By Phillip Orchard

The turbulent waters of the South China Sea will get a bit more crowded over the next month. This week, a U.S. carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson docked in Manila – the first visit by a U.S. carrier to the Philippines since 2014. In mid-March, the Vinson will head to Da Nang for the first such visit to Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War. This comes a week after the U.K. Defense Ministry announced that a British frigate, the HMS Sutherland, would swing through the South China Sea in the coming weeks to assert the right of freedom of navigation in the contested waters.

The United Kingdom’s announcement sparked a flurry of headlines asking why London was keen to provoke Beijing with such a stunt. It also raised concerns that the voyage would erase any progress made toward an elusive trade deal with China during British Prime Minister Theresa May’s trip to Beijing last month.

But on Feb. 17, a U.S. commander aboard the Vinson made the case that the U.S. visit was important precisely because of how normal it was. According to the commander, merely conducting routine operations – flying and sailing wherever international law allows – reassures U.S. allies and security partners and underpins regional stability. Framing the Vinson’s activities this way is standard practice for the U.S., which wants to portray itself as serving an indispensable function in the region.

But it raises the question: When does a warship tooling around in hotly disputed waters and making courtesy calls to littoral states really matter, geopolitically? The short answer is that it matters primarily when it’s a demonstration of expanding capability or when it signals a shift in strategic intent. And in this case, routine operations by the British and American warships are unlikely to move the needle.

The Royal Navy’s Symbolic Gesture

The British cruise will almost certainly serve as a case study in strategic irrelevance. The visit will not demonstrate any kind of leap in naval capability that the Chinese would find threatening. The Royal Navy is grappling with setbacks stemming from budget cuts in 2010 that have left it short on both warships and manpower. The Royal Navy’s 12 Type 23 frigates and five Type 45 destroyers in service are the fewest the navy has had in modern times, for example, and are considered insufficient for the surface fleet to sustain a substantial global presence. At least two frigates are currently demobilized, reportedly because of a lack of qualified personnel. Its handful of distant surface fleet deployments recently have been marred by embarrassing breakdowns.

Some of the budget cuts have since been reversed, and the Royal Navy has major projects in the pipeline. But for the foreseeable future, the U.K. will have little desire or ability to sustain even the sort of semi-permanent presence in East Asia that would demonstrate an ability to more forcefully challenge Chinese assertiveness or intervene on behalf of the U.S. and its regional allies should push come to shove with the Chinese. This trip doesn’t signal any kind of shift in strategic intent in London.

At most, the U.K. could seek to symbolically discredit Beijing’s legal claims to the disputed waters. It would do this by having the HMS Sutherland conduct what the U.S. calls a “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, where, for example, a warship sails within 12 nautical miles of one of the seven disputed reefs the Chinese have turned into remote military outposts. The goal would basically be to assert that Chinese claims are out of line with international maritime law. The Britons have said they will assert their right to sail through the South China Sea. Doing so isn’t necessarily provocative; foreign warships do it all the time, and China doesn’t object to this kind of activity out of hand, in part because it’s trying to tamp down fears that its rise will threaten the free flow of traffic in the waters.

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The Britons would have to go out of their way to make it about Chinese assertiveness, and even if they did, it’d likely be met with a shrug. The Chinese already know most of the West rejects their claims. The matter comes down to whether any of them are willing to try to do something about it. For the time being, the U.K. can’t and won’t.

The U.S. Keeps Southeast Asia at Arm’s Length

The Vinson’s arrival in the South China Sea matters more, of course. This is, in part, because the U.S. has the ability to sustain a regular presence in the waters, as well as the ability to forcefully challenge expansionist Chinese activities if it chose to do so.

It’s common for a U.S. carrier group to sail through the waters. The choice of port visits is notable, given the strategic importance of both the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines is bearing the brunt of Chinese encroachment. It is the closest country to most of China’s militarized, man-made islands, which could be used to harass Philippine fishermen and block attempts to develop new sources of oil and natural gas that the Philippines desperately needs. The Philippines also happens to be part of a chain of islands that the U.S. and its regional allies could use to block China’s access to its vital seaborne trade routes south to the Indian Ocean and east toward North America. To secure its trade routes, China is using a mix of naval and coast guard sticks and economic carrots to lay the groundwork for a political arrangement with Manila that would allow Beijing to be certain the Philippines wouldn’t side with an outside naval power in a major conflict. Manila cannot block the Chinese militarily on its own. At the moment, however, Manila is wondering just how willing the U.S., its treaty ally, might be to come to the defense of Philippine interests.

Vietnam is in a similarly uncomfortable position. The Vinson docking in Da Nang will mark the latest in a string of high-profile visits and landmark agreements that highlight the increasing alignment of U.S.-Vietnamese interests. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam boasts substantial and growing naval capabilities. It does not have the forces to go toe to toe with the Chinese, say, in an attempt to dislodge them from the disputed Paracel Islands or to prevent Chinese harassment of Vietnamese drilling in disputed waters. But second only to Singapore among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnam would have the military chops to play a valuable role in a future U.S.-led effort to contain the Chinese.

But recent bouts of low-level confrontation with China, particularly drilling incidents, have exposed a high degree of paralysis in Hanoi. This stems, in part, from Vietnam’s dependence on the Chinese economy, as well as its deep-seated unease about aligning itself closely with any outside power. But it also stems from its own skepticism about the U.S. willingness to confront the Chinese on its behalf – perhaps even more so than the Philippines, considering Hanoi doesn’t have a defense treaty with the U.S. or a long history of robust military cooperation.

The Philippines and Vietnam are unlikely to find much comfort in the Vinson’s visit. The U.S. can use the trip to demonstrate its capabilities and reassure countries about U.S. attention to the region. And they matter when accompanied by landmark agreements such as the Obama administration’s 2016 decision to lift the U.S. ban on arms exports to Vietnam or its pivotal 2015 basing agreement with the Philippines. But a visit alone doesn’t change the facts on the ground or signal a shift in intent by the U.S. to more forcefully confront the Chinese – and therefore it won’t automatically address the underlying concerns in either country.

Neither would another string of U.S. FONOPs timed to coincide with the Vinson’s visit. The U.S. Navy intends to increase FONOPs in the South China Sea; it quietly conducts scores of them around the world each year, including in waters controlled by allies, only publicizing them, with minimal detail, in an annual report. When conducted near disputed islands controlled by the Chinese, they are intended as a show of support for a 2016 international tribunal ruling that discredited most of China’s sweeping claims. They do not alter the balance of power in the region or do anything that might give China second thoughts about militarizing its man-made islands or blocking attempts by other claimants to reap the material rewards of the resource-rich waters.

Manila and Hanoi see the United States (along with key allies like Japan and Australia) as a stabilizing force over the long term – one that will aid their own military modernization and serve as a check against Chinese economic coercion. But right now, the U.S. is loath to risk getting dragged into a war by entangling itself in the South China Sea dispute, especially at a time when it has bigger fish to fry in Northeast Asia. Neither Chinese man-made islands nor Chinese drilling threaten the U.S. position in the region directly. And as Chinese maritime capabilities develop, the cost to the U.S. of wading into the disputes will only increase. This reality plays into the Chinese narrative that Southeast Asian states would be wise to accept its ascension as regional hegemon. And it’s a reality that routine deployments of U.S. warships to the South China Sea cannot change.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.