Why China Should Fear America's Great South China Sea Challenge

The Buzz

What should we make of last week's CNN report from on board a U.S. Navy Poseidon P-8 surveillance aircraft, verbally challenged by the Chinese navy ("Leave go") as it monitored China's reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands?

CNN's video footage of China's reclamation activities in the Spratlys underscores the game-changing potential of these artificial islands. The scale and speed of construction—a panning shot reveals a runway control tower and other structures already looming above Fiery Cross Reef—is daunting. A flotilla of naval and civilian ships criss-crosses busily as the dredgers operate around the clock. For sheer effect, static imagery falls short by comparison.

More dramatically, the report revealed that eight separate radio challenges were delivered by the Chinese Navy over the course of the flight, warning the crew that they were entering a “military alert zone” and ordering the aircraft to leave. It seems clear from the P-8 crew's reaction that this was not the first time that approaching aircraft have received such warnings. Despite China's official claims that the reclamation projects are for search and rescue and hosting other civil infrastructure, this footage will strengthen the impression that the PLA is behind the reclamation projects—and effectively calling the shots in the South China Sea.

This was also a case of the U.S. Government delivering its messages via CNN.

Granting media unprecedented access to operational imagery and audio transcripts from the P-8 points to an intensified policy effort to wrest control over a public narrative in the South China Sea that Washington increasingly fears is slipping out of its grasp as China seizes the initiative and foreign policy attention is distracted by crises elsewhere.

More immediately, it suggests U.S. officials are preparing the American public for a tougher line in the South China Sea. Indeed, the CNN report predicted that U.S. warships as well as aircraft may soon be involved in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a course of action that reflects the uncompromising mood in Washington towards China.

Putting America's surveillance of China's land reclamation in the South China Sea into the public realm chimes with a broader U.S. emphasis on promoting transparency in the South China Sea, a concept that plays to U.S. advantages in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Surveillance platforms are generally considered less provocative to deploy, although the P-8 is primarily a submarine hunter and close-in U.S. intelligence-gathering missions by unarmed U.S. vessels and aircraft have long been a bone of contention between Washington and Beijing, reflected in their polar opposite interpretations of international law on this point. (Longer term, the prospect remains for China's navy to adopt a more congruent position on freedom of navigation as it acquires global interests.)

Past U.S.-China confrontations on this narrowly defined issue of freedom of navigation and overflight have mostly occurred close to Hainan island, the site of China's primary naval base in the South China Sea. Last year the U.S. and China agreed an MoU on military encounters in the wake of what US officials described as a “dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional” intercept by a Chinese fighter jet of a US Navy P-8.

China doesn't yet have the capability to perform aerial intercepts over the Spratlys, much less to enforce a South China Sea-wide ADIZ. Yet if Beijing continues to build up its military facilities in the Spratlys, including possibly with one or more operational airstrips by 2016, the inevitable consequence will be the spread of Sino-US military competition across the South China Sea at large. U.S. Navy ships are already regularly shadowed there by PLA Navy counterparts.

While in the final analysis small islands have inherent defensive weaknesses, U.S. concerns that China's reclamation projects will tilt the psychological balance vis-à-vis rival claimants decisively in Beijing's favor have led U.S. policymakers to reconsider their options. This appears likely to play out in a more muscular and assertive U.S. approach on freedom of navigation and overflight in the weeks and months ahead.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Photo: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

A Missed Nonproliferation Opportunity

Paul Pillar

Last week the latest quinquennial review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ended as a failure, without issuing a formal statement or report. The single biggest snag concerned whether to call for the convening of a conference on a Middle Eastern nuclear weapons free zone (MENWFZ). Fingers of blame were pointed in various directions, including at Egypt for pushing some procedural changes regarding the convening of such a conference that some other delegations regarded as needless complications. But the procedural issues were not much of an obstacle and could have been resolved. The more fundamental roadblock was the same one that has been decisive every time the subject of a MENWFZ has come up. Israel doesn't like the idea, and the United States, acting as Israel's lawyer (Israel itself, not being a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was only an observer and not a full participant in the review conference), blocked approval of the draft statement that was on the table.

Israel doesn't like the idea because Israel itself would naturally be the chief focus of any discussion of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, given that it has kept itself outside the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and is the owner of what just about everyone in the world believes to be the only nuclear weapons possessed by any Middle Eastern state. Israel's official position regarding a conference is that discussion of nuclear weapons can only take place amid a discussion of “the broad range of security challenges in the region,” and it says it would consider joining the NPT only if Israel were at peace with the Arab states and Iran. That position is, of course, a formula for putting off the subject of a MENWFZ indefinitely, given that the Israeli government has sworn eternal hostility toward Iran and is determined—all the more so in the Israeli government's latest post-election configuration—not to settle its conflict with the Palestinians and therefore will not be at peace with most Arab states either.

None of this is altogether new. The 2010 NPT review conference did produce a recommendation to convene a regional conference by 2012, and considerable preparatory work was done under Finnish leadership. But the Israeli government was infuriated by the whole idea, and on its behalf the United States helped to throw enough dirt into the diplomatic gears for the regional conference never to take place.

What makes this month's failure to make progress on this front even more unfortunate is that another set of negotiations has made the opportunity for progress toward a MENWFZ greater than ever. These are the negotiations that are close to completing a comprehensive agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program. Although Iran evidently has not decided to build nuclear weapons anyway, the impending agreement, if completed, would be a major accomplishment on behalf of the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. Iran is a significant country in this regard given that it is one of the largest countries in the Middle East, it has a substantial nuclear program, and it probably has in the past actively considered building nuclear weapons. The agreement currently being finalized provides for major restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and a system of international monitoring of those activities that is more extensive and intrusive than what any other country has ever voluntarily imposed on itself. The agreement thus provides a very useful model for extending the cause of nuclear nonproliferation throughout the Middle East, while embodying the NPT's principle of reconciling the widespread peaceful use of nuclear energy with stringent safeguards to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It provides a model, and it provides momentum. And despite the many sharp disagreements between Iranians and Arabs, a MENWFZ is one concept on which they agree.

The potential for the Iran agreement to serve as a region-wide model is underscored by how many of its provisions (as revealed in the partial “framework” agreement announced last month) resemble recommendations of a recent report from an independent group of nuclear experts on controlling fissile materials in the Middle East. These provisions include limiting enrichment of uranium to specified low levels, prohibiting the stockpiling of enriched uranium, banning the reprocessing of plutonium, and adhering to international safeguards such as the Additional Protocol for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

All this potential gets swept out of sight by the campaign of those who for other reasons oppose reaching any agreement on anything with Iran and would have us inhabit an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which we are supposed to believe that placing major restrictions on someone's nuclear program is a blow against rather than in favor of nuclear nonproliferation. It is in the same topsy-turvy world that leading the charge against this agreement is the most prominent nuclear outlaw state in the Middle East.

All of this is regrettable, but doubly so when it means blowing a good opportunity to make progress toward keeping nuclear weapons from being part of this conflict-ridden region. 

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

Get Ready, China: America's Lethal B-1 Bomber Might Have a New Home

The Buzz

Greg Sheridan writes recently that, despite last week's controversy when Pentagon official David Shear 'misspoke' about U.S. Air Force's B-1 bombers being placed in Australia, the bombers are probably coming to Australia anyway.

I think that's right. As James Brown wrote at the time, the U.S.–Australia Force Posture Agreement hammered out in 2014 ensured that:

...U.S. Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.

(Recommended: 5 Places Where World War III Could Start)

Sheridan criticizes Shear for giving the impression that the B-1s would be based in Australia. But, says Sheridan, “There are no American forces based in Australia. A range of American forces rotate in and out of northern Australia, which is not the same as being based there.”

We're in the realm of wordplay here. The U.S.-Australia Joint Defense Facility at Pine Gap is not really a 'base', but it is a permanent facility run by Australia and various U.S. spy agencies. And while the U.S. Marine presence in Darwin is described as a 'rotation', with Marines cycling through on short training deployments, it is a permanent arrangement between the two governments. As James Curran explains, this is in fact the culmination of a long-standing desire by Australian governments to entrench the U.S. military presence in Australia.

Sheridan then writes:

The Abbott government has no in-principle objection to the presence of B-1 bombers, and many well-informed observers regard their eventual presence in Australia as all but inevitable. The problems the government had with the Shear testimony were about the implication of basing planes in Australia, and connecting the rotations explicitly to China.

Again, I think that's right. The reason the PM came out within hours of the story breaking to deny Shear's testimony was because of the damage it might do to the China relationship.

But this is revealing of our national dilemma, which Tom Switzer describes aptly on the same opinion page today: we have a major trading partner (China) whose strategic interests are increasingly at odds with those of our major ally. And increasingly, we're being forced to choose between them. Yet if Sheridan's account is right, the Government seems to believe that we can get around this dilemma by simply not acknowledging it publicly. We can host U.S. strategic bombers, Sheridan seems to be saying, just as long as we don't say publicly that it's China-related.

(Recommended: China's Greatest Fear - The 1991 Gulf War)

Does that sound at all convincing to you? No, me neither.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The South China Sea Showdown: A Tragedy in the Making?

The Buzz

Satellite imagery of the South China Sea has established that over the previous twelve months, China has expanded its presence there by up to 1500 acres. The Chinese have been actively reclaiming land at the following reefs: Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes, Subi, and the Union reefs (Johnson South and Johnson North reefs). One perspective on this activity is that it represents straightforward, aggressive Chinese expansionism, requiring a robust response. Alas, the situation is far more complex than this view suggests, and the policy response needs to take this into account. A few points merit highlighting.

First, it is not entirely clear that any international law has been violated. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel recently noted that Chinese “reclamation isn’t necessarily a violation of international law, but it’s certainly violating the harmony, the fengshui of Southeast Asia, and, its certainly violating China’s claim to be a good neighbor and a benign and non-threatening power.” Russel’s point is good counsel to the Chinese to ease up. However, one struggles to think of empirical examples to buttress his point. It is exceedingly rare for states on the periphery of any great power to view their neighbor as benign and non-threatening. Certainly, claims in the 1998-2008 period that China was viewed by its Asian neighbors as benign and unthreatening are now viewed as a far from accurate analysis.

Second, whatever the final solution is to this issue, it will have to, in some measure, incorporate a rising China’s concerns. To expect otherwise is an illusion. So, what is China’s perspective? Beijing maintains  that it respects the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. At the same time, the Chinese not unreasonably claim that they are merely doing what all states do, namely, defend state sovereignty. In the process, China views itself as having exercised restraint. Sheng Dingli, a Professor at Fudan University in Shanghai recently noted that ”the Chinese government has restrained itself. Our islands are still controlled by others, but we are not using force to take them back.”

Third, let’s be honest with ourselves. China is hardly the only state that has been busy at the reclamation game. One can easily envisage Chinese officials explaining to Secretary Kerry during his Beijing visit last weekend that China is merely responding to the actions of other states, in a general scramble for territory. More specifically, they will have pointed to reclamation activity of other states that occurred prior to the recent Chinese activity. Since August 2011, Vietnam has reclaimed 200,000 square meters of land in the Spratly Islands section of the South China Sea. Also, since April 2014, Taiwan has also reclaimed land in its South China outpost of Itu Aba Island. These claimants may appeal to our sense of fair play, pointing to the obvious disparity between themselves and China, both in state size and the resources available to enforce claims. On that score, our sympathies are surely with them. But, when has such logic ever been accepted as an argument against any state which is acting to secure its territorial claims against competing claimants?

Wherever one stands in the debate, what is not in doubt is that the status quo has been modified in ways that heightens the potential for more conflict. Not surprisingly, the U.S. is clear on who is responsible for this. Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris has been quoted as saying that “China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers.” Indeed, in recent testimony before a Senate Committee, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear characterized China’s pace of construction in the South China Sea as “astonishing.” He further posited that “if this activity continues at pace, it will give them (China) defacto control of the maritime territory they claim.” Locklear also speculated that this “might be a platform if they (China) ever wanted, to establish an air defense zone” in the South China Sea.

These views have not gone unchallenged by China, which equally unsurprisingly, views itself as defensive, and other claimants as adopting an offensive posture. In a speech in Washington DC on April 16 of this year, China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, concisely laid out Beijing’s view on the South China Sea. First, China will defend its sovereignty and maritime rights, even while it exercises restraint. Second, China seeks to resolve disputes through diplomacy. Third, on the specific issue of the upgrading of Chinese facilities in the South China Sea, this activity is “well within China’s sovereignty.” Finally, China’s overall foreign policy is “defensive in nature.” Therefore, in seeking to resolve the South China Sea disputes, Beijing seeks to co-operate with all regional states, and “particularly with the U.S.”

Yet, slightly more than a week later, there was little co-operation on display from China’s Southeast Asian neighbors. At the late April 2015 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Kuala Lumpur, ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh contested China’s South China Sea claims. Asked about a recent Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s unusually blunt criticism of his alleged lack of neutrality on this issue, Minh responded: “What kind of neutrality are they talking about? Can I be neutral to ASEAN interests? How can I be neutral to the truth?” Positions appear to be hardening rather than softening. Thus, during Secretary Kerry’s recent Beijing trip, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi expressed the view that “China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock and is unshakable.” Wang added that “we also hope to maintain peace and stability in the region and are committed to international freedom of navigation.” Whether the duality present in China’s views is in fact reconcilable (or not) with regional stability is a question that the region will now have to confront.

This piece first appeared as part of the Asia Maritime Transparency Project here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Watch Out, Pakistan: Israel to Sell India Mobile Missiles

The Buzz

Israel and India on the verge of signing a new “mega” defense deal, that would include Israel helping India develop a new mobile missile system.

On Thursday the Times of India reported, citing unnamed officials within India’s Ministry of Defense, that India and Israel have “now virtually sealed the joint development of a medium-range surface-to-air missile system (MRSAM) for the Indian Army.”

The first tranche of the deal will be worth over 9,000 crore (roughly $1.67 billion), however, Indian officials that the Times of India spoke with said that more missiles could be bought at a later date. "More orders might later follow since the Army's air defence capabilities are relatively weak," the official was quoted as saying. Earlier, an Indian army official said that Delhi could purchase over $6 billion worth of the medium-range surface-to-air missiles and related systems from Israel by the end of the deal.

(Recommended: India's New Mega Weapon: Nuclear-Armed Supersonic Missiles)

The MRSAMs, which will be on mobile launchers, will serve as India’s replacement for the Russian-built Kvadrat and OSA-AKM systems that India purchased in the 1970s and 1980s. India has been searching the open market for replacements for some years now, and previously rejected other offers because they didn’t contain sufficient technology transfer clauses, Defense News reported in February of this year.  

The deal will take place between the Defense Research Development Organization, which is India’s defense technology research arm, and Israeli Aerospace Industries, Israel’s government-owned aerospace and aviation manufacturer. The missiles will be built in India by PSU Bharat Dynamics’ defense division, which produces some of India’s most highly touted missiles such as the Agni.

The same three companies already collaborate in building surface-to-air missiles for India’s Air Force and Navy. Those prior deals are worth some 13,000 crore (roughly $2.15 billion). However, whereas the Air Force and Navy SAMs have an interception range of about 70 kilometers, the army missiles will only have a range of 50 km. Both the naval and air force SAM programs were hit with significant delays, and neither the naval or air versions of the missiles are operational yet.

(Recommended: Pakistan Wants 'Battlefield' Nukes to Use against Indian Troops)

The Indian Army’s acquisition of MRSAM could spell trouble for Pakistan; Defense News earlier reported that “The [Indian] Army wants to use the MRSAM to defend mechanized formations operating in the plains and desert regions of the country.”

Those regions would include India’s border with Pakistan, suggesting that the missiles would be used to protect Indian forces during an invasion of Pakistan (or in defense against a Pakistani invasion). They would therefore be useful in helping India execute its “Cold Start” doctrine, which envisions Delhi launching quick, limited incursions into Pakistan in response to Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks on India. Islamabad has suggested it could response to such attacks using tactical nuclear weapons, which the MRSAM could help protect Indian troops from.  

The impending deal is further evidence of the growing Indian-Israeli strategic partnership. According to the Times of India article, India and Israel have inked some $10 billion worth of arms sales and projects over the last fifteen years, “which range from spy and armed drones to sophisticated missile and radar systems.”

Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, was last in India back in February, where he offered to sell India Israel’s prized Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. It is also believed that Ya’alon helped negotiate the MRSAM deal during that trip.

(Recommended: Will Israel's New Advanced Submarines Carry Nuclear Weapons?)

India and Israel's interests significantly overlap, which should help propel their strategic partnership forward in the coming decades. Not only are both democracies in troubled regions, but they also are threatened by Islamic extremism and terrorism.

That being said, India has always handled its relationship with Israel cautiously, in an effort to avoid angering Arab Muslim states. In fact, the two states didn’t even establish diplomatic ties until 1992. In addition, India’s economic growth has made it increasingly reliant on Arab oil, which will serve as an obstacle in furthering Indo-Israel ties in the future. Finally, India has a close relationship with Iran, which Israel considers an existential threat.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.   

Image: Wikimedia/Hemantphoto79

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsiaMiddle East