US Navy, public domain
With the recent placement of surface-­to-­air missiles (SAMs) on Woody Island, a subset of the Paracel Islands, China has taken a major step toward militarization of the South China Sea. The action was taken during the recent US-­ASEAN “Sunnylands” Summit, where economics, security, and international law were all discussed. In the context of recent and historical events however, the action, though not entirely justified, could not have come as a surprise to any of the parties involved and forms only the latest chapter in the ongoing book of the South China Sea.

FONOPS and the First Island Chain
Recently, the U.S. initiated “freedom of navigation” (FONOPS) maneuvers in the South China Sea, designed to ensure the free flow of maritime commerce between the various claimants in the South China Sea disputes. More importantly, the FONOPS actions are designed to ensure military freedom of maneuver for the U.S. Navy. Strategically, the U.S. cannot allow the rise of a peer competitor and definitely not in Asia, the swiftly emerging locus of world economic activity and geopolitical consequence, hence its “rebalance” strategy. Tactically, the U.S. also cannot allow any doubt to emerge regarding its willingness to defend its regional allies in a conflict scenario. To negate this doubt, it must show its resolve to sail anywhere necessary in regional waters to affect this end, citing international law.
From the Chinese viewpoint, the FONOPS are highly hypocritical. This is because while the U.S. purports to support freedom of navigation for itself and its allies within the First Island Chain, it simultaneously seeks to deny that freedom to China outside the chain. This chain stretches from southern Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines and on to the South China Sea. This explains the critical importance of Japan and the Philippines, two treaty allies, to the U.S.’s rebalance. It also highlights the importance of Taiwan, not a formal state unto itself, but still crucial to the U.S.’s realist vision of containing China. If it ever were to reunite with China, the U.S. would be much harder pressed to conduct a FONOP around the entire island of Taiwan.

South China Sea ADIZ Formation?
The formation of China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over two years ago put the U.S. and its proxy, Japan, on notice that China was uncomfortable with the proximity of foreign military vessels to its shores. This has historical precedent as, with the notable exception of the Mongols, most of its invaders have come from the sea. Until recently, China’s physical clashes with its neighbors have been confined to using relatively small and medium­-sized “white hull” Coast Guard vessels. It had refused to use its “grey hull” military ships and hence give the U.S. more of an opening to respond in kind in any conflict scenario involving its allies, Japan and the Philippines being the most relevant. However, China has recently unveiled the largest Coast Guard vessel in the world, comparable in size to U.S. destroyer -class ships. Symbols of intimidation and resolve, these newer vessels symbolize China’s intent to more rigorously enforce its claims via its neighbors and its dual refusals to stand down in the face of increased U.S. military presence in the region and to be baited into open military conflict with the United States.
More than likely, the placement of the SAMs on Woody Islands, probably to be repeated in the future on other disputed South China Sea islands, is the first step in the formation of an ADIZ for this region. While the U.S. did advise its commercial airliners to announce their proximity to China’s airspace as Beijing had requested, it also immediately flew two B­2 bombers directly through the East China Sea ADIZ. Framed as part of a “routine training exercise,” this flight was necessary to convince regional allies of the U.S.’s resolve to defend them as outlined above. Coming almost fifteen years to the day of the EP­3 incident off of Hainan Island, the SAM emplacement is a not too subtle dare to the U.S. to perform similar military maneuvers in the wake of a South China Sea ADIZ declaration.

Gulf of Tonkin II?
Although the recent Sunnylands meeting’s primary focus was increasing economic ties between ASEAN members and the U.S., the elephant in the room was clearly China. Arguably, China has damaged its soft power charm offensive in the region with its newfound assertiveness. Almost twenty years on from the 1997 Asian financial crisis and subsequent Chinese goodwill engendered in the wake of it not devaluing its currency and the “Early Harvest” program in the region, Southeast Asia is clearly in a different place today. The U.S. has many competing interests in Asia, but as the world’s remaining hegemon, security clearly outweighs economics. From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. does not have the right to determine if anyone’s claims are excessive as it’s not an official party to any of the disputes and, even more importantly, is not even a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) itself. This is the primary reason why it’s in the U.S. interest to ratify UNCLOS as being a signatory would enable the FONOPS maneuvers to carry more international legal weight.
Freedom of navigation should definitely not include tactics such as the U.S.’s shadowing of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Summarily, without a clearer understanding of how FONOPS and SAM missile emplacement both destabilize the region, the U.S. looks set to repeat a Gulf of Tonkin-­like incident, except with infinitely more dire consequences this time.