China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea has provoked a concerted pushback from the United States and its key allies, with Japan and the United Kingdom lending their naval assets to recent stepped up maneuvers that have put the contested maritime region on a new edge.

The US military flew B-52 bombers close to the South China Sea earlier this week, a deployment US Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn claimed was a “regularly scheduled operation designed to enhance our interoperability with our partners and allies in the region.”

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, however, underscored the importance of the operation by emphasizing the threat posed by China’s recent militarization of disputed land features in the South China Sea. Some analysts believe China is arming up the features to establish a strategic aerial defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the waters.

“If that was 20 years ago and (China) had not militarized those features there, it would have just been another [routine] bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or whatever [in the Indo-Pacific area],” the American defense secretary told reports when asked about the relevance of the B-52 flyovers close to the contested areas.

Japan, a key US ally, has been among the major regional powers to take the lead against China, recently conducting (September 26) a high-profile joint naval exercise with the United Kingdom. The exercises in the Indian Ocean, en route to the South and East China Seas, involved Japan’s flagship warship, the giant Kaga helicopter carrier, the Japanese destroyer Inazuma and British frigate HMS Argyle.

Sailors work on board the JS Amagiri (DD-154), an Asagiri-class destroyer in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, as it arrives at port in Manila on February 2, 2018. The Amagiri, with its crew of over 200 personnel, arrived at port in Manila as part for a two-day goodwill visit. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS
Japanese sailors work on board the JS Amagiri destroyer during a port call in Manila on February 2, 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Over the past month, Japan’s Marine Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) armada has made port calls at various strategically situated countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and India.

En route to the Philippines from Japan, the Japanese helicopter carrier and two guided-missile destroyers this month held joint naval exercises with the US Navy’s Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group.

The bilateral drills included joint maneuvering procedures, sailing in formation and replenishment-at-sea training, as well as the exchange of naval liaison officers. Sailing side-by-side, the two allies’ navies sent a muscular message of growing maritime cooperation against China’s recent moves to militarize and dominate the region.

The US-led counterbalance has so far been well-received in the region. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, known for his China-leaning diplomacy, conspicuously visited the Japanese helicopter carrier when it docked at his country’s Subic naval facility on September 1.

Local media portrayed Japan as a source of security and stability in the South China Sea’s tempestuous waters, where the Philippines and China are at loggerheads, including over the crucial Scarborough Shoal.

South China Sea-Map-Benham Rise-Map-2017

Beijing took administrative control of the feature situated in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) after a months-long standoff in 2012. Analysts say the shoal will be a key link in the strategic chain if China eventually moves to enforce an ADIZ over the area.

To some, Duterte’s visit to the Japanese warship underscored the enduring influence of Tokyo as a key strategic partner to Southeast Asian countries, many of which are now starting to reevaluate their recently rising but historically up-and-down relations with China.

The UK, another top US strategic ally, has also stepped up its efforts to challenge China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, a crucial waterway through which as much as US$5 trillion worth of global trade passes each year.

Last month, the UK’s Royal Navy’s HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship, sailed close to China’s claimed Paracel Islands in the area, features contested with Vietnam which Beijing has heavily militarized in recent years.

In April, Australian warships also sailed in the same contested area, which, according to Australian defense authorities, was part of efforts to “continue to exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight, including in the South China Sea.”

Countering Chinese criticism of the move, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the sail-by was “our perfect right in accordance with international law.”

A spokesman for the UK’s Royal Navy similarly defended the HMS Albion’s latest maneuver in the South China Sea as “exercise[ing] her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”

China, however, has taken a tougher line against the UK’s freedom of navigation operations. It recently deployed a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the British warship, leading to a standoff that Beijing portrayed as a justified response to what it saw as a clear case of “provocation.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (podium L) and Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera (podium R) review the honour guard during their visit to Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF)'s helicopter carrier Izumo at JMSDF Yokosuka base in Yokosuka on August 31, 2017.May arrived in Japan on an official visit on August 30 with an eye to soothing Brexit fears and pushing ahead on early free-trade talks with the world's number three economy. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / JAPAN POOL / Japan OUT
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (podium L) and Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera (podium R) review an honor guard on the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier Izumo, Yokosuka base, August 31, 2017. Photo: AFP

China’s Foreign Ministry accused Britain of “infring[ing] on China’s sovereignty” and “strongly urge[d] the British side to immediately stop such provocative actions, to avoid harming the broader picture of bilateral relations and regional peace and stability. Beijing warned that it “will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.”

Beijing’s main mouthpiece newspaper the China Daily warned in a recent editorial that “[a]ny act that harms China’s core interests will only put a spanner in the works” towards a “top-notch” post-Brexit trade agreement between Beijing and London.

In a speech at the annual Induction Program for Commonwealth Diplomats last week, China’s Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming focused his criticism on the US, accusing it and its allies of using “the excuse of so-called ‘freedom of navigation’” to “show off their military might” in a “serious infringement upon China’s sovereignty.”

He accused the West of putting “regional peace and stability in jeopardy” through its failure to “appreciate the peace and tranquility in the South China Sea.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Picture: Li Gang/Xinhua via Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy display in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Picture: Li Gang/Xinhua via Reuters

Ren Guoqiang, China’s defense ministry spokesman, adopted a similar line, arguing that thanks to “joint efforts of China and [Southeast Asian] countries, the situation in the South China Sea has been stabilized and maintains a positive momentum.”

The Chinese defense official accused “some countries outside this region” of “choos[ing] to ignore it and continue to send warships to the South China Sea to stir up trouble.” He said such moves threaten peace and go “against the collective will and efforts of the countries in this region.”

The US and its key allies, however, see China as a source of trouble and instability in the region, and are gradually forging a coalition of like-minded maritime powers to keep the maritime area free for all nations’, not just China’s, sailing vessels.