(Note: The writer is answering the question: “Should the U.S. beef up its naval presence in the Pacific to offset China’s recent provocations?”)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The United States is raising the profile of its naval activity in response to Chinese assertiveness in the waters of the South China Sea. But it is far from clear that such activity on our part will resolve the admittedly volatile situation in those waters.
Tension has been highest of late in waters not far from the Philippines that are claimed by China. Fishing rights are the flash point. In May, U.S. Coast Guard ships staged a joint exercise with two Philippines naval vessels in those waters. The apparent purpose was to send a message to China.
It is hard to ascertain how much help the Philippines wants, or whether we are pushing it to take it.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been going easy on China over its incursions in Philippines-claimed waters in return for billions of dollars of Chinese investments in his country.
Duterte is under pressure domestically to challenge China more vigorously, especially in the wake of a recent incident in which a Filipino fishing vessel was rammed and sunk, apparently by a Chinese vessel.
The introduction of the U.S. Coast Guard in the picture is a recent development. Coast Guard cutters USCGC Bertholf and USCGC Stratton are now deployed with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, operating out of its base in Yokosuka, Japan.
U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander Vice Admiral Linda Fagan says that a Coast Guard presence in the South China Sea shores up the sovereignty of “partner nations” in the disputed waters.
“Partner nations” would include the Philippines and Vietnam, which is also in contention with China over waters in the South China Sea. Vice Admiral Fagan explains that the Coast Guard vessels help “law enforcement and capacity-building in the fisheries enforcement realm.”
You can be forgiven if you are surprised that the U.S. Coast Guard has a Pacific Area Command, or that it bases vessels in Japan. A Coast Guard website explains, proudly, that its Pacific Area Command encompasses “six of the seven continents, 71 countries, and more than 74 million square miles of ocean.”
The Coast Guard was created by an Act of Congress to guard our own coasts. By one provision of that law the president may send the Coast Guard to assist foreign governments. But the worldwide reach developed by the Coast Guard goes far beyond what Congress authorized.
The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet already has 75 ships and submarines and 140 aircraft. Its personnel roster tops 40,000. That is more than enough for a mission whose aims are not well-defined. Some of its personnel have formed a brass band that gives good-will concerts in Asia.
A U.S. Navy website explaining our policy stresses that we have treaties with Korea, Japan and the Philippines to defend them if they are attacked. But the treaties don’t require long-term deployment of thousands of naval personnel.
The most visible component of U.S. naval policy has been so-called “freedom of navigation” operations, where we send a vessel into waters of the South China Sea that China claims as territorial waters.
China often reacts to actions it considers as trespassing. In a number of instances, these operations have nearly resulted in military confrontation.
Our naval presence in Asia, if it is to continue at all, needs clarification.
At a recent security conference in Singapore, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan criticized China for its territorial claims in the South China Sea. But while in Singapore, Shanahan met with China’s Minister of Defense to plan for exchanges between the two militaries. We seem to be coordinating militarily with China at the same time as we are confronting it.
Until we have precise objectives in the South China Sea, and ways to carry them out that don’t violate federal law, there is little reason to fund large naval forces there.
John B. Quigley is a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Readers may write him at Moritz, 55 W. 12th Street, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1391.