U.S. Naval Operations In the South China Sea


East Asia Correspondent – David McDonald

13 March 2016

China Likely To Send More Naval Vessels Into South China Sea 

Executive Summary:

It is likely that China will send more naval vessels into the South China Sea in order to
protect its territory from future U.S. deployments.  Chinese Coast Guard vessels already monitor the region from outside threats, but increased U.S. operations have led to escalation in the region.


On 1 March, the Stennis carrier strike group conducted routine operations before exiting through the Luzon Strait and into the Philippine Sea.  While transiting into the region, the USS Stennis conducted flight operations within the region.  People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships monitored the region, but communication between the U.S. and Chinese ships remained friendly.[i]

Figure, right, the Luzon Straight lies just north of the Philippines and the Philippine Sea lies east of the country. Image Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349 

This is not the first time U.S. naval vessels sailed through the South China Sea.  In October 2015, the U.S. sent the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer to waters around the Spratly chain.[ii]  Then, in late January, the U.S. destroyer, USS Wilbur sailed within twelve nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Chain.  The ship’s sole mission was to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the region.[iii]

In response to the U.S.’ various freedom of navigation exercises, China deployed fighter jets[iv] and surface-to-air missiles in the South China Sea.  Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all have claims to islands in the Spratly chains and commenced a ASEAN meeting to discuss China’s influence in the region.  Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s Premier asked for the U.S. to play a larger role in the region, likely leading to the U.S.’ decision to send in a carrier task force.[v]

China continues to deploy Coast Guard vessels in the South China Sea with the intention of asserting its land claims despite continuing U.S. freedom of navigation exercises.  In early January, China commissioned a new ship to its Coast Guard.  The Chinese built the vessel with the intention of sending into the South China Sea.  China uses its Coast Guard vessels, as the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) explains, as a means of enforcing its maritime claims.[vi]

Analytic Confidence:

Analytic confidence for this assessment is medium.  The analyst used an no analytic methodologies for this analysis.  Source reliability is medium with no conflict among sources and information from the past two months.  The analyst’s expertise on the topic is minimal.  The analyst worked alone with some casual discussion among group members.  The task complexity is minimally complex and the time constraint was sufficient.

[i] http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/03/08/stennis-carrier-strike-group-exits-south-china-sea-days-arriving.html (Medium)

[ii] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/28/china-not-frightened-fight-war-south-china-sea-uss-lassen (Medium)

[iii] http://news.usni.org/2016/01/30/u-s-destroyer-challenges-more-chinese-south-china-sea-claims-in-new-freedom-of-navigation-operation (High)

[iv] http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2016/02/23/china-deploys-fighter-jets-contested-island-south-china-sea/80824116/ (High)

[v] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/china-places-missiles-woody-south-china-sea-islands (Medium)

[vi] http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/beijing-builds-monster-ship-for-patrolling-the-south-china-sea/ (Medium)

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