The nation's top general has ordered his staff to gather information about every interaction between the U.S. military and the Chinese military over the past five years to review the growing number of interactions with the Chinese military in the South China Sea and beyond, say three defense officials.
The order from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came after a video teleconference call between Milley and his Chinese counterpart on July 7, the officials said. During the call, Gen. Li Zuocheng, the chief of the Joint Staff Department for the People’s Liberation Army of China, disputed the U.S. contention that there has been an uptick in aggressive behavior by Chinese military aircraft and ships against U.S. and allied military operating in international waters that the Chinese view as their own territorial areas.
In the official readout of the call between Milley and his counterpart, which was made public on July 7, Milley’s spokesperson, Col. Dave Butler, said Milley “underscored the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risk,” but did not provide more detail about the strategic risks.
Last month Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at an Asian security conference that the U.S. has “seen an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels.”
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Austin said PLA fighter jets had conducted “dangerous intercepts of allied aircraft operating lawfully in the East China and the South China Seas” in recent weeks and also warned about interactions in the Taiwan Strait.
A spokesperson for the Joint Staff, the Pentagon-based support staff for Milley, declined to comment.
Asked about his directive, Milley said: “China has been on the rise, economically and militarily, for more than a decade. They’ve become more bold in the Pacific. Maintaining open lines of communication and managing competition will reduce strategic risk.”
“The U.S. military’s focus is on modernization and readiness,” said Milley. “Our network of partners and allies is a source of strength. Through integrated deterrence, the rules-based order will continue to allow every nation to prosper.”
Unsafe and unprofessional
The Joint Staff is now reviewing hundreds of interactions, looking at when the increased aggression began and just how often Chinese pilots and sailors could be endangering U.S. military personnel.
On July 13 the U.S. destroyer USS Benfold carried out a FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operation) in the South China Sea, sailing close to the disputed but Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands. The Chinese military trailed the Benfold and ordered the ship to leave the area. A Chinese military statement accused the U.S. of illegally entering China's territorial waters and violating Chinese sovereignty.
The U.S. Navy denied any wrongdoing and insisted the Chinese threat did not force the U.S. ship out of the area. “The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle," the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet said in a statement. "The United States is defending every nation’s right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing the PRC says otherwise will deter us.”
Three days later, the USS Benfold conducted another FONOP, sailing near the contested Spratly Islands, over which China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines each claim some sovereignty.
U.S. FONOPs began during the Obama administration and increased during the Trump years, and now they have become routine, according to Harrison Pretat, an expert on maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific region and associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The purpose is to challenge China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, which are in excess of what’s allowed in international law,” said Pretat. The U.S. is attempting to prove the right of military ships to sail through waterways that other nations view as their territorial waters, said Pretat, without permission or notification to the countries that stake claims to the territory.
U.S. military and defense officials report that most interactions between the U.S. and Chinese military are safe, professional and routine. They also say that nearly every time the U.S. military enters a contested area while conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea and around China’s manmade islands, or transits the Taiwan Strait via air and sea, the Chinese military sends ships and aircraft to follow the U.S. assets.
After an interaction, a U.S. pilot or sailor can report the incident as safe or unsafe and professional or unprofessional. When pilots or ships operate too close, make erratic or sudden moves, or quickly cut in front of a U.S. ship or aircraft, the U.S. can report the incident as unsafe or unprofessional. But the designation is somewhat subjective and generally relies on the pilots and sailors to make a judgment call.
Even when a Chinese ship or aircraft operates in a seemingly unsafe manner, however, the U.S. side may not report it as such because the Chinese are usually well-trained. The U.S. pilots and sailors do not consider themselves in as much danger as they would be with a less well-trained military.
Pretat says there has been an increase in the number of reported incidents deemed unsafe and/or unprofessional in recent years, both on the water and in the air, but it is not clear whether that is an increase in actual incidents or in the reporting of those incidents to the public.
The continued FONOPs and Taiwan Strait transits have done little to change the dynamic in the region, Pretat said, and they do not address the disputes over oil and gas and who owns the fishing rights in some of these areas.
“It’s not really changing the issues on the ground, like the economic rights for Southeast Asian states,” he said.