China’s military assertiveness in recent months, as well as its unabashed use of gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea is drawing a visible response from the United States. As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducts exercises in disputed waters around the Paracel Islands, the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz, and four escorts have entered the South China Sea and are conducting their own exercises starting today. Although it has not been revealed just where in the South China Sea the US exercises will take place, it is fair to assume that US and Chinese forces will be operating in fairly close proximity to one another in the coming days.
The present Chinese naval exercise has stirred tensions in the South China Sea area. The Paracel Islands have been a thorn of contention for some time. Vietnam, the Philippines, and China all have claims on some or all of the islands. Every year China holds naval exercises in close proximity to the Paracels. This year, however, the exercise has struck a nerve. Vietnam has lodged a formal diplomatic complaint with the Chinese foreign ministry, and Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr has warned, ‘Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory…it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate.’ This unusually aggressive and blunt language from Manila underscores the anger that China’s claims, and actions are generating in the region. Unfortunately for Vietnam, the Philippines, and other SCS nations, their reactions are largely limited to words. The military power, and political will to challenge China on a collective level simply is not there, a reality which China’s gunboat diplomacy tactics have notably exploited.
The power projection by the US Navy serves as a direct message aimed at Beijing, warning the Chinese against making moves that will destabilize the South China Sea further. China has been quick to use gunboat diplomacy in the SCS to achieve its geopolitical objectives. In the broader context the American exercise is also intended to remind China the US military is prepared to counter any Chinese military moves in the Western Pacific. Tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to rise and this pattern appears unlikely to change soon. As a consequence, future Chinese exercises taking place in the South China Sea, and other areas of the Western Pacific will keep eliciting US reactions until China steps back from its aggressive posturing.