U.S. Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer told reporters on Tuesday that China’s construction of enhanced islands and military bases in the South China Sea, coupled with its aggressive rhetoric and opaque strategic objectives, are threatening the stability of the region.
Sawyer spoke from the port city of Danang in Vietnam, where the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is currently paying a historic visit. The U.S. government has thus far downplayed the significance of the Carl Vinson visit as a message to China, which has in turn limited its response to light grumbling about how the United States is wasting money by sending an aircraft carrier to Vietnam.
“My view on that is both those, land reclamation and the militarization, cause angst within the region. And the angst that it causes is really because of lack of transparency,” Sawyer said of China’s activities in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
“It’s not quite clear what’s going to happen down there. And I think that angst and that lack of transparency is potentially disruptive to the security and stability of the region. And that, that causes concern,” he said.
As the Straits Times observes, Vietnam has gone from bitter China-supported military enemy of the United States to a surprisingly stubborn adversary of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. The USS Carl Vinson visit has been billed as an expression of the growing friendship between Vietnam and the Western world.
“In 2016, Vietnam inaugurated a port at Cam Ranh Bay capable of receiving foreign warships. Since then, it has been used by vessels from U.S., China, France and Japan,” the Straits Times notes.
Rear Admiral Sawyer is a career submariner who assumed command of the Seventh Fleet in August 2017 with an eye toward correcting the problems that resulted in a number of tragic and disturbing collisions between American warships and civilian vessels.
In an interview with Time last month, Sawyer said his job is to “provide space and options for our leadership well before they want to call me in” to deal with situations like China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
“We want to resolve these issues diplomatically,” Sawyer stated. He continued, saying:
I’d push that to the State Department and see what they could do. From a military standpoint, I’m a hammer if you’ve got a nail. I’m one tool, but there are many that can be used before you want to use the hammer. We’re not even close to a conflict out here, in particular with China. They don’t want to go to war with me, and the United States doesn’t want to go to war with China. That said, my job is to be ready with whatever our government needs.
Sawyer displayed a lively sense of humor during the interview, noting at the end that he was en route to Hawaii when the infamous false alarm of a North Korean missile attack went out, and if it had been the real thing, it would have changed “whatever I had planned to do that day.” In a similarly witty vein, he recalled Chinese President Xi Jinping standing on the White House lawn and promising not to militarize the South China Sea.
“We do see progress being made, buildings being constructed and other things. They’ve come out and said what they will not do, so at the government level we need to check their homework and make sure they abide by their commitments,” he said.
A month later, Sawyer finds himself in Vietnam smiling for the cameras while a stack of dodgy Chinese homework sits on his desk. This week, China announced a surging military budget that includes extensive funding for advanced physical and cyber weapons, capitalizing on decades of intellectual property theft to vault China into direct competition with the U.S. military. Xi and the rest of the Chinese leadership are promoting a message of militaristic nationalism—phrased as the vigilant defense of rightful Chinese territory, of course—and they definitely have the power to command rapid cutting-edge military advances at the expense of civilian concerns, at a speed liberal democracies can only contemplate during full-blown wars.
There is indeed good reason to be worried about China’s lack of transparency in the South China Sea and other reasons, right down to the very real possibility that its surge in military spending is far higher than the impressive numbers reported to the Chinese public and international media. China likewise has good reason to be “unhappy” with the arrival of a U.S. carrier they cannot yet hope to match in Vietnam.