The US Navy announced Tuesday that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea for “routine operations” amid a clash by the Chinese maritime militia with the Philippines. China’s provocation comes as Russia has increased its forces near Ukraine. The Biden Administration may be receiving early proof of whether its model of liberal multilateralism can deter revisionist powers from lobbying against US interests.
The Philippines began sounding the alarm last month about Chinese militia ships, which at one point totaled 220, occupying Whitsun Reef west of the archipelago. The naval equivalent of Russia’s “little green men”, fleets affiliated with China’s military can pose as fishing fleets to give Beijing plausible denial as it entrenches itself in disputed waters.
An analysis last week by two investigators from the US Naval War College found “no evidence of fishing during these laser-focused operations, but all evidence of trolling for territorial claims.”
For more than a decade, China has been aggressively moving to establish dominance in the waters surrounding the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, building military installations and harassing the commercial vessels of other nations. In 2016, an international court said that China was breaking the law in the South China Sea. The Trump Administration sanctioned companies involved in building illegal islands there last summer.
China appeared to slow down its military build-up on the islands, but now it may be picking up again. He seems determined to dominate the waterways of Southeast Asia, which, among other things, would put him in a stronger position to invade Taiwan. Slowing or reversing the process will require coordination with “the Quad” – Japan, Australia and India – as well as with the Southeast Asian countries whose sovereignty is directly violated by the incursions. Vietnam has been one of the loudest Southeast Asian nations to denounce China’s maritime adventurism.