Sunday, August 31, 2014

Najibullah’s Prophecy

Decisions have consequences.  

I wonder when there will be a Global Truth & Reconciliation Commission to deal with the ruinous decision of the United States to partner with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations to cultivate, employ, exploit and/or unleash jihadism and religious sectarianism to destroy unfriendly or unhelpful secular/socialist regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Butcher’s bill so far: maybe 300,000 dead in Afpak & Iraq, another 200,000 dead in Syria.  Using a conservative wounded to killed ratio of 3:1, at least 1.5 million lives shortened or physically shattered.  Add another 8 million or so refugees for whom the social and economic fabric of their lives has been torn apart. 

Judging by first impressions—that the United States will seek to contain and manage IS as an asset in its effort to unseat Assad in Syria, just as it used the IS threat to shoulder Maliki out of power in Iraq—America is unable to shake its jihadi addiction as it seeks to wield influence in the Middle East without putting “boots on the ground”.   

Instead of demanding that Turkey attack IS on its vulnerable northern flank, or Saudi Arabia devote its sizable ground and air forces to the task of hunting IS down, it looks like the US is contenting itself with limited objectives, making limited demands on its regional allies (who are allowed to limit themselves to lip service concerning the horrors of the jihadi menace), and trying to put limits on IS’ threat to allies and assets without trying to organize any meaningful effort to restore the security and order it helped destroy in the Middle East. 

My prediction: a “jihadi archipelago” in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria, maybe not the IS caliphate, maybe something post-IS, sustained by the cupidity, opportunism, and cowardice of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and their proxies and allies.

Hope I’m wrong, as they say, but until I am I’m going to continue to re-up this post concerning the prophecy of the president of the Soviet-backed Republic of Afghanistan, Muhammad Najibullah.

The way things are headed, Najibullah is less likely to be remembered as the Butcher of Afghanistan, and more likely to be remembered as the granddaddy of the anti-jihadist struggle, a struggle in which the United States was a hopelessly equivocal, dishonest, reckless, and incapable practitioner.

Excerpted from a longer piece I wrote in September 2009.

Najibullah’s Prophecy

When the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996, they dragged Muhammad Najibullah from UNICEF compound where he had taken refuge three years before when a deal to extract him from Kabul collapsed, tortured him for hours with the special ingenuity that Afghani warlords apparently can always bring to bear on such situations, and hung his castrated corpse from a lamppost.

Najibullah is routinely reviled as a despot and a torturer.

Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Najibullah stood for secularist, socialist, and pro-Soviet policies that suppressed Islamic fundamentalism with extreme violence and a certain degree of success. Like Hussein, Najibullah was destroyed by the United States, with rather grisly consequences for his nation.

Najibullah was well-educated, and perfected his English during his years of confinement in Kabul. A career UNICEF official, Alan Brady, came to Kabul just before the city fell to the Taliban, and wrote an eerie, evocative account in the Virginia Quarterly Review of a call he paid on the fallen dictator in 1995 shortly before his death.


During the two years I was working in Afghanistan, I had become fascinated by the story of Najibullah. Here was a man of great intellect, educated as a doctor and pediatrician to “do no harm.” He was at the same time a political activist who received training in the Soviet Union. In 1981, he returned to Afghanistan to head the KHAD, a Secret Police organization notorious for torture and executions. Five years later, he emerged as president of his country during times of vicious conflict. Undoubtedly, there was blood on his hands.

Yet many people described him as enlightened. My colleagues who had worked with the Najibullah government from 1986 to 1992 spoke highly of his leadership and support for the country’s social development, especially public health and education. It was an anomaly, throughout the 1980s, that the West was empowering mujahideen groups who were burning down schools, banning girls from being educated, trying to cut women off from basic opportunities or even health care, and preaching ideologies of xenophobic hatred. The CIA and others did all of this in the interest of bringing down a government that, in the areas of social development at least, stood for secular and progressive Western values. The fight against Communism made for many strange bedfellows for more than four decades, perhaps nowhere more so than in Afghanistan.

For a long time, I had harbored a curiosity about Najibullah and what changes might have occurred in him as he sat in that UN house in Kabul with nothing to do except read and reflect. Did such reflection give him second thoughts about the life he had lived and the things he had done? …

To say that this man was pleased and charmed by our arrival would be a grave understatement…Before I knew it, each time he spoke, he would start with the words, “dear Alan.” Over many cups of tea, sitting together on the couch, sharing chocolates from the newly opened box on the table before us, he spoke honestly and freely about what he had been going through, and then his complaints about the UN and how it had betrayed him.

At last I got up the courage to ask the questions that were on my mind. It is not an easy subject to broach, this question of his role as head of KHAD and the blood he must have had on his hands…

I could see the look in his eye change as my question sank in… Like the flexing of a relaxed muscle, the power and charisma at the core of this man reappeared in sharp relief, and with a loud shout of “NO!” his fist came down with an explosive sound on the table before us, sending teacups flying upward.

“Dear Alan,” he was saying. “Do not be naïve about what you are facing. They will bring a destruction you cannot imagine.”

His message to me, at our New Year meeting in 1995, was one of no regrets for whatever he had done to stand against the Islamists. He was absolutely clear about that; he would do it again.

In the quiet of that evening, he laid out for us what the lines of conflict would be, in a world where Communism was finished. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said, “I wrote to Bush. I explained all of this, I told him that the Reds are finished, and the enemy of the United States is no longer the Reds, it is the Greens. I offered to work together with him.”

The “green” that Najibullah was referring to was the green flag of the Islamists, and the Bush he wrote to was the first President Bush—George H.W. He never received an answer.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cauldrons, Kessels, Pockets, and Ukraine

There is a lot of talk on the pro-Russian side of the Ukrainian question about “cauldrons” in which hapless Ukrainian troops are trapped and doomed to destruction or surrender.

Perhaps the use of “cauldron” is meant to evoke memories of the mother of all cauldrons, the trap that encircled and annihilated the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and signaled the turning of the military tide against Hitler.

However, as a point of interest, it might be pointed out that the “cauldron” (in German, “kessel”) was originally a clever and successful tactic employed by the Wehrmacht in its retreat from Leningrad, in order to slow down, tie up, and otherwise confound the advancing Red Army.

The Ur-kessel, I believe, was at Demyansk, in the Novgorod Oblast just south of Leningrad.

The Red Army encircled 100,000 German troops in a cauldron or kessel at Demyansk in the winter of 1942-43, but this turned out to be somewhat less than an operational triumph.  

Since I’m feeling a bit lazy this morning, I’ll cut and paste the excellent Wikipedia article on the subject:

The [Soviet] Northwestern Front grew increasingly desperate to wipe out the pocket, and over the winter and spring, launched a number of assaults on the "Ramushevo corridor" that formed the tenuous link between Demyansk and Staraya Russa through the Ramushevo village that were repeatedly repulsed. In total, five Soviet Armies composed of 18 rifle divisions and three brigades were tied up for four months.

The reason that the Soviets were unable to seal the deal was because the Germans were able to keep the encircled troops supplied by air.

After being assured that the pocket could be supplied with its daily requirement of 270 short tons (240 t) of supplies by Luftflotte 1, Hitler ordered that the surrounded divisions hold their positions until relieved. The pocket contained two fairly capable airfields at Demyansk and Peski. From the middle of February, the weather improved significantly, and while there was still considerable snow on the ground at this time, resupply operations were generally very successful due to weakness of the Red Air Forces in the area. However the operation did use up all of the Luftwaffe's transport capability, as well as elements of their bomber force.
[T]he two pockets (including Kholm) received 65,000 short tons (59,000 t) of supplies (both through ground and aerial delivery), 31,000 replacement troops, and 36,000 wounded were evacuated. However, the cost was significant. The Luftwaffe lost 265 aircraft, including 106 Junkers Ju 52, 17 Heinkel He 111 and two Junkers Ju 86 aircraft. In addition, 387 airmen were lost.  

In March, the Soviet high command basically gave up and turned its attention and troops elsewhere.  The Germans were able to open a corridor and fight their way out between March and May 1943.

German casualties were sizable but not devastating: maybe 3000 + killed, eleven thousand wounded out of 100,000 men.

The greatest and most fatal consequence of the Demyansk kessel, however, was that it encouraged the vain hope that the kessel strategy could be duplicated at Stalingrad on a somewhat larger but still rather equivalent scale:

The success of the Luftwaffe convinced Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler that they could conduct effective airlift operations on the Eastern front.  Göring later proposed a similar "solution" to supply the 6. Armee when it was surrounded in Stalingrad. In theory, the outcome could be equally advantageous; with the 6. Armee trapped, but still in fighting condition, the Soviet army would have to use up much of its strength to keep the pocket contained. This could allow other German forces to re-group and mount a counterattack. However, the scale of the forces trapped in the two operations differed greatly. While a single corps (about ⅓ of an army) with about six divisions was encircled in Demyansk, in Stalingrad, an entire and greatly reinforced army was trapped. Whereas the Demyansk and Kholm pockets together needed around 265 t (292 short tons) of supplies per day, the 6. Armee required an estimated daily minimum of 800 t (880 short tons), delivered over a much-longer distance and faced by a much better organised Red Air Force. The air transport force had already suffered heavy losses, and was much further away from good infrastructure. The Luftwaffe simply did not have the resources needed to supply Stalingrad.

Of the 210,000 German troops in the Stalingrad kessel (twice as many as Demyansk), perhaps 35,000 were evacuated, 105,000 surrendered, and 60,000 died.

A highly successful execution of the cauldron strategy (albeit possible only since in this case the Soviet air force wasn’t shooting down the planes) was the Berlin airlift initiated by the United States in response to the Soviet closure of land transportation to the city in 1949.  

An interesting fact that I did not know was that the closure was triggered by Allied determination to establish the West German Deutschmark as the dominant currency in all four zones of Berlin.  The Allies had already poured 250,000,000 Deutschmarks into the city to general acceptance.  Things did not look good for the Soviet alternative, the “Ostmark”, so USSR contrived to lock the Allies out of Berlin and demoralize the locals in preparation for a putsch to take over the whole city. 

In an interesting foreshadowing of the Russian aid convoy to eastern Ukraine, American strategists played with the idea of forcing open a land route to Berlin, but this was rejected as too confrontational, especially since the small number of combat ready US forces in theater were completely outgunned by 1.5 million Red Army troops.

Another possibility emerged, however. 

Although the Soviets were able to stop the roads and trains on the pretext of forestalling an invasion, they never reneged on the agreement to keep the air corridors open, little expecting that a city of 2.8 million people could be supplied by air.  The United States, however, had extensive experience flying supplies to Chiang Kai-shek over the Hump, and General Wedemeyer judged that the Berlin operation was feasible.

To the surprise of the Soviets, the Allies decided to go ahead with the airlift. The Soviets engaged in some half-hearted harassment, but never made any serious attempt to block the planes.  The operation continued for 15 months, and 278,228 flights transported well over 2.2 million tons of goods—2/3 of which was coal!—to Berlin at a cost, in current dollars, perhaps almost $5 billion.  The payoff, however, was that the Allied occupation zones were able to resist the Soviets and set up their own government in the divided city.   

Soviet overreach on the issue of Berlin also accelerated the combination of Germany’s three other occupation zones into West Germany and the expansion of NATO, and sympathy for the USSR in the United States as the ally who had borne the brunt of the war against Hitler largely evaporated a mere four years after the triumph over Nazism.

The Berlin crisis revealed a combination of Soviet cupidity, clumsiness, unpopularity, and weakness and shortcomings of vision and determination.  

Stalin was, of course, laboring under various difficulties, including the contemporaneous split with Tito’s Yugoslavia, and not really interested in another war.  Also, the US flew a squadron of “atomic bombers” to England to send the message that Mr. Nuke was in the neighborhood in case the Soviets decided to confront US armed forces (even though the United States actually didn’t have enough atomic bombs to arm the planes and the USSR probably knew this through their spies in England).

All in all, in my judgment the 1949-50 crisis was not some of Uncle Joe’s best work, and I wonder if alternate histories exist in which the Soviet army simply stomps into western Berlin, presents the West with a fait accompli, and settles in as the unchallenged master of eastern Europe and hegemon of the entire continent for the next century.

In any case, cauldrons or “kessels”, at least as a conscious operational gambit, are inseparable from air power and the ability to resupply by air.  

When I hear about Kyiv forces trapped in “cauldrons”, there is some dissonance for me.  Unless the Ukrainian armed forces allowed troops in a salient to become enclosed with the expectation that they could be supplied by air and maintained in a battle-ready condition to tie up enemy forces and pose a constant threat to the rear of the rebel forces and cities in the NAF interior, it seems that the correct term for their predicament is the somewhat less glamorous and evocative “pocket”.

Friday, August 22, 2014

China as an EEZ Outlaw in the South China Sea

A think tank called CNA recently issued a 140 page report titled China versus Vietnam: An Analysis of the Competing Claims in the South China Sea authored by Raul (Pete) Pedrozo.  It provides a further legal rationale for growing US efforts to inject itself into South China Sea EEZ disputes on behalf of Vietnam and against the PRC.

A few reasons why attention should be paid.

First, the institution.

CNA is described as a non-profit corporation.  A fuller description would be a “US Navy analytic division dating to 1942 that works exclusively for and is funded exclusively by the US government but was corporatized in the 1990s so it could dip its beak into non-DoD government work through a division called the Institute for Public Research”.

You could say that “CNA” stands for “Center for Naval Analyses”, the name of its antecedent organization.  But you’d be wrong, according to CNA, in a “note to reporters and editors”: CNA is not an acronym and is correctly referenced as “CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA." 

So, consider CNA a meaningless collection of letters for a center that does analyses for the Navy and Marine Corps, whose main job is studying systems, tactical, and strategic issues for the USN and USMC.  It has one unique regional focus, a “China Studies” division of 20 or so in-house analysts buttressed by “an extensive network of subject-matter experts from universities, government, and the private sector from around the world”.

Second, the author, a “subject-matter expert”, Captain Pedrozo:

Captain Raul (Pete) Pedrozo, U.S. Navy (Ret.). Former Professor of International Law, U.S. Naval War College; Staff Judge Advocate, U.S. Pacific Command; and Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Fans of PRC maritime disputes are or should be quite familiar with the work of Captain Pedrozo. 

When the PRC harassed the US naval survey vessel USNS Impeccable in 2009 and tried to assert that military surveillance inside the PRC EEZ was a violation of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, Captain Pedrozo produced highly important opinions, Close Encounters at Sea: the USNS Impeccable Incident and Preserving Navigational Rights and Freedoms: The Right to Conduct Military Activities in China's Exclusive Economic Zone.  

In these documents, Captain Pedrozo made a point of declaring that the USNS Impeccable was not engaged in any sort of anodyne mapping exercises, but was actually conducted military surveillance against PLAN subs, thereby exempting the Impeccable from any UNCLOS obligations to butt out of the PRC EEZ.  This argument, judging by the recent dispatch of a PLAN surveillance into the US EEZ during RIMPAC, has apparently won the PRC’s acceptance.

Captain Pedrozo's arguments that the PRC was improperly threatening legal military (not commercial) activities inside the PRC EEZ provided the basis for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declaration at ASEAN in 2010 that the US had a national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and got the whole "pivot to Asia" ball rolling. 

Captain Pedrozo, it is safe to say, is a big gun in the anti-PRC lawfare arsenal.  In passing, it should be noted he is no friend of the PRC or its maritime pretensions.

Rather amusingly, in 2012 he recommended against against the US government concluding a agreement with the PRC to guard against collisions of naval vessels, largely on the novel grounds that it would encourage what might be termed “excessive Chinese uppitiness”:

[A]lthough an INCSEA [Incidents at Sea] agreement could, in theory, reduce the possibility of miscalculation during un-alerted sea encounters between U.S. and Chinese naval and air forces, there are many reasons that the United States should not pursue such an arrangement. First, unlike the Soviet Navy, the PLA Navy is not a “blue water” navy with global reach and responsibilities. Elevating the PLA Navy to such a stature would not be in the best interests of the United States… [A]n INCSEA agreement with the PRC would significantly enhance the stature of the PLA Navy by suggesting it was a naval power on par with U.S. and former Soviet Navies . It would also force the U.S. Navy to treat the PLA Navy as an equal, something which it clearly is not.

Rather less amusingly and, I suppose, considerably more significantly, lack of an INCSEA agreement also will increase US Navy latitude in peremptorily brushing aside PLAN ships during the maritime confrontations that, if advocates of a more forward US military posture in PRC’s maritime sphere prevail, will becoming more and more common in the upcoming years.

Third, the subject matter.  

The terminally FUBAR sovereignty issues of the Spratly Islands do receive a thorough parsing, but the main event is the Paracels, the cluster of islands south of Hainan, near Vietnam, completely occupied by the PRC, disputed by Vietnam, and the locale in which the PRC parked the HYSY 981 rig, partly as a signal that the US military presence in the South China Sea was, by Chinese estimation, neither justifiable nor necessary.

Fourth, an interesting question begged by the report, and actually raised in the foreword, by the Project Director, Michael McDevitt:

Importantly, this analysis of Vietnamese claims versus Chinese claims to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes was not undertaken as a prelude to a recommendation that the United States depart from its long held position of not taking a position on competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. That is not the intent, nor is it one of the recommendations of the project.

Yeah, so if the US government doesn’t take a position on sovereignty claims, why did the top Navy think tank retain the top Navy sea lawyer (now retired) to crank out 140 pages of densely argued and heavily cited verbiage on the topic.

Fifth, the conclusion, a tenacious if not tendentious rebuttal of PRC claims and an unambiguous assertion by Captain Pedrozo of the superiority of Vietnamese claims to both the Paracels and the Spratlys.

Claims, I might add, that are not exactly a slam dunk, as McDevitt acknowledges in his foreword:

The Pedrozo analysis differs in part from two other third party analyses, one by Dr. Marwyn S. Samuels, an American scholar, who wrote the first detailed study on the origins of
the disputes among China, Vietnam and in the Philippines. A meticulous scholar who used Vietnam and Chinese sources, his Contest for the South China, holds up very well some 40 years later. Samuels concluded that China had the better claim to the Paracels, but that China’s claim to the Spratly’s was “highly questionable.” His judgments were partially echoed by Australian scholar Dr. Greg Austin, who has legal training. In his wellregarded China’s Ocean Frontier, published in 1998. Austin found that China had “superior rights in the Paracels,” but the legal complexity of the disputed Spratly claims meant that, “PRC claims to the entire Spratly group are at least equal to any other.”

Pedrozo’s findings are supported by Professor Monique ChemillierGendreau in herwork, Sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Professor ChemllierGendreau is a legal scholar and Professor Emeritus at Paris UniversityDiderot.

In reviewing all of these works, it is clear to me that in the unlikely event these claims are ever taken to the International Court of Justice to resolve the disputes over sovereignty the process will be long and difficult. None of the claimants has what might be called an “open and shut” legal case—although the consensus among scholars seems to be that China’s claims in the Spratlys are weaker than those to the Paracels.

The reality on the ground is that China has occupied the entire Paracel group for 40 years, and short of military action by Vietnam to recapture the archipelago, will never leave.

So, despite US government policy of not taking sides in SCS sovereignty issue, US government think tank tasks top Navy lawyer to investigate the issue, and he comes up with his own revisionist take on the dubious issue, assigning sovereignty to the Vietnamese for islands the PRC “will never leave”.


One proximate motive, it can be confidently advanced, is that somebody within the US military establishment wanted to give aid and comfort to Vietnam in its struggle with the PRC (and in support of the burgeoning reform faction inside the Vietnamese Communist Party elite favoring rapprochement with the United States and a concerted anti-China policy).

The PRC, in parking the HYSY 981 had cannily advanced EEZ/UNCLOS based arguments for the legality of the location.  By the PRC’s preferred formula, it was within a few miles of Triton Island, the uninhabited spot of land in the southwest corner of the Paracel archipelago and therefore sheltered by the EEZ of the Paracel “territorial sea”, a geographic unity formed out of a scattering of tiny islands within an excessively large body of water with a large unitary EEZ that is, by many interpretations, non-kosher under UNCLOS. 

But even if the “territorial sea” was disregarded, the rig was still within 200 nautical miles of Woody Isle, the inhabited “capital” of the PRC’s SCS empire, which the Vietnamese themselves had admitted deserved EEZ treatment.

But Captain Pedrozo adopts the argument that Vietnam, throughout the tangled strands of French occupation, Japanese occupation, French & KMT reoccupation, decolonization, civil war, the extinction of South Vietnam, and the rise of the People’s Republic of Vietnam, had maintained sovereignty over the Paracels.  When the PRC occupied the Paracels after a series of bloody skirmishes with Vietnamese forces in the 1970s, it was engaged in conquest, something that has been outlawed as a basis for territorial acquisition by signatories to the UN Charter.  Therefore, the PRC occupation of the Paracels can never be legalized unless Vietnam cedes the archipelago to the PRC.

No legal sovereignty, no EEZ.  No EEZ, the rig is illegal.

In a comment to an article he found excessively conciliatory to the PRC, Captain Pedrozo provided a clear statement of the linkage between sovereignty issues and EEZs in the SCS:

China does not have valid territorial claims to the South China Sea islands. To suggest that Beijing should be permitted to claim an exclusive economic zone from these islands is counterproductive and will put China one step closer to achieving de facto control of the South China Sea. ASEAN nations can stand by and allow China to incrementally solidify its maritime claims in the South China Sea through threats and coercion or they can stand up to Chinese brinkmanship before it’s too late.

As to more fundamental reasons why the US defense establishment were willing to ignore US policy on neutrality in SCS sovereignty issues and crank out 140 pages of pro bono lawyering on behalf of Vietnam, I will put on my tinfoil hat and advance the following explanation:

My personal feeling is that the PRC was trying to evolve beyond the foolishness of the nine-dash-line and normalize its maritime boundaries in the South China Sea along the lines of sovereignty + UNCLOS + EEZs, especially in anticipation that the UNCLOS Arbitral Commission will probably support the Philippine position on the line’s legal insupportability.

The PRC hoped to come to a separate understanding with Vietnam on the Paracels issue, thereby isolating the Philippines as the PRC’s crankiest antagonist in the South China Sea, and also demonstrating that the US had zero influence on PRC economic activities in the SCS.

So the PRC sent in the HYSY 981.  Whether the appearance of the rig was an unannounced outrage, or whether the PRC actually did some preliminary spadework inside the Vietnamese government (including offering some economic incentives for an agreeable attitude) and the HYSY 981 was a planned escalation is an interesting subject for further research.

In any case, it didn’t work.   The Vietnamese regime was affronted enough—and expressions of moral support from the US, Philippines, and Japan enthusiastic enough—for the HYSY 981 gambit to be thoroughly excoriated.

As to US thinking on the whole SCS issue, beyond giving aid and comfort to Vietnam, I suspect that there may be a rather Machiavellian overall strategy at work.

If the PRC succeeds in its long-standing goal of normalizing its SCS disputes on favorable terms on a bilateral basis and peace breaks out in the South China Sea, the United States is deprived of a pretext for involvement and an important point of leverage against the PRC.

By a thoroughgoing repudiation of the legality of PRC claims of sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys, the US position exposes any PRC EEZ-based SCS strategy to increased risks.

If China has to defy the world in the SCS, it’s perhaps easier to defiantly hold the nine-dash-line than it is to immerse itself in a legal tangle to try and redraw EEZs with a group of angry and emboldened interlocutors based on questionable sovereignty claims.  Therefore, the PRC will think twice about abandoning its long-standing nine-dash-line defense of its SCS maritime claims—and there are indications it already has. 

Good news for the United States, in my opinion, if China is unable to shake the nine-dash-line incubus.  More conflict, more rancor, better PR, ample opportunities for the United States to step in as part of the international community “protecting the EEZ system”, an extremely novel and significantly escalatory doctrine Senator Whitehouse advanced during his visit to Vietnam with Senator McCain.

Take Whitehouse's declaration that the United States is the protector of the world EEZ regime, add Padrozo's determination that the PRC has no sovereignty or EEZ rights in the South China Sea, and we have a fresh strategic and legal rationale for active US involvement in SCS EEZ disputes.

Or, to put it less charitably, combine dubious US doctrine and bullshit US lawyering (and the predictable assistance of a complaisant Western press and compliant allies) and the United States can unilaterally declare a compelling national interest to intervene in bilateral economic disputes thousands of miles from home...and declare China an outlaw in its own maritime backyard!

That precious core interest in the South China Seas isn't yours, Mr. Chicom.  It's America's.  Bwahahaha!

Clever...if "clever" is defined as "institutionalizing conflict in the South China Sea instead of resolving it" and "ignoring the fact that national and international forces that cannot be reversed or controlled have been set in motion".

This might not turn out to be the US leadership for which ASEAN is notoriously pining.

As to whether this is a US government stratagem, or just an initiative by the growing number of China hawks in the US military/security establishment, I guess time will tell.  But both PRC and US hawks are stepping up their game in response to the perceived drift of the distracted Obama administration.

On the occasion of a close fly by by a Chinese fighter against a US surveillance plane (perhaps engaged in run of the mill surveillance flight but perhaps encroaching on a PLA military exercise), the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz presented a hawks-eye view of USN China policy:

The U.S.-China close encounter also is a setback for Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, who has been leading Obama administration efforts to develop closer relations with the Chinese military.

Locklear has sought to play down the growing military threat from China as part of efforts to develop closer cooperation with the Chinese military.

The commander’s dovish policies are being opposed by some in the Pentagon and Air Force who are concerned that the conciliatory approach will appease the Chinese at a time when Beijing has made aggressive territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Seas.

The hawk recipe is fighter plane escorts for surveillance aircraft, a recapitulation of the "paramilitarization" of disputes with China (by interposing US military assets between PRC ships and Vietnamese and Philippine vessels) that was proposed by Carlyle Thayer in the South China Sea, a remedy that I think we'll be seeing more and more.

In any case, elements within the US government/think tank universe have developed 1) the legal justification (the Pedrozo analysis) 2) the doctrinal imperative (what I call the Whitehouse Doctrine) and 3) the operational tactics ("paramilitarization") to confront the PRC as an EEZ outlaw in the South China Sea.

How and when this strategy is implemented is now a matter of speculation only.  But, as PRC strength waxes and the US government sees its window of opportunity for effective rollback inexorably closing in the South China Sea, I think something will happen sooner rather than later.