Washington’s Muddled Message in the South China Sea

Washington’s Muddled Message in the South China Sea

After months of internal debate, the Obama administration last week finally decided to dispatch a warship to challenge China’s far-reaching territorial claims in the South China Sea. But in the days since, U.S. officials have offered conflicting accounts of the operation, potentially undermining the whole point of the symbolic mission and raising doubts about whether Washington is ready to test Beijing’s claims at all.

The cruise of the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen had been billed as a “freedom of navigation operation” that would make clear that Washington regards the seas around Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea as international waters.

But over the last week, Pentagon and administration officials have struggled to explain exactly what the Lassen did when it sailed near Subi Reef, where China has constructed an island dredged from the sea floor.

When questioned by Foreign Policy, officials offered conflicting accounts as to whether the ship took steps to directly challenge China’s maritime claims in the strategic waterway — or whether it pulled its punches, tacitly conceding Beijing’s position.

Initially, officials insisted the Lassen carried out a freedom of navigation operation, which could mean the vessel operated sonar, had its helicopters take off from the deck, or lingered in the area. But other officials said they could not confirm it was a freedom of navigation mission and that the ship may have refrained from any helicopter flights or intelligence gathering — and instead simply sailed through without loitering or circumnavigating the area.

Further adding to the confusion, the P-8 surveillance plane accompanying the Lassen appears to have stayed outside the 12-mile range of the man-made island, a boundary that delimits territorial seas and airspace.

The administration’s mixed messaging has played out publicly in recent days on both sides of the Pacific. U.S. officials told Defense News over the weekend that the Lassen had merely made an “innocent passage” close to the artificial island at Subi Reef — a phrase with a specific meaning under maritime law that applies to sailing through other countries’ territorial waters. On Monday, officials repeated the same claim to U.S. Naval Institute News, saying the ship and an accompanying surveillance plane took steps that would signal acquiescence to Beijing’s claims.

The reports triggered a bout of speculation and criticism from analysts and scholars tracking the issue, because a warship can only make an “innocent passage” in waters belonging to another country. If the Lassen indeed made an innocent passage, that would imply that the United States recognizes Chinese claims around the man-made island — which would be contrary to Washington’s stated position on the question and at odds with the entire purpose of the freedom of navigation operation in the first place. Freedom of navigation operations, in contrast, are carried out in international waters to underscore the global right of free transit.

Expert commentators such as Raul Pedrozo, a non-resident scholar at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College, flagged in an article what he called a “poorly managed” operation, while Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for a New American Security highlighted in another online essay the mission’s troubling “lack of clarity.”

The muddle from the Obama administration was at odds with a high-profile trip to the region by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who reiterated Washington’s vow to sail through any area deemed international waters. Carter paid a visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier on Thursday in the South China Sea, accompanied by his Malaysian counterpart, Hishammuddin Hussein. “There’s a lot of concern about Chinese behavior out here,” he told reporters.

China watchers are still trying to figure out whether the United States really did dial back its ambitions for the long-contemplated cruise or if there has been some sort of public relations error by military officers or U.S. officials who may not be well-versed in the arcana of international maritime law.

Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which has carefully tracked China’s island-building binge, called it a potentially “huge blunder.” Jeff Smith, an Asia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, said he is “stumped” by the administration’s confused description of the operation.

“If we portray it as an innocent passage, then we’re saying we’ve accepted China’s unlawful territorial claims,” said James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. “That’s a self-defeating message, not one the Navy or the Pentagon want to send.”

Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the administration needed to clear up any confusion about exactly what transpired near Subi Reef.

“If the United States does not clarify what it actually did, then there is the potential for undermining the message,” Glaser said.

Unease is mounting in Congress, as well, where top lawmakers have been pushing the Obama administration to take a tougher stance against China’s aggressive behavior.

The “strategic intent” of America’s freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea “should be crystal clear,” a congressional staffer told FP. “The Department of Defense needs to put to rest the nagging questions about the operation and the legal message it was intended to send.”

A U.S. military officer told FP that the Lassen definitely carried out a freedom of navigation operation, meant to assert the universal right of any country to sail in international waters, and not an “innocent passage.” And the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Robert Francis, told reporters Thursday that he had carried out a freedom of navigation operation, but he did not offer additional details.

Other criticism of how the United States conducted the operation is unwarranted. While the Lassen reportedly turned off its fire-control radars during the sail-by of Subi Reef, that was not an effort to transform the cruise into an “innocent passage” or otherwise assuage China. Rather, that is standard procedure for “prudent” commanders, notes M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on China maritime issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Under both a 2013 memo of understanding between Washington and Beijing and a 2014 maritime code governing unexpected encounters at sea, ships from the two countries are supposed to “generally avoid” anything that resembles a “simulated attack,” including aiming fire-control radar.

Still, Pentagon officials have yet to make clear if the Lassen performed the sorts of activities necessary to distinguish a freedom of navigation operation from a quick and harmless transit of foreign waters. Those activities can include circumnavigating disputed features, gathering intelligence, or loitering in the area rather than sailing a straight and speedy course. For decades, the U.S. Navy has conducted dozens of freedom of navigation operations each year, forcefully challenging what it considers “excessive” maritime claims by friends and foes alike, including China.

After the latest such operation, if that is what it was, and even though the United States seems to have gone out of its way to minimize its impact, China is far from mollified. China’s top admiral warned last week that U.S. actions could spark a war. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday at a briefing that the U.S. missions were a “blatant provocation” before taking aim at what she described as Washington’s double standard. “The practice of manipulating international law for political and selfish gains is quintessential hypocrisy and hegemony,” she said.

China’s heated reaction, limited thus far to rhetoric as opposed to any aggressive response with planes or warships, shows how the high-profile and well-telegraphed missions rankle Beijing, said Glaser. “This is something they can tolerate as long as it’s not publicized on a regular basis. It’s the media attention to it that really creates problems for the Chinese leadership,” she said.

The Lassen, which was shadowed by Chinese naval vessels as it traveled near Subi Reef, also sailed within 12 nautical miles of reefs claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Washington has made clear it takes no position on the competing claims from China or other countries in the South China Sea but has urged Beijing to drop its objection to a multilateral deal to settle the disagreements.

Still, many countries in Asia, especially U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, had long been clamoring for Washington to take decisive action and send a clear message to Beijing. The White House weighed the operation near the man-made islands for months, as some officials worried the dispute over the South China Sea could derail opportunities for cooperation with Beijing’s government on climate change, trade, and other crucial issues.

The Lassen’s cruise — despite its clumsy aftermath — clearly riled China, but the move as yet has done little to either deter Beijing or definitively reassure allies.

“The United States has to decide how serious it really is about preserving primacy in Asia and how much cost and risk it is willing to accept to do so,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University. “If it is not willing to do more than a few [freedom of navigation] operations, the outlook is not bright for America in Asia over the longer term.”

Photo credit: JOHN J. MIKE/USN/Getty