The U.S. Navy announced Tuesday that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea for “routine operations” amid a Chinese maritime militia standoff with the Philippines. China’s provocation comes as Russia has surged forces near Ukraine. The Biden Administration may be getting an early test of whether its model of liberal multilateralism can deter revisionist powers pushing against U.S. interests.
The Philippines began to sound the alarm last month over Chinese militia boats, at one point totaling 220, occupying the Whitsun Reef west of the archipelago. The naval equivalent of Russia’s “little green men,” China’s military-affiliated flotillas can masquerade as fishing fleets to give Beijing plausible deniability as it entrenches itself in disputed waters.
An analysis by two researchers from the U.S. Naval War College last week found “no evidence of fishing whatsoever during these laser-focused operations, but every indication of trolling for territorial claims.”
For more than a decade China has been moving aggressively to establish dominance in the waters surrounding the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, building military installations and harassing other nations’ commercial vessels. In 2016 an international court said China was breaking the law in the South China Sea. The Trump Administration last summer sanctioned firms involved in the construction of illegal islands there.
China seemed to slow its military buildup on the islands but now it may be resuming. It seems determined to dominate the waterways of Southeast Asia, which among other things would put it in a stronger position to invade Taiwan. Slowing or reversing the process will require coordination with “the Quad”—Japan, Australia, and India—as well as Southeast Asian countries whose sovereignty is directly infringed by the incursions. Vietnam has been among the most vocal Southeast Asian nations in denouncing China’s maritime adventurism.