Tuesday, May 19, 2015

• Chinese dominance in South China Sea raises alarm - By Christopher Snyder

China’s buildup in the South China Sea is pushing the region closer to a possible military standoff over disputed territory, foreign policy experts tell FoxNews.com.
The U.S. and its allies are raising concerns over Chinese land reclamation projects – essentially building manmade islands in the middle of the sea that many consider is a way for Beijing to expand its influence.

“This should be of enormous concern -- $5.3 trillion in trade transits through the South China Sea; this is one of the major arteries for world trade … China’s actions are clearly an attempt to establish dominance over this vital set of waterways,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

He added that China’s new attitude is “more and more -- 'no, this is our territorial waters. You can pass through with our permission.'”

Six countries -- China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam -- have all long maintained overlapping claims to waters and land in the South China Sea. Yet Beijing has claimed the largest portion, with officials saying they have the right to control roughly 90 percent of that region.

“As the Chinese go forward with this, they are making the claim that this is our territory and the waters surrounding within about 12 nautical miles are our territorial waters,” said Chris Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

U.S. officials have monitoring China's movements, but there is no official position on the overlapping territorial claims by China and five other nations. During a Senate panel Wednesday, David B. Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, emphasized America’s commitment to freedom of navigation in the area.

"While other claimants have upgraded their South China Sea outposts over the years, China’s land reclamation activity vastly exceeds these other claimants’ activities," said Shear. "We are concerned that the scope and nature of China’s actions have the potential to disrupt regional security."

Even with added U.S. pressure, China is pushing ahead with its military buildup.

“We know at least one, possibly two, of these islands; they are preparing to build airstrips … they look like they are being prepared to allow them to base fighter aircraft or military helicopters out there,” said Cheng.

There is some indication Washington and Beijing could be moving closer to a military standoff.

“The Chinese military are playing a larger role in the South China Sea dispute. With the possible introduction of the U.S. Navy into the area, we are now looking at the possibility of two militaries staring at one another,” said Cheng.

Griffin points to a similar dispute in 2013 in the East China Sea as tensions flared over China’s self-proclaimed air defense zone. “In response, we flew B-52s over them to indicate to them we don’t take their claim as being legitimate.”

This, he says, could be an indicator of what a potential U.S. response might look like in the weeks to come.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Beijing for the purpose, among other things, of persuading the Chinese to submit their claims in the South China Sea to negotiation with the other ASEAN states. To no one’s surprise, the mission was a failure; the Chinese flatly refused to budge from their position, and had the additional satisfaction of humbling the American Secretary of State in the process. I have written before about the massive military buildup in which China is engaged, and the purpose behind it. China wants hegemonic status in their near seas, and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party believe they can get what they want through coercive tactics. Why should they negotiate? 

China has been reclaiming seven reefs and atolls in and around the Spratly Islands. In effect, it is building islands in the ocean – creating a “Great Wall of sand”, according to Admiral Harry Harris, commander of America’s Pacific fleet – to assert its territorial claims in the region, which include virtually the entire South China Sea. About 5 trillion dollars worth of trade ships through that sea every year. The reclaimed reefs have strategic as well as political value, as potential bases for China’s growing Navy and Air Force. Recently the Chinese admitted that they may use the islands for military purposes, and they have been photographed building what appears to be an air strip on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. 

Consistent with their strategy, China is aggressively asserting the rights of a sovereign. They are warning other nations not to sail or fly, except with their permission, within twelve nautical miles of the reclaimed islands. They have no right under international law to extend their sovereignty in this way, but the Chinese leaders do not, at a fundamental level, believe in an international order where nations relate to each other according to neutral norms. As one Japanese scholar told me, the Chinese view the world vertically rather than horizontally; they believe that the big dogs should get most of the benefits, and they are rapidly becoming the biggest dogs in their part of the world. 

 China already has a large and growing inventory of missiles, surface warships, submarines, and modern aircraft. In addition, according to the Pentagon, China will by 2023 acquire upwards of 40,000 stealthy Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs have heretofore been used primarily for reconnaissance, and no doubt much of the new Chinese inventory will be used for that purpose; the Peoples Liberation Army needs to see our ships before they can shoot at them. But three versions of the new UAVs will also have precision-strike capability. Since the UAVs will be stealthy, they will be hard to locate and shoot down, and even if they weren’t, it would be extremely difficult for our forces to neutralize an attack en masse. 

Of course the United States still has tremendous firepower in its aircraft carrier task forces. But that power is not of much use when the carriers are weeks away from the scene of conflict, and when, before the carriers could bring their power to bear, they would be faced with scores of incoming missiles which have a longer range than our naval aircraft. The missiles could be launched from the sea, land and air, and some of them would move at supersonic speeds. So the United States is presented with a Hobson’s choice. The Pentagon is considering deliberately sailing American naval vessels within 12 miles of the reclaimed islands, and for good reason; not to do so would be to concede Chinese dominance and recognize de facto China’s claims. But sailing close to the islands is not a great choice either. 

It increases tension, and risks escalation under circumstances where China has more flexible options than we do, in a region where everyone outside of Washington — everyone living in the real world — knows America is outgunned. And even if American ships do on occasion violate the twelve-mile limit without incident, the Chinese will still have profited from their assertiveness; they will still have their islands, their claims, and the option of ratcheting up the pressure any time they see fit. For the United States, these kinds of choices will become increasingly common, and increasingly dangerous, in the years to come. The balance of power in the South China Sea is shifting towards the Chinese. They have the advantage of numbers, proximity, and capabilities designed to exploit our weaknesses. Meanwhile, our government has been dismantling the deterrent power on which the stability of the region depends. As long as that continues, the advantage, and the initiative, will rest with the Chinese. Diplomacy will not stop them from pursuing their objectives, unless and until it is coupled with superior force and clearly defined consequences. 

China has become a great power, and is acting like one. The leaders of China understand what our government would prefer not to recognize: that the key obstacle to their ambitions is the United States. What is at stake are vital American interests: peace, freedom of navigation, our treaty obligations, and preservation of the norm-based international order which America midwifed, and under which we have prospered. We had better decide, and decide soon, whether those interests are worth protecting.

Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea on May 12, 2015. Source: U.S. Navy

A U.S. combat ship used agreed codes for unplanned encounters when it met a Chinese vessel during a recent patrol of the contested South China Sea, according to the vice chief of naval operations.

The USS Fort Worth met a Chinese military vessel near the disputed Spratly islands, Admiral Michelle Howard told reporters on Tuesday in Singapore. Its patrol this month was the first time a U.S. Littoral Combat Ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“We had previously agreed with the Chinese, if we met at sea, to use code for unexpected encounters at sea,” said Howard. “Fort Worth came across one of our counterparts and they did do that, so things went as professionally as they have since that agreement was made.”

Those mechanisms -- designed to avoid a confrontation between ships or planes that escalates into a broader clash -- may be tested as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter advocates expanding patrols in the sea, including into a 12 nautical mile (22 kilometer) radius of reefs that China is building on.

Such actions, known as freedom of navigation challenges, could elicit protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its territorial assertions.

Howard declined to say if the USS Fort Worth sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys, or give further details of the encounter. Stars and Stripes reported the ship was followed closely by a Chinese frigate.

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and keeping tensions down in the area is key given about half the world’s merchant ships pass through the waters every year.

Navigation Challenges
Freedom of navigation operations are not unusual for the U.S. Navy, which in the year to September 2014 challenged 19 nations, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam for the way they manage their territorial waters.

China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea spans “a couple thousand acres,” about the size of the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes recruiting command, which handles 30,000 to 35,000 people a year, said Howard, who was the first African-American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy and the first female to hold a four-star Admiral rank.

“I think it’s now time for China to talk about what the reclamation of land means,” she said. “There’s a purpose to it and I think in terms of helping everybody who lives in this part of the world to understand the why would be helpful for China to help explain the why.”
‘Indisputable Sovereignty’

China has “indisputable sovereignty” over territory in the South China Sea, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, said during a meeting in Beijing last weekend with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. President Xi Jinping told Kerry the Pacific ocean was large enough to accommodate both China and the U.S. as major powers.

The militarization of China’s reclamation projects in the South China Sea increases the potential for instability in the region, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City.

The scale of China’s building work “far, far, far exceeds” any other country, including Vietnam, Blinken said. “The U.S. doesn’t take sides or positions on the substance of a particular claim, but the U.S. does have a strong position on the way those claims should be advanced.”

Under international law, no amount of dredging or construction will enhance the legal strength of a nation’s territorial claims, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel told a Senate committee last week.

“No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can’t manufacture sovereignty.”