Posts Tagged ‘Fonop’

The U.S. Navy is staffed by humans

August 26, 2017

By Ravi Velloor
The Straits Times

Four days after the USS John S. McCain suffered major damage in a collision while on approach to Singapore, questions swirl about the manner of the accident, and its reasons.

That it should have come so soon after a sister vessel the USS Fitzgerald suffered a similar accident while leaving a Japanese port, has raised a bunch of troubling questions.

As they say, the first time may be an accident and the second coincidence, but three becomes a pattern.

In the US Navy’s case – or more specifically, the 7th Fleet’s case – there have been not three, but four costly mishaps just this year.

Two other ships currently deployed to the Asia-Pacific, the USS Antietam that ran aground in Tokyo Bay and the USS Lake Champlain that struck a South Korean fishing boat, suffered damage this year.

That certainly makes for a pattern. With a US warship calling in Singapore every three days or so, there is every reason for the Republic to take more than a little interest in what’s going on.

Naturally, conspiracy theories abound.

One line of thinking is that hackers may have corrupted the massive computer systems of the John S. McCain and perhaps, other vessels.

In the case of the John S. McCain, that does not seem the case. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific fleet, seems to have ruled out a cyber attack in near categorical terms.

Adm Swift should know, of course, but George Kurtz, former head of technology at MacAfee who now owns CrowdStrike, one of the world’s top cyber security companies, had a more nuanced view.

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USS John S. McCain sustained damage to her port side, which is the left side of the vessel facing forward. Photo was taken off Changi Naval Base on Aug 21, 2017. ST PHOTO: ​DESMOND FOO


While declining to speculate, he told me that any assessment of an incident of this nature would necessarily have to be placed in a geo-political context.

In the John S. McCain’s case, it had just completed a Freedom of Navigation Operation, or FONOP, in the South China Sea where it was repeatedly warned by Chinese vessels.

The current chatter in cyber security circles, he said, is that while the McCain’s computers may not have been compromised, it is probably worth examining if anyone could have tinkered with the GPS system to send her, or the other vessel, off course by a few hundred metres.

It is an interesting theory and not the first time it has come up for mention.

In the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, Pierce Brosnan is sent off by MI-6 on precisely such a mission: to block a power-mad media tycoon’s attempt to start the next world war by engineering an incident at sea. In that instance, a British man of war is diverted into the hands of what appears to be Chinese military, sparking fury in Whitehall.

While nothing can be ruled out these days, the likely explanation could be more mundane and hark back to the essence of the craft – the quality of seamanship.

All major navies of the world do suffer accidents. It is estimated that since World War II, the major navies would have together recorded at least 1,400 mishaps.

Closer home, in early 2014, the Indian Navy chief, Admiral DK Joshi, quit after a series of accidents involving his force. The costliest of those mishaps was the loss of a docked Kilo class submarine that sank after an explosion on board while loading missiles for a mission.

At the time, poor observance of protocols was cited as the reason. The larger pattern was one of falling standards, poor equipment, and inadequate training.

But the United States is considered the gold standard of the navy game. It has the best technology, whether for the turbines that provide the power below deck, or in the missiles and radars stacked above. Its warships are designed for far greater crew comfort, than, say, a comparable Russian craft. And it is the rare naval officer in the world who has not read up on the life and times of Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the US nuclear navy, or wished to be like him.

Yet, the US Navy too is staffed by humans. And there is little doubt that its personnel have been under strain and its resources stretched.

The US Congress was recently informed that about 100 ships have been deployed every day since 2001, the year the US suffered the 9/11 attacks. Since its current strength is 277 vessels that makes for a massive utilisation ratio. This, naturally, tells on maintenance, crew rest and training.

While President Donald Trump has said he wants to take the navy to 350 ships, that is a long way away.

In the immediate future, the pressure on its resources will only grow since many ships are due to have completed their normal use cycle and come due for retirement, or scrapping.




South China Sea: U.S. vows to challenge excessive sea claims

August 14, 2017
Saying it is not about any particular country or about making a political statement, the United States has stressed that it will invoke freedom of navigation and challenge excessive maritime claims anywhere in the globe. AP/Gregory Bull, File

MANILA, Philippines –  Saying it is not about any particular country or about making a political statement, the United States has stressed that it will invoke freedom of navigation and challenge excessive maritime claims anywhere in the globe.

In a recent press briefing in Washington, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said US forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region, including the South China Sea, on a daily basis under a comprehensive freedom of navigation program (FONOP).

She explained that the operations, conducted in accordance with international law, are meant to demonstrate that the US will continue to fly, sail and operate “wherever international law allows.”

“It’s true in the South China Sea; it’s true in other places around the world as well,” Nauert said.

A US Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” on Thursday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea.

The USS John S. McCain traveled close to Mischief or Panganiban Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals.

Slamming the FONOP, the Chinese armed forces immediately sent naval ships to identify and verify the US warship and warned it to leave.

The United Nations-backed Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague had awarded the Philippines “sovereign rights” over Panganiban Reef off Palawan, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The court ruling last year also invalidated China’s entire “nine-dash-line” claims over nearly all of the South China Sea. Beijing has ignored the ruling despite having ratified UNCLOS.

“We have a comprehensive freedom of navigation operations program, under which the US forces challenge excessive maritime claims around the globe to demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law. All nations —that is guaranteed to the United States and to other nations, as well,” Nauert added.

The FONOP, she said, is not about any one country and is not about making a political statement.

Last year, the US conducted these challenging excessive maritime claims in 22 different coastal states, including claims of allies and partners.

“The United States does these operations – the freedom of navigation operations – all around the world, many times of year,” Nauert said. “But this is nothing new. We’ve done it before; we’ll continue to do that.”

The US acknowledged on Thursday that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was under “tremendous” pressure on the South China Sea issues during the meetings in Manila last week but the regional bloc still “held on to its principles,” defeating attempts to drop “militarization,” “self-restraint” and “land reclamation” from the joint communiqué at the end of the milestone gathering.


 (Is the Philippines just a pawn for China now?)

The ONLY TRULY JOYFUL FACES at the ASEAN conference were provided by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, left, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.  (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)



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China says it has sovereignty over all the South China Sea north of its “nine dash line.” On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid. But China chose to ignore international law.

Beijing now calls the shots in the South China Sea, and the US and Asean must accept this for lasting peace — The question is, does international law matter?

July 9, 2017

Mark J. Valencia says China’s perceptual domination of the sea lanes is complete and, military grandstanding aside, the US and others in the region will need to focus on realistic goals, rather than desirable ones

By Mark J. Valencia
The South China Morning Post

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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 7:03pm

The contest for the perceptual domination of the South China Sea, for the Asean claimants and thereby Southeast Asia, is over. China has won. There is little its regional opponents can do now. How did this come about and what are the options for dealing with it?

By guile, patience and perseverance, China has inexorably occupied and “militarised” seven supposedly strategic features in the South China Sea. In the process, it has successfully defied an international arbitration decision invalidating its infamous nine-dash line claim, as well as its actions against the Philippines and its sovereignty claim, and occupation of four low-tide elevations.

More significantly, it has done so in the face of US challenges and even shows of force in the form of “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops), as well as protests from other claimants, like Vietnam and the Philippines. The latter was the first to recognise the futility of opposing China there and the benefits of “working with it”. It is likely that ­others – like Brunei and Malaysia – will follow suit. Even Vietnam, ­increasingly the lone and lonely ­opponent, may be coming round.

Watch: China dismisses South China Sea ruling

The irony is that the contest has been, and still is, primarily perceptual in nature. No commercial shipping has been affected, despite the constant US concern with “freedom of navigation”, nor is it likely to be in peacetime, given China’s heavy ­dependence on ship-borne trade.

In a real war, China’s military installations would be highly vulnerable to attack and destruction

Indeed, China is just as, or even more, concerned that the US might try to block its shipping traffic in the event of hostilities. Most importantly, a point often lost in the diplomatic hand-wringing is that, in a real shooting war, China’s military installations would be highly vulnerable to attack and destruction; they give China little, if any, strategic advantage in a clash with the US.

The real value for China of its ­actions and installations is they have shown that the claimants, ­including US military ally the Philippines, are essentially alone in their contest with China. To be sure, given Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot away from the US and President Donald Trump’s ­inconsistent and confusing policy towards China , the South China Sea and the region have serendipitously enhanced China’s perceptual position. Trump’s abandonment of the US economic initiative with Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy have left Southeast Asian nations questioning the US will and staying power in the region. The resultant hedging, waffling and even tilting of Southeast Asian countries towards China has only served to illustrate the shallowness and fragility of American security ties in the region.

Watch: Duterte pledges to avoid South China Sea issue in Beijing

So what are the options for the United States in the near term?

One possibility, advocated by US hardliners, is for it to physically confront China over its actions and claims in the South China Sea. This could include forcing China’s forces off the features it occupies or even blockading them. Another suggestion is for the US to gain military access to the other claimants’ bases there and thus compete in a mini arms race with China.

But this is highly unlikely. The current US strategy to prevent China’s build-up there – if there was or is one – has not worked so far. Moreover, as prominent Australian analyst Hugh White observes, Washington has shown little appetite for engaging in a confrontation with China in its own backyard, where it might take heavy losses and not win quickly or outright. The US also reckons that support for its “friends and allies” or for nebulous concepts, like the international order or the freedom of navigation, are not sufficient reasons to do so.

The US has no history of, or predilection for, sharing power with anyone

More importantly, it perceives that its “friends and allies” do not want to see a US-China confrontation, at least one that will involve or negatively affect them, and it is difficult to imagine one that would not.

Worst of all, this would be a bad idea because, as White suggests, China believes the US does not have the will and wherewithal to meaningfully confront it and would thus press on. If the US was not bluffing, as China would think, the result could well be war.

Another option, also unlikely, is for the US and China to proactively agree to a modus operandi that ­accommodates Chinese concerns and shares management of the ­regions’ security situation. But the US has no history of, or predilection for, sharing power with anyone – and this is likely to ­continue in the Trump era.

Trump’s honeymoon with China seems to be ending

A third, more likely, option is a leaking status quo. In this scenario, China continues to enhance its military capacity in the South China Sea and to interfere with other claimants’ activities there. The US continues to object and, in the words of its defence secretary, James Mattis, to “sail, fly and operate wherever international law ­applies”. This includes continued Fonops and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in China’s near-shore waters. China continues to vehemently object to and even challenge the more provocative operations. This could produce a tit-for-tat dynamic in which China enhances its military presence in the sea with each probe or Fonop, which China has repeatedly warned would be the result of such provocation.

Indeed, after the recent Fonop in which the USS Dewey indirectly challenged China’s sovereignty over a low-tide elevation, the defence ministry in Beijing warned that the US actions would “only motivate the Chinese military to enhance its capacity”.

 The USS Dewey (left), a guided-missile destroyer, during operations in the South China Sea on May 19. The warship sailed near a reef claimed by Beijing on May 25, in the first such operation by the Trump administration in the disputed waterway. Photo: AFP/US Navy

Trump’s honeymoon with China seems to be ending. China has not delivered to Trump’s satisfaction on North Korea, his administration has agreed a new arms sale to Taiwan, despite Beijing’s vehement objections, and is making noises about punishing China for unfair trade. Relations overall are likely to become more contentious.

What China considers provocative Fonops and ISR probes are ever more likely with aggressive Pacific Command chief Harry ­Harris apparently calling the tactical shots. The July 2 operation near ­Triton Island in the Paracels is probably a harbinger of more to come, including in the Spratlys, even though the two disputed island groups present different situations.

Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!

More US-China military incidents are likely, but hopefully none will cross the threshold to open ­conflict – although they will likely come increasingly closer to it.

In any of these scenarios, the Southeast Asian claimants – and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are increasingly sidelined. As China rises in power, the Western-built and US-led international ­order, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, continues to haemorrhage, and there is really little that Asean or the US can do about it.

Asean’s centrality in security ­affairs for the region becomes an ever more unobtainable goal in the face of big power rivalries.

The point is that the sooner the other claimants, Asean as a whole and the US face reality and embrace the art of the possible, rather than the desirable, the more likely it is that they can find and accept a ­modus operandi that will maintain peace in the South China Sea.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China
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Dominance of the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean would solidify China’s One Belt One Road project
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The international arbitration court in the Hague said on July 12, 2016, that China’s “nine dash line” was not recognized under international law — making the Vietnamese and Philippine claims on South China Sea islands valid and lawful.
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China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning at Hong Kong
Due to years of ineffective foreign policy, the U.S. has not reached a crisis with North Korea. At the same time, by leaving China to violate international law in the South China Sea over and over and over, China has just decided to ignore international law. China has what it wants; and the U.S. still has not resolved the North Korea problem even it has “lost” the South China Sea.

 (The Philippines should know that China has a nasty habit of not honoring agreements)


A Chinese expert in China, Chinese culture, the Communist Party and how China administers law told Peace and Freedom, “Today’s Chinese government cares nothing for international law, legal agreements, treaties and the like. China always finds ways to wriggle out of deals to get what it wants while denying other parties in any agreement and their claims.” The Vietnamese have learned this the hard way. Strangely, most Americans think the Chinese treat international law the way the U.S. does.

John E. Carey




South China Sea: Latest U.S. “Freedom of Navigation” Sailing Could Be Showing Support for Nations Who Wish to Pull Away From China’s Massive Claims

May 26, 2017

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In this Nov. 9, 2014 photo, sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) man the rails as the ship transits the Red Sea during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise. The Dewey recently sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, challenging China’s claim in the region. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class James Vazquez/Released

MANILA, Philippines — The move of the US Navy to sail near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands shows Washington’s support for the Philippines’ claims over the South China Sea.

US officials earlier confirmed that guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey sailed within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of China’s artificial islands in the disputed waters.

Beijing has protested US Navy’s freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the region and had sought an explanation with US officials over the incident.

READ: Challenging China, US launches first South China Sea operation under Trump

Jeffrey Kline, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, said that the areas that China are excessively claiming are rightfully part of the Philippines according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The selection of Mischief Reef itself is clear in the sense that, in my view, we’re supporting the Philippines claim here and we’re also selecting what is clearly not a legal claim or a type of supportive claim by China,” Kline said in an interview with ANC on Friday.

On July 2016, the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands issued a ruling invalidating China’s excessive claims over the disputed South China Sea.

The Duterte administration set aside the ruling and opted to hold bilateral consultations with China to settle the maritime dispute.

The Philippines, as chair of the ASEAN this year, is also pushing for a framework on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with the 10-member regional bloc and Beijing. The consultations on the framework is expected to be completed by midyear.

Challenging China’s claims

Kline noted that the efforts of the US Navy to conduct FONOPs in the region might even inspire concerned parties to finish the code of conduct. FONOPs in the region might even inspire concerned parties to finish the code of conduct.

“We had very similar code of conduct with Russians during the Cold War. I think that increasing, at least making known the United States’ desire to continue the legal precedence of international rights of exercising military drills in the South China Sea and anywhere there’s international waters is important and that might inspire stronger discussions between China and the United States,” the professor said.

The professor, however, urged Washington to call upon all nations to continue to challenge China’s claims in the contested waters.

Kline suggested that US Defense Secretary James Mattis should make this call once he talks to delegates in the Shangri-La Dialogue or the Asia Security Summit in Singapore next week.

“As your country knows better than anyone, the South China Sea is both an economic boon for all the countries that surround the area, boon for fisheries and for international trade and shipping,” Kline said.

“Therefore everyone who’s in the area has a stake at this and everyone should in fact continue to challenge China’s claims. If not, then by simply ignoring the fact that they are making excessive claims, we’re reinforcing them,” he added.

On the other hand, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that USS Dewey had “trespassed” near islands where Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty.”

“We urge the U.S. to correct this mistake and stop taking further actions so as to avoid hurting peace and security in the region and long-term cooperation between the two countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in a press briefing.

READ: Beijing protests US Navy patrol through South China Sea


 (Smart money is on China right now)

FILE - Vietnam People's Navy personnel carry their country's national flag.

 (Contains links to several earlier related stories)

FILE photo p rovided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac —  A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal has always been part of the Philippines, by international law. China says it is happy to control fishing in the South China Sea. Credit: Renato Etac

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For about five years China has been loudly proclaiming “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea.” China has said, everything north of the “nine dash line” shown here, essentially, belongs to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid. But China chose to ignore international law.

Challenging China, US launches first South China Sea operation under Trump

May 25, 2017
A US Navy warship traveled near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. China has constructed hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs. AMTI/CSIS via DigitalGlobe

MANILA, Philippines — A US Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, challenging Beijing’s claim over the region, according to US officials.

USS Dewey, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, traveled close to the artificial island China built on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

This would the US Navy’s first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea since US President Donald Trump took office in January.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline.

Mischief or Panganiban Reef, also being claimed by the Philippines, is included in the ruling of an international arbitration court based in the The Hague, Netherlands. The international tribunal found that Mischief Reef is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.

In its ruling issued on July 2016, the United Nations-backed tribunal invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea.

The tribunal considered Mischief Reef as a low-tide elevation, which gives no entitlement to any exclusive maritime zone under international law. It does not merit a territorial sea but does warrant a 500-meter safety zone.

Mischief Reef is also one of the three artificial islands where China had built air bases and military facilities, allowing them to launch missiles anywhere in the region.

READ: China can now deploy military assets to South China Sea

The operation comes weeks after reports that the US Pacific Command requested to carry out such operations which had been denied by the White House. Trump had been seeking Beijing’s goodwill over the North Korea problem.

China had strongly protested US FONOPs in the past, claiming that it is an example of Washington militarizing the South China Sea.

Ankit Panda, political analyst and senior editor of The Diplomat, noted that Beijing’s excessive claim may be strengthened should it emerge that USS Dewey complied with innocent passage requirements.

The operation may be interpreted to “tacitly cede a territorial sea entitlement.”

“The difference between a high seas FONOP and an innocent passage FONOP is not an academic distinction. In the former case, a military vessel would have to specifically operate in a manner not consistent with Article 19 of UNCLOS, which delineates a range of activities that are lawfully permitted for foreign vessels exercising innocent passage within the rightful territorial sea of a coastal state,” Panda said.

He said a high seas FONOP could involve other activities rather than just passage. It could be a live-fire exercise, activation of control radars or launching of aircraft or drones on board.

The US Department of Defense, however, does not intend to publicize the details of this operation until its Fiscal 2017 Freedom of Navigation report comes due next year, the analyst said.


 (Smart money is on China right now)


From The New York Times:

Mr. Trump was initially reluctant to confront China’s territorial claims once he became president, despite his criticism during the campaign of the Obama administration’s handling of the issue. In an interview with The New York Times in March 2016, Mr. Trump said that Beijing had built in the South China Sea “a military fortress, the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that Chinese vessels around the Spratly Islands “identified and warned” the American warship to leave.

Lu Kang, the spokesman, said at a regular briefing Thursday that Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied” with the operation, particularly at a moment when the situation in the South China Sea was “cooling down.” That was an apparent reference to the recent start of direct talks between China and the Philippines, an American ally, over the status of islands both countries claim.

Separately, China’s department of defense accused the United States of spoiling what it called “an important period of development” in the relations between American and Chinese forces.

“This behavior by the United States military is a show of force to promote the militarization in the region, and would very easily lead to accidents on the sea and in the air,” Sr. Col. Ren Guoqiang said in statement.

In the wake of Wednesday’s maneuver, allies will be watching to see how consistent the Trump administration is on the South China Sea, analysts said.

“One operation won’t allay fears about Trump’s transactional approach toward China and its apparent disinterest in defending international and legal rights,” said Euan Graham, an analyst with the Lowy Institute in Australia.

Satellite images suggest that China has placed military hardware like antiaircraft and antimissile systems on the islands it has constructed in the South China Sea.

Maj. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss any current maneuvers but said the military was continuing with its freedom of navigation operations, known as Fonops.

“We are continuing regular Fonops, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” he said in a statement. “All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

“We have a comprehensive freedom of navigation operations program that seeks to challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights, freedoms and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” he added.

The naval operation on Wednesday was interpreted by the United States’ allies in the region as a welcome sign of American engagement in the South China Sea.

Even so, Australia, whose economy is highly dependent on exports to China, has declined to participate in the United States-led military operations, arguing that China now controls the Spratly Islands, where it has placed weapons and runways for fighter jets.

“Australia is extremely reluctant to participate in freedom of navigation operations that involve flying over or sailing through the 12 nautical miles around the islands,” said Alan Dupont, a former Australian military intelligence official.

“The Australian government feels it would be provocative and upset China,” Mr. Dupont said. “It feels it would be counterproductive now that China has militarized the islands.”

Read it all:


FILE - Vietnam People's Navy personnel carry their country's national flag.

 (Contains links to several earlier related stories)

FILE photo p rovided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac —  A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal has always been part of the Philippines, by international law. China says it is happy to control fishing in the South China Sea. Credit: Renato Etac

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For about five years China has been loudly proclaiming “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea.” China has said, everything north of the “nine dash line” shown here, essentially, belongs to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid. But China chose to ignore international law.

South China Sea: Experts See U.S. Militarization, Confrontation-Based Strategy

April 10, 2016


The US Navy wants nastier FONOPs in the South China Sea — operations within the 12 mile territorial sea imputed to PRC island holdings, and not innocent passage, but something overtly military and intrusive that the US would not permit in its own territorial waters, maybe something with helicopter flights or “signals intelligence.”

That’s no surprise.

The White House is not enthusiastic.

No surprise here either.

The FONOPs strategy appears to have delivered little more than PRC intransigence (absent the direct and overtly humiliating military confrontation I believe Pentagon pivoteers secretly crave), and has impelled the PRC toward an island-based response, one that dodges the PRC’s extremely shaky maritime claims under UNCLOS and instead relies on territorial sovereignty claims (on which the US as a matter of policy takes no position) and lays out the prospect of a multi-decade frozen conflict based on wrangling over South China Sea islands, man-made and otherwise.

The imminent UNCLOS arbitration on the Nine Dash Line, in other words, will probably not yield triumph and catharsis; it will create more tension and stress for the region and for the United States.

Now US planners are wrestling with the issue of how to handle the next strategic contingency: the possibility that the PRC will geoform, render suitable for habitation, and “territorialize” the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll 140 miles from the Philippine main island of Luzon, thereby communicating to the Philippines that participation in the US pivot, in addition to estranging it from the PRC, has alienated in perpetuity an important fishing ground.

China hawks screech

The China hawks—John McCain in the Senate and their legions in the Pentagon—are feeding titbits to the press about a) the need for FONOPS and b) distaste for White House fecklessness and c) the risk to the Scarborough Shoal.

No surprise there either.

But there was something new contained in the most recent high-profile media blast by the China hawks.

The main event occurred in an independent service publication called “Navy Times” and not in the usual prestige media outlets such as the Washington Post or the New York Times. Perhaps the WaPo and NYT were too sedulous in cultivating their relationships with the White House; no such qualms for Navy Times, whose audience is pretty much the US Navy full stop.

One of the key takeaways in the piece was the revelation that the National Security Council (whose risk-averse big-picture preoccupations infuriate gung-ho strategists at the Pentagon) had told the military to zip it in the run-up to President Obama’s cherished Nuclear Security Summit, which was attended by PRC supremo Xi Jinping (and the resentful military was unzipping it post-summit to reveal its discontent to Navy Times).

The likely context for the NSC directive (the Woody Island missile furor unleashed by the Pentagon through Fox News to crash President Obama’s previous Asian big deal, the ASEAN meet in Sunnylands) goes unmentioned, but Pentagon umbrage is unambiguously conveyed.

The tone of the piece was not designed to please President Obama:

Military leaders interpreted this as an order to stay silent on China’s assertive moves to control most of the South China Sea, said both defense officials, prompting concern that the paltry US response may embolden the Chinese and worry US allies in the region, like Japan and the Philippines, who feel bullied.

… Critics say the administration’s wait-and-see approach to the South China Sea has failed, with the island-dredging continuing in full force.

“The White House’s aversion to risk has resulted in an indecisive policy that has failed to deter China’s pursuit of maritime hegemony while confusing and alarming our regional allies and partners,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement to Navy Times. “China’s increasingly coercive challenge to the rules-based international order must be met with a determined response that demonstrates America’s resolve and reassures the region of our commitment.”

Perhaps a big surprise to those inattentive to the fact that China hawks working off a sturdy Pentagon base have been warring on the Obama White House for two years, but that’s not really news.

The big news is that the Department of Defense’s public rationale for involvement in the South China Sea appears to be undergoing a major modification.  Call it an “un-sea change.”

Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea looks ripe to be superseded by a new and much more robust China threat narrative:

“When it comes to the South China Sea, I think the largest military concern for [US] Pacific Command is what operational situation will be left to the next commander or the commander after that,” said a Senate staffer familiar with the issues in the South China Sea. “The status quo is clearly being changed. Militarization at Scarborough Shoal would give [China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy] the ability to hold Subic Bay, Manila Bay, and the Luzon Strait at risk with coastal defense cruise missiles or track aviation assets moving in or out of the northern Philippines.”

The administration is negotiating rotational force presence in the Philippines that would put the US in a position to counter China’s moves in the region but the focus on the big picture isn’t changing the China’s gains in the here and now, the staffer said.

“Force posture agreements and presence operations are important, but the administration has yet to develop a deterrence package that actually convinced Beijing that going further on some of these strategic-level issues like Scarborough … is not worth the costs.”

Bye-bye! “Freedom of Navigation.” Hello! “Militarization.”

The Navy Times piece looks like a gambit to trump a possible PRC move to “territorialize” Scarborough Shoal with a US declaration that the shoal is not just an UNCLOS matter or a territorial dispute; it’s a security issue for the United States.  Therefore, the United States, despite its non-accession to UNCLOS and its policy of neutrality in territorial disputes, can mess with the Scarborough Shoal on security grounds.

And not just because the Philippines is an ally; because US forces rotating into the Philippines under the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement would be at risk too.

Meanwhile evidence is mounting that China aims to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines’ capital of Manila and well within the Philippines’ 200-mile economic exclusion zone, that would extend China’s claims. Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put US forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis.

In the public record there is not, by the way, any evidence yet that the PRC is dredging around Scarborough Shoal. Photographs from end-March showed no activity (as an aside, I don’t understand why continuously updated video or photo data from the Spratlys & Scarborough Shoal is not put in the public domain for this supposedly existential global hotspot, given the frequent reconnaissance overflights conducted by the US, as well as its satellite coverage).
For what it’s worth, I tend to doubt the PRC plans to island-build the Scarborough Shoal. There is no existing PRC facility on the island, and building something new would be in violation of the ASEAN standstill agreement and exact a pretty high cost, regional-diplomacy-wise for the PRC. It would also mean burning a major bridge to the Philippines, since recovering Scarborough Shoal has evolved into a hot button patriotic issue in the Philippines.  As to the strategic threat from Scarborough Shoal, a couple of cruise missiles from a US submarine could probably vaporize it in under 5 minutes.

The US Navy’s Scarborough Shoal alarms are perhaps part of a campaign to keep everybody on board for a confrontational approach when the UNCLOS arbitration ruling comes down, the PRC declines to recognize it, and some tough and potentially ugly decisions have to be made.

As it stands, the Pentagon’s idea seems to be to anticipate any public displays of buyer’s remorse (and pre-emptively reduce the chances of embarrassment in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections) by seizing the helm of South China Sea policy and steering a course for “escalation”.

Observers in the Philippines will note with interest that, having let the US camel nose in the tent with EDCA, the Philippines risks turning itself into a passenger on the pivotmobile as the US can drive the pace and character of events in the South China Sea under the rubric of US force protection.  It might be time for the Philippine Ministry of Defense to take some schooling from Japan on how to keep US military planners at bay.

It’s not just FONOPs and hyping the Scarborough Shoal.

The Navy Times article contained this interesting tidbit:

Stepped-up patrols and of the South China Sea like the one conducted by the carrier John C. Stennis and her escorts in early March are part of the PACOM response to China, but actual freedom of navigation patrols in close proximity to China’s islands must be authorized by the White House.

In other words, the White House has been able to keep total control of FONOPing (albeit in the teeth of Pentagon public displeasure and political pressure) but PACOM can do lots of other stuff … like sail a carrier battle group through the South China Sea on its own initiative.

One more example of how much stuff—in other words, how far can the Department of Defense go in pushing its confrontation-based strategy—may be provided at the end of the Balikatan exercises, which provide the US and Philippine militaries experience in joint operations and practice in high priority skills like, in this year, an amphibious landing. Unless the Philippines is planning to invade itself, this is an island-invasion exercise targeting the PRC in the SCS.

Read the rest:

The Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy. Peter Lee blogs at China Matters and his columns appear in Asia Times Online and elsewhere.



U.S. Ambiguity Strengthens Beijing in the South China Sea

February 7, 2016

By Joseph A. Bosco

Are the United States and China collaborating to rewrite the international law of the sea? If so, it would be an odd but potent combination with ominous global implications.

China is a member of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, but regularly violates its provisions. The United States has not ratified UNCLOS, but has been its chief enforcer on behalf of freedom of navigation and world commerce. They would seem to be on opposite sides of the international legal regime.

Beijing pushes the envelope almost every day by asserting sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, making unprecedented maritime claims and building and using artificial islands to claim further rights to newly created “territorial seas.”

In the face of Beijing’s constant overreaching, American officials have repeatedly put forth traditional arguments defending freedom of navigation and overflight under UNCLOS and customary international law. But rhetoric aside, for years Washington has been relatively passive as China builds facts on the ground and on the water.

In the face of mounting Congressional and expert pressure, the United States finally began taking steps to assert its navigational and overflight rights. Unfortunately, Washington’s ambiguous, confusing and contradictory response has raised new questions about U.S. seriousness and commitment.

When China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea last year, Washington dispatched two unarmed B-52s to the zone to assert freedom of overflight. But unlike Japan, it also directed U.S. commercial aircraft to comply with China’s notification “requirements.”

Last fall, after months of verbal protestations without action, it finally sent the USS Lassen into the twelve-mile area claimed by China around one of its manmade islands. But U.S. officials then gave a series of conflicting accounts on whether it was a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) or innocent passage (IP).

The distinction matters because a FONOP is conducted in normal operating mode and concedes nothing on sovereignty to the unlawful claimant. The IP, by contrast, acknowledges that it is passing through the claimant’s territorial waters and does so in a non-challenging posture—e.g., with weapons and radar systems deactivated.
The confusion generated by that episode was compounded by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s evasive testimony before the Senate Armed Service Committee. As a result, Chairman John McCain demanded a fuller, written explanation of what exactly the Navy was doing.

Carter’s response offered a novel and startling resolution of the FONOP-IP dichotomy: the Lassen transit was doing both! “The FONOP involved a continuous and expeditious transit that is consistent with both the right of innocent passage, which only applies in a territorial sea, and with the high seas freedom of navigation that applies beyond any territorial sea.”

The statement is not consistent with UNCLOS or customary international law, and it is not grounded in logic—the ship was either transiting in normal operational mode or it was not. Yet, that is the Obama administration’s story and it is sticking to it; indeed, it is doubling down.

Just days ago, the Defense Department announced that the USS Curtis Wilbur, “conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea” by passing within twelve nautical miles of Triton Island, administered by China (but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam).

DOD explained that the transit, like all FONOPS, was intended to challenge China’s claims that “are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”

Fine so far. But then the DOD statement says: “During the operation, the USS Curtis Wilbur transited in innocent passage.” So, once again, the U.S. Navy is describing a ship passage as simultaneously both a FONOP and an IP, an operational impossibility. (Again, a FONOP challenges a claim to territorial seas; an IP concedes and respects it.)

This can no longer be attributed to a communications glitch or an individual’s misstatement. There is clearly a concerted administration policy to create a hybrid maritime concept that it can use to satisfy critics of its earlier passivity without challenging China in the conventional manner. It appears that Washington and Beijing have reached some kind of modus vivendi, whereby both can claim to have achieved their essential goals.

On the surface, such an accommodation would seem conveniently consistent with the balanced approach espoused by Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command in recent remarks in Beijing: “While we certainly disagree on some topics—the most public being China’s claims in the South China Sea and our activities there—there are many areas where we have common ground.”

If an arrangement is in place, Washington has conceded too much to Beijing. It would effectively legitimize China’s expanding claims and encourage more of the same, with far-reaching consequences for other adversaries in other parts of the world. This would be a perverse form of strategic partnership between the United States and China.

Even more disturbing is the possibility that this wink-and-nod precedent may already have been set, even if not publicly until now. Could it be that the Navy’s FONOPS in the Taiwan Strait, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere have actually been occurring as disguised IP operations?
The implications for the law of the sea, whether UNCLOS or customary international law, are so momentous that Congress needs to delve into the matter in a sustained and comprehensive manner, not with a few ad hoc questions at a hearing devoted to multiple issues. Freedom of navigation is a bedrock American principle that cannot be negotiated away to protect the sensibilities of China’s communist leaders who create the confrontations in the first place.

Any Congressional hearing on this subject will surely draw criticism of Washington’s failure to ratify UNCLOS, but that should not detract from the merits of the U.S. Navy’s vital and longstanding role in ensuring freedom of the seas. That national interest is too important to be eroded for the sake of transitory, calm relations between the United States and China, whose appetite for maritime and territorial aggrandizement will only be whetted.

Joseph A. Bosco was a China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense and served in the U.S. Navy as a communications officer aboard a Seventh Fleet flagship.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy


China strongly condemns US for sending warship near island

January 31, 2016
A Navy media team waits for the arrival of foreign dignitaries on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan at the U.S. Navy Base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin talked to reporters Friday about two of the biggest challenges the U.S. military faces in Asia: North Korea and the South China Sea. He spoke aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. The 20,000-sailor strong 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, covers a region from India to the international dateline in the Pacific Ocean. AP/Ken Moritsugu

BEIJING  — China strongly condemned the United States after a U.S. warship deliberately sailed near one of the Beijing-controlled islands in the hotly contested South China Sea to exercise freedom of navigation and challenge China’s vast territorial claims.

The missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of Triton Island in the Paracel chain “to challenge excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands,” without notifying the three claimants beforehand, Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright said in Washington.

China, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the Paracels and require prior notice from ships transiting what they consider their territorial waters. The latest operation was particularly aimed at China, which has increased tensions with the U.S. and its Southeast Asian neighbors by embarking on massive construction of man-made islands and airstrips in contested areas.

In October, another U.S. warship sailed in the nearby Spratly Islands near Subi Reef, where China has built one of seven artificial islands.

Wright said the attempts to restrict navigational rights by requiring prior notice are inconsistent with international law. U.S. officials said that such ship movements would be regular in the future.

China responded swiftly. Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun issued a statement saying the U.S. action “severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region’ s peace and stability,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Yang Yujun, spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense

According to Yang, Chinese troops on the island and navy vessels and warplanes took actions immediately, identified the U.S. warship and “warned and expelled it swiftly.”

He said that the U.S. operation was “very unprofessional and irresponsible for the safety of the troops of both sides, and may cause extremely dangerous consequences.” Chinese armed forces will take whatever measures “necessary to safeguard China’s sovereignty and security, no matter what provocations the U.S. side may take,” Yang said.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said separately that the Chinese side conducted surveillance and “vocal warnings to the U.S. warship.”

China claims almost the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls on historic grounds. The area has some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and U.S. officials say ensuring freedom of navigation is in U.S. national interests, while not taking sides in the territorial disputes.

China seized the unpopulated Triton Island, an area of 1.2 square kilometers (0.46 sq. miles), from former South Vietnam in 1974. In May 2014, China parked a huge oil drilling platform off the Vietnamese coast in the area, prompting Vietnam to sent fishing boats and coast guard vessels to harass the rig and nearby Chinese vessels. Skirmishes led to collisions and the capsizing of at least one Vietnamese boat.


U.S. defies Chinese maritime claims after warship sails near island in disputed South China Sea

January 31, 2016

Mount Fuji is seen in the background of this official Facebook photo of the USS Curtis Wilbur. The guided-missile destroyer took part in the relief efforts following the March 2011 disasters and ensuing nuclear crisis. | U.S. NAVY

By Japan Times

The U.S. Navy sent a Japan-based warship within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of an island in the South China Sea Saturday that is claimed by Beijing and others in an effort to challenge what the Pentagon called “excessive maritime claims.”

The USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided-missile destroyer home-ported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, conducted the so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Triton Island, part of the Paracel island chain in the disputed South China Sea.

China, Vietnam and Taiwan all have rival claims to the island on which Beijing has a manned outpost. None of them were given prior notification.

A Pentagon spokesman said no Chinese military ships were in the vicinity when the warship passed near the island.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes. The U.S. and other regional allies — including Japan and Australia — have been critical of Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the waters.

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China’s Defense Ministry condemned the move late Saturday.

In a statement, spokesman Yang Yujun said the U.S. act “severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region’s peace and stability,” according to the nation’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Labeling the move “a deliberate provocation,” Yang said Chinese troops on the islands as well as navy vessels and warplanes took immediate action, identified and verified the U.S. warship, and “warned and expelled it swiftly.”

Yang said that the U.S. operation was “very unprofessional and irresponsible for the safety of the troops of both sides, and may cause extremely dangerous consequences.” Chinese armed forces will take “whatever measures necessary to safeguard China’s sovereignty and security, no matter what provocations the U.S. side may take,” Yang added.

Earlier Saturday evening, China’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the move.

“The U.S. warship violated Chinese law and entered China’s territorial sea without authorization. The Chinese side conducted surveillance and vocal warnings to the U.S. warship,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

The U.S. Navy conducted a similar operation in October, when the USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of seven Chinese-made features in the disputed Spratly archipelago.

“The choice of Triton may have been influenced by the relatively lower operational risk than, say, Mischief Reef (in the Spratlys), which many were expecting would be the location for the next FONOP,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

“By transiting close to Triton, an outlying feature in the Paracels, the U.S. Navy may have achieved tactical surprise by getting in and out before China could react with any of its navy ships or maritime law enforcement vessels,” Graham added.

Overall, Graham said, the repetition of an “innocent passage” operation will send a cautious message to Beijing that Washington is continuing to take a gradual and minimalist approach to countering excessive claims in the South China Sea.

“China may even see this as part of a tacit understanding not to raise the temperature,” Graham said.

Calls had been growing in Congress for the Obama administration to follow up on its October operation.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee, took the administration to task early last month for letting China continue to “pursue its territorial ambitions” in the region.

In Washington on Saturday, McCain said he was “encouraged” by news of the latest operation.

“This operation challenged excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and other nations under international law,” he said. “I continue to hope these operations will become so routine that China and other claimants will come to accept them as normal occurrences and releasing press statements to praise them will no longer be necessary.”

Last week, U.S. Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the Pacific Command, said that more operations in the South China Sea would not only continue but would also become more complex.

“I believe the Lassen did challenge some of China’s claims,” Harris said during a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“You will see more of these,” he said.


A scene from a video taken by a Vietnamese fisher shows a foreign boat shooting water at his on January 6, 2016. The boat has the markings of Taiwan’s coast guard. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre, Vietnam

 (Bill Hayton says China’s claims to the South China Sea are not legally valid)



Drama and Maneuver in the South China Sea: The US-China Standoff

December 26, 2015

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 50, No. 1, December 28, 2015

By Peter Lee

On October 27, 2015 China hawks got what they had long demanded: a US Navy Freedom of Navigation operation (aka FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of China’s manmade islands in the South China Sea.

But it turns out that wasn’t enough!

China hawk joy was transformed into widely-advertised disappointment that the vaunted FONOP had allegedly been an anodyne “innocent passage” (i.e. a use of a foreign country’s territorial waters for prompt passage as permitted by international law) by the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen, a timorous transit that failed to repudiate the PRC’s unreasonable claims in the South China Sea based on the fallacy of the Nine Dash Line and the chicanery of its island-building program.

Exasperation with the FONOP was probably heightened by the fact that the PLA Navy had cleverly conducted its own “innocent passage” exercise through the territorial waters of the Aleutian Islands in September 2015, thereby diminishing the consequences of a close sailby of Subi Reef as a cathartic piece of defiance against PRC aggrandizement in the South China Sea.

A spate of articles appeared on the theme, per the article in the Lowy Interpreter, Innocent Passage: Did the US Just Fumble Its South China Sea Strategy?:

USNI News, Defense News and Graham Webster all recently noted that the USS Lassen was undertaking innocent passage when it sailed past Subi Reef on 27 October. This surprising revelation has not been officially confirmed but is understood to have been widely corroborated by sources in the US Navy, Department of Defence and Capitol Hill.

Responding to the furor, on November 9, 2015, almost two weeks after the seemingly triumphant sailby, Senator John McCain, a leading hawk on South China Sea matters, issued a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter querying:

Under the freedom of navigation programs, what excessive claim(s) was the Lassen operation intended to challenge?

Did the ship operate under the rules of innocent passage? If so, why?

If not, what specific action or actions were taken within twelve nautical miles of an artificial island to demonstrate that the ship was not conducting innocent passage?

If only the Lassen had turned on its attack radar; or launched a drone while it was within 12 miles of Subi Reef…


Consider the FONOP.

FONOPS are tasked, planned, and executed by the US Navy based on its determination of maritime claims it deems excessive.

Full Stop.

The activities conducted during a FONOP are not revealed. The FONOP “happens” and a report is issued to Congress stating that it did “happen”.

As Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University put it in an analysis of FONOPs:

FONAs are low-profile operations. The Defense Department itself does not currently

publish a detailed description or justification of the program. Instead, it publishes

only a brief yearly summary of FONA on the website of the Under Secretary of

Defense for Policy, listing the countries against which an assertion was conducted,

the ‘‘excessive claims’’ that were protested, and whether or not multiple assertions

were carried out against a given country (without going into specific details about

the date or number of operations).

In other words, the “FONOP” can pretty much be anything the US government said it was. Just the fact of announcing it basically gets the job done by putting the country and the world on notice that the US does not recognize a claimed jurisdiction.

As can be seen from the Fiscal Year 2014 Freedom of Navigation Report, a concise two-page document issued by the Department of Defense, FONOPs are part of the Navy’s global routine, conducted in waters claimed by friends and allies as well as adversaries and enemies. During that period, FONOPs were conducted in waters claimed by 19 countries, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam and, indeed most claimants involved in the South China Sea.

Prior to the operation, the Department of Defense had let it be known that the Lassen would ostentatiously loiter with intent for “several hours” while executing a lingering passage through the nearshore waters of Subi Reef.

USS Lassen

In an opinion piece titled The USS Lassen’s Transit of Subi Reef Was Not So “Innocent”, Captain Anthony Cowden of the US War College had this to say about the “innocent passage” aspersions cast on the sailby:

We have already seen that Subi Reef has no territorial waters associated with it, so by the logic of the “and” conjunction, innocent passage is not possible—not by Lassen, and not by any ship of any nation transiting within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef. It does not matter if Lassen was operating in a non-confrontational manner or not; by definition, Lassen did not pass through any nation’s territorial waters and therefore could not be conducting an innocent passage.

In other words, mission accomplished!

In addition to the campaign to highlight the purported inadequacies of the first sailthrough, there is a movement to formally schedule further sailthroughs, on a regular basis, perhaps twice a quarter, and presumably exhibiting more satisfactory anti-China bravado.

The key question is whether the US Navy will be able to back the PRC into a corner on the island FON issue. This could involve forcing a confrontation—not necessarily military but political, one that involves the PRC overtly and requiring that it back down instead of fighting back. This would reveal the PRC to the world and, especially, America’s allies in East Asia, as the paper tiger that the hawks are convinced it is.

However, despite frequent public claims that the PRC has drawn red lines and is daring the US to cross them, it should be clear that the PRC, as a matter of common sense and courtesy to the world’s unchallenged naval hyperpower, is resigned to the US Navy sailing wherever it wants to, at least for the time being.

This is illustrated by the past history of maritime contention between the People’s Republic of China and the US Navy, which have involved two elements.

The first was the PRC’s attempt to restrict US naval operations inside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the PRC, not sovereign waters of the PRC but a 200 nautical mile zone of international waters adjacent to the PRC’s territorial waters (territorial waters are often defined as inside the 12 nautical mile limit off a country’s shoreline) reserved for its use under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the PRC acceded to in 1996.

The second area concerns the US Navy’s “Freedom of Navigation” operations which, as described above, are meant to demonstrate US rejection of excessive territorial waters claims, such as the PRC assertion that the area of the South China Sea enclosed within the Nine-Dash-Line is its “sovereign territory”.



The first significant US-PRC military dustup of the Obama era occurred when in 2009 the PRC tried to evict US naval vessels conducting anti-submarine surveillance within the (undisputed) PRC EEZ off Hainan Island on the grounds that the PRC had the right to control foreign military activities inside its EEZ (a position shared or supported at one time by the Philippines and Vietnam). The US dispatched a destroyer to protect its ship, and insisted on its interpretation of UNCLOS: that only foreign economic and military activities, and not military operations are precluded within an EEZ. The PRC backed off and, in 2014, signaled its tacit acceptance of the US interpretation by sending its own spy ship to shadow the RIMPAC naval exercise inside the Hawaiian EEZ.

With the EEZ issue apparently retired, the focus shifted to US Navy “FONOPs” in the South China Sea.

In evaluating the provocative value of the island FONOPs, it must be pointed out that the PRC has also tolerated US military activity in the South China Sea within the Nine Dash Line—officially on the principle of exercising forbearance in what it asserts is its sovereign territory—for a number of years.

The US Navy does not respect imputed claims to PRC sovereignty over the area within the Nine Dash Line as territorial waters, as this July 2015 press release from US Pacific Fleet states:

Since August 2013, Destroyer Squadron 15 [Guided Missile Destroyers] have operated in the South China Sea. During these patrols, safe interactions with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels at sea, courteous radio conversations, and prudent shiphandling establishes U.S. Navy’s commitment to maritime security and informs our Chinese counterparts the U.S. Navy intends to operate freely in international waters…

Lassen [the destroyer currently on station] conducts daily flight operations with her two embarked MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 51, also known as the “Warlords.” During these flights, Warlords are often queried by the Chinese. The pilots on the helicopter respond in a professional manner by reiterating they are operating in international airspace in accordance with international law.

In other words, the US Navy has actually been engaging in de facto “FONOPs” in the South China Sea for at least two years.

The Lassen October FONOP at Subi was shadowed by two PLA Navy vessels without interference, and the operation was condemned with vociferous but empty excoriation by PRC officialdom and in the Chinese press.

The PRC position that it allowed the Lassen to do whatever it did without challenge as an acknowledgment of American power, and not recognition of its indefensible claims in the South China Sea, was illustrated by the different treatment it gave to a Vietnamese government vessel that subsequently sailed past Subi Reef.

Sauce for the US Navy goose is definitely not for the Vietnamese gander, as an account by the Vietnamese captain of a Vietnamese Ministry of Transport supply boat confirms. For whatever reason, innocent or otherwise, he decided he would skirt Subi Reef at “about” 12 nautical miles a week or so after the FONOP and received this reception:

A while later, two Chinese coast guard ships, coded 35115 and 2305, appeared and sped up toward the Vietnamese ship.

“The ship 35115 rushed to the prow of our boat while the ship 2305 darted toward the stern,” Captain Nga narrated. “We had to try to steer our boat so that it could avoid colliding with either of the Chinese vessels.”

At 11:00 am, a Chinese warship came from Subi Reef and headed for Hai Dang 05, at a speed of 16-18 nautical miles, to support the two coast guard boats to bully the Vietnamese ship, Captain Nga said.

Nga asserted that the warship then used equipment to disrupt radar waves, so the local ship failed to measure distances between itself and other vessels around it.

The warship then repeatedly let off flares toward Hai Dang 05 as a sign of threat and broadcast messages in Chinese through a loudspeaker to drive the local ship away, the captain said.

At 11:30 am, the warship exposed a 37mm artillery gun by removing its wrappings, and more than 10 people in camouflage battledress armed with AR assault rifles were deployed in different positions on board, pointing their guns at the local ship, Captain Nga recounted.

… the soldiers on board the Chinese warship kept aiming their guns at the Vietnamese boat until 1:30 pm, when all of the Chinese vessels left…

The interesting question of what the PRC would do if its rival, Japan, decided to join high profile US FONOPs has been raised, but apparently Japan is not quite ready to find out, at least for now.

For the time being, therefore, the FONOP has simply reaffirmed that the US Navy enjoys “sail anywhere” privileges by virtue of its naval clout, and this is a privilege that the PRC is determined to deny to its neighbors in the South China Sea.

The situation is further complicated, I would suspect knowingly, by the PRC construction of military facilities on many of the South China Sea structures. Close approaches by foreign military and civilian ships and aircrafts in the South China Sea are apparently warned off not only on the basis that PRC sovereign territory is being infringed, but that intruders are coming too close to a sensitive military installation.

The PRC’s ability to bob-and-weave away from the United States while acting aggressively against Vietnam and the Philippines may receive its most challenging test if the PRC’s claims of sovereignty are repudiated by the decision of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration on the issue of the “Nine-Dash-Line” in the South China Sea in response to a petition from the Philippines under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The PRC claim to most of the South China Sea is based on an unsurveyed assertion illustrated by nine dashes on Chinese maps—the “Nine-Dash-Line”—that is widely derided by non-PRC observers and is also anathema to the principles of UNCLOS. It would be an occasion of enormous surprise if the arbitration panel does not invalidate the Nine-Dash-Line when it hands down its decision in the first half of 2016, thereby endorsing the delineation of 200 nautical mile EEZs in the SCS by the Philippines and everybody else in the region.

Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have sent observers to the hearing, presumably to demonstrate to the judges their support for the Philippines’ effort. Although the US Senate has not ratified UNCLOS (due to concerns by Senate Republicans concerning possible infringement of US sovereignty) and the United States has been unable to appear officially in the proceedings, it has on several occasions expressed its support for the UNCLOS arbitration process and the Philippines position on the Nine Dash Line.

The South China Sea without the Nine Dash Line is basically divided between the Philippines and Vietnam for EEZ purposes, creating difficulties for the immense PRC fishing fleet that presently exploits the contested waters, and also offering the possibility of a major blowup over development of Reed Bank, a significant hydrocarbon play within the expected Philippine EEZ that is coveted by the PRC.

The PRC, although a signatory to UNCLOS, has adamantly denied the jurisdiction of the arbitration court over the Nine-Dash-Line issue, has declined to participate in the proceedings of the arbitration court, and has repeatedly declared it will not honor any judgment by the panel. UNCLOS has no enforcement mechanism, military, economic, or otherwise, so a negative ruling has no direct consequences for PRC territorial claims under UNCLOS. Assuming the PRC ignores the ruling and continues to try to exploit the bounties of the South China Sea, and particularly if it takes active measures to deny them to others, it is possible for the South China Sea to drift into the limbo of “frozen conflict”: business as usual, albeit with persistent, chronic friction.

The PRC would probably be satisfied with this outcome. However, China hawks in United States and, especially in the Philippines, which has staked its vision of the Philippines’ future on confronting China under the aegis of the United States (and trashed relations with the PRC in the service of this vision), would not.

If the PRC cannot be confronted in the South China Sea over its defiance of UNCLOS, the entire U.S. exercise of power in the SCS would look ineffectual, even pointless.

There is some hope and expectation among China hawks that US Navy activities might expand beyond traditional FONOPs to direct support of the Philippines in claiming its EEZ rights subsequent to the UNCLOS ruling. Flashpoints inside the expected Philippines EEZ include the Scarborough Shoal—a valued fishing ground currently controlled by PRC vessels much to Philippine resentment—and the Reed Bank energy play.

Another US Naval War College faculty member, James Holmes, opined:

The fact is, domestic law provides remedies for wrongful claims. The law of the sea does not. Or, more precisely, a UN tribunal exists to resolve nautical disputes, but seagoing states can refuse to accept its authority — as China has done in a case brought by the Philippines.

That leaves seafaring states mindful of maritime freedom with an unpleasant choice. They can either accept the unacceptable, namely China’s effort to rewrite international law to the detriment of maritime freedom. Or they can resort to self-help. Governments can defy unlawful claims by deploying steel, à la Lassen; by backing up their actions through diplomatic correspondence with the offending government; and by explaining their purposes to important audiences. If resolute enough, stakeholders in the free sea keep excessive claims from calcifying into international custom and — perhaps — law.

Navies enforce the law of the sea, and always have. Who else will do it — the Maersk Line? A Carnival cruise?

Therefore, I interpret the China hawk dissatisfaction with the Lassen FONOP as a signal that further escalation beyond the traditional limits of the FONOP is desired… and will be pursued until a provocation sufficient to bring the PRC into a direct and humiliating confrontation with US power is discovered.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US global policy. He is the moving force behind the Asian affairs website China Matters which provides continuing critical updates on China and Asia-Pacific policies. His work frequently appears at Asia Times.

Recommended citation: Peter Lee, “Drama and Maneuver in the South China Sea: The US-China Standoff”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 50, No. 1, December 28, 2015.

Related articles

• Alex Calvo, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and International Arbitration in the South China Sea

• Mel Gurtov, Rules and Rocks: The US-China Standoff Over the South China Sea Islands

• Carlyle A. Thayer, ASEAN’S Code of Conduct in the South China Sea: A Litmus Test for Community-Building?

• Peter Lee, High Stakes Gamble as Japan, China and the U.S. Spar in the East and South China Seas

Related here on Peace and Freedom:

Chinese coast guard ships harassed and blocked a Vietnamese rescue boat from reaching a fishing boat in distress near Hoang Sa on October 23, 2015. Photo by Xuan Son

Above: Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate. The U.S. says two more ships like this one will go to Taiwan in 2016.


Gwadar is a deep sea port that sits next to the Strait of Hormuz, the key oil route in and out of the Persian Gulf. China belives Gwadar is important to China’s maritime strategy. Photo: AFP

Chinese warship during a live fire exercise in the South China Sea. Photo Credit People’s Daily

 (Contains links to several previous articles)