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US ‘Steadily Retreating’ In South China Sea Dispute

Posted by Dean Cheng on


USS Lassen China Freedom of Navigation

USS Lassen

Those of us who cover the US military in detail, those in the military and those who spend lots of time around the military tend to be at least mildly obsessed with Star Trek and Star Wars. As his opening make clear, Dean Cheng is truly one of the tribe. But his topic, freedom of the seas and how the US, China and other countries cope with the difficult calculus of Taiwan, China, the South China Sea and the larger questions of international law and trade — let alone what is right — is deadly serious. Read on. The Editor.

When the Jedi Council assembled in Star Wars Episode I “The Phantom Menace,” they discussed a prophecy that they would soon be joined by one who would “bring balance to the Force.” Little did they expect that the One would achieve this balance by collapsing the old order.

Reality now seems to be mirroring fiction, as the Administration steadily obscures what it means by the “rebalance” to Asia in the six weeks leading to the next episode of the “Star Wars” franchise. American B-52s and the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier battlegroup both operated in the South China Sea recently, providing ample opportunity to conduct operations within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands, and clearly sending the message to Beijing and the world of the seriousness with which the United States takes freedom of the seas.

960117-N-7729M-002 (December 20, 1995).... The U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) conducts a weapons on-load with the ammunition ship USS Santa Barbara (AE 28) in the waters off the Virginia-Carolina coast, following her post deployment yard period, at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Official U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd. Class Michael Tuemler

USS Roosevelt

After a stymied ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, where China battled hard to stop the group from taking any stance on the South China Sea, Southeast Asia is clearly becoming the focal point of growing tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. As China continues to challenge the United States on the competing principles of sovereignty and freedom of the seas, the reefs, spits, rocks, and islands in the Spratlys have become the center of the battle

For the Chinese, the point is simple. As a Chinese admiral observed recently in London, “The South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China. And the sea from the Han dynasty a long time ago where the Chinese people have been working and producing from the sea.” The issue is one of sovereignty, not only over the land and submerged features, but the waters, the “blue soil” that is encompassed within the “nine-dash line,” now more prominently noted in recent Chinese maps.

For the United States, the point is almost equally straightforward. Washington takes no position on the disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea, but it is firmly committed to the principle of freedom of the seas. All states may use the high seas as they see fit, as they are free for use by all. Conversely, no state may arbitrarily seek to lay claim to swathes of the ocean—and reefs do not exert any justification for territorial claims, even if one builds an artificial island atop it.

Ostensibly as a show of commitment to the principle of freedom of the seas, the USS Theodore Roosevelt operated in the South China Sea, providing a perfect venue for Secretary of Defense Carter to make a speech on this issue. This comes a fortnight after the Administration finally authorized a US ship to transit waters near China’s artificial islands, five months after it stated that American ships would sail where they wished, and three years after the last freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).

Unfortunately, if several recent reports are to be believed, these American ship transits are demonstrating not strength, but weakness.

As it turns out, the USS Lassen reportedly did not engage in a FONOPS to demonstrate that the islands China has built exert no right to territorial waters reaching out 12 nautical miles. Instead, the U.S. ship reportedly conducted “innocent passage,” turning off its radars and grounding its helicopters as it transited within 12 nautical miles of the islands. Undertaking “innocent passage” is done only in another nation’s territorial waters.

In short, the United States, by its actions, may have actually recognized China’s claims. If the reports are correct, the United States treated the artificial island atop Subi Reef as though it were a naturally occurring feature, and therefore entitled to a 12 nautical mile band of territorial water. This is precisely the opposite of what had been announced.

Further obscuring the message, Administration sources are now claiming that it was both a FONOP and “innocent passage,” because the American ship was transiting waters near other islands occupied by various other claimants as well as going near Subi Reef. It would appear that the Administration was more intent on placating domestic concerns (e.g., the Senate Armed Services Committee) than in sending a clear signal.

Now, according to reports, the USS Theodore Roosevelt did not even sail within 200 nautical miles of the Chinese islands, instead avoiding the waters around them entirely. Similarly, the American B-52s underscoring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea took care to never approach more than 15 nautical miles from the artificial Chinese islands.

It is the final step in a pivot of American statements and actions that have charted a steadily retreating course. It has proceeded like this:

  • from Secretary of Defense Carter’s declaration at Shangri-La this May that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world;”
  • to the revelation to the Senate Armed Services Committee this summer that the United States, in fact, has not sailed or operated near China’s artificial islands for three years;
  • to the apparent concession on international law, five months later, by the Lassen’s “innocent passage” transit, effectively acceding to the Chinese version on the key principle of freedom of the seas;
  • to the apparent decision to have the USS Theodore Roosevelt and American B-52s avoid those waters and airspace altogether, a message that is being sent less than a month after the Lassen

Like it or not, the message that the White House is now repeatedly sending is that the United States, in fact, accepts that the Chinese artificial islands should be treated as national territory, like a natural feature. In short, the United States is acceding to China’s efforts to close off portions of the open ocean. Teddy Roosevelt’s catch-phrase, of course, was “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” To deliver this craven message via the routing of a ship named for him adds a grotesquely ironic twist to the decision.

No doubt the Obama Administration will claim that it is trying to send a different message. This would be less difficult than the White House’s feckless efforts would make it appear—American aircraft and ships should conduct normal activities within 12 nautical miles of a manmade feature built atop a reef. This could include aircraft fly-overs, helicopter operations, anti-submarine warfare operations, the operation of fire control radars, and loitering in those waters. But, as Yoda observed, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Dean Cheng, one of the top US experts on the Chinese military and the PRC’s space program, is an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

What do you think?