This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A U.S. naval ship conducted Monday the first known freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, a move condemned by China as “illegal.”
“On December 4, the USS Giffords littoral combat ship trespassed into the waters adjacent to Ren’ai Reef in China’s Nansha Islands without the approval of the Chinese government,” Col. Tian Junli, spokesman for the Chinese military’s Southern Theater Command, said in a statement.
Ren’ai is the Chinese name for the Second Thomas Shoal, an atoll in the Spratly (Nansha) archipelago. Filipinos call it Ayungin Shoal and the Philippine military in 1999 deliberately ran aground an old landing ship, BRP Sierra Madre, to serve as an outpost.
Manila, which maintains that the reef is located inside its exclusive economic zone, has been accusing Beijing of “acting aggressively” and blocking its ships from delivering supplies to troops stationed there.
In his latest statement, Col. Tian claimed that the U.S. had “seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, severely undermined regional peace and stability, and seriously violated international law…”
“This fully demonstrates that the United States is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
The U.S. responded that the USS Gabrielle Giffords was conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, consistent with international law, Reuters news agency reported, quoting a statement from the U.S. Navy.
“Every day the U.S. 7th Fleet operates in the South China Sea, as they have for decades. These operations demonstrate we are committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said.
Monday’s mission was “the first explicit mention of the Second Thomas Shoal as a FONOP target” for the U.S. military, according to regional maritime analyst Collin Koh, who predicted that there would likely be more such operations in the future.
“The question is whether it’ll be conducted at the same time, or dovetailing with Philippine resupply missions to the outpost, or simply just conducted in random or as a response to more severe circumstances,” said Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
Escalation of tension
“Ren’ai Reef is one of the most tense areas in the South China Sea,” wrote Hu Xijin, former editor of the pro-Beijing Global Times, in the paper.
“Chinese coast guard ships have had multiple confrontations with Philippine vessels near Ren’ai Reef this year, and a collision occurred in October,” Hu wrote, adding that the U.S. ship’s appearance this time “is an escalation of the U.S. gesture of intervening in the South China Sea.”
The Chinese commentator accused the U.S. military of using “cheap muscle-flexing and petty actions to incite the Philippines to confront China more boldly.”
“The Second Thomas Shoal is somewhat special because the Sierra Madre is still a commissioned Philippine Navy ship which means any attack on it will amount to an armed attack that triggers the Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines,” said Koh.
According to the treaty, or MDT in short, Washington and Manila are obliged to support each other militarily if either of them were to be attacked by an external party.
“I’ll surmise the Chinese would be more cautious around the shoal, even if the Americans stage FONOPs in the area,” Koh told Radio Free Asia.
“I also believe Beijing may perceive this to be not simply about the Americans showing moral support to their Filipino allies but to potentially pave [the] way for the latter to carry out so-called ‘large scale construction’ at the feature,” the analyst said.
“Therefore, we don’t dismiss the possibility of Beijing ramping up its measures in the area,” he added.
Japanese news outlet Nikkei Asia in November reported that the U.S. had begun advising the Philippines on the repair of the World War II-era ship BRP Sierra Madre.
Last week the Philippine government gave approval for a large convoy of civilian boats to bring Christmas cheer to troops stationed there, risking an angry response from China.
Maritime militia at Whitsun Reef
Meanwhile the Philippine Coast Guard said Sunday that two of its vessels were dispatched “to conduct patrols in the immediate vicinity of Julian Felipe Reef”– also called Whitsun – another disputed reef in the Spratlys.
Since mid-November, the coast guard has monitored more than a hundred Chinese maritime militia boats “swarming the area,” said spokesman Jay Tariela.
Tariela added that the number of Chinese vessels “is now estimated to have grown to more than 135 vessels dispersed and scattered” within the reef. Most of the ships are rafted together and not “visible” on the AIS ship tracking system.
Philippine officials repeatedly said that their country has sovereignty over the reef “in accordance with international laws including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 2016 Arbitral Award and Philippine domestic laws.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own despite an international arbitration court in 2016 ruling in favor of the Philippines in a case brought against Beijing over the contested waterway.
Manila has lodged numerous diplomatic protests with Beijing over the swarming of Whitsun Reef by Chinese maritime militia ships, which China insists are fishing vessels that have been fishing in the waters near the reef it calls Niu’e Jiao all along.