China’s aggressive claims of sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea have put the nation at odds with many of its Pacific neighbors, many of whom have conflicting claims over portions of the waterway. International law permits the navigation of waterways outside of about 12 nautical miles from a nation’s shore and awards exclusive economic rights to the sea extending out 200 nautical miles from the coast. However, China’s claims extend for thousands of miles, often overlapping the internationally recognized claims of other nations.
China’s position on the South China Sea has put its government at odds with the United States as well. With around a third of all global commerce shipped through the South China Sea, America has a vested interest in keeping international waters international—otherwise China could exert undo control over the billions of dollars’ worth of commerce sailing across its surface each year.
These tensions have helped to warm relations between the United States and nations like Vietnam, the leadership of which is acutely aware the country lacks the military capability to stand up to China alone. Many American allies throughout the region have opted to bolster their defenses in the face of China’s military expansion and sovereignty claims, most notably in Japan, where the nation’s very constitution may soon be changed to allow for offensive military operations.
China has long maintained a two-faced approach to foreign policy that includes aggressive behavior on the high seas and a polished, mature approach to geopolitical discourse. It now seems that China hopes to prevent the latter from being affected by the former in the realm of public perception, launching a new public initiative through their state-owned media outlet, the Global Times, that suggests Pacific states jumping on board with the F-35 has nothing to do with China’s aggression whatsoever.
“Singapore’s decision to buy F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. is unlikely aimed at China, and recent analyses by U.S. media saying otherwise are ridiculous and wishful thinking,” the Global Times wrote, citing “Chinese experts.”
Singapore promises to be the fourth American ally in the region to procure F-35 fighter platforms from the U.S. This should be considered an important operational development for these nations in light of China’s J-20—a stealth fighter platform based on stolen American F-22 plans—already entering service. The F-35’s data fusion capabilities and low observability make it a fighter uniquely suited for conflict with a developed nation like China, which boasts a massive ballistic missile inventory and a rapidly expanding military presence throughout the region.
China claims that these nations (which include Australia, Japan, and South Korea) choosing to invest in the F-35 has more to do with their dated fighters than it does with China’s aggression, claiming that “it is absurd to say this is ‘a message to China,’ because the four countries’ fighter jets were originally all U.S.-made, as they are all core allies of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Interestingly, though, even Chinese media acknowledged the strategic benefit of deployed F-35s in the region for American interests.
“However, Chinese experts also warned that the unified deployment of the F-35 in [sic] U.S. allies benefits U.S. operations in the Asia-Pacific region, which could bring challenges to the air defense in the South China Sea.”