US efforts to contest maritime claims by Beijing in the South China Sea remain unchanged under the administration of Donald Trump, according to a senior US naval officer.
But while the US is continuing “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops) by warships, the country’s military is being quieter about the strategy.
Speaking during a visit to China, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, confirmed the policy of talking less about efforts to challenge China’s maritime claims.
“I think it’s a very positive step that current policy . . . is that we’re not going to talk about freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea,” he said in an interview aboard the USS Sterett, a destroyer that visited the Chinese Southern Naval base in Zhanjiang last week.
Such operations typically involve a US warship sailing inside a contested claim.
Admiral Swift declined to discuss details of a May 24 challenge by a US destroyer, in which the USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island claimed by China, known as Mischief Reef, sparking protests from Beijing.
Under the administration of Barack Obama, the US had begun to publicise such operations, partly as a way to reassure its allies in the region, said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Under the Trump administration, she said, “a decision was made to not discuss” Fonops.
“Fonops are conducted globally and have been for decades. They are not intended to be announced. They enforce freedom of navigation,” she added.
Since 2013 the US has conducted an average of two such operations per year against Chinese claims, according to a US Navy spokesperson. “I don’t see how those operations in the South China Sea should be viewed from a navy perspective as any more consequential than they are anywhere else,” said Admiral Swift. The quieter approach equated to a softer US posture in the region, he added.
The number of days spent by US ships in the South China Sea was on track to exceed 900 in 2017 — higher than the long-term average of 600-700 days — he said. “The policy is consistent between the two administrations,” he added.
China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, and US efforts to push back on them, remain an irritant in Beijing’s relations with Washington. Over the past few years China has buttressed its claims by dredging seven artificial islands from the sea floor.
The US has accused China of militarising the sea by stationing weaponry and airfields on the islands, although Beijing insists its intentions are peaceful.
The ultimate goal of US policy in the South China Sea, was to demonstrate “strength through presence”, Admiral Swift said.
However, he added, the operations were unlikely to deter Beijing in the immediate future: “I don’t think anyone is expecting a huge reversal. This is going to take time.”
The three-day visit by the USS Sterett is the first port call by a US warship on the Chinese mainland since August 2016, and suggests military co-operation between the US and China remains unaffected by political tensions.