The US Navy has maintained operations in and around the South China Sea (SCS) through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on US military operations and deployments globally, FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations, military aircraft overflights, and reconnaissance activities in the SCS region have continued. Granted, the size, and scale of these operations has dropped off somewhat they continue. The SCS is a critical area of the gameboard when it comes to the US-China security competition in the Pacific, and beyond.
Two days ago, the US sent two ships to patrol near an area of the SCS where a mineral rights dispute between Malaysia and China is ongoing. The two ships are the USS Montgomery, a Littoral Combat Ship, and the replenishment ship USNS Cesar Chavez. Chinese naval and coast guard vessels have been operation in the area regularly, and the recent appearance of US ships serves as a reminder to Beijing that the United States is watching its activities the SCS with great interest.
The number of available US naval assets in and around the Western Pacific is set to grow in the coming days and weeks. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts have departed from Japan after the carrier’s annual repair period. Reagan will undergo a period of sea trails and carrier qualifications for her air wing before the carrier group begins its spring patrol in the Western Pacific. On the west coast of the US, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is working up in preparation for a deployment set to begin later this month. This will give the US Navy potentially two aircraft carriers for operations in and around the SCS.
If US-Chinese relations continue down the same path they’re on presently, a largescale US show of force in and around the South China Sea could occur sometime in the early days of summer.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in Manila relations between the Philippines and China have improved considerably, while the PI’s relations with the United States have deteriorated to an extent. Duterte appears eager to move his nation out from beneath the shadow of the US and set it on a more independent course. Thursday’s remarks by the Philippine defense secretary are an example of this. Delfin Lorenzana said it is unlikely that the Philippines will allow the US to use his country as a springboard for freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. He pointed out that the US has numerous bases in the region that its ships and aircraft can use.
Under Beningo Aquino III’s presidency, some US aircraft and warships stopped in the Philippines on their way to patrols in the South China Sea. Lorenzana also said that President Duterte will probably not allow that to continue in order to “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It’s unlikely.”
This change in policy comes on the heels of Duterte proposing a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone be placed in the middle of the contested Scarborough Shoal last month. He told the media that he planned to sign an executive order declaring the zone and had discussed the matter with his ‘counterpart from China.’ Should Duterte issue the executive order it would reassert Philippine sovereignty over that area. A move like that will undoubtedly cause friction with China and puts Thursday’s comments by Lorenzana into a more coherent context perhaps. Removal of material support for US freedom of navigation exercises in exchange for China’s acceptance of the proposed Scarborough Shoal sanctuary.
Regardless of intentions and actions, it is clear that Duterte is playing a very shrewd game of geopolitical poker. His hand is nowhere near as strong as he would like. Much to his chagrin, the Philippines are not a major power in the South China Sea dispute. Manila has neither the political or military capital to influence the intentions and actions of the US and China in the region. Cozying up to China will bring short term benefits. However, China will act when it ready to act and in a manner that benefits its own national interests first and foremost. When that happens, Duterte will have minimal influence over the situation. His only viable option will be to tacitly approve of whatever plans Beijing has in mind. The same can be said for his stance with the United States.
To put it another way, Duterte is punching above his weight and if he is not wary, the US will not be there to administer a standing eight count if needed.