Saturday, August 16, 2014

“Paramilitarizing” the SCS: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come?

In this piece I misidentified Carlyle Thayer as "Carleton Thayer".  I regret the error. CH 8/18/14

Usually, my predictions don’t pan out so quickly.

On August 11, I looked at the implications of a statement by US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in Vietnam that used a striking reinterpretation of the global stake in maritime EEZs or Exclusive Economic Zones to justify escalated US activity in the South China Sea.

The Senator’s gambit apparently drew on the US conclusion that efforts to deter PRC salami slicing in the SCS have failed and it is time for a more aggressive and, I might add, extremely novel doctrine to justify a more forward US posture:


At yesterday’s press briefing, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper asked Senator Sheldon Whitehouse for comments about the U.S.’s responses, considered by public opinion as rather strong, against China over the recent tension in the East Vietnam Sea.

Senator Whitehouse replied that exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of every country form a sustainable network of EEZs that have been established based on international conventions and laws, as well as on mutual understanding, which help avoid conflicts and maintain stability in EEZs.

Therefore, whenever a challenge appears and poses a threat to peace and stability in EEZs, then not only the U.S. but also the entire world community will take action against the threat, the senator said. [emphasis added]

Such a case has occurred and the U.S and other countries have responded against it, he added.

[Thanks] to the PRC’s aggressive adoption of non-military measures, from subsidizing and equipping its fishing fleet for South China Sea forays to plunking billion-dollar exploratory drilling rigs in contested EEZs … the idea now is that the best way for Vietnam and the Philippines to push back might be by interposing US naval muscle.

As potential harbingers, US surveillance aircraft overflew Chinese maritime patrol vessels during the resupply of marines on the beached Philippine hulk Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal in April 2014 (amped up surveillance is considered to be an important weapon in “gray zone” crises, the term of art for confrontations that tiptoe to the brink of military conflict, but don’t quite cross).  In May, the USS Blue Ridge, the Seventh Fleet's flagship, ostentatiously sailed past the current PRC-Philippine hot spot, the Scarborough Shoal, and launched a helicopter to observe and photograph two PLAN warships in the vicinity.

Maybe in the future US naval vessels interpose themselves as Chinese maritime patrol vessels try to harass survey and drilling ships in disputed Philippine and Vietnamese EEZs; maybe the next time the HYSY 981 parks itself in contested waters, US ships interdict its resupply.

Plenty of options.


Now Carlton Thayer, a doyen of Asian maritime disputes, has weighed in with his proposal for the “paramilitarization” of South China Sea frictions, “fleshing out”, as he puts it, a bare bones idea by retired US diplomat David Brown (I am assuming the David Brown in question is this gentleman at Johns Hopkins, who previously served in a variety of high-level diplomatic and academic Asia-related capacities).

Dr. Thayer, it can be said, is a friendly interlocutor to the Philippines and in particular to the aggressive anti-PRC strategy of its Foreign Minister, Alberto Del Rosario.  In 2012, when Del Rosario heatedly confronted Cambodia and other ASEAN nations disinclined to make an issue of the China’s outrages in the South China Sea in a closed ASEAN meeting, it was Dr. Thayer who was able to reveal confidential details to the world, including Del Rosario’s dramatic use of the Nazi analogy (“First they came for the… etc.”) to decry the passivity of ASEAN with respect to the plight of the Philippines over Chinese bullying at the Scarborough Shoal.

My personal feeling is that in 2014 the PRC hoped to use the HYSY 981 drilling rig gambit to trade Vietnam’s acknowledgment of Chinese sovereignty of the Paracels for PRC’s shift away from the nine-dash-line to an UNCLOS/EEZ linked formulation for bilateral settlement of maritime disputes.

Well, that didn’t happen.  Both Vietnam and the Philippines are leaning on the idea of some combination of ASEAN, regional, + US pushback to level the playing field with the PRC.  The PRC, for its part, seems be backpedaling on its hints of abandoning the nine-dash-line and it’s more likely that China will meet the expected repudiation of the nine-dash-line by the UNCLOS Arbitration Commission with resolute defiance…and ASEAN will probably let it slide, to the detriment, especially, of the Philippine government’s attempt to sideline the PRC and wrest energy riches from the seabed near the contested waters of Reed Bank.

Judging by Senator Whitehouse’ statement and Mr. Brown and Dr. Thayer’s proposals, it seems that hardliners in the US foreign policy apparatus, perhaps gazing longingly beyond President Obama and his sea of troubles to a more militant Hillary Clinton administration, feel there’s an app for this: “paramilitarization”.  

As Dr. Thayer describes it:

In present circumstances a formal track one trilateral arrangement should be negotiated and serve as a venue for working out a multilateral strategy to deter China. Such a strategy should embrace Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and the United States and involve stepped up cooperation among their coast guards. Japan has already reached out to the Philippines and Vietnam.

The United States and Vietnam should expedite the agreement for cooperation between their Coast Guards. So far the training has taken place on land in the form of short courses. The U.S. Coast Guard should be deployed to Vietnamese waters for joint training and involve the exchange of observers on each other’s ships. Vietnam recently joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. This provides an opportunity for the United States to assist Vietnam further develop its capacity for maritime domain awareness.
In addition, U.S. Navy maritime surveillance aircraft based in the Philippines under the recent agreement on enhanced defense cooperation, could be deployed to Vietnam on a temporary basis. They could conduct joint maritime surveillance missions with their Vietnamese counterparts. U.S. military personnel could fly on Vietnamese reconnaissance planes as observers, and vice versa.

Regional security analysts expect China to mount aggressive naval displays in the South China Sea every year from May to August moving forward. This provides an opportunity for the United States and Japan to organize a series of continuing maritime exercises and surveillance flights with Vietnam and the Philippines just prior to the arrival of Chinese forces and throughout the period from April to August each year. The details of all operations should be completely transparent to all regional states including China.

An indirect strategy provides the means for the United States to give practical expression to its declaratory policy of opposing intimidation and coercion to settle territorial disputes. An indirect strategy does not require the United States to directly confront China. This strategy puts the onus on China to decide the risk of confronting mixed formations of naval vessels and aircraft involving the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

These combined maritime and air forces would operate in international waters and airspace that transverse China’s nine-dash line. The objective would be to maintain a continuous naval and air presence to deter China from using intimidation and coercion against Vietnam and the Philippines. Deterrence could be promoted by interchanging the naval and aircrews in all exercises. The scope and intensity of these exercises could be altered in response to the level of tensions.

For those of you keeping score, PRC maritime surveillance vessels, charged with dealings outside the 12 nautical mile territorial waters, are currently not externally armed, in keeping with the PRC’s “non-militarized” strategy, a state of affairs I suspect the US finds alluring but at the same time, because it undercuts the narrative of the armed Chinese menace, somewhat frustrating.  US Coast Guard cutters carry a variety of cannon & other armament.

The “paramilitarization” proposal is, to me, wrong on many levels.  I address the rather shaky legal basis for third parties to insert themselves in bilateral EEZ disputes in my original post.

There is, of course, the additional problem that the United States originally hung its “pivot to Asia” on “the US interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Seas” and the “Whitehouse doctrine” could be uncharitably described as “impeding freedom of navigation by people we don’t like in the South China Seas to advance a US agenda”.  But sweeping aside these minor hypocrisies is a matter of “kiss my hand” ease for the experienced US diplomatic and media apparatus, and need not detain us.

The real proof of the pudding will come if and when a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel either a) collides with, b) rams, or c) is, while engaged in a) or b) shot to pieces by a US coast guard or naval vessel while attempting to execute its self-defined responsibilities inside China’s self-defined non-territorial waters that also happen to be around a flotilla-infested Philippine or Vietnam-sanctioned oil rig.

Then the President of the United States gets to decide if he or she wants a collapse of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and a full-bore economic/sanctions war, kick the PRC to the curb in order to double down on the Philippines and Vietnam as America’s most important relationships in Asia, and for that matter, explain to the US public it is a matter of pressing national interest for the USCG to play chicken of the sea with Chinese ships thousands of miles from home for the sake of a Philippine or Vietnamese hydrocarbon play.

That’s a prospect from which even a President Clinton, architect of the pivot to Asia and godmother of mischief in the South China Sea, might quail.

The comforting assumption behind ”paramilitarization” is an old chestnut: that it’s really low cost/low risk because the PRC is fully aware of US military superiority, and will inevitably back down if faced with the potential for a direct confrontation with the US military or “paramilitary” forces.

As Mr. Brown put it (for the record, his proposal, unlike Dr. Thayer’s, restricted itself to the employment of US and regional coast guard vessels*):

For public consumption, these exercises can focus on hands-on training in search and rescue, interdiction of smugglers or pirates, defending against foreign incursions into territorial waters, etc. The United States and Japan should urge Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore also to join in these exercises.

Elements of the flotilla should remain at sea from March through July, ready to stymie another Chinese deployment simply by getting in the way. Such a concerted show of paramilitary strength would demonstrate that the littoral nations and their friends will no longer tolerate China’s salami-slicing tactics. There is a downside risk of deliberate collisions and the use of water cannons, tactics employed by China against Vietnam this summer. However, the more likely scenario is that Chinese vessels will choose to avoid confrontation on equal or near-equal terms, in effect resetting Chinese tactical assumptions and opening the way for more rational and mutually respectful outcomes.

But this ain’t 1997 or even 2009.  Through the state media and, I would expect, in private discussions, the PRC has stated repeatedly and unambiguously that it does not allow the United States any legitimate role to define or enforce maritime policy in the South China Sea.  The HYSY 981 escapade was merely the word made flesh, the icing on the cake, the steel middle finger, so to speak.

In 2014, it will take a war for China to acknowledge US dominion over the South China Sea.  And that’s a war, in my opinion—and I suspect, in China’s opinion—the United States is not prepared to fight.

*It would seem rather counterintuitive to place the South China Sea in the US Coast Guard scope of responsibilities.  However, the Coast Guard goes where the Commander-in-Chief says it should go. My father enlisted in the Coast Guard in World War II with the expectation his command would be harassing U-boats off the Atlantic Coast and instead found himself seconded to the US invasion effort and landing troops in North Africa, Italy, and at Normandy on D-Day; so the USCG does sometimes wander rather far afield, most recently to the Persian Gulf to support the Iraq wars.

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