Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Showing the Dragon’s Teeth: China’s Warnings over the South China Sea
Showing the Dragon’s Teeth: China’s Warnings over the South China Sea

Showing the Dragon’s Teeth: China’s Warnings over the South China Sea

On August 31, the Royal Navy’s amphibious assault ship Albion exercised its freedom of navigation rights by sailing past the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. As has been its practice, Beijing directed the British warship to leave and its foreign ministry issued a statement that demanded the United Kingdom end such “provocative actions.” This time, however, China’s state-run media chimed in too. It pointedly warned London that its actions could have wider repercussions. They could hamper talks on a free trade agreement between China and the United Kingdom at a time when its withdrawal from the European Union has left it economically vulnerable.

No doubt, China is sensitive to warships from other countries conducting freedom of navigation operations near the islands it occupies in the South China Sea, particularly after the U.S. Navy resumed them there in 2014. Since then, the United States has periodically sent its warships through these waters and appealed to its allies to do the same. Recently, a number of them did—ironically, after China’s militarization of the islands under its control made it more dangerous to do so.

Japan was among the first countries to send warships to the South China Sea. Likely, Japan’s own dispute with China over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu, in China) Islands in the East China Sea played a part in its decision. In 2017, Japan sent its largest warship, the helicopter destroyer (really, light carrier) Izumo, on a three-month tour through the region. More international warships challenged China’s maritime claims in 2018. Though Australia has flown military aircraft over the area before, it sent a frigate and a replenishment ship through the South China Sea in April 2018. Soon after, France sailed a frigate and an amphibious assault ship through the sea. The Albion followed in August. And in September, Japan dispatched the Izumo’s sister ship, the Kaga, two destroyers, and notably a submarine to train with the U.S. Navy’s Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier battle group in the South China Sea.

In most cases, China has dispatched aircraft or ships to intercept the international warships and instructed them to leave. Generally speaking, China’s warnings have been performed in a “professional” manner, according to the Australian defense ministry. But when dealing with smaller powers, like the Philippines, China’s warnings have been more menacing. Rather than polite messages to “Leave immediately to avoid any misunderstanding,” Chinese authorities have warned Philippine aircraft and ships to “Leave immediately or you will bear responsibility for all the consequences.” Such warnings have prompted push back from even the Philippines’ China-friendly president, Rodrigo Duterte.

China’s warnings belie the relaxation of tensions in the South China Sea since China and its Southeast Asian neighbors agreed on a code of conduct framework in 2017. After a year of work, they have turned that framework into the awkwardly named: Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text. If completed and approved by all the disputants, the text will serve as the basis for a new code of conduct for the South China Sea. But the devil is in the details; and the countries involved in the text’s negotiations remain far apart on a range of issues: from how to define the geographic boundaries of the South China Sea to how to resolve disputes among its claimants. One of the thorniest issues is what the role of third parties should be. Given its relative economic and military heft, China has always sought to keep out third parties. Meanwhile, smaller disputant countries have preferred to balance China with countries like Japan and the United States.

Now that China is militarily capable of “controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” it can negotiate the code of conduct’s final text from a position of even greater strength. It is a position that Beijing seems increasingly willing to use when other countries oppose it. One may expect more warnings to come. In light of China’s recent warning to the United Kingdom, it will be interesting to see whether London follows through on its pledge to sail its newest aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, through the area after they are fully operational.