A recent freedom of navigation operation conducted by the USS McCampbell in the South China coincided with talks in Beijing between US and China. The relatively restrained response by the People's Liberation Army lessened the risk of a collision - and a serious crisis in China-US relations.
On 7 January 2019, the USS McCampbell conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the disputed Paracel Islands, the tenth publicized US Navy mission in the South China Sea since President Trump took office in January 2017, and the first of 2019.
The media made much of the timing of the latest FONOP. It was the first under US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who took over from General Jim Mattis following his resignation in December 2018. The FONOP also coincided with talks in Beijing between US and Chinese officials designed to avert a looming trade war. It was thus portrayed as demonstrating US continuity and strength. However, according to the US Pacific Fleet, the sole purpose of the FONOP was to “challenge excessive maritime claims” and not meant as a political statement. In fact the McCampbell mission came two months after the last FONOP (on 26 November 2018, also in the Paracels) and fits into what has become an established pattern of US Navy FONOPs in the South China Sea roughly every 60 days (there was a gap of nearly 4 months between the 7th FONOP on 27 May and the 8th FONOP on 30 September 2018, but unconfirmed reports suggest an unpublicized FONOP may have occurred during the summer).
According to the US Pacific Fleet, the sole purpose of the FONOP was to “challenge excessive maritime claims”.
China’s response to the FONOP also fit into an established pattern: it protested the presence of the US warship, accused America of violating Chinese and international law and undermining regional security, and sent a PLA warship to “warn off” the McCampbell. However, there was no repeat of the September 2018 incident in which a Chinese warship almost collided with the USS Decatur which was conducting a FONOP in the Spratly Islands. The relatively restrained response to the most recent FONOP may indicate that the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command—whose ambit covers the South China Sea—has advised its senior commanders not to undertake aggressive manoeuvres against US vessels, thus avoiding the risk of a collision and a serious crisis in US-China relations.
Nevertheless, certain voices within the PLA have ramped up the rhetoric against America’s presence in the South China Sea. A few days after the FONOP, Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, warned that if a Chinese and US warship did collide in the South China Sea, America would be to blame. A few weeks earlier, a retired PLA general and “princeling”, Liu Yuan, opined that if China wanted to establish dominance in the South China Sea it should sink two US aircraft carriers with the potential loss of 10,000 American sailors. Both Zhang and Liu are regular commentators in the Chinese media on military affairs and prone to nationalist and sensationalist comments. At a time of heightened US-China tensions, fortunately neither seems to reflect mainstream thinking within the PLA.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.