Tag Archives: freedom of the seas

Don’t flag with the flag!


After much too much time elapsed the Obama Administration acceded to U.S. Navy urgings to challenge Beijing’s capacity to block of one of the world’s most important naval arteries. Beijing has chosen vague 1947 maps of the South China Sea in an attempt to extend its territorial waters to reefs lying athwart one of the world’s most important seaways, carrying cargo between East Asia and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Indeed, the oil traffic alone from the Mideast to East Asia – China included — is one of the world’s industrial lifelines.
On Oct. 27th the Pentagon finally acknowledged the seriousness of the problem by sending a guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, through the contested waters. Ian Storey, a strategic analyst at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, told the Guardian newspaper: “They’ve gone in heavy. There is not much else heavier than that except an aircraft carrier.” In fact, the US navy has two aircraft carriers in the region, shifted out of the Mideast as part of former Sec. Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia. The USS Theodore Roosevelt only recently left the Middle East [now without a U.S. supercarrier] to resupply in Singapore, adjacent to the South China Sea, and the USS Ronald Reagan, is based in Japan. Perhaps a whole aircraft carrier with all its ancillary ships would overdo the effort.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the “Freedom of Action” operations would continue. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” he declared. “There have been naval operations in that region in recent days and there will be more in the weeks and months to come
We would have preferred that the Secretary put on record the exact passage details. Leaving the issue to confirmation of news accounts strikes us as a little ridiculous since the whole idea was to openly assert what the U.S. considers international law which it has upheld since the earliest days of the Republic. It was, after all, the attacks against international shipping which persuaded our third president Pres. Thomas Jefferson – after a decade of fruitless talk with the European naval powers to take a united stand – to send American Marines in our first foreign military intervention in the early 1800s. And that was a Jefferson who earlier in his career had opposed a standing military!
China said it “shadowed and warned” the USS Lassen off — sending the missile destroyer Lanzhou and patrol vessel Taizhou to the area — and called the U.S. action illegal. China Central Television reported Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui told U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus that the U.S. should “cherish the hard-won momentum of development” in ties.
China’s reclamation as of June had created 2,900 acres, according to the Pentagon. Beijing contends it is building airstrips for civilian purposes but it has already installed artillery. There is concern Beijing may declare an air defense identification zone [ADIZ)] over these waters as it has in the East China Sea facing Japan, an action rejected by Tokyo and other powers but largely now respected by foreign aircraft flying in the region.
. As Storey said, now, another step is required: “U.S. credibility is on the line here. Countries have been watching very closely. It can’t be a one-off, symbolic sail past these features. It has to be conducted on a regular basis.” Washington must continue to assert a presence within the 12-mile area that Chinese aggression has claimed. Hopefully that will come quickly with more ships, and perhaps aircraft, and not take the months of intra-Administration debate which have permitted the Chinese to create a growing presence more than a thousand miles from their Mainland.
News reports say the Australian government, too, is now considering sending some of its warships and perhaps aircraft through the area. We hope that Washington is encouraging this initiative. And we hope it is also urging other parties – particularly the Philippines which has counter claims to the original shoals on which the Chinese have built – to do the same. The broadest possible coalition of our friends in the area, and the European allies, to demonstrate this confirmation of the freedom of the seas is absolutely essential.
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Ghosts of East Asia


          

There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu about the drama in the East China Sea just now.

Again an authoritarian government with a rapidly expanding politicized military is making more and more aggressive noises, in large part in pursuit of its voracious appetite for energy. The U.S., hegemonic power in the Western Pacific since the beginning of the 20th century, is being challenged. Washington again follows a zigzagging policy, all the while protecting freedom of the seas – even for its adversaries.

It was after all imposition of the American oil embargo on Japan in the summer of 1941 which was the final tripwire leading to Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew’s reports of rumors of a surprise attack were discounted. When it came, of course, the U.S. — despite an overwhelming majority opposition until then against a vocal minority adroitly headed by Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt — plunged into a catastrophic worldwide conflict. The U.S. saved the world from unprecedented organized bestiality, ultimately winning against initial odds.

Like all historical comparisons, this one is full of holes.

Still, a search for possible/probable oil and gas deposits is the main incentive for Beijing’s snowballing claims on its aquatic periphery. UN specialized agencies estimate China’s energy consumption by 2035 will grow by 50% to 1.8 times the United States’ [now at about one-fifth of world consumption]. That estimate may be exaggerated, considering China’s declining economic activity after two decades of unprecedented growth.

Nevertheless, much of a probable gigantic increase – given its already 1.3 billion people, four times the American population – will have to be imported. That’s despite exploitation of China’s large if poor coal reserves, limited possibilities for China from the U.S.’ shale revolution because of water shortages, exploitation of Tibetan rivers’ hydro potential despite endangering flow to most of South Asia, and significant solar and wind efforts largely based on American technology..

A solution to China’s problems could come from Russia’s vast reserves in Siberia, old Chinese claims there temporarily muted by Beijing. But despite frequent announcements of impending new agreements, China’s conversation with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, has channeled the old George Bernard Shaw gibe at Lady Astor, “Your profession has been established, Madame, it’s the price we are discussing.”  Ras’ Putin’s energy potential is handicapped with high costs, insufficient reinvestment in infrastructure and foreign investors wary after partial expropriation of their East Asian Sakhalin finds after they brought on production at huge cost.

Moscow’s industrial strategy is so muddled now that China has just made a deal to import Russian crude through a new pipeline to Central Asian producers. Another new Chinese pipeline to bring Burmese [and Mideast] crude, skirting the Malacca Straits chokepoint, to remote southwest China is threatened with a flare-up of long summering northern Burma Kachin revolt.

In other words, China’s energy future is precarious at best.

True, Chinese Communist leadership tries to use jingoistic appeals to its long suffering 200 year history of Western and particularly bloody Japanese aggression to justify claims on the farthest — albeit brief – historical reaches of imperial China. But nationalism, for all its notoriety – from the May 4th [1919] Movement of young intellectuals demanding modernization to Sun Yat Sen’s Republican campaign against the last “foreign” [Ch’ing or Manchu] imperial dynasty — is limited to a Westernized elite. It is not the force that for a millennium brought near total destruction to warring European nation states. Like the Indians, the Chinese despite the contemporary explosion of communication live in a parochial culture largely baring comparisons outside their own vast spectrum of language, ethnicities and race.

Bottom line: China’s new claims on virtually all the seas around it are largely economically motivated. But their drive to become a blue water naval power to advance those claims not only challenges their neighbors but inevitably the U.S.

For despite the Obama Administration’s aspirations for “leading from behind”, it’s the U.S. Navy which guarantees international freedom of the seas with America’s vast military expenditures, larger than the combined military budgets of its leading allies and contenders. The irony, and one about which Beijing has no illusions, is that it is Washington which insures China’s growing lifeline to its aggressive grabs at Mideast, African and Latin American oil. Even if China follows Japan’s successful search for modernization – as it always does – to go for “fire ice”, the vast methane hydrate deposits prominent in East Asian deep waters, it needs a claim. That’s what it is now staking.

This Chinese pursuit of more and more extravagant boundaries – even to the point of damaging its short-term strategies such as cultivating anti-Japanese, anti-U.S. feeling in South Korea to prevent the consolidation of “an Asian NATO” – may be as subtle as some believe. That is, by making outrageous demands, then backing off, Beijing ends up exploiting well-known American impatience and the nervousness of the Japanese and smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. Or, more likely to some observers, these new thrusts represent a less studied Chinese strategy than they do a struggle over the loosening hold of Communist civilians over its traditional Siamese twin, the People’s Liberation Army.

Either way, the Obama Administration – just as the Roosevelt Administration in the late 30s – is giving off mixed signals.

It was Sec. of State Hillary Clinton who in 2012.ostentatiously launched the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia”: in her article “America’s Pacific Century” in the flashy Foreign Policy. Not that most American international affairs wonks had an argument against the general thesis: developing Asia would increasingly change the world balance of power and Washington ought to shake some of the dust of the Middle East and pitch toward the unknown role a renascent China seemed more than eager to play.

But some of us wondered at the time if the Mideast curtain would be so easily closed, and whether Washington wasn’t underestimating the Chinese challenge. Nor was it clear how the U.S. Navy was to honor its enlarged task with numbers of ships at a pre-World War I level. Granted, increased technology – one has only to look at the drone revolution – compensates for tonnage in any new strategic environment. But that marvelous seagoing monster the USS George Washington neither can be in two places at one time nor is there no limit to its projection of power.

That can only mean a dubious worldwide strategic vacuum entails.

Alas! Not only did that Mideast tarbaby’s sticky hold turn out to be minimized  but a new Chinese-Japanese dispute over rocky atolls between them – coming out of nowhere on the Chinese side – has befuddled Washington. The Obama presidency has said the U.S. recognizes their longtime Japanese occupation. It has no alternative: in the 1971 Washington-Tokyo agreement returning Okinawa to Japan, an accompanying map includes the rocks along with islands south of that important East Asian American base. This chain, along with the Japanese archipelago itself, and Taiwan is the island barrier the Chinese naval power must finesse to reach trans-Pacific significance.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just reiterated the proposition that the American-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, the keystone of American strategy in East Asia since the 1950s, covers these islets. But at the same time, Foggy Bottom spokesmen keep repeating the inanity Washington does not recognize Japanese sovereignty.

When China announced its most recent seaside ploy, most of the territory between China and Japan and South Korea incorporated into its “air defense zone”, the Obama Administration, uncharacteristically, sent unarmed B-52s zooming through it as an in-your-face denial of China’s claims. But then it promptly turned around and first suggested, then ordered American airlines flying through the area to signal Beijing prior to transiting. Thus, in effect, Washington recognized Beijing’s claim. Furthermore, it came just hours after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had ordered three Japanese airlines to withdraw their earlier acceptance of just such a procedure. There is a hint that Washington didn’t even tell Abe, our principal Asian ally, the turnabout was coming.

Beijing’s game is a dangerous one. Having U.S., Japanese and Chinese military aircraft in more than usual juxtaposition in a relative small area, even up in the air and naval craft e also involved, is scary. Chinese communications, much of it built on stolen American intellectual property, are probably better now than they were in the 2001 Hainan incident. Then a cowboy Chinese fighter pilot killed himself when he scraped an unarmed American surveillance plane over international waters. Circumstantial evidence indicated Beijing wasn’t running the show, that the locals were out of control, and the foreign ministry was ill informed. A rather naïve retired admiral, the U.S. ambassador, told newsmen he couldn’t understand why his old friends in the Chinese military weren’t returning his calls. The Chinese saved face by forcing the U.S. plane down, then returning its crew — and the plane, literally in pieces. But it was not an attractive template for the kind of international disputes which could now erupt at any moment.

The rest of Asia is now holdings its breath, waiting for an episode or for the Chinese to back off, now that Obama has made major concessions. Hopefully, and there are plenty of signs, U.S. military and intelligence collaboration, especially with Japan but increasingly, again, with old Southeast Asia allies, is growing in view of the Chinese threat. It’s apparently without much White House input, perhaps luckily.

And, yeah! everyone can take reassurance from the dispatch of Vice Pres. Uncle Joe Biden on a swing through the area.

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