WASHINGTON — Although U.S. warships continue to test China’s control over the South China Sea, including a voyage last week that China called a “deliberate provocation,” the United States has little economic leverage in the area, policy experts and regional analysts say.

On Jan. 25, the USS Montgomery, a three-hulled littoral combat ship, conducted what the Pentagon calls a “freedom of navigation” operation near the Fiery Reef in the sea, which spurred an immediate Chinese response.

“The American warships deliberately provoked and maliciously violated the Chinese territorial water near the Spratly Islands on the first day of the traditional Chinese New Year,” said Senior Col. Huamin Li, a People’s Liberation Army spokesman.

Chinese air and naval forces will monitor the U.S. ships and urge them to leave the area, Li said.

The Montgomery’s trip challenged the “unlawful restrictions” to travel in the area imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, said Lt. Joe Keiley, spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam request all foreign vessels passing through the area to give prior notice of the travel, Keiley said.

The South China Sea is a critical global trade route with rich fishing grounds and potentially large oil and gas deposits. About 60% of global shipping trade passes through Asia, and about one-third of all global shipping goes through the South China Sea, which poses significant economic and military importance to China, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

The area contains about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although much more potentially undiscovered reserves near the Spratly Islands have not been probed, a U.S. Geological Survey estimate says the area could contain 7.6 to 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China will probably prevent new oil and gas exploration by other countries in the region this year, said Gregory Poling, a fellow in the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

China has harassed outside companies, such as Sarawak Shell and Rosneft, since it first claimed the region for oil and gas exploration 10 years ago, Poling said.

In August 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping said increased gas production will reduce the nation’s dependence on imported energy, and a month later China said it hoped to produce 19.4 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas by the end of 2020. So far, however, China is struggling to reach that goal, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says.
For these reasons, China has always advocated sovereignty over the South China Sea.

Although Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations may resent China’s influence, its sheer economic power may prevent the United States from presenting a better alternative, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

“The United States doesn’t have the advantage in the economic sphere,” she said.

China’s long absence of the wars gives the United States a “huge advantage,” said Mark Cancian, an adjunct professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. Escalating tensions in the South China Sea could destabilize China and its communist party in a way that doesn’t affect the United States.

“I think that is a lever the United States could play,” Cancian said.

Poling is skeptical about the U.S. role in the South China Sea this year.

“We are not going to see a suddenly more proactive U.S. strategy in the South China Sea this year,” he said. “China is in the driver’s seat.”

The voyage of the Montgomery through the region “doesn’t mean the U.S. wants to go back to focusing on its deployment in the Pacific,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. Navy just conducts around the world to ensure freedom of navigation and challenge excessive maritime claims.”