China has warned the United States against conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The US views China as pursuing major military modernisation plans aimed at minimising its presence in the region.

The United States Navy (USN) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea on Jan 17 and, as anticipated, it created a current of excitement among security analysts.

The main bugbear being that the operations were conducted within the 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal that China claims as part of her territorial seas. China’s Ministry of National Defence warned the US military not to threaten peace and stability by such operations in the South China Sea.

The question arises as to whether US FONOP activities are posing a threat to peace and stability as stated by China or contributing to the maintenance of peace in the maritime area.

The US Department of Defence’s National Security Strategy 2018 suggests that China has built facilities and militarised outposts in the South China Sea, endangered the free flow of trade, threatened the sovereignty of other nations, and undermined regional stability.

China’s activities are directed towards militarisation of the features in the South China Sea and to have firm control over the sea lanes of communication there. This development is in line with China’s aspirations to gain geopolitical mileage in the new world order.

The US views China as pursuing major military modernisation plans aimed at minimising the former’s presence in the region and facilitating the latter’s ability to act freely.

Prior to the strategy document, the US had warned China of severe consequences if reclamation continues.

FONOPs are used as an instrument to reinforce the US’ position on freedom of the seas and is a component of her strategy in dealing with China in the South China Sea.

China’s protest over the FONOP is based on her claim that Scarborough Shoal is within its maritime area and that the USS Hopper had illegally entered Chinese waters. China has vowed to safeguard its interests and this has been repeatedly reiterated in policy statements and strategic goals.

China’s grand strategy envisages her emergence as one of the world’s top eight maritime powers by 2030 and a mid-level maritime nation among the top five maritime powers. In 2049, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People Republic of China, China is expected to be among the top three maritime powers.

To achieve this, China has to protect her territorial integrity, maritime interests and expand her influence in the maritime front to beyond her shores. The speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China highlighted the Chinese dream of building a powerful military and its wish to make every effort to modernise its national defence and armed forces.

The Chinese leadership has been promoting “law-based governance” to ensure Chinese characteristics are guaranteed in the way global and regional issues are managed. The Chinese government intends to implement this at “every point in the process and over every dimension of law-based governance”.

In this regard, although Article 58 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that “all states have high seas freedom of navigation and over-flight, and may conduct other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to these freedoms…”, China and many other coastal states interpret it differently.

China holds that it is not a blanket definition and freedom of navigation does not mean freedom to conduct military exercises and intelligence activity in the area of a coastal state. Hence, China’s attempt to deny the US from conducting navigation within the area.

It is clear that China’s law-based governance is not in line with the rule-based order that the US and its allies promote, and which emphasises a shared commitment agreed by countries, including those promulgated under international law and security commitments.

China’s South China Sea claims remain a threat to other claimants especially since the communist regime warns of placing military activities of the claimants “under effective surveillance of China” and that “the Chinese military will resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security”.

This strong position reflects China’s interests in enforcing her territorial claims and interests in the South China Sea.

China’s capabilities in this respect are yet to be tested and it is for this reason countries like the US plying the South China Sea deem it important to monitor Chinese plans and activities, and to counter them if necessary.

Singapore is holding the Asean’s chairmanship and is set to lead the bloc’s direction, including those relating to the South China Sea.

South China Sea watchers would have found some clues in Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s speech delivered in December.

He said Asean is all for promoting and upholding a rule-based regional order to enable it to better deal with current and emerging security challenges.

It is not wrong for Asean to support US FONOP activities that aim to underscore the country’s sustained engagement in the South China Sea and which provide a stabilising factor in the region. The major challenge for Asean is in preserving the rule-based order that tends to be overshadowed by geo-strategic interests, especially in maritime territorial disputes and their geo-economic considerations.

Nevertheless, the rule of law should be the approach of choice in maintaining international order and to safeguard the region’s economic imperatives, political sovereignty and national interests.

Sumathy Permal is a fellow/centre head of Maritime Institute of Malaysia.

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