How ‘routine’ are the new US patrols in the South China Sea?

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: February 21, 2017 | Current Affairs

Recent US Navy patrols in the region have many worried, but the Trump administration’s long game in the South China Sea is unclear

A handout photo made available by the US Navy on 19 February 2017 shows a US B-1B Lancer aircraft assigned Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, flying over the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as it transits the Philippine Sea
A handout photo made available by the US Navy on 19 February 2017 shows a US B-1B Lancer aircraft assigned Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, flying over the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as it transits the Philippine Sea on 14 Februray 2017. Photo: EPA/Mass Communication Specialist Ku / US NAVY

This past weekend, the US Navy sent an aircraft carrier and a guided-missile destroyer to patrol the South China Sea in what the US military has called ‘routine operations’.

Sailing alongside the 97,000-ton USS Vinson is the guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer, the Navy announced. The Vinson is said to be carrying more than 60 aircraft, including Super Hornet jet fighters.

Tense standoffs in the South China Sea between the US and China are nothing new – the two superpowers have engaged in a back-and-forth for years, with both sides making overt gestures of military strength and responding to perceived aggression with testy remarks.

The US, championing “freedom of navigation”, openly sails military vessels through the South China Sea. And China, which claims historical ownership of great swathes of the geographically significant waters, has continued to build military and civilian installations despite protest from many countries in East and Southeast Asia.

Harry Sa, a research analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ US programme, said that while US patrols in the area are indeed ‘routine’, this recent expedition has garnered more attention than usual.

“The presence of an aircraft carrier, along with an additional destroyer, is certainly a head turner,” he said.

“There is a clear signal being sent to the region here. The first signal is to China, that despite all the political instability at home, the United States will not back down and is still a presence. The second signal is to the allies and partners of the United States [that] the US hopes to calm the fears of its friends in the region.”

It is still unclear how the Trump administration really plans to handle the South China Sea, which was a major flashpoint during the administration of former US president Barack Obama.

Newly-confirmed US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has raised eyebrows for claiming during his confirmation hearing that China should be kept from accessing the artificial islands it has built so far.

But Carl Thayer, a defence analyst at the University of New South Wales, said it was important to distinguish Tillerson’s confirmation hearing remarks from a letter written later to US senator Ben Cardin on the matter, in which he provided a more measured analysis of the South China Sea situation.

“Tillerson backed off from his earlier comments that the US should block China’s access to its artificial islands,” Thayer said. “He added this important clarification, ‘If a contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners.’”

Still, analysts agree that there is a dizzying degree of uncertainty within the Trump administration. Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank, pointed out that many senior members of Trump’s cabinets have made “off-the-cuff remarks that reflect their misinformed perspectives” on Asia-Pacific security issues. He said that secretary of defence James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, was the only official who seemed to have a clear grasp of the intricacies involved in regional politics.

China, Spangler added, seems to be biding its time amid confusion in Washington, issuing statements denouncing the US’ actions and waiting to see how far Trump will go to preserve his tough-talking persona.

“The reality is that disarray in Washington can only hurt US interests and weaken its global leadership role,” he said. “Beijing, in turn, may eventually benefit from this.”