The head of U.S. Pacific Fleet likened the “might makes right” actions usually attributed to China in the South China Sea to those taken by Japan preceding World War II in the Asia-Pacific region.
“My concern is that after many decades of peace and prosperity at sea, we may be seeing the leading edge of a return of ‘might makes right’ to the region,” Adm. Scott Swift said Monday at a Cooperative Strategy Forum in Honolulu.
That is particularly true in the South China Sea, “where excessive maritime claims, prolonged disputes involving multiple parties, and the nascent militarization of outposts are challenging freedom of the seas and the rules-based system,” Swift said.
While not mentioning China by name, Swift said in the Spratly Islands, “larger claimants are piling sand, building facilities and deploying garrisons on disputed features at unprecedented rates.”
He added that although “senior leaders vowed to prevent it, the question of future militarization of these features looms large on the horizon.” China’s president, Xi Jinping, said in September that China did not intend to pursue militarization of the artificial islands it is building.
In the early 20th century, “as nations consolidated sovereignty and pursued growth, rule by ‘might makes right’ led to the devastation of World War II, which in turn, through consensus and conciliation, produced the rules-based system of international norms, standards, rules and laws we enjoy today,” Swift said.
Today, all Indo-Asia-Pacific nations “benefit from a rising tide of prosperity,” said Swift, who is based in Hawaii. Thirty percent of global maritime trade, roughly $5.3 trillion annually, passes through the South China Sea, he said.
Swift spoke to and took questions from about 100 forum participants at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Maritime security scholars and naval leaders from the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United Kingdom were scheduled to attend.
Swift said he was “very disappointed” representatives of China were not there. The seeming contradiction of criticizing China for its actions in the South China Sea while also seeking robust military-to-military engagement is apparent with the current stopover of three Chinese warships at Pearl Harbor at the tail end of an around-the-world deployment.
“Some have asked why we would host these ships given the rising tensions in the South China Sea,” Swift said. His response was that “reciprocal port visits and other forms of peaceful engagement are never more appropriate than when we have national differences.”
In a freedom of navigation demonstration, the Pentagon sailed the destroyer USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese man-made island at Subi Reef in the contested Spratly Islands on Oct. 27. China had warned the United States not to do so, claiming the area was its sovereign territory. The growing Asian power claims much of the South China Sea as its own.
The United States maintains that the artificial islands are in international waters, but Swift said ships and aircraft operating near the Chinese features are now subject to “superfluous” warnings that threaten commercial and military operations, with some merchant vessels being diverted from shipping lanes.
He was asked about the next U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operation. “I think the question is — what will the frequency be?” Swift said. “So I think patience comes to mind. I think we need to understand, how do we do these in a way that’s not escalatory (and) that is de-escalatory?”
Swift said the possible militarization of China’s artificial islands won’t deter U.S. Navy activities in the area.
“It’s not going to make any difference to my operations,” he said. “I think the secretary of defense has been clear. We’ll continue to operate in accordance with international law.”
The Philippines has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to back up its rights within 200 nautical miles of its coastline — where China has made its own claims.
“Whatever that outcome is, whoever it finds in favor of, the ultimate determinant about what happens from that is what the global reaction is,” Swift said. “If the countries of the world come together and endorse whatever the court’s finding is, I think that will be the most positive outcome.”
The need for credible third parties such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas to help manage tensions and resolve disputes “could not be greater,” Swift said.
International tribunals have resolved disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, Bangladesh and Burma, and Bangladesh and India, Swift noted.
Swift was asked whether China will be participating in Rim of the Pacific maritime exercises off Hawaii next summer. The People’s Liberation Army Navy took part in RIMPAC for the first time in 2014, the last time the exercise was held — while also sending a spy ship to lurk off the coast.
Swift indicated China will participate.