it. The encounter resulted in yet more increased tensions in a region of the globe already fraught with contention, as well as a media environment that believes the duty to behave responsibly is incumbent solely on Beijing, despite the fact that the US Navy is operating far outside its sphere of influence. After another FONOP in 2019, a US seventh fleet press release claimed the operation was simultaneously “[to] challenge excessive maritime claims” and “not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.” With no due respect to the dedicated public relations hacks of the seventh fleet, challenging a sovereign nation’s territorial claims is inherently a political statement.
Washington’s plan for the South China Sea also involves building allied coalitions with the other claimant nations to the Spratly Islands. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already signaled renewed tactical support for Philippine claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam has also more closely sided with Washington’s South China Sea view, in hopes that Hanoi can get access to US aid in excavating for offshore petrochemical reserves.,  Though relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been strained by both the Trump administration and the danger brought to them by a militarized US force on their doorstep, the incoming Biden administration is now seeking to revive those alliances in order to consolidate power in the region (In spite of the fact that ASEAN nations themselves have multiple overlapping claims). In July 2020, the Scott Morrison government in Australia discarded the government’s longstanding policy of neutrality, and now disputes Beijing’s South China Sea claims in their entirety.
Washington describes Beijing’s “use it or lose it” doctrine over the South China Sea islands as militaristic bullying, but it is a doctrine Washington itself has used for centuries, and is using to establish territory rights currently. Thus Washington is not all that interested in questioning might-makes-right sovereignty or bigger-army diplomacy except insofar as they can use it as a cudgel to beat down their rivals. And without that fundamental questioning, the US has maintained the same policy line regarding the South China Sea it has since the Hainan incident of 2001: that because Washington does not recognize Beijing’s South China Sea claims, they can act with reckless abandon and neglect the very real consequences of defying those claims. The Tinkerbell philosophy of international sovereignty is dangerous to the millions of people who live along the South China Sea’s shores who would be the first collateral damage in an open conflict on the high seas. But Washington does not care about the civilians of Southeast Asia, not as long as it has an anointed foe which must be contained at all costs, regardless if that cost must be paid in money or human lives. The solution to this problem is so frustratingly obvious and simple: that Washington must vacate the South China Sea unilaterally, so long as it does not have a reason for being there more substantial than being the territory police. Every second that Washington’s fleets continue to hover around Beijing’s disputed territory shouting “I’m not touching you” like children on the playground, the situation will only continue to deteriorate, until it devolves into open armed conflict. And on such a day, Washington, its allies and aligned media structures will be the culpable ones, though the entire west will pretend otherwise.
- https://web.archive.org/web/20081211063330/http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/04/01/us.china.plane.03/ (CNN article of the Hainan incident from 2001)
- https://www.salon.com/2001/04/12/china_28/ (An analysis of the letter the Bush administration sent apologizing for the Hainan incident.)
- https://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/data/us-maritime-limits-and-boundaries.html (An interactive US Navy map of the US’ maritime defense and economic zones.)
- https://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/2013/docs/wp_2013_web.pdf (Australian Defense Department white paper outlining major shipping lanes in the South China Sea)
- https://www.statista.com/statistics/558499/total-area-of-global-oceans/ (The size of the world’s oceans)
- https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-usa-idUSKBN29T05J (Recent report of additional US naval deployments to the South China Sea from Reuters)
- https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/30/us-slams-china-flights-over-south-china-sea (“US slams China’s ‘destabilising’ South China Sea military flights” from Al Jazeera)
- https://www.flickr.com/photos/eiagov/43582519014/ (US Energy Information Agency estimation of crude oil shipments in the South China Sea)
- https://blogs.voanews.com/state-department-news/2012/07/31/challenging-beijing-in-the-south-china-sea/ (South China Sea territorial claims – Voice of America)
- http://globalnation.inquirer.net/36003/scarborough-shoal-standoff-a-historicaltimeline (Scarborough Shoal standoff timeline)
- https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/china/ (A list of China’s claims on the Spratly and Paracel Islands)
- https://asiatimes.com/2020/12/us-china-in-another-near-miss-clash-in-south-china-sea/ (A catalogue of the US Navy and the PLAN’s near-misses in the South China Sea)
- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/09/19/scsc-s19.html (A description of US coalition-building against China in the South China Sea)
- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/08/30/schs-a30.html (Trotskyist perspective on US military escalation in the South China Sea)
- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/07/28/ause-j28.html (Article detailing how Australia has sided with US policy in South China Sea dispute)
- https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-03/south-china-sea-encounter-between-us-warship-and-chinese-vessel/10333096?nw=0 (USS Decatur near collision incident)
- https://www.newsweek.com/antony-blinken-us-will-defend-philippines-attacks-south-china-sea-1565031 (The US-Philippine alliance in the South China Sea)
- https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/what-does-vietnam-want-from-the-us-in-the-south-china-sea/ (Vietnam’s quiet support for US Pacific strategy)
- https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/us-south-china-sea-southeast-asia-philippines-blinken-14059714 (Biden administration is renewing ties with ASEAN countries)
(For Geography Nerds)
I want to draw extra attention to source #11 in my bibliography, which is the AMTI Island Tracker. The link has satellite photos of South China Sea islands including chronological photos of China’s island dredging projects from 2014-15. It’s a really cool island breakdown about who has developed what. Brunei is not included in this tracker because although Brunei claims the Louisa reef, it is completely undeveloped.
The same organization also has an interactive map of island occupations in the South China Sea which is again, really cool. What’s really great about this map vs what you can find on Wikipedia is that it allows you isolate features based on occupying nation or the type of feature that’s occupied.