Actually, that was a title of a post I wrote in July 2010, before island-building, before the Senkaku crises, before the rare earths brouhaha, even before Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation at the 2010 ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference in Hanoi and formally kicked off the “pivot”.
I offer it as a reminder to the indignant commentators who declare we’re just out in the South China Sea responding to the PRC threat, a theme serendipitously sounded in an op-ed in The Australian by the Lowy Institute’s Alan Dupont after I thought I had finished this piece, but not too late some last-minute cut and paste:
Fairfax columnist Hugh White, for example, believes US policy makers have long believed that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a strategic opportunity rather than a problem for the US, allowing them to “cast Beijing as a bullying and aggressive rising power and themselves as the indispensable guardians of regional order and international law”.
These portrayals misrepresent the main causes of the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the issues at stake for Australia and the region.
The genesis of the current imbroglio was Beijing’s 2012 decision to prioritise the South China Sea and initiate an extensive, unprecedented land reclamation program on disputed islands that it occupied or planned to occupy.
That’s leaving out a big chunk of history, including all the stuff Hillary Clinton was involved in before she left office.
I cover the current efforts in wishful historiography in a piece at Asia Times. It is keyed to more alarming piece of opinion management than Dupont’s measured op-ed, a Japanese contribution courtesy of Yomiuri Shimbun that included this map illustrating the assertion that US intervention in the South China Sea is necessary to bottle up the PRC’s strategic nuclear submarine fleet:
It’s a pretty brazen showing of the containment hoof and involves a leapfrog from the previous “freedom of navigation” nonsense to a more straightforward (but in its implications for a nuclear arms race and the problem of trying to achieve first-strike supremacy over a nuclear adversary wary and armed to the teeth much riskier) military containment strategy.
[I]sn’t it interesting how the US has converted a PRC “core interest” in its vital near beyond sea lanes in the South China Sea into a US “core interest” in securing the South China Sea 8000 miles away against unrestricted PRC submarine traffic?
Now, of course, the DoD has a new boss—Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; and PACCOM has a new commander—Admiral Harry Harris, and the general consensus is that the muscular defense sector has wrestled China policy away from the milquetoastian White House. Interestingly, Admiral Harris was previously the Pentagon’s liaison to to the State Department under Hillary Clinton as well as John Kerry, which reinforces my impression that Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy advisors have pre-loaded China policy with her supporters, and I expect things to get ugly quickly so that the nasty and awkward business of starting the confrontation can be done under Obama before Clinton enters office.
As I put it elsewhere: Hillary wants to inherit her China crisis from Obama, not foment it herself.
It may give heartache to the “Chinese aggression is the root of all evil” crowd but anybody who doesn’t see a crash US program to escalate what the PRC would like to limit to a contained and manageable local friction in the SCS simply isn’t paying attention.
My apparently distinctly marginal view is that this policy is not going to work very well (though its difficulties will be the source of much occupation and profit for the milsec fixer-uppers and explainers).
As I see the problem, America is not striving for the goal of regional security; it is chasing the chimera of continued American leadership even as the strength of all the Asian powers—Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well as the PRC—grow, and US relative strength declines.
In other words, China will spend the next ten years grabbing what it can; and the United States will be struggling to keep what it can’t.
READ THE WHOLE THING.
Below the fold I’m providing the mother of all South China Sea ‘splainers as background. It floats, for the first time, I think, the theory that Chuck Hagel was forced out as Secretary of Defense by the China hawks at the Pentagon.
7500 words give or take. You have been warned. If this piece is reposted by some bot, the two long blog post block quotes will undoubtedly get screwed up to the confusion of all. Refer to the original post at China Matters for proper formatting.
The United States has consistently looked for pretexts of varying quality to justify the South China Sea containment strategy. It started with a threat to US naval operations off China; then switched to concern over a PRC regional threat to “freedom of navigation” based on a “core interest” formulation; now, as the Yomiuri piece indicates, we’re inching pretty close to the “PRC SCS activities represent an existential threat to the United States homeland” justification.
Yeah, that kinda looks like threat inflation, doesn’t it? Let’s go, step by step.
First, into the Wayback Machine to July 2010 and my original “containment” post, two years before the “prioritization” cited by DuPont. We materialize in the tastefully appointed offices of Time magazine:
Friday, July 09, 2010
It’s Official: America Has a China-Containment Policy
Official, as far as one can get based on a carefully briefed backgrounder U.S. Tomahawk Missiles Deployed Near China Send Message to Time magazine’s Mark Thompson, that is.
If China’s satellites and spies were working properly, there would have been a flood of unsettling intelligence flowing into the Beijing headquarters of the Chinese navy last week. A new class of U.S. superweapon had suddenly surfaced nearby. It was an Ohio-class submarine…[which holds] up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles…capable of hitting anything within 1,000 miles with non-nuclear warheads.
…alarm bells would have sounded in Beijing on June 28 when the Tomahawk-laden 560-ft. U.S.S. Ohio popped up in the Philippines’ Subic Bay. More alarms were likely sounded when the U.S.S. Michigan arrived in Pusan, South Korea, on the same day. And the Klaxons would have maxed out as the U.S.S. Florida surfaced, also on the same day, at the joint U.S.-British naval base on Diego Garcia, a flyspeck of an island in the Indian Ocean. In all, the Chinese military awoke to find as many as 462 new Tomahawks deployed by the U.S. in its neighborhood.
The move forms part of a policy by the U.S. government to shift firepower from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater, which Washington sees as the military focus of the 21st century.
The submarines aren’t the only new potential issue of concern for the Chinese. Two major military exercises involving the U.S. and its allies in the region are now under way. More than three dozen naval ships and subs began participating in the “Rim of the Pacific” war games off Hawaii on Wednesday. Some 20,000 personnel from 14 nations are involved in the biennial exercise, which includes missile drills and the sinking of three abandoned vessels playing the role of enemy ships. Nations joining the U.S. in what is billed as the world’s largest-ever naval war game are Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Peru, Singapore and Thailand. Closer to China, CARAT 2010 – for Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training – just got under way off Singapore. The operation involves 17,000 personnel and 73 ships from the U.S., Singapore, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
China is absent from both exercises, and that’s no oversight. Many nations in the eastern Pacific, including Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, have been encouraging the U.S. to push back against what they see as China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea. And the U.S. military remains concerned over China’s growing missile force – now more than 1,000 – near the Taiwan Strait. The Tomahawks’ arrival “is part of a larger effort to bolster our capabilities in the region,” Glaser says. “It sends a signal that nobody should rule out our determination to be the balancer in the region that many countries there want us to be.” No doubt Beijing got the signal.
The message that the Time article was meant to send was that the U.S. Navy are now devoted to defining, countering, and to some extent creating a Chinese threat in the Pacific in order to preserve the scale of its forces and protect its budget.
The Chinese government, given the concerted efforts by the Obama adminstration to rollback China’s influence throughout the world diplomatically and economically as well as militarily, will undoubtedly draw more sweeping conclusions.
I’d say that Chinese distrust of the Obama administration is now terminal, its anxiety palpable, and its determination to come up with effective countermeasures implacable. I expect they’ll come up with something interesting and, perhaps, unexpected.
Second, Mark, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, are in the western Pacific, not the “eastern”. That grinding sound you hear is Henry Luce churning unhappily in his grave.
Ah, good times. Again, a reminder. That’s from 2010, not 2015.
This 2010 display of American muscularity was triggered, not by PRC aggrandizement in the never never land of the South China Sea’s Nine Dash Line, but by the PRC’s efforts to regulate US military activities in the PRC’s universally-recognized EEZ surrounding Hainan Island, the site of a PLA Navy strategic (i.e. carrying nuclear missiles) submarine base in 2009.
The Chinese government had started harassing the US survey vessels, employing non-PLAN ships to engage in chicken-of-the-sea close approaches to the vessels and their tow lines and pitching floating debris in their path. In one infamous incident in 2009, PRC vessels subjected the crew of the USNS Impeccable to the spectacle of Chinese sailors stripping to their undergarmnets in response to a warning spray from a water cannon.
The US response to the Chinese challenge was multi-faceted.
Immediately, the US dispatched the destroyer USN Chung-Hoon to escort the Impeccable.
Although the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines acceptable EEZ activities, the US Navy exhaustively and persuasively parsed the treaty to claim that, through a combination of loopholes, intentional omissions, and determined interpretation, there is nothing in it to preclude military surveillance in the EEZ, even of a sort that might—by teaching the US navy how to detect and identify surreptitious Chinese nuclear-armed subs and nullify the sea leg of China’s deterrent—prejudice China’s security. The canonical expression of the US position fell to Raul (Pete) Pedrozo, now a retired US Navy Judge Advocate who served in US Pacific Command. His Close Encounters at Sea: The USNS Impeccable Incident appeared in the Summer 2009 Naval War College Review.
As Captain Pedrozo’s brief makes clear, the United States’ real concern has always been military freedom of the seas, not civilian freedom of navigation. “FoS” involves more than sailing through somebody else’s EEZ in transit; it involves conducting purely military operations that have no commercial or scientific dimension (which would invoke the economic rights of the EEZ claimant): shooting off guns for practice, conducting training maneuvers and, most importantly, conducting surveillance, maybe mapping the sea floor for classified military charts and maybe tracking the PRC’s submarine strategic deterrent.
It’s worth pointing out that, in contrast to the insistence of the United States on absolute, undiluted FoS, key US allies in the region, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam all seek to impose limits on military FoS in a variety of matters relating to transit or exercises within their EEZs; and even the Philippines has expressed reservations.
As a matter of geopolitics, asserting America’s right to disregard the bleatings of weaker coastal states about military activities in their EEZs that degrade their national security is not an intuitively popular product.
And, for that matter, the navy second most likely to exercise its FoS rights to operate inside the EEZs of suspicious and aggrieved nations surrounding the South China Sea is the PLA Navy; so it is perhaps understandable that “Freedom of the Seas” for military vessels was not a surefire propaganda point.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that the PRC apparently conceded the US point by reciprocally sending its surveillance ship to shadow the RIMPAC get-together within the Hawaiian EEZ in 2014.
So it isn’t too surprising that the U.S. subsequently shelved its resentments concerning PRC obstructionism in its EEZ to military surveillance in favor a more promising and enduring point of contention: that U.S. diplomats were disturbed by the PRC’s elevation of the South China Sea to a “core interest” during meetings in Beijing in March 2010 in the run-up to the Iran UN sanctions process.
For the PRC, an important purpose of the March meeting was to gain the Obama administration’s acknowledgement of Tibet and Taiwan as China’s traditional “core interests”—something that the United States had deliberately if obliquely called into question as part of the campaign to pressure China to join the Iran sanctions process, by President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama and raising the issue of arms sales to Taiwan.
It would not seem to be the time for the PRC to try to throw a new core interest—as in an existential issue worth going to war for– into the mix.
However, China’s “core interests” was originally a defensive formulation reflecting conditions in the 1970s, when the PRC was a Maoist basket case struggling to maintain order within its own borders, an insignificant presence in international trade and security, terrified of a war with the Soviet Union, and looking for a concrete US commitment not to shake two rather rickety pillars of its territorial and national sovereignty claims—Tibet and Taiwan.
In 2010, with China the second-largest economy on the planet and continually and deeply engaged with the world security and economic order, the PRC leadership apparently thought that the time was ripe for the “core interest” concept to receive a conceptual upgrade and tried to roll out the product during the discussions leading up to the decision to join the UN Iran sanctions-writing exercise.
In 2011, the New York Times’ Edward Wong—who first reported the core interest story in 2010—followed up on the “South China Sea is a core interest” puzzle with China Hedges Over Whether South China Sea is ‘Core Interest’ Worth War.
It looks like State Councilor and foreign affairs point person Dai Bingguo had by 2009 apparently repurposed the phrase “core interests” as away from “existential interests demanding every form of protection up to and including war” to “important stuff”, specifically, in Wong’s words, “maintaining its political system, defending its sovereignty claims and promoting its economic development”.
In other words, perhaps “core interests” are national priorities in which the PRC desires US understanding and forbearance in an environment of peaceful coexistence, not existential red lines to be defended at any cost in a state of crisis.
Points of contention like the South China Sea are “linked to” and defined by their significance to overarching Chinese core interests—primarily territorial sovereignty—but are not core interests in and of themselves.
Perhaps the Chinese intention was to make lemonade out of the lemons of US-China rancor, and bargain for US acknowledgement of a new formula of “core interests”, one that would include American acceptance of Chinese fiddling in the South China Sea, in return for PRC support on Iran sanctions.
If this was an attempt by the PRC to achieve some kind of backroom understanding with the US on the South China Sea issue, it backfired. Instead, South China Sea issues were brought to the forefront as a Chinese vulnerability to be exploited, not accommodated. Per the NYT:
By spring 2010, it appeared to some American officials that some Chinese officials were pushing beyond the standard sovereignty claims, calling the South China Sea a “core interest”. In a November interview with The Australian, Mrs. Clinton said Dai Bingguo, the senior foreign policy official in the Chinese government, told her that at a summit meeting in May 2010.
“I immediately responded and said, ‘We don’t agree with that,’” Mrs. Clinton said, though some scholars in the United States and China question whether Mr. Dai made the remark.
Well, if Hillary Clinton says it happened…maybe it happened…kinda. Judging from her skewed account of something I know a lot about—the Copenhagen climate summit debacle—in Hard Choices, I tend to regard Clinton’s public pronouncements with a degree of skepticism.
It may have been somewhat dishonest for the U.S. to twist the PRC’s “core interest” reformulation into a Chinese war-whoop, but in 2010 the United States was looking for advantageous points of contention, not avoiding them.
There were ample opportunities for anti-China mischief in the South China Sea, thanks largely to China’s high-handed management of its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines.
The real issues in the South China Sea—at least before bottling up two PLAN strategic missile subs was defined as an existential issue for American and its allies, at least as far as Yomiuri is concerned– are remote to the United States and its security posture. They relate to islands—territorial disputes–and the fishery and hydrocarbon resources surrounding them.
Over the last few years, most of the claimants have been migrating toward the definitions enshrined in the Law of the Sea treaty a.k.a. UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS and its provision of a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, in order to define their claims in the South China Sea.
China, on the other hand, has clung to its ridiculous “nine dash line” a.k.a. the “cow tongue” (see below), which exists only as a notional boundary drawn on a piece of paper in Beijing, has never been surveyed, and runs roughshod over the borders as they would be defined if drawn according to the stipulations of the Law of the Sea treaty.
Successive US administrations have been unable to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty thanks to the sovereignty-related concerns of conservatives in the U.S. Senate. Nevertheless, the U.S. adheres to the principles of the treaty, at least as it chooses to interpret it, and supports its application to the South China Sea.
In a perfect world, the UNCLOS boundaries would look something like this (the blue lines):
Unfortunately, it isn’t a perfect world. The South China Sea is speckled with troublesome outcroppings like “the Spratlys”, “the Paracels”, “the Scarborough Shoal”, etc. (the grey dots).
According to UNCLOS, a habitable island confers significant advantages on its owner, chief among them the right to claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ around the island. A land feature that manages to stay dry at high tide but is not habitable gets a 12 mile territorial zone, but no EEZ. Permanently underwater features, in which the South China Sea abounds, count for zip, even if dredgers build artificial islands on top of them.
The most pressing problem is that for decades everybody, not just China, has been claiming habitable and uninhabitable islands and reclaiming atolls that reside inside other people’s hypothetical EEZs. And UNCLOS, understandably, does not automatically assign an island’s sovereignty to the nation whose EEZ would envelope it.
For instance, the South China Seas issue is muddied not only by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam; Taiwan maintains a coast guard force on its outpost at Itu Aba (area 0.49 km2, 1000 miles from the southernmost port on Taiwan, Kaohsiung), is expanding its airstrip and building a port, and sends a submarine to the island every once in a while to demonstrate its ongoing interest and resolve. Malaysia has also claimed a few islands.
Which means, the map of claimed island sovereignty in the South China Seas looks like this:
Since the maritime claims of the various players, not just China, have historically followed their island possessions and also their irredentist claims, that map looks like this:
As can be seen, the PRC is not the only offender. Vietnam uses its past control of the Paracel Islands—which China seized in 1974 in a much-resented incident—to assert a South China Sea claim almost as extensive as China’s.
However, since 2009 several of the key claimants, most notably Vietnam and the Philippines have started to rationalize their positions by defining baselines for their EEZs in filings with the UN according to UNCLOS—and guided by the awareness that many of the most valuable hydrocarbon reserves are near-shore and will benefit from multilateral definition and acceptance of the 200 mile EEZ.
So far, China has been the odd man out, vociferously asserting its prerogatives over almost the entire South China Sea, coastlines and islands be damned—including the central area which falls outside anybody’s EEZ and is an international maritime resource according to UNCLOS—on the basis of the anachronistic nine-dash-line.
The United States contemplated China’s territorial and diplomatic over-extension, considered the fact that the US had no territorial standing in the area, was not a member of the relevant regional grouping, ASEAN, and not a signatory to the relevant multilateral agreement, UNCLOS, and the limited diplomatic and public relations effectiveness of advocating for “military freedom of the seas” and settled on an awkward but usable pretext for making hay in the South China Sea: “freedom of navigation”.
It can be said that the overt “Pivot to Asia” actually debuted with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of US interest in the South China Sea issue at the ASEAN foreign ministers conference in July 2010:
[W]e have a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime domain, the maintenance of peace and stability, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.
As the US initiative (concocted in cooperation—or as the Chinese government memorably characterized it, cahoots with Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, architect of the first Senkaku confrontation) gained traction, the Chinese government responded with genuine alarm and fury, viewing the injection of the US and Japan into its South China Sea arguments with its smaller ASEAN neighbors as on the pretext of “Freedom of Navigation” unnecessary, unjustified, malicious, and destabilizing.
The PRC has fulminated against the US playing of the “Freedom of Navigation” card, with good reason.
For one thing, “freedom of navigation”, for civilian vessels at least, is the closest thing to a bedrock value for all the Asian nations including China.
The PRC has continually affirmed freedom of navigation for commercial vessels transiting its territorial waters and has traditionally relied on adherence to this international convention, and not on an overbearing naval presence, to protect its own vessels—at least up to now.
As to the critical nature of freedom of navigation through the South China Sea to the world economy, that is true…if the linchpin of the world economy is understood to be China, as I have discussed. Many times.
To the PRC, the nation which has shown the most conspicuous interest in compromising freedom of navigation is actually the United States, the world’s naval hyperpower, which has made efforts under Presidents Bush and Obama (vehemently opposed by China at the United Nations) to expand the reach of the Proliferation Security Initiative (which would legalize third-party search-and-seizure of vessels on the open seas in pursuit of WMD cargos).
It is remembered much better in China than it is in the United States, that in 1993 the PRC was the most conspicuous victim of principled US piracy in the matter of the shipping vessel Yinhe.
The US Navy confronted the Yinhe and forced it to interrupt its voyage and remain at sea for 20 days, until China agreed to proceed to a Saudi port for its 628 containers to be searched for chemical weapons precursors allegedly destined for Iran. Fortunately for China—and to the considerable embarrassment of the United States—the containers were found to contain nothing other than paint.
The United States declined to apologize because it had acted in “good faith”, which is apparently another name for “bad intelligence” (though some redfaced US officials privately accused the PRC of conducting a “sting” solely for the purpose of wrongfooting the United States). For its part, the PRC accused the United States of acting like a “self-styled world cop” and the Yinhe became something of a symbol for US double standards whenever the subject of “freedom of navigation” comes up.
For another, the PRC had already backed down on the military “freedom of the seas” issue—the “freedom of navigation” that really concerned the US military, and US military vessels and aircraft were operating in the SCS pretty much unchallenged.
The signal, as the Chinese probably received it, was that the United States less concerned with the resolution of multilateral disputes in the South China Sea or ensuring freedom of navigation than it was in asserting the US right to hunt panda inside China’s EEZ and within the murky confines of the Nine-Dash-Line, and egging on the smaller states surrounding the South China Sea, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, to defy the PRC instead of continuing to participate in the bilateral negotiation cum chain-yanking exercise under the ASEAN aegis.
I, by the way, contend, to the fury of some observers, I must admit, that the US State Department under Kurt Campbell, the pivot progenitor, tag teamed with the Philippines’ China-hawk foreign minister, Alberto Del Rosario, to blow up efforts of the PRC and President Aquino to set up a bilateral resolution back channel in late 2012 that would undermine the nascent anti-PRC united front in the South China Sea. My irritatingly facty breakdown is found here.
In January of 2013, the Philippines turned its back (again) on the PRC’s preferred bilateral process, declined to put its eggs in the tattered ASEAN basket, and formally requested that the UNCLOS Arbitrational Tribunal invalidate the PRC’s nine-dash-line claim.
Cleverly, the Philippines (and its US lawyers) decided to set aside the intractable territorial issues and base its case on seeking affirmation of its superior EEZ maritime rights over the PRC’s claim, laying the groundwork for a state of affairs where the PRC is struggling to assert sovereignty and claim habitability (and EEZs) over a few specks of land inside a Philippine EEZ that will be universally accepted (except by the PRC)…and laying the foundation for unrestricted Philippine exploitation of a potentially game-changing (at least for the revenues of the Philippine government) hydrocarbon play within its EEZ at Reed Bank.
Not so cleverly, perhaps, during the same period the PRC sailed its behemoth semi-submersible drilling rig, the HSYS981, into the South China Sea with an escort flotilla to yank Vietnam’s chain (perhaps as part of an effort to vaunt its de facto control over the Paracels), and make a spectacle of the impotence of the United States (the view which has now become the official orthodoxy)…
…or (alternative history) to try to pursue a “sequenced bilateralism” strategy for resolving the South China Sea issue. The HYSY 981 gambit was presented by the PRC at the time as an interesting proposition drawing on the PRC’s interpretation of its UNCLOS, not Nine-Dash-Line prerogatives.
Looking back, it seems likely that the PRC possibly made its move believing that the Obama Asia team and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were tired of the SCS brouhahaha. If the US took a hands-off position and Vietnamese could be persuaded to fold, well then the Philippines would inevitably follow suit. Peace would then break out in the South China Sea…and the China hawks would be deprived of their best, most advantageous opportunity for confrontation and escalation.
With the China hawk in full screech today, hard to believe we could have been anywhere else a year ago. But…
I will probably bore my readership to tears by quoting at length en toto a piece I wrote in 2014 on the oil rig crisis. But it is interesting to document a “might have been” alternative to the 9DL contretemps, and it is quite amazing to document the sea change in US government PRC policy that occurred in a few months from when I wrote the article until the Hagel reign at DoD, to use a landlubber’s parlance, went tits up:
Is the PRC Ditching the Nine Dash Line?
Without any ambiguity, the People’s Republic of China has announced that it considers itself and not the United States the boss in the South China Sea. Its most assertive statement of this principle was to send the HYSY 981 rig, escorted by a flotilla of dozens of ships, into waters that Vietnam claims as its Exclusive Economic Zone for some exploratory drilling, right after president Obama made a trip to Asia (but, tellingly and perhaps unwisely, not to the PRC) to talk up the US pivot.
In keeping with the PRC pattern of avoiding overtly military operations—those that would justify the invocation of existing or new U.S. security alliances with PRC neighbors—the flotilla apparently included no PLAN vessels, and the objectives and disputes surrounding the rig have been characterized in economic/bilateral terms.
In its attempts to present itself as a responsible and competent steward of the South China Sea—and in order to bring Vietnam to heel and isolate the Philippines for the next, much more complex and risky round of “salami slicing”–the PRC might be prepared to make a major shift in its South China Sea maritime claims.
Alert readers (admittedly, China Matters has no other kind) will immediately grasp the significance of this passage from the May 31 People’s Daily:
The truth is, so far China and Vietnam have not reached consensus on delimiting their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, but the waters in which the oil rig is operated are only 17 nautical miles (31.5 kilometers) from Zhongjian Island of China’s Xisha Islands while about 150 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast. In other words, the drilling site is located only five nautical miles from the outer limit of China’s territorial sea and is undeniably within China’s exclusive economic zone, regardless of whichever principle is applied in future delimitation.
The People’s Republic of China is claiming the right for its HYSY 981 drilling rig to operate at its current location based upon an EEZ justification, not by its position within the notorious “cow tongue”, the area enclosed by the “nine-dash-line”.
Over the last year there have been several informal indications that the PRC is planning to move beyond the anachronistic “nine-dash-line” as the basis for its South China Sea claims, and haggle with its neighbors on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, with its maritime claims based on sovereignty, territorial waters, and Exclusive Economic Zones or EEZs.
That is big news for the South China Sea and, perhaps, bad news for the United States, which has relied on the patent absurdity of the nine-dash-line claim to justify its role as the sensible adult in the SCS.
For clarification, the general principle is that a coastal state like Vietnam is accorded an EEZ of at least 200 nautical miles or even more if the continental shelf justifies—provided there is no conflict with the EEZ of an island held by another state.
In the case of a conflicting island claim, the coastal claim does not gain automatic precedence; nor is there a standard formula for drawing an EEZ boundary between the two claims. For instance, there is no principle that the boundary be drawn at the midline between the coastal baseline and the island baseline. UNCLOS calls for the boundary to be drawn on the basis of “equity”, taking factors like the populations of the immediate EEZ claimants into account.
Vietnam would clearly get the lion’s share of EEZ in the direction of the Paracels, but its position that its continental shelf claim entitles it to the spot where the HYSY 981 is drilling—and any complicating claims to a Paracels EEZ can be ignored– is less defensible.
The PRC position (reflected in the reference to “regardless of whichever principle is applied in further delineation”) is that the Paracels is going to get something, at least something more than five miles beyond Zhongjian Island’s territorial waters, and the HYSY 981 is covered.
Since we’re talking about the South China Sea, the situation is even more complicated.
In 1996, the PRC drew a single baseline around all the Paracels, essentially treating them as a single archipelagic group; Zhongjian Island, a.k.a. Triton Island is the basis for the southwestern corner of the claim. The Chinese position is that the archipelagic grouping as a whole (or, per the PRC formulation, “territorial sea”) is, leaving aside for a moment the issue of conflict with a neighboring EEZ, entitled to a 200 nautical mile EEZ beyond the baseline, hence the invocation of the rig’s propinquity to Zhongjian Island as defense of its legality.
This is not kosher by UNCLOS standards; only essentially archipelagic states (like Philippines but not continental states like the PRC and Vietnam) are supposed to enjoy this treatment. Furthermore, the above-water real estate inside the claim is miniscule, and doesn’t even come close to the UNCLOS standard that the ratio of watery realm to land features should not exceed 9:1. Therefore, if the archipelagic claim is thrown out, the best the PRC could do would be to claim a 12 nautical mile territorial waters around Zhongjian/Triton Island itself. Since the island is uninhabited and incapable of sustaining economic life, it gets no EEZ and apparently leaves the HYSY 981 hanging.
However, to further muddy the waters, several coastal states have ignored these restrictions on archipelagic claims when defining baselines for island groups (for instance, Denmark on the Faroes and Ecuador on the Galapagos).
And, in bad news for Vietnam, the PRC has been able to create a simulacrum of human habitation and economic life on Woody Island in the Paracels. Woody Island is the designated seat of the Sansha Prefecture of Hainan Province, with a small town maintained by a monthly supply boat, an airstrip, and the prospect of patriotic tourism, thereby creating a plausible claim for itself to a 200 nautical mile EEZ …which would also cover the current position of HYSY 981, 103 nautical miles away.
Previously, Vietnamese representatives, perhaps unwisely assuming that the PRC would never abandon the nine-dash-line, had publicly acknowledged there is a case for allowing Woody Island an EEZ.
Therefore, Vietnam appears to be in something of a bind here.
According to an authoritative looking if officially unofficial paper from August 2013 by Hong Thao Nguyen of the Law Faculty of Vietnam National University, Vietnam’s position on the Paracels is based on three principles: sovereignty over the Paracels, rejection of the nine-dash-line, and the assertion that the issue should be addressed multi-laterally instead of bilaterally.
As yet, the world largely follows the U.S. lead and does not take positions on island sovereignty, so point 1 is out. If the PRC is switching to an EEZ basis for its claims, then point 2 is out. And if points 1 and 2 are out, there is no strong basis for taking a bilateral spat to a multilateral forum.
And on technical ground, if the PRC shifts the terms of debate for HYSY 981 away from the nine-dash-line to UNCLOS and EEZ, Vietnam’s claims to the spot the rig now occupies do not appear to be a slam dunk.
Adoption of an EEZ dispute formulation would also appear to create a major political problem for Vietnam.
For Vietnam to negotiate an EEZ settlement with the PRC would involve Vietnam acknowledging PRC sovereignty over the Paracels and China’s as yet undefined yet genuine rights to some EEZ treatment.
This, I imagine, is an impossibly bitter pill for the Vietnamese government to swallow at the present time, given the intensity of anti-Chinese anger that roils Vietnam.
And if Vietnam can’t accept PRC sovereignty over the Paracels, the dispute can’t go to UNCLOS arbitration, it’s a sovereignty dispute, and all those carefully parsed arguments about EEZs and penetrating legal critiques of the nine-dash-line are completely irrelevant.
If this is the case, the PRC has rather carefully and maliciously hoisted Vietnam on a cleft stick.
Indeed, beyond asserting the right to drill holes in Vietnam’s continental shelf, Vietnamese acknowledgement of PRC sovereignty over the Paracels may be the key concession that China is trying to extract from its unhappy neighbor.
And maybe that’s the deal the PRC is offering Vietnam and, by extension, ASEAN: an agreement to play by UNCLOS rules if its sovereignty claims in the SCS are accepted.
Beyond categorical declarations of its absolute superiority of its continental shelf claims, Vietnam appears to be trying to find a way out of its dilemma through the politics of outrage: using heated rhetoric and provocative approaches to the PRC flotilla by various vessels in the hope that the PRC will do something so stupid and outrageous that the arcane and fraught issue of conflicting EEZ and sovereignty claims will be superseded by the easier-to-understand and cathartic issue of battling Chinese aggression.
For Americans, this situation would conjure up ironic memories of another provocation in Vietnamese waters, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that the U.S. hyped as an excuse to sidetrack informed debate and escalate its intervention in the Vietnam War.
Remarkably, even though the global China-bashing machine is on hair trigger, there seems to be little appetite as yet for indulging Vietnam. Even when a Vietnamese fishing boat flipped and sank in a dustup with the HYSY 981 flotilla—an incident that would have supplied ample grist for the anti-China media mill regardless of the inevitably disputed facts of the encounter– the international response was remarkably muted.
Whether this is owing to recognition of the fundamental ambiguity of the PRC-Vietnam dispute, the fact that ASEAN is thoroughly divided and cowed by the PRC, or because the US is distracted by its Ukraine adventure and is not ready to get a China crisis on at this particular moment remains to be seen.
Judging by President Obama’s security agenda speech at West Point (where he briefly cited the South China Sea issue but coupled it with a call for the Senate to ratify UNCLOS in order to give the US more standing in the disputes), America is not drawing any red lines in the South China Sea just yet.
As Secretary of Defense Hagel was communicating US resolve at the Shangri La forum, the New York Times treated the world to an astounding backgrounder on the Obama administration’s attitude toward Asia.
But even as Mr. Hagel and the United States have adopted a public posture that backs Japan — and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, Vietnam and any other country that finds itself at odds with China — some administration officials have privately expressed frustration that the countries are all engaged in a game of chicken that could lead to war.
“None of those countries are helping matters,” a senior administration official said…
Even if President Obama is suffering from lame duck fatigue and is disgusted with the hand that Hillary Clinton and her pivot dealt him in Asia, it seems counterintuitive that the United States will give a green light to the PRC in its South China Sea dispute with Vietnam.
If the U.S. isn’t ready to throw its weight around on behalf of its buddies, right, wrong, or nuance be damned, then the value of the U.S. deterrent and the pivot are significantly devalued.
Furthermore, Secretary of State John Kerry is the godfather of U.S.-Vietnamese rapprochement and I find it difficult to believe he—or his ally on the matter, John McCain–will let Vietnam take a whipping from China without some kind of riposte.
The hope that the US cavalry will ride to the rescue, despite its current ambivalence, is probably one of the factors that is keeping Vietnam from sitting down with the PRC for the bilateral talks that Beijing is insisting upon.
But for the time being, the PRC seems to be cautiously enhancing its legal position—and relying on the expectation that the world will get tired of Vietnamese intransigence before it becomes sufficiently outraged by Chinese assertiveness—to gain further acceptance of its interests and rights in the South China Sea.
Well, Vietnam sure didn’t fold, President Aquino of the Philippines signed on as a full-fledged China hawk, and the PRC’s “divide and conquer” dreams are, for now at least, in tatters. As are the hopes of the China moderates, only represented in the administratiion I think by Lonely Joe Biden now that his buddy Chuck Hagel was pushed out of the Defense Department.
The Chuck Hagel years (Feb 2013-15) are a sore point for US hawks, and perhaps explain why they like to date the South China Sea crisis to 2012 and a period of accommodation/appeasement/common sense during which the PRC ran amok in the South China Sea, and not 2010 when the carnival really started.
In an end-2013 piece on the South China Sea, Bull In The China Shop, Professor Pedrozo, the legal muse for China hawks in the navy, (now at the US Naval War College, the go-to institution for US SCS lawfare) gave full rein to his China hawk side. Beginning with an epigraph from Franklin Roosevelt, “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him”, and concluding with an exhortation to America, with its allies, to “stand up to Chinese brinkmanship before it is too late”, Pedrozo’s piece is also remarkable for the venom it displays toward then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, PACCOM’s Admiral Locklear, and the Obama China team for its caution/appeasement in dealing with the PRC on the Cowpens incident, the East China Sea ADIZ, and the tussle over Scarborough Shoal.
A key event in 2014 was a speech given in February by a key Navy insider and China hawk, Captain James Fanell to a US Naval Institute conference, in which he stated:
“[We] concluded that the PLA has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, following with what can only be expected a seizure of the Senkakus or even a southern Ryukyu [island] — as some of their academics say.”
Maybe bullshit, as in Fanell seizing on the “everybody has a warplan for every contingency” thing to make China-bashing hay. But the key element was that Captain Fannel was the head of intelligence for PACCOM…and he had gone off rez.
And he had gone off rez at the same time that Secretary Hagel was prepping for a make-nice trip with the PRC.
Fanell’s comments come at the same time that Washington is arranging a trip for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Beijing, with the expressed goal of enhancing U.S.-China military-to-military relationships. U.S. military officials want this relationship, among other reasons, to prevent some of the tense encounters between U.S. and Chinese ships in recent years.
In that context, Washington officials, when asked about Fanell’s comments, dismissed them.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who has been in Beijing laying the groundwork for Hagel’s visit, went a step further.
Asked about Fanell’s “short, sharp war” assessment, Odierno responded: “I’ve seen no indications of that at all.”
And Fanell’s speech to an obscure conference about East Asian hypotheticals miraculously received the widest possible attention in the non-specialist media.
Fanell was reassigned i.e. demoted in November 2014 (took a while, didn’t it? Admiral Harris, at the time the nominated but not yet confirmed Commander, Pacific Command, promoted from Commander, Pacific Fleet [and Fanell’s boss], did the dirty, perhaps as a condition of his new employment).
Navy Times reported:
Fanell’s views have supporters inside naval intelligence, and he has become a high-profile spokesman for a more alarmist view of the rise of China than those espoused by Navy senior leadership, an intelligence source who spoke to Navy Times said. Fanell’s articles on China have been published by Hoover Digest, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly and the U. S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings.
So Fanell was gone, but guess what? Two weeks later, Hagel was gone as well!
Supposedly Hagel was booted because he wasn’t up to the IS challenge, but I wonder. I’m not alone. Per US News & World Reports at the announcement of Hagel’s involuntary retirement:
“I can’t figure out what he did to merit being voted off the island,” says Eric Edelman, who until 2009 served as the undersecretary of defense for policy, essentially the No. 3 position at the Pentagon.
“He gave them the strategy and the budget they asked for and wanted,” Edelman says. The White House has planned for a military drawdown after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a reset toward a renewed presence in the Pacific. “I understand there were a few occasions when he may have leaned a little too far forward on his skis with regards to ISIS. But it’s kind of hard to figure out what it is they found lacking in his performance.”
US Middle East policy in 2015 is, for lack of a better term, still totally for sh*t under Ash Carter and still characterized by conflicted flailing and an utter unwillingness by the US uniformed forces to re-embrace the jihadi tar baby, a sentiment that Hagel shared completely, but Asia policy…well, galloping along in the new hawkish direction.
Fanell retired too, but his January 31, 2014 retirement party was pretty much a victory lap and a sounding of the China threat tocsin. In his farewell speech, Fanell said:
[T]he Communist Party of China’s designs stand in direct contrast to espoused U.S. national security objectives of freedom of navigation and free access to markets for all of Asia.
This not only threatens our own national security, but is also very clearly upsetting the entire Asia Pacific region has enjoyed for over 70 years.
The challenge, as I have seen it, is for intelligence professionals to make the case, to tell the truth and to convince national decision and policy makers to realize that China’s rise, if left unchecked or undeterred, will necessarily disrupt the peace and stability of our friends, partners and allies. We should not have to wait for an actual shooting war to start before we acknowledge there is a problem and before we start taking serious action. The “Rebalance” is a good first step forward, but it must be backed up with a real, tangible deterrent force and we must stand-up to Beijing’s propaganda and bullying campaign, especially those that come at the expense of our allies and partners.
To continue the synchronicity of Hagel & Fanell’s careers, Hagel’s retirement ceremony took place three days earlier and was, we can say, shrouded in defeat & failure:
A senior Pentagon official told NBC News at the time that Hagel was asked to step down because the president no longer had confidence in his ability to lead the military as it struggled to defeat Islamic extremists waging war in the Middle East.
‘He wasn’t up to the job,’ the official said.
Today Earnest’s stand-in, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz, said ‘friction’ between the White House and the Pentagon is ‘something that predates this administration.’
Schultz said the White House believes it has ‘good relationships with the military leaders.’
With Hagel gone, the US on track to extract new defense guidelines from Japan, and with the DoD in the hands of the China hawks, it was clear to the PRC it was time to make hay while the sun shone and get its facts on the water for a prolonged period of China containment struggle, one that might endure for the next decade factoring in the possibility of two terms for Hillary Clinton.
The PRC refused to participate in the Philippine arbitration proceeding, and instead embarked upon a crash island-reclamation program in the South China Sea, perhaps digging in its heels in anticipation of a ruling, expected to come down in 2016, that will probably not go well for the PRC. UNCLOS has no enforcement mechanism, but once it comes down China will only have recourse to its own intransigence (fueled by its resentment of the Philippines’ US-backed defiance) to sustain its claim. And it will conceivably face demands of the international community led by the United States that it vacate various features—like reclamation hot button Fiery Cross Reef—that were apparently constructed on top of below-water features inside the Philippine EEZ (though the PRC may be prepared to engage in some creative marine geology to assert the contrary) and enjoy no sovereign rights under UNCLOS.
Currently, China hawks are asserting their ascendancy in the key Asia-Pacific states of Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, and working to escalate the crisis so that the resolve of the various claimants to confront the PRC does not waver in the face of Chinese threats, blandishments, or a general unwillingness to go to war on behalf of the Philippines.
The PRC is ballyhooing an agreement it made with Vietnam on June 21, at what expense can only be imagined, to handle their disputes bilaterally but Vietnam is probably savoring the pleasure of hoisting the PRC on a cleft stick and will find good reasons to concurrently give aid and comfort to the US and Philippines in their SCS activities.
We’re approaching the culmination of a five-year effort to effect a containment strategy against the PRC in the South China Sea, albeit one with a two year hiccup of moderation; not the anxious, belated reaction of the United States that the PRC decided to float an oil rig or build an island in some remote sea.
And, if the DoD follows the Yomiuri line and declares that PRC sub activities in the SCS are an existential threat, then the China-containment cat’s fully and completely out of the bag.
Reuters presented the Chinese view on the occasion of the Shangri La conference of defense ministers in May 2013:
A Chinese military think-tank, the Centre for National Defence Policy, said this week the U.S. pivot to Asia had “shattered” the relative calm of the South China Sea.
“While the conditions do not yet exist for a large-scale armed clash, the dispute is becoming normalised and long-term … and ineffective management may lead to a serious crisis,” the report said, according to the China News Service.
Of course, nowadays (in 2015) “a serious crisis” may look more like a feature than a bug in the South China Sea to the United States.