The U.S. should have had navigation patrols in the East Vietnam Sea in 2014 when it was clear that China was making a major effort to illegally create artificial islands, foreign experts have said.
Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Tuesday that the U.S. had deployed guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen to the East Vietnam Sea for patrol operations.
The warship entered the 12-nautical-mile area around Su Bi (Subi) and Vanh Khan (Mischief) Reefs, which are part of Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago but have been illegally occupied by China.
Such patrols are too little too late, as the U.S. should have acted in 2014, when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands, Prof. Thayer said.
The move by the U.S. has been called a challenge to China’s claim of sovereignty over the East Vietnam Sea by international media.
“A U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of China's man-made islands in the [East Vietnam Sea] on Tuesday, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it had tracked and warned the ship and called the U.S. ambassador to protest,” Reuters reported yesterday.
Commenting on the situation, Prof. Thayer said China had already begun to respond to the patrol by USS Lassen and its foreign ministry will continue to make verbal protests against U.S. actions which they say are upsetting peace and security in the region.
“This is typical of Chinese misdirection, to take the eyes off its blatant violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the [East Vietnam Sea],” the professor said, adding that it is China that has complicated and escalated disputes in the maritime area.
Prof. Thayer also commented on Chinese propaganda denouncing the patrol and on retired military commentators who will huff and puff, calling for a strong reaction.
“If China responds at sea it is unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army Navy will be directly involved. China may stage incidents involving its Coast Guard and fishing boats, but nothing China do will alter U.S. resolve to continue its freedom of navigation patrols,” he said.
“On the other hand, U.S. patrols will not change China’s consolidation of infrastructure on its artificial islands, and in the fullness of time China will militarize these artificial islands when it suits its purposes” he added.
China will not confront the U.S. directly with its People’s Liberation Army Navy warships, but Beijing will wage propaganda and legal campaigns to try to dissuade Washington from continuing the patrols, the professor said.
“These campaigns will be aimed at regional states with the aim of stirring up anxieties that the U.S. is destabilizing the region,” he added.
Prof. Thayer also suggested that the U.S. should alter its declared policy of not taking sides in territorial disputes, and that Washington should come out firmly in defense of the status quo and oppose unilateral actions that have strategic effects.
“The U.S. should join with the Philippines to ensure that Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoal. U.S. Marines should join their Filipino counterparts at James Shoal, claimed by the Philippines but invested in by Chinese paramilitary ships,” the professor said.
He added that the U.S. should adopt cost imposition strategies to restore the status quo and to confront any unilateral attempt by China to alter the status quo.
US has to patrol routinely
These freedom-of-navigation operations should have begun as soon as China started constructing the islands, according to Professor Zach Abuza, from the U.S. National War College.
This cannot be a one-off move but the U.S. has to routinely make such passages, Prof. Abuza said.
China is in a bind, as to do nothing would be a humiliation, he remarked.
But if it were to confront the U.S., that would lead to a military conflict that Beijing could not hope to win in the near term.
“China's leaders are terrified that if they back down, the public will punish them. But if they engage militarily and lose, even a small skirmish, their legitimacy and everything that Chinese President Xi Jinping has tried to do will be undermined,” the professor commented.
There have to be some people in the Chinese leadership who understand that it is China's interpretation of international law that is so outside international norms, he added.
“Through its actions in the past several years, China has created an international coalition against it,” Prof. Abuza concluded.
US move is legal
Tran Cong Truc, former head of the Vietnamese government’s Border Department, told Tuoi Tre that the U.S. has showed its determination to ensure freedom of aviation and navigation in the East Vietnam Sea by sending destroyer USS Lassen to the area.
“The U.S.’s deployment of its warship to the 12-nautical-mile area around the artificial islands built up by China is totally legal as these areas are international seas,” Truc said.
“We don’t want to see a clash between the U.S. and China at sea, but we want every country to comply with international law for common interests,” Truc said.
Le Van Nghiem, head of the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications’ Department of External Information, also said the U.S. knows that international law allows it to exercise freedom of aviation and navigation in the East Vietnam Sea.
Before launching destroyer USS Lassen to the area, the U.S. consulted their allies and received support from them, including Japan, the Philippines, India and Australia, Nghiem said.
Regarding the comments that the warship’s deployment to the sea area was too late, given that China had already built artificial islands in the East Vietnam Sea, Nghiem said it would have been preferable if the U.S. and other countries had prevented China from doing so from the outset.
“China’s construction activities in the sea area are a fait accompli now, but Washington’s move will help prevent Beijing from doing the same thing again in the future,” Nghiem said.