NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer this week helped mark the sixth anniversary of a landmark international tribunal ruling declaring the South China Sea to be international waters and not a Chinese lake.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted Monday that the 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in the Netherlands rejecting China’s claims to own most of the South China Sea was unanimous and binding on both China and the Philippines.
“In its ruling, the tribunal firmly rejected the PRC’s expansive South China Sea maritime claims as having no basis in international law,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
The tribunal ruling followed an appeal from the Philippines government that opposed China’s “Nine-Dash Line” covering most of the sea as infringing its maritime territory. Beijing rejected the tribunal ruling but modified some of its expansive claims after the 2016 decision.
Mr. Blinken said the State Department recently produced a study examining China’s post-ruling territorial claims and rejected them as illegal as well.
“This study concluded that these re-articulated maritime claims remain plainly inconsistent with international law,” he said.
The South China Sea is used for an estimated $5 trillion annually in international trade and the United States is committed to keeping it open to shipping and air transport.
The secretary of state also reaffirmed the announcement by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2020 that any armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would trigger the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. The comment was a clear warning to Beijing that it risks a conflict with the United States if it ignores the tribunal ruling.
“We call again on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law and cease its provocative behavior,” Mr. Blinken said.
Navy Lt. Nicholas Lingo, a spokesperson for the Seventh Fleet, said the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands on Wednesday. The passage asserted “navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea consistent with international law,” he said.
In response, China’s People’s Liberation Army issued a statement claiming the Benfold “trespassed” and was “warned off” by patrolling PLA naval and air forces.
PLA Sr. Col. Tian Junli, with the Southern Theater Command, said the Benfold action “is yet another irrefutable proof of the U.S. attempt to militarize the South China Sea through maritime hegemony.”
China, for its part, has built up military assets in the South China Sea since 2012, fortifying some 3,200 acres of disputed islands throughout the sea, according to the Pentagon. Then, contrary to a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the islands, the PLA in 2018 began deploying anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and electronic warfare equipment on some of the disputed islands.
Lt. Lingo said the PLA statement was false.
The USS Benfold “conducted this [freedom of navigation operation] in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters,” he said.
“The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. 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.”
China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim sovereignty rights in the Paracels, located in the northern part of the sea.
White House opposes nuclear cruise missile
The White House confirmed Wednesday it is opposing a bipartisan effort in Congress to fund a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile.
As reported in this space June 22, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees voted to restore $25 million and $45 million, respectively, for development of the new cruise missile known as SLCM-N. Funding for the low-yield Navy missile had been eliminated by anti-nuclear arms policymakers in the Biden administration’s defense budget request.
“The administration strongly opposes continued funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N) and its associated warhead,” the White House said in a statement made public Wednesday on the fiscal 2023 national defense authorization bill now working its way through Congress. The statement said a recent nuclear posture review found the SLCM-N to be costly and “unnecessary.”
Killing off the SLCM-N would not weaken current and planned nuclear deterrent capabilities, the statement added.
Restoring funds for SLCM-N followed appeals from Adm. Charles Richard, commander of the Strategic Command, and Adm. Christopher Grady, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both admirals testified to Congress that the missile is needed to strengthen deterrence against growing nuclear arsenals in China and Russia.
“A non-ballistic, low-yield, non-treaty accountable system that is available without visible generation would be very valuable,” Adm. Richard said in May.
Four years ago, a Pentagon study concluded that the SLCM-N would bolster deterrence against rapidly expanding Chinese and Russian forces. Both Moscow and Beijing have built up large numbers of nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems that U.S. officials contend undermine regional deterrence.
The administration also canceled an air-delivered nuclear bomb called the B83-1.
The elimination of both weapons is based on the administration’s policy of seeking to reduce the role of nuclear arms in modern conflict in favor of using arms control agreements.
New NATO-Pacific alliance urged
The growing power of China regionally and globally highlights the need for a new formal alliance involving NATO and democratic states of the Indo-Pacific, according to former State Department policymaker Miles Yu. Mr. Yu detailed the proposal for a new Eurasian, transoceanic multilateral collective defense pact in a recent opinion article for the Taipei Times.
Currently, the greatest threat to freedom and democracy comes from the China-led Beijing-Moscow axis of tyranny and aggression, Mr. Yu wrote. The threat posed by China, in particular, has grown from “remote to acute,” he noted.
“The new alliance to counter that axis may be called the North Atlantic-Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization — NAIPTO,” he said.
The alliance would build on NATO’s role as the world’s most successful collective defense group and could be augmented by robust U.S.-led defense alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, he argued.
“The scale of such an alliance, multilateral, not bilateral, in nature, would be significant, covering Eurasia, as well as the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans,” said Mr. Yu, who was the principal policy and planning adviser on China for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Trump administration.
“Such scale is necessary because NATO nations and major countries in the Indo-Pacific region face the same common threat. Common threats are the foundation for common defense.”
The need for the new global defense alliance has grown more urgent with Russia’s war on Ukraine and growing threats from China to retake Taiwan militarily. Russia’s claims to Ukrainian land and China’s designs on Taiwan are illegitimate and appear based on ethnolinguistic heritage and “historical nihilism,” Mr. Yu said.
Russia and China also view democratic alliances in Europe and Asia with hostility, as noted by the joint Chinese-Russian bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan timed to coincide with the recent visit to Tokyo by President Biden.
“NAIPTO would eliminate the most significant limitation to the U.S.-led alliance in the Indo-Pacific: the inadequacy of America’s bilateral alliances in the region,” Mr. Yu said, noting that NATO is multilateral while U.S. alliances in Asia are bilateral.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.