This story was updated throughout at 10:30 EST, March 4, 2016:
The United States has sent its John C. Stennis carrier strike group into the South China Sea, according to a report in Navy Times. Significantly, the six-ship group includes the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the 7th Fleet.
The report of the deployment came one day after China’s foreign ministry announced that Chinese vessels had left the area around Jackson Atoll, near the Philippines, after freeing a grounded “foreign” boat there.
In fact, Chinese vessels, both coast guard and navy, had swarmed around the uninhabited outcropping for weeks, preventing Philippine fishermen from reaching their traditional fishing grounds nearby.
There is little doubt Beijing was making a bid to control the atoll in the Spratly chain of islands in the southern half of the South China Sea.
China, like Russia, is trying to redraw borders by force, taking down the world’s rules-based order in the process. As Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of State, said in a speech last year, well before this incident, “In both eastern Ukraine and the South China Sea, we’re witnessing efforts to unilaterally and coercively change the status quo—transgressions that the United States and our allies stand united against.”
Some observers have said it is too late to take back the South China Sea from China, but the deployment of the Stennis and Blue Ridge indicates a renewed commitment to safeguard freedom of navigation.
Jackson Atoll, a ring-shaped feature barely visible at high tide, may not be as prominent as Crimea, but the dynamic of aggression, in Europe and Asia, is unfortunately the same.
Look at a map. Jackson Atoll, also known as Quirino, sits about 140 nautical miles northwest of Palawan, one of the main Philippine islands, and is generally considered part of the Philippines.
But Beijing believes China should be larger than it is at the moment. Its official maps draw a provocative dashed line around about 85 percent of the South China Sea. Beijing claims as Chinese all the islands, atolls, shoals, rocks, and other features inside that supposed boundary.
The “cow’s tongue,” as the area defined by the broken line is called, also suggests that all the waters inside are China’s as well. Beijing therefore claims that no matter what the Philippines say, Jackson is part of China. Beijing calls it Wufang Jiao.
On Wednesday, the Chinese said their vessels, sent by the Ministry of Transport, established a perimeter around Wufang Jiao in order to remove the abandoned hull of the boat because it posed a hazard to navigation and threatened the marine environment.
“During the operation, the Chinese side advised fishing boats near the waters to stay away for navigation security and operation safety,” said spokesman Hong Lei.
The Philippine Star, a Manila newspaper, came closer to the truth when it labeled the Chinese operation a “menacing presence.”
A mayor in the area, Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., complained that the Chinese ships were around the atoll for more than a month.
“We can’t enter the area anymore,” an unidentified Philippine fisherman told the Star. And the Chinese ships that established their exclusionary zone were both white-hulled—coast guard—and gray-hulled—navy.
The Star indicated their presence looked more than just temporary. The paper reported that up to five gray and white hulls had been stationed in the area “at any one time.”
“This is very alarming,” Bito-onon told Reuters. “Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest.” Pagasa, also known as Thitu, is one of the largest of the Spratly islands, and has been administered by the Philippines since 1978.
To inhabitants of the surrounding area, Beijing’s plan looks threatening. “The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there,” Mayor Bito-onon said. “It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation.”
China has used rough tactics against the Philippines before.
It seized nearby Mischief Reef in 1995 and has since fortified the outpost.
In early 2012, Beijing took Scarborough Shoal. Both Philippine and Chinese vessels swarmed the feature after Manila detained Chinese poachers caught taking endangered coral, live baby sharks, and giant clams.
Washington, in June of that year, brokered an agreement for both sides to withdraw their boats, but only Manila complied. The Chinese have held Scarborough ever since, and the Obama administration has done virtually nothing in response to Beijing’s duplicitous seizure.
Beijing, seeing no pushback, then increased the pressure on the Philippines, especially Second Thomas Shoal. There, Manila in 1999 grounded the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era hospital ship, and stationed a tiny garrison of marines onboard to buttress its sovereignty claim. The Chinese have tried to starve out the troops by continually interfering with resupply missions.
A Chinese warship reportedly fired shots at Philippine fishermen in 2011, and early last month China’s ships harassed a Philippine Navy vessel near Half Moon Shoal, 60 nautical miles south of Palawan.
Manila’s response to these provocative acts has been to try to litigate China’s claims in The Hague, at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Beijing has refused to participate in the case. Observers expect a decision this year, and most foresee a victory for the Philippines. Most of China’s claims are expansive and cannot be justified under existing legal principles, either customary international law or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“It seems China’s strategy now is to take as much territory as it can in the West Philippine Sea before the ruling of The Hague Arbitral Court comes out, so other claimants would be hard put to evict the rising superpower from their claimed areas,” said Neri Colmenares, a congressman in the Philippines, using Manila’s favored term for the South China Sea.
As Colmenares suggests, Beijing’s hostile actions are increasing in the run-up to the award in the Netherlands, and it wants to nullify an expected adverse result by obtaining possession first.
After the attempt to take Jackson Atoll, it’s clear Beijing will continue employing rough tactics, using the slightest excuse to bring its overwhelming power to bear. Chinese leaders obviously intend to annex the South China Sea one reef, shoal, or rock at a time, by force or guile, whatever it takes.