Tag Archives: freedom of seas

Who’s on first?


Does the United States have two foreign policies, one out of the White House, and the other out of The Pentagon – or, thinking about it, maybe another third one out of the State Department?

That’s about the only conclusion you can draw from a recent exchange over an episode in the South China Sea.

It’s no secret that the Chinese are building military bases a thousand miles south of their Mainland territory, right straight athwart one of the most important sea highways of the world. It is the one that carries $5 trillion worth of manufacturing and raw materials on a supply line for not only China but Japan and South Korea, including oil from the Middle East. They are doing it even when they have to dredge up more coral for shoals that barely are above the water line, especially in these days of reportedly rising sea level.

On the other hand, freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas, freedom of international waters, has been an American institution even before our country won its independence from Britain. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams literally spent years trying unsuccessfully to get the European powers together to halt piracy in the Mediterranean. And it was as our second president, Jefferson, much against his previous prejudices against a standing military force and foreign interventions, who after all sent our first troops abroad. They went to North Africa, then the Barbary Coast, to halt the boarding, kidnapping and ransoming of American ships and their sailors. Remember: “xxx from halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli xxx” was not some idle ditty.

When we heard that our ageing [50 years now] B52 bombers were sent lumbering over the new Chinese bases, we assumed they were taking the advice of many of us and challenging Beijing’s effort to throw up a block to world shipping. But now comes Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright with a statement that the Dec. 10 mission was not a “freedom of navigation” operation and that there was “no intention of flying within 12 nautical miles of any feature,” nhinting that the mission may have strayed off course.

“The United States routinely conducts B-52 training missions throughout the region, including over the South China Sea,” Wright said in an email to The Associated Press. “These missions are designed to maintain readiness and demonstrate our commitment to fly, sail and operate anywhere allowed under international law.”

Wright said the U.S. was “looking into the matter.”

The announcement leaves everyone including us in a complete quandary.

First of all, do B52s – sometimes armed with nuclear weapons – stray off course in this day and age of super-GPS [Global Position System]? If so, not only their pilots and navigators need to be brought up on charges but so do the commanding officers, whether they be in Pearl or in Arlington.

Secondly, we had assumed that the “straying” B-52s were another effort to tell the Chinese in no uncertain terms that we would not permit the challenging of the right of freedom of the seas in international waters which they have declared unilaterally. They are, incidentally, stepping on the toes of the Filipinos and others who have claims to those shoals because they are in their territorial waters or zones of economic exploitation.

If this assumption is correct, why in the name of all that is holy in nautical strategy would you not maintain openly and loudly that you are challenging the Chinese! Beijing, sensing some ambiguity in Washington, was already ready, of course, with a protest over the overlights and making new threats The answer to that protest is a public statement reiterating our right to fly through the area because it is in international waters, and not Chinese territory as Beijing claims.

Who’s running this show, anyway? Or is our Helmsman missing altogether?

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Testing China’s aggression


Apparently Pres. Obama has learned a lesson from his lack of strategy in Syria: The Financial Times reports he has finally acceded to Sec. of Defense Ashton Carter’s pleas to assert freedom of the seas in Southeast Asia.
Within the next two weeks, senior American officials say, U.S. naval vessels will challenge Beijing’s claim to incorporate vast stretches of the South China Sea into its territorial waters.
The vessels will enter the 12-mile limit which Beijing has drawn along “the nine dot line”, its only claim to a group of coral shoals where it has been building at breakneck speed. During the past two years, the Chinese have scooped up enough mud and gravel to build thousands of acres on the several islands replete with military airstrips.
The new bases permit China to advance beyond the so-called first-island chain which has restricted its naval activities to occasional feints across the Strait to threaten the Taiwanese, and contest islands long claimed and occupied by Japan in the East China Sea.
These new bases, hundreds of miles from their Mainland ports and justified only with ancient maps showing vague Chinese claims could become important for projection of strategic power, already menacing nearby Philippines and Vietnam.
The White House has been reluctant to permit the Navy to exercise time-honored rights of passage in one of the world’s most important naval commercial waterways, whether recently because of the state visit just concluded of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, or a part of Obama’s general withdrawal of American power around the world. That lack of resolve has put into question former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia” which the Obama Administration has made part of its worldwide strategy.
It has been clear, however, that although there were glowingly optimistic statements anticipating the Xi visit, Obama got nowhere in negotiating any of the major issues which now confront the two countries. These include, of course, recent Chinese hacking of U.S. cybernetworks, violation of intellectual properties of American and other foreign companies, or other trade issues such as the manipulation of its currency [which Washington has refused to formally recognize, a flagrant example exercised on the eve of the visit with a Chinese devaluation.].
But no issue between the two countries has carried such dangerous longterm implications and possibilities of confrontation as Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. The move could be even more important – and fraught – than any of the red lines which Obama has drawn, and then violated, in Syria and the Mideast. Or as important as the growing aggressive behavior of Russia’s Valdimir Putin in Ukraine, and now, in Syria.
A successful test of traditional right of peaceful passage through international waters, in this case those which Beijing has unilaterally claimed as its own territory, is seen by most traditional naval scholars as something long overdue.
Today China’s elaborate and rapid efforts to create a “blue water” navy are still in their infancy. American spokesmen, including the highest echelons of the U.S. Navy, have in the past recognized that China has the right and as an emerging great power, would, build a modern naval fleet. At one point, an American admiral, noting the difficulties of building and maintaining aircraft carriers – China has rebuilt one bought from Ukraine and has another building – was something the U.S. might assist in for a “peacefully emerging China”.
But increasing signs of aggressive behavior by the Chinese have vitiated, at least for the time being, that kind of open military collaboration. And, in fact, Beijing has generally rejected the most routine military to military communication which has become normal and practical among the major powers in their effort to avoid untoward incidents.
Insisting , along with traditional U.S. allies in the region, that peaceful passage through international waters must be preserved and the valid claims of neighboring states honored, is, however much a risk now, one to be preferred than at a later time when Beijing’s resources will be greater and when dangerous precedents would be established.
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