Resisting China’s Aggression in the South China Sea

While the international community wrestles with COVID-19, Beijing is doubling down on its campaign to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea, bullying Southeast Asian states to prevent the exploration of offshore resources and assert its unlawful maritime claims.

This op-ed by Ambassador Johnson appeared in the May 28, 2020 edition of The Times newspaper.

Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson
May 28, 2020

Portrait of Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson
Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson

For more than seven decades, the United States-United Kingdom Special Relationship has been a cornerstone of global peace and security. Our alliance is steeped in shared values of openness and the rule of law, including a firm commitment to freedom of the seas. London and Washington have long championed a maritime order based on international law that upholds freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and access to marine resources, with equal rules for large and small states alike.

In the strategic waterway of the South China Sea, however, this order is under grave threat. More than 3 trillion dollars in trade flow through these waters, comprising around one-fifth of global trade, and a third of the world’s energy supply. While the international community wrestles with COVID-19, Beijing is doubling down on its campaign to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea, bullying Southeast Asian states to prevent the exploration of offshore resources and assert its unlawful maritime claims.

Since 2013, China has been building artificial “islands” in international waters by dumping concrete and dredging waste onto fragile reefs. The PRC’s huge-scale dredging and destruction of the seabed to expand its contested outposts in the Spratly Islands has irreversibly damaged the surrounding marine environment, constituting the most rapid loss of coral reef area in human history. These reefs have been vital to rich fishing grounds, which now risk collapse. The PRC’s environmental degradation imperils the livelihoods of nearly 4 million people employed in the marine fishing industry in Southeast Asian littoral states, and a critical food source for millions more.

In recent months, Beijing reportedly sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel, sent new military aircraft to—and opened new “research stations” on—military bases on contested outposts; dispatched a survey rig and armed flotilla to confront a Malaysian oil/gas project off that country’s coastline; and stoked tension with Indonesia by sending hundreds of fishing boats and China Coast Guard escorts into waters off Indonesia’s Natuna Island. These acts were accompanied by a public warning that steps that offend PRC sovereignty are “doomed to fail.” In a fanciful propaganda effort, China’s military in late April even claimed to have “expelled” the USS Barry, a United States Navy destroyer which was operating lawfully in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands.

These actions fit a pattern by China of flouting the rules and breaking promises to the international community over the South China Sea. In 2016, China’s sweeping Nine-Dashed Line claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea—far larger than any Southeast Asian claimant—was soundly rejected by a respected arbitral tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Yet Beijing has ignored the verdict, despite its obligation as a signatory to the Convention to abide by the outcome, and instead deployed more warships and maritime militia to try and muscle its way to acceptance of its debunked claim.

In 2015, President Xi told a White House press conference that China has “no intention to militarize” its Spratly Island outposts. Since then, Beijing has installed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles, landed military aircraft, and used those bases to sustain a major expansion of its naval and Coast Guard presence and campaign of incursions into the territorial waters of numerous Southeast Asian states.

Beijing claims good-neighborliness in its talks with the ten Southeast Asian states on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. But behind those talks’ closed doors, Beijing has reportedly pressed the other parties to accept limits on their security partnerships and offshore oil and gas work linked to “outside” countries—including the United States and United Kingdom. The PRC’s egregious behavior threatens the sovereignty of its neighbors and all who value freedom of the seas, and such aggressive action has no place in a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The South China Sea may seem far from the British Isles. But Britain has always been a seafaring nation, and all nations that value a free and open maritime order—and the commerce that depends on it—should be alarmed at what is happening there and make their concerns clear. The world should not accept this behavior as a “new normal.” For our part, the United States will call out China’s harassment of its neighbors and affronts to freedom of the seas—especially since China is trying to achieve its political ends under cover of the pandemic. We will fly, sail, and operate wherever the law allows and stand with our partners and allies against bullying and coercion.

Ignoring Beijing’s determined push to impose dominion over one of the world’s most vital waterways is a luxury global trading nations such as Britain and America can ill-afford. We have an obligation to speak out and take actions against a maritime order of “might makes right” in the South China Sea, lest silence be seen as consent.

Robert Wood Johnson, Ambassador of the United States of America to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland