In 2019 US freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea hit a record high, leading one expert to claim it shows US President Donald Trump is pursuing a “concrete drive” to emphasise US security commitments to the region. The Navy patrols represent a sign of strength by the US and an attempt to challenge China’s territorial claims in the contested waters – which holds untapped energy reserves and about one-third of maritime trade. Last year US navy vessels sailed within 12 nautical miles of features claims or occupied by China seven times, up from five such operations in 2018, according to data released by the US Pacific Fleet.
In 2017, the first year of Trump’s presidency, six operations were carried out, three in 2016 and two in 2015.
No patrols were carried out in 2014.
The new data, released by the US Pacific Fleet Public Affairs office after a freedom of information request by the South China Morning Post, is the first official confirmation of the extent of Washington’s freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea over the past five years.
Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said: “The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle.
“The Freedom of Navigation Programme’s missions are conducted peacefully and without bias for or against any particular country.
“These missions are based on the rule of law and demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations.”
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the marked increase in patrols serves as a warning to Beijing.
He said: “Clearly, under the Trump Administration we see a more concrete drive towards FONOPs [Freedom of Navigation Operations Programme] in the South China Sea as seen in the incremental build-up in frequency since 2015 and after he took office.
“The operations do have an effect of emphasising the rule of law, deterring Beijing from more drastic aggression beyond militarisation and coercion – such as outright attacking other claimants’ garrisons and annexing those rival features – as well as generally demonstrating the US security commitment to the region, to show to the smaller and weaker regional states that it still cares.”
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the operations were: “Important to make credible the US claim that it will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”.
Beijing and Washington have been engaged in a battle for political and military dominance over the past few years, as each country attempts to assert its authority over the region.
China has remained stubborn in its efforts to claim authority over the South China Sea, defying international tribunal rulings and its aggrieved neighbours in its advocacy for its Nine-Dash Line claim.
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But an international arbitration tribunal ruled in 2006 that the “Nine-Dash Line” by which Beijing claims most of the waterway has no basis in international law.
This has not stopped Beijing from claiming some 90 percent of the waters and from constructing militarised outposts in the waterway to assert its authority within the region.
Beijing has repeatedly hit out at US operations for patrolling the contested waters, accusing Washington of attacking its sovereignty and being a threat to regional peace.
Late last year Beijing accused the US of conducting “highly provoking” moves by patrolling the contested waters.
Last month the USS Montgomery sailed within a few miles of Fiery Cross Reef – the first publicly acknowledged patrol of 2020.
This particular waterway is hotly contested, as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping claims to the region.
Beijing accused Washington of “deliberate provocations” over the patrol near the reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
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