A highly-anticipated ruling over Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea could ratchet up tensions between Washington and Beijing ahead of a key military meeting between the two countries set for next month.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is heading to Beijing in July for the first face-to-face meeting with Adm. Wu Shengli, head of the Chinese Navy, since taking the top Navy job, the four-star admiral said Monday.
Adm. Richardson has “already had a number of conversations” with his Chinese counterpart since becoming the Navy’s top officer last April, he said during a Monday panel discussion at the Center for a New American Security’s annual symposium in Washington.
But next month’s high-level meeting will likely coincide with an international arbitration panel’s ruling over the Philippines’ opposition to China’s sweeping territorial claims in the hotly contested South China Sea, which could come as soon as next week.
In the case, filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague, Manila is challenging China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea — particularly Beijing’s efforts to build up military installations on rocky outcroppings in the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Fiery Cross Reef and other strategic points in the area.
Keeping a wary eye on those growing tensions, Navy commanders this month ordered the USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups into the Philippine Sea.
It is the first time in years that two full-up carrier strike groups have been deployed to the same area at the same time in several years, according to Adm. Richardson.
Chinese officials have repeatedly stated they do not recognize the court’s legitimacy in the South China Sea dispute and will not adhere to the decision should it find in favor of the Philippines.
What happens after that remains unclear, said Patrick Cronin, senior director of CNAS’s Asia-Pacific Security Program, said during Monday’s panel talk.
“I think it’s a great opportunity” for the international community to set some kind of precedent in determining disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, Mr. Cronin said. “We will just have to see what unfolds,” he added.
A political response, rather than a military one, by either China or the Philippines will be the likely outcome in the aftermath of the court’s decision.
“It could quickly ratchet up … but you never really know,” he said, adding Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, who takes office at the end of this month, remains “a bit of a wild card.”
While campaigning for office, Mr. Duterte notoriously claimed he would ride a jet ski out to the Spratlys to personally plant the Philippine flag on the disputed island chain, but he has also sent signals he might support Beijing’s preference for direct bilateral talks.
While noting Mr. Duterte’s efforts to curb Chinese expansion in the South China Sea would likely fall short of such theatrics, “those tensions are not going to end anytime soon,” Mr. Cronin said.
The four-star admiral said the Stennis and Reagan deployments gave U.S. and allied naval commanders a rare opportunity to develop the “building blocks” of a partnership of naval operations in the region.
That said, the strike group deployments are “a signal … that we are committed and we hope there is a deterrence message as well,” Adm. Richardson said.