The United States has stepped up its freedom of navigation operations in the disputed South China Sea as it challenges Beijing’s efforts to strengthen its maritime claims in the region.
American officials have signalled Washington will boost measures to counter China’s expansion in the area and include allies in future missions, but observers say Beijing is unlikely to be deterred.
The US has already conducted two freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters this year.
In January, the USS McCampbell sailed near the Paracel Islands, and on February 11, the USS Spruance and the USS Preble sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratlys – both actions triggering condemnation from Beijing.
Washington reportedly carried out five such operations last year and four in 2017, according to a defence department report. That compared to four in both 2016 and 2015.
On March 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our mutual defense treaty.”
To many analysts, Pompeo’s statement appeared to be the most significant action the Trump administration has taken to “redouble our commitment to established alliances” in the Indo-Pacific region, as promised in the 2017 National Security Strategy.
It has long been unclear, however, whether the South China Sea falls “in the Pacific” — in which case the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty would apply in the event of an armed attack there. If not, Manila would probably be on its own.