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US warship movements in South China Sea signals Biden’s resolve against China

The guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) in South China Sea Wednesday. Russell is forward-deployed to the US 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific (Photo courtesy: US Navy/Wade Costin)

Close on the heels of two US carrier groups conducting joint exercises in the South China Sea last week, another guided-missile destroyer "asserted navigational rights and freedoms" in the Spratly Islands claimed by China in the South China Sea Wednesday.

The USS Russell (DDG 59) conducted Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea, upholding the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed majorly by China in the region.

Analysts say that the steady movement of US warships is sending a clear signal to China that the Biden administration is not softening its tough stance in the South China Sea. It is also a signal to Washington's regional allies especially those in the ASEAN, who have maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, that US will stand by them during their frictions with Beijing.

Significantly, a recent annual survey conducted by ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute on Southeast Asia showed that 61.5 per cent of respondents favour aligning with the US over China if the region was forced to pick sides. That’s an increase from 53.6 per cent who chose the US over China in the same survey a year ago. The survey made a significant disclosure about China’s close allies Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand switching sides preferring the US.

Located in Southeastern Asia, the Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds – and potentially by gas and oil deposits.

China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines each claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratly Islands. China, Vietnam, and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea.

Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group had conducted dual carrier operations with the Nimitz in the contentious South China Sea on February 9, hours after the US President Joe Biden and Indian PM Narendra Modi had renewed their support for a free and open Indo-Pacific and "a stronger regional architecture through the Quad" sending a clear signal to counter China's muscle flexing in the region.

Beijing says it respects the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all countries in the South China Sea in accordance with international law but opposes any attempt to undermine China's sovereignty and security and disrupt regional peace and tranquility under the pretext of "freedom of navigation".

As USS Russell sailed in the Spratly Islands on Wednesday, Washington asserted yet again that unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.

"The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. The international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The international community has an enduring role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity," said a statement from the 7th Fleet.

Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States –including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law.

The US Navy said that its forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century.

"They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity."

Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 9 consists of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), Destroyer Squadron 23, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Russell (DDG 59) and USS John Finn (DDG 113)

CSG 11 consists of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17, guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59), the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Sterett (DDG 104), and Destroyer Squadron 9 and CSG 11 staffs.

The 7th Fleet is the US Navy's largest forward-deployed fleet and employs 50 to 70 ships and submarines across the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. It routinely operates and interacts with 35 maritime nations while conducting missions to preserve and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region.