Chinese power move in South China Sea: This is big

Breaching the peace.

Mariners and the specialty mariner press know it’s big.  But mariners can’t fix this.  It will take national policies to fix it, and non-specialist citizens therefore need to understand its importance.

So, I reiterate: this is big.  After several years of preparations for this day (see, for example, here, here, and here), China has issued a unilateral order that foreign fishing vessels will have to obtain permits from China to fish in two-thirds of the South China Sea (SCS), an area in which China has long made excessive territorial claims.

Bill Gertz has an excellent summary at the Washington Free Beacon.  The map below, from WFB, displays the area in question.  China announced in late November that this zone would be enforced starting on 1 January 2014.

Area where China will enforce the new "fishing permit" rule. (Map credit: Washington Free Beacon)
Area where China will enforce the new “fishing permit” rule. (Map credit: Washington Free Beacon)

On 3 January, Chinese ships harassed and then deliberately collided with a Vietnamese vessel operating in the designated area (see video).  The “enforcement” regime has thus begun.

A few initial comments.  First, this is one of the things I have meant by repeating, over and over, that when China assumes control of a waterway, it’s for the purpose of exercising a veto over the economic activities of other nations, and forcing them to pay tribute to China, in order to have specifically authorized use of the waterway.  Whether or not the Chinese rule explicitly involves an up-front fee today, it ultimately will.  (It does explicitly involve levying “fines,” as announced in November.)  But China is also establishing – if anyone can be made to request a permit or pay a fine – that she has de facto authority over the disputed or international waters of the South China Sea.

China will never operate on any other basis, at least under foreseeable political conditions.  China does not enforce her will in waterways in order to ensure free and safe access to them for all.  That’s what the United States does.  It is not what China does.  Nor, for that matter, is it what Russia does.

Other global-seagoing nations, like Japan, India, the British Commonwealth nations, and the NATO nations, are empowered to act on the same principle as the United States because of the power and policy of the United States.  In the absence of American power, those other nations will have to become more defensive in their approach, and – at least on the margins, which will expand over time – will have to pursue maritime policies that become gradually more exclusionary and veto-based, rather than permissive.

If this Chinese gambit isn’t nipped in the bud, promptly and comprehensively, deterioration of conditions at sea around the globe is inevitable.  One reason is simply the perception of precedent and the use of raw power, which will encourage bad actors elsewhere (like Iran; but there are maritime disputes in all the world’s waters waiting to go supercritical if at least one party is emboldened).  The other is the fact that China’s move is directly contrary to the letter and spirit of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China’s neighbors have respected the Law of the Sea, making their competing SCS claims in accordance with its principles.  Their posture has been one of defending their individual claims against the day when a final agreement is reached among the parties.  China’s posture has been one of declining to recognize the principles of the Law of the Sea, in outlining her own maritime claims, and of stating those claims in a venue outside of the UN.  Beijing has consistently bypassed UNCLOS in asserting Chinese claims, in effect declining to acknowledge its authority on the matter.

If the UN and its major maritime powers simply sit still for China’s move in the SCS, the Law of the Sea will become meaningless, more quickly than anyone imagines today.  We must be clear on the fact that the Chinese have felt empowered to do this because the United States looks exceptionally weak right now.  The Chinese are calculating that they can get away with it.

Whenever regional conditions might begin to look unstable, modern, authoritarian China would want to be able to make this move.  It’s geographically obvious for a land power with a pessimistic outlook.  Instead of negotiating maritime rights and accommodations, in good faith, as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden now do in the Baltic, for example, an authoritarian nation like the People’s Republic of China will assume it must assert unilateral power over restricted waterways (like the archipelago-infested SCS), in order to avoid losing access in and through them.

China assumes she can’t trust her neighbors.  But more than that, she is determined not to accept the premises of equal national authority in contested spaces, and mutual obligations negotiated on general and abstract principles.  For China’s self-concept, that amounts to an encroachment on sovereignty.


The Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement fleet: Specially bred to enforce.
The Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement fleet: Specially bred to enforce.

That posture is, of course, the exact opposite of the premise on which the United Nations was formed.  China’s maritime gambit, if it stands, is a blow to the solar plexus of the post-1945 international order.

Will it stand?  The whole point is that in 2014, we don’t know.  The other nations won’t simply accept China’s new rule without caveat or complaint.  But I predict with certainty that the United States under Barack Obama will not do the one thing that could restore the status quo ante.  We should, in fact, have already done it: publicly declared our opposition to China’s move, back in early December, and positioned our forces to signify our determination to protect the maritime status quo, prior to 1 January.

If China insisted on this confrontation, then China had to be made to back down from her threat.  We haven’t done that, and it’s clear we’re not going to.

What I foresee instead is a period of annoyance, frustration, and creeping Chinese control over the SCS as consortia of nations try to talk China down from her unacceptable position.  Putting yourself in such a provocative position, from which others have to try to talk you down, is an old and very effective power move.  (Negotiators from North Vietnam to the former Soviet Union to radical Iran and the Palestinian Authority have used it repeatedly in the last half century.)  You can gain a lot of time that way, and wring a lot of concessions from economy-of-effort opponents, which is what the great maritime powers invariably are during non-belligerent periods.

The U.S. may well participate in those consortia petitioning China for one parley after another.  There will undoubtedly be naval patrols and tactical confrontations along the way, perhaps some of them involving the U.S. Navy.  That won’t mean that the unique power of the United States is being brought to bear.

Once we allow that China has something to negotiate with her excessive claims, the price of winning any concessions from China will be making concessions to China.  She will end up with some level of effective authority over the SCS that will change political and economic realities there for everyone: those who fish and mine there, and those – millions of tons of cargo per day – who transit the waters.

By sitting down to talk, instead of stopping China cold and enforcing an immediate reversion to the status quo ante, the U.S. will merely be participating in that process.

It is false, even today, to suggest that the U.S. doesn’t have the option of stopping China cold.  China is not in such a strong position that she can deal America unbearable blows, should we act to enforce a permissive status quo in the South China Sea.  We would have the active support of many other nations in the G-20 (including their help, if we are there, with naval and air patrols).   Russia would stand aside; she wouldn’t add her weight to China’s effort.  Even if China tried to attack America financially, she would have to go it alone, and American allies like Japan and the EU-3 would consider it to be in their interest to come to the U.S. dollar’s aid.

The consequences of letting China’s destabilizing process get underway will be much worse than what it would take to quash it.  Nations like Japan, Russia, India, and Australia can’t simply accept China’s move.  And they won’t.  But what kind of new order will they be able to enforce in the SCS?  They will come up with something.  It will mean confrontations, new alliances, and agreements with China that will undercut the whole idea of an international order.  Whatever it is, the U.S. will become subject, however tacitly at first, to their vetoes – not just in matters of maritime convention in the SCS, but in all our relations involving them.

So will a lot of other nations.

The reputation of American leadership has already been fatally compromised under Obama.  The outcome of the Chinese SCS gambit will demonstrate, in 2014, that in a world “multilateralizing” at a breathless pace, America is no longer the indispensable ally.  Some would say that the fact that China felt free to make her move has demonstrated that already.  And they are probably right.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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21 thoughts on “Chinese power move in South China Sea: This is big”

  1. This is technically an act of war. The exertion of sovereign rights over an open international body of water is equivalent of a nation doing the same thing to a relatively unpopulated area in a land mass. Say Canada…

    International treaties of ages and ages past have declared international waters to be free passage and use zones. China is exerting control over something that it barely touches and has no real business controlling from a geographic standpoint.

    This is an example of a veiled belligerent pushing the buttons of a weakling, and we all know who that weakling is.


  2. Wasn’t the Barrak Obama policy defense to “shift from the Middle East to East Asia” as justification to dump Israel under the bus, but even then Obama is throwing the East Asian allies under the bus too.

  3. Stipulating that the Administration is uninterested in directing the military to respond, and stipulating further that it might be challenging to do so with a hollow Navy, I wonder if the best available option is to extend the economic battlefield where it is easier to fight–e.g., the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Chinese freighters can be subjected to witheringly burdensome inspections, delays, and fines for regulatory violations that typically are ignored. Jay Carney wouldn’t have to admit anything. Indeed, the more aggressive his denial the more persuasive it would be to the Chinese.

  4. The next administration, Republican or Democrat will have to pick up the pieces, on many fronts, left by the feckless, cowardly, incompetent community organizer.
    The Chinese and every other leader in the world, friend or foe has taken the measure of this President. It requires a very short tape measure.
    All that can be accomplished this year is to pick up House seats and try for a simple majority in the Senate. The legislative branch “may” be able to stop any more damage. Doing nothing for 3 years will be better than the constant 30 to 60 days eruptions of the childlike administration.
    President Carter must be truly thankful to Obama.

  5. One of the biggest challenges in constructing a coalition to counter rising China is the fact that all the potential members of said coalition, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Russia etc, either despise each other or have intractable bilateral issues among themselves.

    China obviously realizes this and will play them off against each other. Then, when the time is ripe, she’ll pick them off, or incorporate them into her sphere of influence, one by one.

    If I were Chinese, Taiwan and South Korea would be tops on my list. If I had any additional expendable political capital left over, I’d make a play to court Bangladesh. Even though it’s a basket case, a significant Chinese air/naval presence there is a game changer.

    Most importantly, I’d be quiet enough so as to not distract the Americans from their omphaloskepsis.

  6. Good points brought up by all.

    I do think we have a direct response option in the SCS that we don’t have in potential military situations elsewhere. The reason is that the nature of the confrontation there implies a different kind of force from what we would have to use against (the obvious example) Iran.

    In Iran, we would be initiating action, and the required action would be a campaign of attacks whose scope and objective we would set. In classical operational terms, we would be on the offense.

    In the SCS, China is the initiator, and sets the scope and objective: the goals she doesn’t want to retire without meeting. We would be on the operational defense.

    The US is still the only nation that could credibly lead a coalition in defending a PERMISSIVE status quo in the SCS. Unfortunately, we have the wrong president for it, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the means for it — even with today’s fiscal constraints on the military. We couldn’t go it alone (in my judgment), but acting in concert with other nations, which wouldn’t otherwise operate together, we could make it too hard for China to achieve her objective.

    The other nations would be, most obviously, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. I don’t believe we want Taiwan involved. I know we don’t want Japan involved. I don’t think Singapore would want to be involved, and she could stay out of it, although she has a clear interest in freedom of navigation in the SCS, because she isn’t an archipelagic claimant there. I’m of two minds how much of a role Australia should play — but if, under Tony Abbott, Australia especially wanted to play a direct role, I think that would be a good thing, on balance.

    Russia might want to horn in on it. Vietnam might be the path of least resistance for that. The US might not have a choice about letting Russia participate. We should clearly have the lead, however. Again, this would only work with another president. But it is feasible otherwise, even considering the current situation and our now less-favorable conditions.

    Quite honestly, I’m not a big fan of trying to hit other nations in the wallet as retaliation for political differences, for reasons I’ve discussed before. (And yes, this means I’m not even a fan of the sanctions on Iran.) I AM a fan of letting the market do its thing, if, say, lower energy prices take big whacks out of bad guys’ revenues.

    There are sound theoretical reasons not to counterattack China in Long Beach or at the local Wal-Mart warehouse, but there’s also the matter of plain old domestic politics, and the all stevedores and lift drivers who see their jobs dry up if we start closing the piers to Chinese cargo ships.

    Far better to lift regulations on American business and let our economic power surge again. We are naturally stronger than China, and always will be, if we are free. The central problem is that today, we’re not free.

    1. I did not suggesclosing the Port of Long Beach. I suggested that this president could (and might be willong to) crank up inspections of Chinese shipping. The stevedores could make money on this, not be disemployed.

      It’s not ideal, to be sure, but at least it’s politically feasible under the current Administrarion. Unlike your defensive military option.

    2. As you mentioned, there are maritime disputes worldwide waiting to explode, so on to my comment…

      The coalition members mentioned, Viet, Indo. Phil. Thai.,are too weak to counter China. It’ll turn into another one of those coalitions where we have to put up 90+% of the force strength (militarily or politically). Another coalition in name only, very susceptible to Chinese bribery.

      I don’t think the jurisdictional issues in the SCS can remain isolated to that geographic area. The problem is linked and extends to the jurisdictional disputes and sovereignty of islands, islets, shoals, reefs, all the way to the Kuriles. It’s very complicated.

      Taiwanese, South Korean and Japanese involvement is unavoidable. Besides, they are the only ones, other the the Russians and us, that can put some “umph”, in the coalition They will be drawn into the SCS dispute at some point, for the sole reason that their various territorial claims to islands and rocks in the East, Yellow, and Sea of Japan disputes are partially contingent on what the definitive decision of sovereignty in the SCS is. In other words, they have vital, if indirect, interests in the SCS outcome other than freedom of navigation, tied to their own sovereignty issues..

      as an aside, Now is not the time for anti-Iranianism dear Optcon. You’re anti- (Iran)sanctions stance is quite encouraging. As crazy as this sounds, we may be needing their assistance with several South West Asian regional issues. And, on a lighter note, I won’t even try convincing you to stop feeding the Dragon. Though I think you’re ideologically very correct, pragmatically. imho, you’re very wrong. 🙂

    3. PS

      Too bad Sen. McCain isn’t siding with the Chinese on this. Judging from the effect the Senator’s concern had on Georgia, the Syrian “rebels”, and the Neo-Nazi Ukrainians, the ruling communist party in China would be overthrown within the year. He’s on our side, which means…… oh, no!

    4. I’m not a big fan of trying to hit other nations in the wallet as retaliation for political differences, for reasons I’ve discussed before. (And yes, this means I’m not even a fan of the sanctions on Iran.)

      Apologies for this sidetrack from the main theme here (but you did open the door): If not economic sanctions (including the withholding of strategically important materials), what? And, beyond Iran, to your general principle: I’m sorry I’ve missed your discussion of it; can you provide a link?

      1. dumb0x — the most extended treatment I did on this was very early on, back in 2009. Here’s the link to the first post I did on sanctions and the general problems with them:

        For the rest of the Hit ’em Hard series, please see the “Iran Page” tab (on the top bar below the blog banner). Although some of the particulars have changed since 2009, the principle of alternatives to long-running sanctions hasn’t changed.

        Regarding Iran specifically, I continue to believe that the only permanently effective solution is regime change — but not by American force. The Iranians are well capable of changing their own regime, if enough pressure is put on the current radical regime. Not all the particulars, again, would be identical, but the guide to doing this is Reagan’s campaign of (a) pressure on the governments of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, and (b) material support to liberalizing movements inside their countries.

        There may at any point be a need to intimidate Iran in a rapid, focused way, at a critical juncture. In my view, we have been at that point for some time now, but we are not yet past it. Sanctions have no hope whatever of intimidating Iran in this way. We have had sanctions biting Iran for a very long time now; US sanctions in various forms since 1979, and UN sanctions since 2007. They haven’t caused Iran to change course, and they’re not going to.

        Only the credible threat of military force can do that. As generally outlined in the Hit ’em Hard series, the ideal approach is to win real concessions from Iran with a real build-up, and a credible threat, clearly and openly conveyed. The process might have to be repeated.

        Obama, of course, is not capable of this.

  7. Here’s an interesting tidbit indirectly related to the topic. I post it to continue ramming home my point on an alliance with today’s Russia. My apologies beforehand if this offends any unrepentant cold warriors unwilling or incapable of learning new tricks 🙂

    Like I’ve said before. Turn the geopolitical classicists on their side, if not their head. It’s the Chinese and the looney Islamic extremists that are the major problem today. Russia, “The Heartland”, is part of the solution.

  8. RB — indeed, you suggested more onerous inspections, and thanks for the reminder. That is presumably all that Obama is capable of, as you say, Unfortunately, it won’t do any good to deter China in the SCS. Taking administrative measures to impede trade is very easy to retaliate for in kind, and that’s what China would do.

    (As for the stevedores, the union guys who sling the cargo around, they don’t perform the inspections. They stand around waiting while inspections are performed by others, typically port-services and security companies. Paying the stevedores to stand there not getting anything done would quickly become an unacceptable burden on shipping companies and customers.)

    1. I think the requisite analytic task here is to scope out what the Administration is willing to do, then evaluate which of these actions, if any, would be beneficial in restoring free access to the SCS.

      Your proposal might be effective, but it resides in the infeasible set. Not only will this president not undertake it, but even if he did the coalition partners you identify would be so deeply skeptical of his seriousness that they almost certainly would decline to participate. It will require years of amnesia after he leaves office for them to come around.

      There could be substantial political benefits to the president from intensifying inspections, and those are the only benefits that matter. The bugs you have identified may be features from his perspective. Your best bet is identifying a politically craven action that could free the SCS as a secondary effect.

      That the Chinese have not been more aggressive toward Taiwan is more surprising. Do they really think the US would respond?

      1. I don’t disagree that we can only expect to do what Obama is actually capable of.

        My insistence on outlining what we could do otherwise is an effort to keep alternatives and possibilities before us. Most people tend to lose sight of them, and hence lose heart, during extended periods of bad leadership and frustration.

        Unfortunately, there is no politically craven action that could free the SCS as a secondary effect. Maintaining a permissive maritime environment in the SCS is entirely about political determination on the part of the United States.

        There is no mechanical method of inducing China’s compliance. China has to be faced with conditions — implicitly but determinedly enforced — which she would find too costly to challenge or try to change. From the early 1950s to 2009, that’s what the US maintained. The overwhelming majority of the time, we didn’t have to prove our determination by shooting or even maneuvering our ships. The main enforcement mechanism was our overall posture and set of policies.

        Ideally, China should have a sense of security as well: the perceived cost of accepting a permissive regime in the SCS should be lighter, because it means China’s access to global waterways is guaranteed, and her opportunity to negotiate seabed rights is never less than fair.

        The onset of Obama changed both cost calculations for China. The cost of accepting the US-backed permissive regime in the SCS went up, because Obama is unpredictable and faithless; the cost of challenging it went down, essentially for the same reason.

        I know you know all that, RB. My main point is that preventing China from calculating that a challenge is a good idea is a matter of conveying credibility more than anything else. The credibility is gone, for now, and there is nothing that will work without it to reverse this breach of conditions.

  9. jgets, we’ll clearly have to agree to disagree on this one.

    With respect to all here, I perceive you to be overestimating China’s capabilities in the SCS.

    The day will come when China can bring too much armed force for a US-led coalition to deter her in maritime confrontations. But that day hasn’t come yet.

    Deterring China in the SCS is a very different proposition from the scope of the military operations you may have in mind. It is not something we are too weak to do. It entails “hardening” the profile of foreign fishing fleets in a (comparatively) restricted waterway. That means making them too hard a target for China to keep going after. It doesn’t mean fighting Chinese warships off in spot after spot; it means taking measures that make it impossible for China to achieve a widespread enforcement effect

    It’s much like having a combination of car owners who take their own security precautions — security systems, locking their doors — and the presence of parking-lot security patrols, or police on the beat. You can’t deter all auto theft that way, but you can make it harder. The thief won’t even try it, in most cases. Nor will China, if, say, one attempt is actively repulsed, and fishing and drilling areas remain protected.

    Moreover, the entity to be deterred in the SCS is a national government, which will be driven much more quickly to reverse its policy than a “criminal” would. The criminal doesn’t care about a black eye to his global reputation, but the nation-state does.

    Resetting the SCS would also properly entail raising the botheration and frustration factor for China’s navy in general, until Beijing was in a better frame of mind, which is where the US Navy’s capabilities should be focused. It would be a more heroic effort today than it would have been 5 years ago, to deploy sufficient naval force for this task. But it is still feasible.

    It’s the US Navy — and the Australian navy, if the Aussies want to joint the fray — that should shadow, maneuver near, conduct surveillance of, and confront Chinese naval ships. Other regional navies capable of this level of interaction are India’s, Japan’s, and South Korea’s. I think Tokyo and Seoul would both decide the time wasn’t right to participate in the operation. Delhi would probably come to the same conclusion, but might deploy a task force to join in a multilateral exercise in the SCS, as opposed to participating directly in the operation to deter China.

    The smaller, less capable navies in the region would serve well, for the most part, in the role of “shotgun” in the vicinity of the fishing fleets and drilling operations. Their adequacy would be bolstered by the regional presence of the US (and perhaps Australia), which would included maritime patrol aircraft as well as surface warships. Without our presence, those other navies’ capabilities wouldn’t be adequate. In combination with ours, in a distributed joint effort, they would be.

    Keep in mind, the Chinese ships mostly involved in the enforcement will be those of the “Maritime Law Enforcement” fleet, which are lightly armed (or have no ship-mounted arms at all). Moreover, China is doing this now because she assumes she will NOT have to lose any confrontations at sea. We (the US) are still well capable of ensuring that she loses one, three, or five, however many it takes for her to think better of the whole thing. If China saw a united coalition emerge quickly, she wouldn’t try even one fall with it. She’d draw back.

    But no, Obama’s not up to any of this. Remember, however, that it is still feasible. The problem is national will, and the weak link is our president.

    1. No problemo bout disagreeing Optcon. It aint the first time, and probably won’t be the last. Just don’t get the wrong impression. I do love the the way you think and write. 🙂

      Yes I’m overestimating, today. But, the creation (quite feasible) of a global alliance that runs contrary to our interests and in favor of the Chinese, will enable a more robust stance by China sooner than her current military capabilities now allow for. We must guard, and work, against this. The swing powers must be swayed into our camp.

      China would not have made this move if she did not come to the conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that she will eventually end up with a net gain “somewhere” from this down the line. This is a another in a chain of well calculated moves. I can’t see her backing down now, at least, not without gaining something elsewhere. That is very worrisome. I get the feeling we are losing the initiative everywhere, that’s even more worrisome.

      I understand that it is feasible to stand up to this naval challenge. What concerns me is, if this is a diversion or a ploy for us to commit forces, what will we do (especially with this president) if/when other fronts begin to open up elsewhere? That will most likely tax our current capacity. And I fear that’s either exactly, or at least part of, the plan.

      I for one, must wait and see the cycle of response and counter-response. But, its not looking good right now.

    2. PS

      One last quick thought.

      This might be a move to solely maintain the ambiguity of the status in the SCS. Maybe it’s sufficient for Chinese purposes at this stage.

  10. The day will have to come when the Japanese move forward from history and regain a bit more power in the region. I believe the Chinese will remember Japan’s capabilities. An amoral view to the coming Chinese ascendancy in the area is needed. The Chinese are not squeamish about Real Politic and projection of power.
    I second or third the obvious need for Russia and the United States to co-operate in the area of Islamic fundamentalist expansion. We are a natural duo with the Russians against a common enemy.
    If we can work with Stalin, Putin will do. The immediate problem is all Putin has to work with is Obama, the Brotherhood’s bro.
    The Egyptian Military, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are going to have to keep the lid on until the mess in the White House moves out of town.

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