The Pentagon released photos yesterday from a dramatic encounter on Sunday (8 March) between Chinese trawlers and the oceanographic surveillance ship USNS Impeccable. Impeccable, a civilian-manned ship belonging to the US Military Sealift Command, was conducting undersea surveillance in the South China Sea, about 75 miles south of Hainan Island. Pentagon officials stated that Chinese harassment of Impeccable, and her sister ship USNS Victorious — operating further north in the Yellow Sea — began last week, when Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft conducted low passes over Victorious. The intrusive “surveillance” continued on Thursday with a Chinese frigate cutting across Impeccable’s bow, followed by further close aircraft passes against Impeccable, and on Saturday, a voice warning to Impeccable over bridge-to-bridge (BTB) communications, from a Chinese intelligence collection ship, to leave the area or “suffer the consequences.”
The US lodged a protest with Beijing over the Sunday encounter, in which Chinese trawlers surrounded Impeccable, forced the vessel to stop to avoid a collision, and tried to detach Impeccable’s towed sonar array by its cable.
The significance of this event is obvious at the political level, requiring no special expertise in naval or maritime matters. There will be considerable expert commentary in the coming days, but the bottom line is that China has taken action against US-flagged ships operating in international waters. There is dispute over China’s maritime claims, and her unrecognized claim of a security enforcement prerogative over her Exclusive Economic Zone, which includes most of the South China Sea. But there is no disputing that China’s trawlers behaved aggressively and dangerously on Sunday, and in seeking to sever the cable towing Impeccable’s sonar array, violated international law. More fundamentally, in terms of the power relations of the nations in question, and the region, China violated a sovereign asset of the United States, and thereby mounted a challenge very much like the one mounted in April 2001 to the new presidency of George W. Bush, with the EP-3E air incident at Hainan Island.
The timing of the incident suggests it is, at least in part, a probe of the new Obama administration: a test by Beijing of its responses. Impeccable and Victorious are T-AGOS ships that tow the Navy’s newest Low Frequency Active sonar suite, and when deployed are performing undersea surveillance that includes the use of active sonar to detect submarines. While they have only had authorization to conduct such surveillance since 2007, when the US National Marine Fisheries Service granted it based on extensive evaluation of the environmental impact of the active sonar (see above link), they are not strangers to China’s own surveillance assets. Like the EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, they have patrolled before. China’s selection of March 2009 to mount harassing countersurveillance appears related to political factors rather than a watershed event in surveillance scheduling.
The Navy has not provided any specific information on Impeccable’s position or patrol area at the time of the incident, and will not do so. However, the general position reported by the Navy puts her at a tense intersection of competing priorities: of optimizing operational surveillance, of putting US power behind international maritime convention, and of acting on principle in the bristling political environment of the South China Sea, where the economic claims of six nations collide, and have collided for decades, unresolved. If we learn anything from this incident, it should be that, whatever we do in the South China Sea, we had better mean – and be prepared to back up.
With respect to operational surveillance, a position shallow of the 100-fathom curve, or bottom contour, off the southern coast of Hainan Island, would accord with the general vicinity reported by the Navy, and be optimal for detecting Chinese submarines operating out of Yulin naval base. (See my earlier post “We Have Ways” for more information on China’s deployment of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine to Yulin in 2008.) If Impeccable patrolled an area that extended into deeper water, she would be able to move her array back and forth through undersea detection environments – which change with water depth – and seek to manage her performance against submarines doing the same.
Such a patrol area, depicted on the South China Sea graphic here, would place Impeccable just at the overlap border of the economic zone claims of China and Vietnam, and inside waters that China – against the letter and intent of the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — claims sovereignty over. The US does not recognize China’s unilateral claims regarding maritime/EEZ prerogatives, nor have they been recognized by the UN.
There are two key realms in which China’s claims relate to US interests. One is maritime transit and operations. The US typically favors greater liberality and international access in regional seas – a posture in which we have been consistent, regarding the application of this principle to our own region – and has a history of exercising the “freedom of navigation” we advocate, through the excessive claims of nations like the former Soviet Union, Libya, and China. In insisting on our right to conduct maritime operations in international waters – outside the recognized territorial seas of the closest nations (China and Vietnam) – even though China says we are violating an unrecognized sovereignty claimed by her, we are maintaining a national posture of long standing and wide repute. In the simplest terms, the whole world knows our posture on this matter – and rarely challenges it.
There are broader implications of our posture and China’s claims. As the EIA graphic shows, China claims sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea. If her claims were accorded even de facto recognition by the United States – if we let China tell us where, outside her recognized territorial waters, we could tow undersea sonar arrays, or if we tacitly agreed to seek her permission for maritime transit through the waters she claims – China would effectively control passage through a major portion of the eastern approach to the Strait of Malacca: one of a handful of the world’s most significant maritime chokepoints. No one but China wants that. Nations the world over, in this strait as in other chokepoints, rely on the international conventions for freedom of maritime passage that are effectively enforced by the posture of the United States. In maintaining this posture, we are unpopular only with China.
The other realm in which China’s maritime claims affect our interests is that of commerce in natural resources. The EIA graphic shows the competition for those resources reflected in the claims of the nations bordering the South China Sea. America has sought to promote a consensus resolution of these competing claims, and to avoid inserting herself into the fight on anyone’s side; and in the sense of the exploitation of national resources, the claims are the business of the nations in question. China has already exerted pressure on US (and other Western) companies to forego offshore oil and gas deals with Vietnam, arguing that such activities violate claimed Chinese sovereignty; and any compliance China is able to gain from private firms tends to bolster her position. The US and other Western nations have no direct counter to this move: stepping in to demand that companies like Exxon or BP execute commercial contracts with Vietnam is not within the government portfolio of a liberal democracy, nor is there a mechanism for ensuring national military support for such undertakings.
That said, no one other than China would look favorably on China enforcing her maritime claims in the economic dimension of natural resources. None of Japan, the US, India, Europe, or China’s neighbors regards this as a desirable outcome. By national policy, the US prefers that there be an equitable, commonly-agreed division of the natural resources of the South China Sea among the nations that border it. A key point here, however, is that our military presence is not directly related to either enforcement of that outcome, or a specific partisan position on its features. The US patrols the South China Sea to ensure freedom of maritime navigation. The competing economic interests of the regional nations intersect with that activity on occasion; but it is the maritime access guarantee we are there for.
In that context, seeking to keep up with China’s submarine basing and deployment moves is an obvious development. If Chinese submarines can routinely and reliably operate undetected in the South China Sea, they can hold all foreign shipping at risk. This is a geographic sense in which maritime power competition with China is different from the Cold War with the Soviet Union: few nations really needed to transit the regional waters over which the Soviet Navy brooded sovereign. Everyone, by contrast, needs safe transit through the South China Sea. China building up her submarine presence in the South China Sea is far more analogous to the Soviet Union maintaining submarines, cruisers, and reconnaissance aircraft forward deployed in the Mediterranean, than it is to the Soviets patrolling their contiguous waters, in the Barents, or Black Sea, or Sea of Okhotsk.
It is well, therefore, for Americans to consider carefully what business we have patrolling for submarines in the South China Sea. From the shores of Hainan Island it may look provocative; from the perspective of the Emirati oil tanker or Norwegian freighter, trying to get into or out of the Strait of Malacca en route to our ports or our allies’, it looks prudent, reassuring, and like a very good idea. It is a positive sign that the US has protested China’s actions against the T-AGOS ships, and apparently may address the incident at, according to an AP report, a “higher level than the embassy.” The importance of maintaining our own maritime posture in the South China Sea, even if China dislikes it, is not confined to our national feelings, or even the “rep” of our Navy in a single incident. The decisions we make determine the fate of global access to the Strait of Malacca, which in turn will affect the strength of the positions from which other Asian nations maintain their own national sovereignty and self-determination.
In maintaining our posture, with routine surveillance (including undersea surveillance) as a key element of it, we must keep clear in our minds what our priorities and purposes are. Our purpose is not to inflict provocative indignities on China – or to declare our security boundaries or national intentions, elliptically, or in a self-conscious and over-clever manner, with the operation of surveillance assets. I believe we can trust Bob Gates to handle frontline surveillance better in this regard than his predecessor, Robert McNamara, did in the 1960s; and that is a good thing. Surveillance and intelligence collection are national security measures, not national security postures. Confusing the two only endangers our forward-deployed collectors, and risks provocation we have no plans to follow up on or deal with.
Which begs the concluding thought: that if we are going to perform surveillance of the South China Sea, we had better protect our assets there, and make clear that it is not we but the Chinese who should be wary of confrontation involving them. How the Obama administration responds to this latest challenge, and any ensuing ones, will be of the utmost importance. Popularity and good press are not the prizes here: reinforcing the longstanding American principle of free, unmenaced access to common waterways is paramount. If we do not do it, there is, literally, no other nation that can. It is not a small test we are undergoing this week, south of Hainan Island, with our little unarmed oceanographic surveillance ship. It is a very big one.