Friday, October 30, 2015

U.S. Navy's challenge in South China Sea? Sheer number of Chinese ships

OCTOBER 30, 2015

HONG KONG - When a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed near one of Beijing's artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea this week, it was operating in a maritime domain bristling with Chinese ships.

While the U.S. Navy is expected to keep its technological edge in Asia for decades, China's potential trump card is sheer weight of numbers, with dozens of naval and coastguard vessels routinely deployed in the South China Sea.

Asian and U.S. naval officers say encounters with Chinese vessels, once relatively rare, are now frequent, even at the outer edges of the controversial nine-dash line Beijing uses to stake its claim to 90 percent of the waterway.

Such encounters will only increase after U.S. officials said the U.S. Navy would conduct regular freedom-of-navigation operations akin to the patrol by the USS Lassen, which penetrated the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago on Tuesday.

"They are everywhere ... and are always very keen to let you know they are there," said one U.S. naval officer in Asia, requesting anonymity, referring to the Chinese Navy and coastguard.

"If you're in the South China Sea, you can expect to be shadowed."

In an actual conflict, the U.S. technological advantage could be crucial, but China's numerical superiority had to be taken into account, particularly in any stand-off at sea, security experts said.

Chinese warships followed the USS Lassen as it moved through the Spratlys.

While the vessels kept their distance, China's patience could be tested by repeated challenges to the 12-nautical-mile limits Beijing effectively claims around its seven man-made islands, experts said.

Beijing rebuked Washington over the patrol, calling in the U.S. ambassador to protest. U.S. officials have repeatedly said the United States would fly and sail anywhere international law allowed.

Despite the tensions, the two navies held talks on Thursday, and a U.S. official said both sides agreed to maintain dialogue and follow protocols to avoid clashes.

With one airstrip completed and two more under construction, China's man-made islands will give Beijing a springboard to extend power deep into maritime Southeast Asia and beyond. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia also hold fortified islands and reefs in the Spratlys.


A Pentagon study published in April showed that China's South Sea Fleet, which deploys in the South China Sea, was the largest of the country's three fleets with 116 vessels.

It said China also had more than 200 coastguard ships over 500 tonnes, including many above 1,000 tonnes. China's coastguard fleet alone dwarves those of Asian rivals combined.

The U.S. Seventh Fleet by comparison operates 55 vessels, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group, from its base in Yokosuka, Japan, where it covers the Western Pacific and much of the Indian Ocean.

"China has homefield advantage," said Sam Bateman, a retired Australian naval officer and an adviser to Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"At any given time they've got the numbers ... and quantity not quality can be important in some situations", including confronting perceived intruders, he said.

Bateman and some other regional security analysts believe U.S. warships could find themselves surrounded if China sought to prevent future freedom-of-navigation patrols.

Some Chinese analysts have warned of blocking and ramming operations against U.S. warships, according to reports in China's state media.

Standard rules of engagement mean U.S. vessels would be reluctant to open fire and risk escalation, forcing them to withdraw, Bateman said.

The U.S. Navy had no comment.

But Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has made increasing the number of ships in the U.S. Navy a priority in recent years. In many speeches he has said: "Quantity has a quality all its own".


China's presence in the South China Sea has grown steadily, regional naval officers say, reflecting an expansion of the South Sea Fleet and the merging of various law enforcement agencies into a unified coastguard.

While the coastguard performs many traditional patrolling duties of the navy in the South China Sea, advances in Chinese radar means the navy is never far away, they say.

Analysts and naval officers who have seen satellite images of the South China Sea over the past two years have described Chinese vessels keeping a semi-permanent presence at several disputed locations.

The list includes the Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal off the Philippines, several isolated shoals in the Paracel islands to the north of the Spratlys, and the South Luconia Shoals off the Sarawak coast of Malaysia.

The Chinese Navy has also staged high-profile patrols off James Shoal close to Malaysia.

Scott Bentley, a researcher at the Australian Defence Force Academy who has studied the South Luconia situation, said China had rotated coastguard vessels to maintain an almost constant presence there since January 2013.

"China is now for the first time in history not only clearly claiming the entirety of the nine-dash line, but is actively attempting to enforce its expansive claims within that area," he wrote recently.


Freedom of navigation exercises essential to preserve rights

Raul Pedrozo
For The Straits Times

The much-awaited freedom of navigation (FON) operation by the United States to defy excessive Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS) was finally conducted on Tuesday, after months of hand-wringing by the American administration and predictions that China would respond firmly to any challenge to its purported sovereignty over disputed land features in the sea.

Contrary to these excessive concerns, the operation went off smoothly without incident. In fact, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China acted quite responsibly during the transit of the USS Lassen, during which the US destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of China's reclaimed artificial formation on Subi Reef, as well as within 12 nautical miles of reefs claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. US defence officials confirmed that a PLAN destroyer and a frigate shadowed the Lassen, consistent with international law, during the transit.

Of course, Beijing engaged in a war of words following the transit, expressing its strong displeasure over the operation and warning that China would take "all necessary measures" to safeguard its national sovereignty and security interests.

China had previously cautioned Washington not to conduct operations in the vicinity of its claimed SCS features, calling on the US to "refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability". Reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis, two rival powers stood "eyeball to eyeball", Washington called Beijing's bluff, and China "blinked".

Despite China's rhetoric following the transit, US officials stated that Beijing should expect more FON operations in the SCS in the future. While such a pronouncement is a welcome change to the current administration's heretofore hesitancy to conduct such operations, the US must be careful not to fall prey to the ancient Chinese proverb, "Talk doesn't make rice". US officials have repeatedly stated that US forces "will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits" and "we will do that at the times and places of our choosing", including the SCS. It's time for the US to start cooking the rice.

As Senator John McCain correctly pointed out, FON "operations should not be sporadic spectacles to behold, but ordinary and consistent demonstrations" of America's commitment to preserve the freedom of the seas.

The most recent operation, however, fell well short of that standard and was poorly managed during the pre-and post-execution phases of the operation.

First, the US does not take a position on the sovereignty claims over the SCS islands. Establishing maritime zones is a function of sovereignty over land territory. Under international law, only a "state" may establish maritime zones. Therefore, if sovereignty over a feature is not established or recognised, which is the case in the SCS, any maritime zones claimed for that feature are null and void.

Until the sovereignty issue is resolved, no nation can claim maritime zones around the SCS features. By calling the operation an FON challenge, the United States tacitly acknowledged Chinese sovereignty over the disputed SCS features. The operation should simply have been called an exercise of high seas freedom of navigation.

Second, although a US State Department spokesman correctly indicated that no nation has to consult with another nation before exercising its navigational freedoms, statements that the USS Lassen would carry out an FON operation in the vicinity of Chinese-claimed reefs in the SCS were apparently leaked to the press prior to the operation. So, in effect, the United States gave China prior notice that it was going to challenge its excessive claims. The FON programme is premised on the basis that advance notification will not be given to the coastal state concerned.

Third, the State Department spokesman also stated correctly that the United States was exercising freedom of navigation in "international waters". However, US Department of Defence officials reportedly labelled the Lassen transit as "innocent passage", which can only take place in the territorial sea or archipelagic waters of another nation.

Artificial islands constructed on submerged features like Subi Reef are not entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. Therefore, US ships and aircraft can legally conduct high seas freedom of navigation and overflight within 12 nautical miles of the man-made islet. By referring to the transit as "innocent passage", the United States once again tacitly acknowledged Chinese sovereignty over the feature and implicitly recognised Subi Reef to be an "island" entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.

FON operations may have short-term costs in terms of diplomatic fallout, but they are a necessary measure to preserve enduring and non-negotiable rights at sea.

The US must, therefore, continue to maintain a continuous presence in the SCS to demonstrate its resolve, put an end to Chinese aggression against its neighbours, and preserve navigational rights and freedoms for all nations. But let's get it right the next time so that US Defence Secretary Ash Carter's words - "We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits" -are not in vain.

The writer is a Fellow of the Stockton Centre for the Study of International Law at the Naval War College and a Deputy General Counsel for the US Department of Defence. He previously served as Staff Judge Advocate, US Pacific Command, and Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of Defence for Policy.

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