How Washington Can Get Back on Course in the South China Sea

Speak clearly and keep your radar on, America.

US Navy personnel raise their flag during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and US Navy dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT 2014) aboard the USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing on June 28, 2014.  The United States and the Philippines kicked off joint naval exercises in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing, amid tense territorial rows between China and its neighbours. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS/POOL        (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Navy personnel raise their flag during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and US Navy dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT 2014) aboard the USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing on June 28, 2014. The United States and the Philippines kicked off joint naval exercises in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing, amid tense territorial rows between China and its neighbours. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS/POOL (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

After finally making a sensible move in the South China Sea, the Obama administration blew it at the last moment. In late October, the Aegis destroyer USS Lassen, a vessel optimized for air and missile defense, cruised past the Subi Reef, located more than 500 miles from China’s Hainan Island. Subi is one of the nine or so islands China has fabricated from undersea rocks. Until recently, Subi was underwater at high tide — but since China started reclaiming islands by dredging up the seafloor, Beijing has been using its recently created flyspeck at Subi to claim adjacent waters and skies as its property. The Lassen cruise was intended to demonstrate U.S. support for freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. But by calling the expedition an “innocent passage,” anonymous officials from the Barack Obama administration bungled away the legal and diplomatic gains.

Officialdom must learn from the Lassen debacle. This means staying on message in future freedom of navigation challenges; predicting China’s next moves in the controversy; and sculpting tactics and operations to outwit and outmaneuver Beijing. The United States and its allies are in the right. Chinese officials correctly point out that fellow claimants, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, have reclaimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels. But unlike Beijing, Hanoi and Manila do not claim the seas and airspace around their man-made islands or seek to dictate the terms whereby traffic may pass. Accordingly, the Vietnamese and Philippine claims pose little, if any, danger to free passage through regional seaways. (The U.S. Navy has challenged them anyway, just for good measure.) 

China’s claims, by contrast, would erase the principle that no one owns the high seas. Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, meaning that what China says goes. Sovereignty means nothing if not physical control of territory within certain borders on the map. Laws enacted in Beijing, that is, would supersede treaties and customary international law. To preserve the law of the sea, the United States and like-minded countries must gird themselves to defend it — and, indeed, the U.S.-led international order — in a drawn-out twilight struggle.

First of all, let’s learn from past blunders. Under the doctrine of innocent passage, ships must refrain from certain actions while traversing a coastal state’s 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. For example, passersby may not use force against the coastal state, conduct exercises simulating the use of force, conduct flight operations, or perform underwater surveys. These are all activities China wants to forbid — which is why it refers to freedom of navigation through the China seas as innocent passage. It wants fellow seafaring states to assent to similar restrictions.

This is why it’s crucial not to use China’s preferred language in public statements and diplomatic correspondence. If Washington depicts the Lassen voyage as an innocent passage, it implies that it accepts the rules Beijing wants to enforce around its man-made islands and throughout 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea.

Washington’s message should be precisely the reverse: that it rejects China’s vision unequivocally. If seafaring states let China’s artificial-island claims stand, Beijing will have unilaterally repealed a fundamental element of the law of the sea — a law to which it freely consented. Implying that the United States assents to this legal revolution constitutes a self-defeating message. The administration must discipline itself when explaining its purposes and methods.

But sending a uniform message is tougher than it sounds. There’s no charitable way to interpret the words coming from anonymous sources. In the best case, linguistic sloppiness or ignorance of the law may have been at fault, in which case some remedial education should do the trick. In the worst case, though, someone deliberately sought to sabotage administration policy. That’s far more troublesome. Sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein devised a “razor,” or logical thumb rule, warning against ascribing to villainy what can be ascribed to incompetence. You be the judge of which way Heinlein’s scalpel slices in l’affaire Lassen.

The idea behind such voyages is that seafaring states reject unlawful claims like Beijing’s by flouting them. Over time, a failure to object turns into consent. Hence the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program, a venture dating back to 1979. (It predates the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea itself.) This program seldom attracts headlines, as I can attest from working freedom of navigation challenges during a short stint at the State Department in the 1990s. Unlike the imbroglio in the South China Sea, such enterprises are low-key affairs as a rule.

And that’s as it should be. For instance, the U.S. Navy regularly directs ships plying the Mediterranean Sea to detour through the Gulf of Sidra, a wide inlet in the Mediterranean. This defies Tripoli’s claim that the gulf constitutes internal waters where Libyan domestic law trumps the law of the sea. The U.S. State Department issues a démarche, or diplomatic note, delineating Washington’s objections. Few governments respond to these operations by retracting outsized claims — or by trying to enforce them. The U.S. Navy mounts its challenge, the targeted government ignores it, and everyone moves on. Legal niceties are satisfied. If, that is, Washington’s official language is clear and unambiguous. The language deployed in public statements and diplomatic correspondence must be precise — lest the administration squander U.S. sailors’ efforts.

But the need for clarity goes beyond innocent passage. Obama administration spokespeople must take care not to cramp what they mean by freedom of navigation. Freedom of navigation — the liberty to use the sea or sky to transit from point A to point B — is only a subset of “freedom of the sea.” Freedom of the sea means that seas and airspace beyond the 12-mile limit comprise an international commons that, like a New England town commons in days of old, belongs to everyone and no one. And with the exception of extracting natural resources — the law of the sea apportions “exclusive economic zones” to coastal states, usually within 200 nautical miles of their shorelines — there are few restrictions on what seafarers and aviators may do in the commons.

This is crucial. Washington must clearly convey that it is upholding not just freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia but freedom of the sea, as manifest in customary and treaty law. Surrendering the full range of nautical freedoms would be relinquishing major elements of the law of the sea.

It would also be abandoning the South China Sea as a military theater. Surveillance flights, underwater surveys, and other activities permitted within the maritime commons help acquaint armed forces with the operational setting. Try fighting on unfamiliar ground, against an adversary who’s intimately familiar with it. That’s a losing proposition.

Which is precisely the point for China. Beijing hopes to gain a military advantage through lawfare, deploying inventive interpretations of international law as a weapon. It wants to convince the United States to forgo its legal prerogatives and its preparedness for naval conflict in Southeast Asia in the bargain. The island disputes, then, are about far more than legal etiquette or diplomatic one-upmanship. This is about the United States’ ability to stay engaged in a region populated by allies and friends. This is a high-stakes game, not a quarrel over a bunch of rocks or legal trivia.

One other point got muddled during the debate over Lassen’s endeavors. Although technical, it’s an important one. Some Western commentators contended that the destroyer’s crew was obligated to shut down “fire-control radars” under U.S.-China agreements meant to forestall accidental high-seas clashes. Because Lassen was in close quarters with Chinese shipping, its crew complied with this supposed mandate.

A traditional fire-control system combines air or surface search radars with computers and fire-control radars. The search-radar operators pass a hostile contact’s position and speed to the fire-control system, which locks onto the target with fire-control radar and guides missiles or gunfire to it — scoring a kill. Under such circumstances, when search radar is separate from fire-control radar, it makes perfect sense to shut down fire control in close proximity to foreign shipping: Using search radar to monitor the ship’s surroundings is routine and innocuous; using fire control means a simulated or real attack is coming.

The trouble is, Lassen’s Aegis combat system is an all-in-one search and fire-control system. It detects, tracks, and targets hostile aircraft or missiles. Indeed, Aegis constitutes the vessel’s only air-search radar. Disabling it would blind the ship’s crew to approaching aircraft or missiles, exposing the ship to aerial attack. It would doubtless delight Beijing if U.S. destroyers deactivated their defenses when passing close to Chinese shipping — but that’s something no prudent skipper would do.

Now, the ship does sport a couple of AN/SPG-62 directors. These fit the definition of a fire-control radar. But those are only for terminal guidance. In other words, when guiding a missile onto its target during its final phase of flight. Illuminating Chinese ships with those would appear provocative. There would have been no reason for Lassen’s crew to activate the SPG-62s, however, since the ship was not engaged in battle and no combat exercise was underway. Nor is there any evidence the crew did so.

There’s a world of mischief in basic technical facts. Under no circumstances should the U.S. Navy barter away battle readiness in hopes of comity with a prospective foe. In naval technology as in high politics, clear communication is a must.

Second, envisioning how high-seas interactions will unfold is critical to wise strategy. The opponent is not a potted plant. Competition is a topsy-turvy process whereby pugilists constantly search for strategic advantage. A couple of prophecies about Chinese strategy are safe. For one, Beijing will constantly strive to shape opinion — domestic and foreign — in favor of its island claims. China’s “three warfares” strategy involves molding views through legal, media, and psychological means.

Waging three warfares is a 24/7 year-round undertaking for China. The United States must likewise be single-minded, taking its shaping efforts up-tempo. If Washington lets Beijing define its actions, if it makes Lassen’s freedom of navigation cruise a one-off thing, or if it publicly agonizes over such ventures the way it did before ordering Lassen to pass by Subi Reef — suggesting it’s vacillating on matters of principle — that bodes ill for freedom of the sea in Southeast Asia.

For another, Beijing will keep trying to prevent or fragment coalitions that oppose its aims. This is classic Chinese strategy: Sun Tzu writes that the “Hegemonic King” overawes lesser rivals through his sheer awesomeness while keeping them from making common cause. Strong-arming the weak one by one is easier and less costly than confronting an alliance. That’s why Beijing is forever insisting on negotiating its maritime claims with each Southeast Asian power individually — and on excluding outsiders like the United States or Japan.

Washington, then, must be a better coalition-builder than Beijing is a coalition-breaker. It must remain strong in Southeast Asia, reassuring allies like Manila that it can keep its defense commitments. That means convincing allies the U.S. military can fight and win. Signing away its rights to conduct wargames, fly aircraft, and conduct surveys of the surroundings would work against U.S. combat readiness. Far from reassuring allies and friends, letting combat readiness slip would dishearten them — undercutting America’s strategic position in Southeast Asia. That’s what’s at stake in the tussle over innocent passage.

Beyond shaping the strategic environment, Beijing will probably reach for the smallest stick possible to enforce its policies. No sane government relishes a fight with a peer adversary. The costs are steep, the hazards and uncertainties many.

Instead, Beijing will deploy the paramilitary and nonmilitary assets at its disposal — solidifying its hold on waters it claims while painting its opponents as international bullies. Sea power is about more than navies. The China Coast Guard is but one implement available to Beijing. Commercial firms answer to China’s ruling Communist Party, and even the fishing fleet is an arm of sea power. Indeed, Beijing touted this seagoing militia’s performance during a 1974 battle with South Vietnam’s navy in the South China Sea. This is a battle-worthy irregular force.

Think about the battle of perceptions between the United States and China. Who would look like the bad guy in an encounter between a swarm of Chinese fishing boats acting as a fleet auxiliary and a hulking U.S. Navy warship? Beijing is banking on the latter — and it’s hard to gainsay them. Using the least force necessary to get your way makes sense from a cost/benefit standpoint — especially when one reaps a diplomatic windfall while doing so.

In practical terms, Beijing could instruct China Coast Guard white hulls, merchantmen, and fishing craft to fan out along a U.S. task force’s projected course to impede its passage. The Chinese could then claim a bullying U.S. Navy was barging through fishing grounds where Chinese citizens were trying to make a living. Washington must think now about how to handle delicate situations of this sort — both in legal and operational terms.

Beijing has manifold options apart from militia action. “Red teaming” potential Chinese actions — designating China specialists to imagine courses of action that Beijing might pursue to get its way — will prove helpful if not essential to U.S. success in the South China Sea. Beijing could declare an air-defense identification zone like the one it proclaimed in the East China Sea two years ago in a bid to regulate air traffic. It could stage a controlled collision reminiscent of the 1988 Black Sea “bumping” incident, when Soviet vessels rammed USS Yorktown and Caron while the U.S. ships were conducting an innocent passage through Soviet territorial waters. And on and on.

Nor should U.S. strategists rule out a period of quiet in the South China Sea. It’s doubtful in the extreme that Beijing can relinquish its maritime territorial claims, even if it wants to. By portraying its claims as a matter of restoring national pride and dignity, it has made itself accountable to the Chinese populace. It must deliver. Seldom can leaders back away from public promises that extravagant. No one wants to be the weakling who gave up sovereignty or dignity.

Still, Beijing could mount a temporary tactical retreat — biding its time until conditions appear more propitious. That would leave Washington in a tough spot. It could waste resources policing waters that no longer appeared to be under challenge. Indeed, the U.S. leadership might look paranoid and overbearing at the same time, an impression no great power wants to convey. Or it could relax its guard and cede the initiative back to Beijing. China could consolidate the gains it won through its island-building campaign to date and resume its efforts to enforce control of Southeast Asian seas and skies later. In short, taking a break from confrontation could be an ingenious stratagem for Beijing.

Washington must be imaginative and creative when plotting strategy for the South China Sea, and it must pay Chinese operational creativity due homage. Foresight schooled by hindsight represents the best weapon in America’s intellectual arsenal.

Photo credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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