In recent events highlighting the geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, China’s bold actions have drawn criticism from major international players. One particularly vocal critic is Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet.
Water Cannon Incident Sparks Concerns
The South China Sea has long been a disputed territory, with multiple nations laying claim to various parts of its vast expanse. The tensions escalated on August 5 when a Chinese coast guard ship employed water cannons against a Philippine vessel. The boat was on a mission to deliver supplies to troops stationed on a warship. This warship had been intentionally grounded by Manila on a shoal—a strategic point in the vast marine territory.
The incident was more than just a skirmish on the high seas. It symbolized the deepening rivalry between two major world powers: the U.S. and Beijing. The South China Sea has become a significant fault line in this global contention.
U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet: A Formidable Presence
The Seventh Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, is the largest forward-deployed fleet of the U.S. Navy. Based in Japan, it showcases the might and presence of the American naval force in the Pacific region. Operating up to 70 ships, housing around 150 aircraft, and with a force of more than 27,000 sailors, the fleet oversees an area spanning 124 million square km. Its bases are strategically located in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.
“My forces are out here for a reason,” Thomas stated in an interaction. This was not just a statement of duty but an affirmation of the U.S.’ commitment to maintaining peace and balance in the region.
Tackling Aggressive Behavior
Vice Admiral Thomas believes that China’s actions fall into what he terms a “grey zone”. These are actions that incrementally push boundaries, testing the waters to see how much can be achieved without causing an outright confrontation.
“You have to challenge people operating in a grey zone,” he noted in an interview with Reuters. “When they’re taking a bit more and pushing you, you’ve got to push back.”
Referring to the water cannon incident, Thomas said, “There’s really no better example of aggressive behaviour than the activity on 5 August on the shoal.”
U.S. and Philippines: A Shared Vision
Given the complex dynamics of the South China Sea, collaborations are essential. The U.S. and the Philippines share mutual concerns and challenges in the region. This sentiment was echoed by Thomas during his discussions with Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, the head of the Philippine Western Command, which oversees the South China Sea. The discussions aimed to grasp the challenges faced by the Philippine Navy and to seek opportunities for the U.S. to assist.
“We certainly shared challenges,” Thomas remarked. He sought to understand the operations under Carlos’s jurisdiction and ensure that Carlos was aware of the resources the U.S. Navy could offer. This collaborative spirit was further emphasized when Thomas made a port call in Manila and subsequently undertook a flight to inspect the South China Sea.
The International Stance on China’s Claims
China’s dominance in the South China Sea has been a subject of international debate. In 2016, the Philippines secured an international arbitration award against China. The tribunal declared that China’s overarching claim to sovereignty over a majority of the South China Sea was without legal standing.
Despite this, China has pursued aggressive territorial claims. Their ambitious projects include constructing militarized, man-made islands in the sea. These actions and their claims of historic sovereignty clash with the exclusive economic zones of several neighboring countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.
The South China Sea is more than just a body of water; it’s a geopolitical hotspot. The recent actions by China have not only elevated concerns but have also reinforced the need for a vigilant and cooperative approach among nations. With the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet maintaining a strong presence and collaborations like that between the U.S. and the Philippines, there’s hope for peaceful resolutions. However, the underlying tensions suggest that nations will need to remain cautious, prepared, and diplomatically active in the foreseeable future.