Challenging China in the South China Sea

On Tuesday, the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer, conducted a freedom of navigation exercise around Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea. Beijing had been huffing and puffing before the much-anticipated event but carried through on none of its implied threats to harass the vessel as it made its “transit,” which took it within 12 nautical miles of the reefs that China has made into island bases.

The US has said the sail-by is the first of many. “This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” an American official told Reuters. So what will China do as Washington continues its centuries-old policy of defending freedom of navigation?

Perhaps we should ask Retired Rear Admiral Yang Yi. In anticipation of the exercise, the professor at China’s National Defense University had promised a “head-on blow,” but now he says his country will deliver one of those only if the exercises “become a regular thing.”

Maybe Yang is bluffing again, but Chinese military analysts have in fact been thinking about what a forceful response would look like. Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University, for instance, said the Chinese military could lock a fire-control radar on a US ship conducting a FONOP, as the transits are known in the Pentagon. The People’s Liberation Army Navy could also declare a drill in the area and use military or even civilian vessels to expel the US vessel, Sun notes.

How about a controlled bump? Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval analyst, takes inspiration from the Bezzavetny. That Soviet frigate attempted to nudge the USSYorktown while it was transiting Soviet water near the Sevastopol naval base during an “innocent passage” in the Black Sea in February 1988. At the same time, the USS Caron was also bumped, by a different Soviet frigate.

“China could also initiate a measured collision at the most critical moment if the US warship refuses to leave after being expelled,” Li told the South China Morning Post.

And these comments, even if not made at the direction of the Chinese Navy, are a warning. “Beijing has been quick to reach for the military instrument over the years,” writes James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and the co-author of the acclaimed Red Star Over the Pacific.

Now that China backed down over the Lassen’s passage this week, the assumption is that Beijing realizes its weaknesses and won’t do anything especially provocative. And some Chinese analysts share this view. Renmin University’s Shi Yinhong, a widely followed thinker, believes a confrontation between the US and China over the South China Sea is “almost impossible.”  That assessment is comforting, but the PLA is full of hotheads, something evident from the reckless air and sea confrontations instigated by the Chinese in recent years—and this year as well.

Some of those incidents—especially air-to-air encounters over the South China Sea—are thought to be the work of a rogue unit in China’s Hainan Island, but the sea-to-sea ones appear to be the result of orders from the top. Therefore a Bezzavetny-style bumping could be in the cards when the higher-ups tire of seeing US warships sailing by their reclaimed shoals and through international waters claimed by the PRC.

Yes, Washington now has an agreement with Beijing over incidents at sea, but the deal is meaningless if the Chinese are determined to close off open waters and test American will.

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