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U.S. aircraft carriers in South China Sea make needed show of force against Beijing

Navy patrols through these waters challenge China's legally unsupported claims of ownership, preventing them from being enforced de facto.
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Flight Operations
The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz Carrier Strike move in formation in the South China Sea on July 6.Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Tarleton / U.S. Navy

In the wake of the Chinese outcry over the two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers now cruising the South China Sea, it's easy to assume the carrier deployments are yet another needless and bellicose nationalistic chest thump from an administration infamous for blowing up longstanding arms controls treaties and undermining key alliances.

But that would be wrong. In fact, they laudibly uphold the U.S. commitment to defend the common global good of entitling all countries the freedom to navigate the seas. The patrol missions are a rare case in which international law, defense of weaker nations and pursuit of the national interest are aligned.

The patrol missions are a rare case in which international law, defense of weaker nations and pursuit of the national interest are aligned.

These patrols involve U.S. military ships deliberately cruising through waters that China has claimed jurisdiction over to make the point that they are not, legally, under Beijing's exclusive control. The policy of dispatching ships on these freedom of navigation operations is an enduring one — going back to 1979 — so it also testifies to the benefit of continuity in national security.

One of the side effects of the reckless moves so much more common in the Trump administration is that allies fear we can't be depended upon, while adversaries may perceive either weakness or excessive aggression. These continued aircraft carrier patrols both reassure friends of our commitment and keep enemies in check, with no shots fired.

At issue is a simple, widely accepted principle of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea: that international waters extend no further than 12 nautical miles (13.8 miles) from a country's shore. That means, for example, that if Russian wants to send a spy ship within 17 miles of a sensitive U.S. submarine base on the East Coast, it absolutely can — and it has.

But the Chinese Communist Party doesn't think that principle should apply to the South China Sea, a body of water boxed in among southern China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia through which over one-fifth of the world's trade passes every year. Beijing makes sweeping but ill-defined claims to waters more than 1,000 miles beyond its territory, as can be seen in the map China submitted for international arbitration. (China lost the case in 2016 but had vowed beforehand that it wouldn't abide by the court's ruling.)

Beijing thus asserts jurisdiction over swathes of ocean that lie hundreds of miles from China but are only a few dozen miles off the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. This pretense not only conveniently accords Beijing control of several resource-rich archipelagoes strategically situated on lucrative shipping lanes, but it also serves as a pretext to claim that U.S. patrols in the international waters of the South China Sea are violations of China's Exclusive Economic Zone — waters in which a country is exclusively entitled to exploit natural resources, even though vessels can navigate freely through such zones.

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Accordingly, China's maritime militias — ostensibly civilian boats under government control — are being used to hound commercial and military shipping of nations that dare to traverse the South China Sea. And the Chinese military has used this claim to justify harassment of U.S. ships and aircraft, including unsafe intercepts by Chinese jets and the flashing of damaging lasers into the eyes of U.S. military pilots. The two-carrier patrol — the first in the South China Sea in six years — overlapped briefly with large-scale Chinese naval exercises near the disputed Paracel Islands, and it was met with bellicose threats in China's Global Times that the carriers could be sunk by China's "aircraft carrier killer" missiles.

U.S. policy is to conduct Navy patrols through these waters to challenge China's legally unsupported claims, preventing them from being enforced de facto. These freedom of navigation operations, therefore, uphold a principle in international law observed by virtually every other country, including the U.S. (though Republicans have prevented it from being formally ratified).

There's more than just international law at stake; China's expansionist claims come at the expense of countries with far less military and economic clout. The U.S. presence and patrols make it feasible for those countries to stand against Chinese pressure and defend their rights.

Of course, a more direct American national security interest is also at play: just how much of the Pacific Ocean will be dominated by the Chinese versus the American military. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has freely roamed the breadth of the Pacific thanks to its unparalleled reach and logistics operations and its network of military bases in allied countries — including Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — that today depend on the U.S. to counter China's regional might.

China is sensitive to the threat of foreign military bases on its Pacific flank. From 1839 to 1937 it suffered a series of disastrous foreign invasions known as the "Century of Humiliation." Thus, Chinese strategists would like to push the U.S. military presence eastward by 2,000 miles — which would put the U.S. past a defensive line of island chains formed by Japan and the Philippines.

But respecting international waters doesn't impede China's trade or restrict its fleet from peacetime military maneuvers. Nor does it prevent Beijing from building its own network of alliances and bases around the globe, as it has from Central Asia to East Africa to islands between Australia and the U.S.

And it's important to note that it's neither the 19th century — when overseas imperialists preyed upon a weak China — nor 1996, when the presence of two U.S. carriers posed a credible enough threat to compel Beijing to back down during a crisis. Since then, China has built up a formidable arsenal of long-range anti-ship missiles, submarines, large warships and naval strike planes that give it ample ability to threaten ships and islands hundreds of miles from its coastline — including those of the U.S.

In fact, the major shortcoming of these air carrier patrols is that they have proven insufficient in preventing China from asserting ever greater claims in the South China Sea and reinforcing its position militarily, particularly by creating artificial islands to serve as military outposts.

The U.S. military should also explore new ways of projecting sea power that are less vulnerable to the long-range missiles China has developed.

If Washington wants to retain its foothold in the western Pacific, it will have to accompany its patrols with re-investments in overseas alliances it has outright neglected in recent years. That could include concerted outreach to resolve dangerous rifts between its allies and deepening cooperation rather than resentfully demanding more money and threatening trade wars with countries that host key U.S. bases.

The U.S. military should also explore new ways of projecting sea power that are less vulnerable to the long-range missiles China has developed, including increasing use of unmanned vessels, aircraft and its own longer-range firepower.

Though the U.S. and China are bound to compete in the coming decades, maintaining consistent and transparent policies over time minimizes the temptation to make aggressive moves that could trigger a war.