U.S. defense officials are encouraged by the way allies and partners are increasingly acting together to counter Chinese attempts to claim vast areas of the South China Sea and to deter China from military action in the region, said Lindsey Ford, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia.
Ford testified, yesterday, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about China’s efforts to expand its military and law enforcement presence in the South China Sea.
She told the panel that Chinese forces have launched a campaign of harassment against the legitimate economic activities of other claimants in the area. Chinese forces also interfere with ships and aircraft from other states looking to exercise navigational rights and freedoms under international law.
“Close collaboration with our allies and partners is foundational to sustaining and strengthening deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region, including in the South China Sea,” Ford said. “We cannot confront complex and interconnected challenges alone, and the South China Sea is no exception.”
Over the past 10 years, China has increased “the scope, the scale and the pace of its approach to assert control over the entirety of the South China Sea,” she said.
The Chinese military has constructed a number of military outposts on occupied and reclaimed features in the Spratly Islands and steadily equipped these outposts with an increasing array of advanced military capabilities, Ford said.
“The [Chinese military] has sharply increased coercive and risky operational behavior in the air and at sea, threatening lawfully operating American, allied and partner forces,” she said. “This includes sinking Vietnamese fishing vessels, using military aircraft to harass Malaysian offshore energy exploration, flying within 20 feet of U.S. military aircraft and deploying water cannons and military grade lasers to block and target Philippine resupply boats headed toward Second Thomas Shoal.”
This is extremely dangerous and increases the risks of miscalculation as incidents occur. Many nations are concerned with these Chinese provocations. “Over the past year, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of states enhance efforts to support rule of law in the South China Sea, which is a very encouraging development,” Ford said.
She listed some of the steps allies and partners are taking. Earlier this week, the Philippines removed a floating barrier installed by the Chinese Coast Guard near Scarborough Shoal. “In the face of [Chinese] threats and intimidation, we’ve seen Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam continue to expand their offshore energy exploration efforts and challenge [Chinese] encroachment,” she said.
Partners across the region and beyond have condemned the Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. These include Australia, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union. “All protested the aggressive [Chinese] maneuvers that we saw against the Philippines at the Second Thomas Shoal,” she said.
The deputy assistant secretary also noted that Japanese and South Korean leaders at the recent Camp David Summit hosted by President Joe Biden “strongly condemned the PRC’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.”
The leaders of the G-7 came out against the militarization of the South China Sea and called on the Chinese to uphold the principles of the Law of the Sea.
“While our allies and partners have taken great steps to stand up for our shared vision, DOD is also taking an increasingly proactive approach to counter [Chinese] coercion,” she said. “A key element of this approach is building asymmetric advantages for our allies and partners.”
The United States has allocated $475 million and capabilities that enable Southeast Asian partners to sense, share and contribute to regional maritime security. This includes funding emerging technologies that will bring greater capabilities to our allies and partners. “Beyond the investments we’re making in ally and partner capabilities, we’ve enhanced the complexity of our military operations in and around the South China Sea to ensure deterrence is strong,” she said.
She noted the United States conducted a multi-carrier, multi-domain exercise in the region earlier this year and that thousands of U.S. service members participated in Excise Super Garuda Shield in Indonesia and the Balikatan Exercise with the Philippines.
“We are diversifying U.S. force posture to remain prepared for any crisis or contingency that includes regular rotational deployments of U.S. P-8 [aircraft] and littoral combat ships with Singapore, and in the Philippines recently agreeing to four new enhanced defense cooperation sites that U.S. forces will have access to,” Ford said.
Moving ahead, the United States is supporting “multi-lateral and ‘mini—lateral’ coalitions of allies and partners supporting network security architecture of like-minded nations,” she said.