By admin April 26, 2010 | 3:11 pm
Abe Denmark directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. This is his first post for Danger Room.
China’s decades-long military modernization effort is paying off. After assembling a revamped arsenal of new ships, subs, planes, and missiles, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is showing that they can use all those assets together, in an operation far from its shores. This display of improved military capabilities have occurred in conjunction with messages to the U.S. indicating a more aggressive approach from Beijing on China’s claims over disputed waters of the South China Seas. The United States must respond to this emerging challenge with a responsible approach that keeps tensions low while sending a clear message to Beijing that the U.S. will not accept China’s efforts to unilaterally control Southeast Asia’s maritime commons.
The South China Morning Post recently reported that destroyers, frigates, and auxiliary ships from the North Sea Fleet (based in Qingdao) passed through the Bashi Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan to conduct a major “confrontation exercise” in the South China Sea. A few days later, Sovremenny guided missile destroyers, frigates, and submarines from the East Sea Fleet (based in Ningbo) passed through Japan’s Miyako Strait without warning Tokyo and conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Pacific waters southeast of Japan. There have also been reports of naval aviators from several bases in the Nanjing and Guangzhou military regions conducting long-range exercises that incorporated radar jamming, night flying, mid-air refueling, and simulated bombing runs in the South China Sea.
While provocative in their own right, these exercises are a sign that China’s Navy has taken a major step forward. The SCMP article quotes an unnamed Asian defense attaché: “We’ve never seen anything on this scale before - they are finally showing us they can put it all together.”
The implications of “putting it all together” are significant. The U.S. military’s ability to dominate the skies over any battlefield is not just due to its technological superiority, but its ability to incorporate capabilities together to support one another. Anti-submarine warfare and mid-air refueling are very difficult and complex operations to undertake, requiring good technology, effective command and control, and highly skilled operators. China’s ability to conduct these operations demonstrates a significantly increased prowess in complex military operations.
These exercises are also notable for their location and their timing. By transiting the Miyako Strait and operating in highly contested waters, China is sending a signal to the region that it is developing the ability to back up its territorial sea claims with more than just rhetoric. These exercises were conducted a few weeks after Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeff Bader visited Beijing. As reported by the New York Times, they were told that the South China Sea is a “core interest” for the PRC. This is an important phrase for Beijing – it raises the South China Sea to the same level of significance as Taiwan and Tibet – and suggests a newly aggressive and provocative approach.
China has long claimed that the South China Sea is within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) forces foreign militaries to seek permission from Beijing before they can transit through. Of course, xix other countries in the region also claim all or part of the South China Seas. So the United States has long identified EEZs as international waters through which military vessels can freely pass. “We do not favor one claim, or one claimant country, over another. We urged then, as we do today, the maintenance of a calm and non-assertive environment in which contending claims may be discussed and, if possible, resolved,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a 2008 speech, “All of us in Asia must ensure that our actions are not seen as pressure tactics, even when they coexist beside outward displays of cooperation.”
By labeling the South China Sea as a “core interest” and conducting these exercises just days later, China has issued its reply: China will aggressively back its claims with a robust military capability.
The other, more implicit, message from Beijing could not be more stark: China’s military is growing more capable, and the PLA Navy is now at the vanguard of China’s military modernization effort. By acquiring advanced military technologies and developing the ability to conduct complex operations far from shore, China is changing military balances throughout the region with implications far beyond a Taiwan-related scenario.
The U.S. and China have been in a similar position before. The 2001 collision between a Chinese jet and an American EP-3E in international airspace over the South China Sea caused a significant downturn in U.S.-China relations. Disturbingly, aggressive Chinese behavior toward American naval assets in the South China Seas in recent years, as happened in 2009 with the USS Impeccable, suggest that a naval EP-3 incident is a distinct possibility in the future.
While the U.S. has been adjusting its posture in the Asia-Pacific region to account for China’s military modernization, it must recognize that there is a political dynamic at play that should not be ignored. The South China Sea and the adjacent littoral waters off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore will be the most strategically significant waterways of the 21st century. Already, 80 percent of China’s oil imports flow through the Strait of Malacca, and Japan and Korea are similarly dependent on access to those waters.
The United States should continue to pursue the calm and non-assertive approach described by Secretary Gates at Shangri-La, and has been doing so through the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) dialogue with China. Yet there are two other avenues for the U.S. to ensure those important waterways remain open.
First, the U.S. should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) as international waterways through which warships may make innocent passage. While the U.S. has long operated within its dictates, ratifying UNCLOS would add the weight of international law to American objections to claims of sovereignty over international waters.
Second, the U.S. should adhere to the Law of Gross Tonnage, and regularly conduct freedom of navigation exercises through the South China Sea to ensure its continued openness. Continuing to treat the South China Seas as international waters will prevent habits of deference to Chinese claims from forming. This is not a bellicose or an aggressive approach, but is rather a continuation of long-standing American and international policies towards international waterways.
China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, if left unchallenged, would make Beijing the arbiter of all international maritime traffic that passes through, which the U.S. cannot allow. As we can see from the U.S. Defense Department’s annual reports to Congress on the Chinese military (pdf), China has been developing these capabilities for some time, and there is no sign that its ambitions have yet been satisfied.
Bottom line: this is just the beginning.
[Photos: China Daily, Kobus/Picasa]
Read More http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010...#ixzz0mFgaBba9