On April 29, 2020, the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, successfully conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Spratly Islands aimed at challenging Chinese claims to the southern South China Sea (SCS). This is the second such mission in the Western Pacific in as many days, with the USS Barry (DDG-52), a Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, conducting a FONOP near the Parcel Islands in the northern SCS. Furthermore, the United States Air Force announced that it had conducted a Bomber Task Force (BTF) mission on April 29 with two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers flying a 32-hour round-trip sortie over the disputed waters.
The increased presence of US assets in the South China Sea is indicative of a new strategy being utilized by the Department of Defense that emphasizes operationally unpredictable actions in support of predictable strategic objectives. The fact three major operations occurred in such a short period of time is just proof of that new reality. Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher with the Rand Corporation, observed that as a result of the new operational blueprint, "US naval forces in the South China Sea are likely to carry out operations and activities in unusual patterns that are inconsistent with past, predictable patterns."
The People's Republic has repeatedly stated that the South China Sea is its sovereign territory, and as such it has moved to secure it with hard power. It has literally created manmade islands and fortified existing reefs throughout the Western Pacific, while deploying survey ships and its Coast Guard to assert ownership of natural resources. It has also pursued an aggressive naval modernization campaign, with special focuses on hypersonic technology and air power. It does this in spite of the fact Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have legitimate claims to part of the South China Sea.
For weeks, the United States has accused the People's Republic of China of using the COVID-19 crisis to further its claims in the South China Sea. On April 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a joint statement with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), "The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is exerting military pressure and coercing its neighbors in the SCS, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel. The US strongly opposes China's bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account too." Secretary Pompeo further went on to criticize the PRC's implementation of new administrative districts around both the Islands and Spratly Islands, a clearly antagonistic move that will not be taken lightly in most ASEAN members capital cities.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.