The United States and China have doubled down on their struggle for dominance of the South China Sea and broader Indo-Pacific, as recent sea confrontations and fiery rhetoric threaten to escalate into conflict.

Bolstered by its ever-expanding and rapidly modernizing Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China has shown diminishing restraint in deterring, intercepting and seeking to exclude American naval assets from its claimed adjacent waters.

Boasting one of the world’s largest maritime fleet, with an armada of para-military forces and vessels increasingly acting as force multipliers, the PLAN recently deployed warships and warplanes to intercept America’s littoral combat ships in the South China Sea.

According to the PLAN’s Southern Theater Command spokesperson Li Huamin, China “sent ships and aircraft to conduct the whole-process monitoring and verification on the two US warships and warned them to leave.”

Intent on protecting China’s “blue national soil”, the PLAN spokesperson on November 22 “urged the US side to stop such provocative acts immediately so as to avoid unexpected incidents” in waters where “China has indisputable sovereignty.”

China’s unprecedented pushback came hot on the heels of the Pentagon’s deployment of the USS Montgomery and USS Gabrielle Giffords for so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to the South China Sea.

A US naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook
A US naval vessel plies the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

According to the Pentagon, the two littoral combat ships “bolster attack strength in [the] South China Sea” as part of broader efforts to pressure China to “abide by international rules.” The US Navy said one littoral ship sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands on November 20, while the USS Wayne E Meyer guided-missile destroyer passed the Paracel Islands the following day.

China, which opposes the presence of American warships in its claimed waters, accused the US of “stir[ring] up trouble in the South China Sea under the pretext of freedom of navigation.”

China’s daring move to intercept US warships coincided with the high-profile visit of US Defense Secretary Mark Esper to the region, where he sought to rally China-containing support from key allies and partners, including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea.

On his tour, the Pentagon chief announced a new defense aid package for Vietnam focused on bolstering its maritime security capabilities; resumption of long-stalled Special Forces training with Indonesia in parallel to growing joint naval exercises; and an upgrading of mutual defense measures under a 1951 treaty with the Philippines, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s warming ties with China.

Top American officials have upped the rhetorical ante in the aftermath of Esper’s tour, calling publicly for greater support from established allies against China’s rising assertiveness in the contested sea.

At a much-anticipated speech at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, Admiral Philip Davidson, the US Indo-Pacific Command chief, highlighted what he sees as China’s threat to the global maritime order.

In the past 30 months, the Indo-Pacific commander said, China has made more global naval deployments than in the last 30 years. Recognizing China’s growing economic influence, Davidson urged allies to support US countermeasures against China’s existing and emerging threats to ”freedom” while saying “the international order is worth defending.”

Navy personnel of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Navy personnel of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) take part in a military display in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Regarding the South China Sea, Davidson warned Southeast Asian nations against acquiescing to any agreement with China which limits freedom of navigation and overflight in the wide-reaching maritime area. The Pentagon is particularly perturbed by Beijing’s push for a legally-binding code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, which as proposed would exclude a US presence in the maritime theater.

During recent CoC negotiations between China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, Beijing reportedly pushed for exclusive sharing of fisheries and energy resources in the area, to the exclusion of external powers.

China also called for restrictions on the ability of regional states to conduct joint naval exercises with the US and its regional allies.

Davidson effectively asked Southeast Asian states to hold their ground while highlighting America’s countervailing commitment to the region’s security through regularized FONOPs and naval exercises in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon, the admiral said in his address, conducted two FONOPs in mid-November alone, in addition to multiple naval exercises with allies and strategic partners in September and October.

The Indo-Pacific commander promised such deployments will rise as the Pentagon seeks to project more air and sea power from Japan, Guam and Hawaii, and rotate more naval assets in the region, including permanently based littoral combat ships in Singapore.

More subtly, the Pentagon has also recently expanded its access to military facilities in Vietnam and the Philippines, both frontline nations in the South China Sea disputes with China.

Davidson’s speech was a mix of reassurance and demand for greater support from Southeast Asian allies. US FONOPs already have strong support from transatlantic and Indo-Pacific allies, including Australia, Canada, France, Britain, Japan, and India.

Collage image of US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping.(R) Image: Twitter

In recent years, all these major naval powers have engaged in various forms of FONOPs with the US, with Britain and France recently deploying vessels in the South China Sea.

The US has deployed warships, sometimes two at a time, within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially reclaimed islands, naval maneuvers that China views as “illegal.” Satellite imagery shows China has militarized several of the features it controls, with the US Pacific Command claiming last year that Beijing has built as many as seven military bases in the sea.

Likeminded naval powers, meanwhile, have either deployed naval assets in proximity to contested islands occupied by China and/or conducted naval exercises while passing through contested waters in the area.

Washington’s pushback and call for greater ally support, however, has not been confined to the South China Sea disputes. The US clearly feels interoperability and intelligence-sharing with allies is also at risk of being compromised by China.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, speaking on November 23 at the Halifax forum, urged allies to reject Chinese telecom investments, particularly those that use Huawei 5G network technology.

“When they get Huawei into Canada…they’re going to know every health record, every banking record, every social media post. They’re going to know everything about every single Canadian,” said O’Brien, portraying China’s telecommunications technology as a “Trojan horse.”

“What the Chinese are doing makes Facebook and Google look like child’s play, as far as collecting information on folks,” he added, arguing that China’s expanding grip on global telecommunications would enhance its ability to “micro-target” voters and affect elections in Western democracies.

US defense officials are pressuring allies not to use Huawei-made 5G equipment. Photo: AFP

O’Brien also openly warned that intelligence cooperation among the so-called Five Eyes alliance, which includes intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US, could also suffer accordingly.

“The Huawei Trojan horse is frightening, it’s terrifying,” the US national security adviser said. “I find it amazing that our allies and friends in other liberal democracies would allow Huawei in … I’m surprised that there’s even a debate out there.”

China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, has dismissed such criticisms as “groundless accusation,” and urged Canada to “provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies, including Huawei.”