Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel spoke at the CSIS South China Sea Conference on July 20, 2015. He made news by declaring that the United States is not neutral in some issues pertaining to the South China Sea.
The money quote came in reply to a question from Wu Shicun, the PRC representative at the conference:
On the first issue of neutrality, I appreciate the opportunity to clear up what seems to be an almost ineradicable perception of the Chinese. We are not neutral when it comes to adherence to international law. We will come down forcefully on the side of the rules.
Cue the triumphant hooting from the China hawks, who were well represented at the conference and urging the United States to “draw a line in the sea”. And squealing from the PRC that the United States had abandoned its “honest broker” stance, which dated back to the Potsdam Declaration and presented US military force in Asia as the only viable peacekeeping alternative to Japanese re-militarization.
Although the tottering “honest broker” zombie took another hit at the hands of Assistant Secretary Russel, it had been staggering to its grave ever since President Obama and Hillary Clinton opted for “PRC rollback” after the strategic drift and distraction of the George W. Bush years, and received its death blow as the US and Shinzo Abe repositioned Japan’s military away from self-defense and toward a power projection role in Asia as America’s ally.
The US FP commentariat is optimistic that the Philippine arbitration case against the Nine Dash Line will succeed, the PRC’s outsized claims in the SCS will be declared illegal, and the 200 nautical mile EEZs of the various claimants will govern who can fish and drill where. Shedding the 9DL incubus is of particular importance to the Philippines, since exploitation of the Reed (Recto) Bank gas field inside the claimed Philippine EEZ (and inside the 9DL) is seen as a matter of near-existential economic and fiscal importance.
UNCLOS has no enforcement mechanism. So if the PRC tries to obstruct Philippine operations at Reed Bank and the Philippines lacks the military muscle to protect its rigs and vessels, somebody’s got to step up.
That somebody, Russel indicated, is the United States. China hawks hope this means something like interposing US naval vessels to block whatever ships the PRC sends to Reed Bank make trouble.
For fans of World War III, a few of whom I suspect reside in the Pentagon and Washington think tanks, well, it just came a step closer.
For China-bashing realists, the day when the PRC, that salami-slicing paper tiger, is finally directly confronted by the US Navy and forced to slink away in humiliation is drawing near.
For anti-imperialists of the China-hugging persuasion, it looks like the PRC got its tit caught pretty tightly in the SCS wringer and the process of extraction will be neither easy, pleasant, nor consequence-free.
The SCS conference set the narrative that the US wishes to impose on the situation: everything was going great until the PRC upset the status quo by doing its island reclamation. Now PRC presence and inferred intentions in the SCS have become so alarming that the US, as the guarantor of peace and prosperity in Asia, has to step in and enforce the international rules.
One panelist was relegated from my personal “expert” premier league table to the dreaded “journo-pundit” category for eagerly promoting the “shipping lane lifeline” canard, not only to explain American attention but to justify Japan’s injection into the issue. He stated that Japan needs a tanker coming through the South China Sea “every six hours” “to keep the lights on” and this “killer fact” refuted challenges to Japan’s standing in the crisis.
Killer fact? Just kill me. Or better yet, read my various takedowns of this myth, including one at Asia Times and another from my blog, presciently titled, “What Should Be the Last Word on Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea…But Won’t Be.”
However, the US SCS campaign does not draw all its energy from empty political kabuki.
Below the surface—heh, heh--I would hazard that the driving theme of the US civilian & particularly Pentagon planning (and privileged backgrounding) focuses less on the “SCS = global trade aorta” unmitigated bullsh*t and more on the US preoccupation with the threat from the PRC’s strategic submarine fleet on Hainan and the desirability of detecting, tracking, bottling up, and destroying those subs as needed.
I am not a big fan of strategic nuclear submarines. They are unpredictable and destabilizing to adversaries, and expensive and problematic to their operators.
But I suppose the point is that the United States is adamant about not renouncing its nuclear first strike privileges, the PRC feels it needs a sea-based second-strike capability if Taiwan blows up and the US-PRC confrontation goes nuclear, the PLAN is entranced with the deterrent and ego-enhancing potential of nuclear missiles on submarines, and away we go.
The PRC already operated a strategic nuclear submarine base near Qingdao at Jianggezhuang. It built a bigger and better one—in that it would be able to handle newer, bigger, subs that presumably could eventually be armed with missiles capable of striking the US mainland from afar—on Hainan Island near Yulin.
So the United States, in line with its national security imperatives, feels it has to cover the SCS like, well, like white on rice. The modern era of US-PRC conflict in the South China Sea begins in 2009 with PRC harassment of the USNS Impeccable, a survey ship that plods through the PRC EEZ off Hainan mapping the submarine topography and/or listening for PLAN submarines. US concern with military freedom of the seas in the SCS (softened to “freedom of navigation” to soothe the tender sensibilities of surrounding states—like Vietnam and the Philippines, that still hold some reservations concerning foreign military activities inside their EEZs) appears to underpin the SCS posture of the Obama administration over the last six years.
The US has devoted considerable military and diplomatic effort to improving its capabilities to monitor current and potential submarine operations out of Yulin. For good reason.
The South China Sea is an interesting and problematic arena for anti-submarine operations because of its complex topography. Therefore I must, in the most deferential manner, question Howard French’s recent statement in the Guardian that PRC island building at Fiery Cross Reef is scary “because of the depths of its surrounding waters, which afford Chinese submarines far greater stealth in evading acoustic and other forms of active tracking by the US military.”
If the Federation of American Scientists’ report is correct, the situation is pretty much the opposite:
Of course, if the water is so shallow the submarine can’t submerge fully it will limit operations, but deep water is – contrary to popular perception – not necessarily an advantage. Military submarines generally are not designed to dive deeper than 400-600 meters, so great ocean depth may be of little value. The U.S. navy has several decades of experience in trailing Soviet SSBNs in the open oceans; shallow waters are much more challenging. And the South China Sea is a busy area for U.S. attack submarines, which have unconstrained access to the waters off Hainan Island.
So there you have it, folks. A dodgy neighborhood with lots of hidey-holes and shallow waters and thermal layers that complicate the sonar ping-ping and depth-charge bang-bang and also, potentially, offering “home court advantage” to the PRC as it develops island bases to enhance and extend its own search (and, in case of war, destroy) operations—intensive mapping and monitoring, maritime sweeps, surveillance flights, buoy drops, big, permanent, passive arrays, what have you—throughout the SCS against US attack submarines attempting to track down the PRC “boomers”.
So maybe the PRC—which presumably picked up a few tips from ex-Soviet submariners—decided to put its new base in Hainan for a good reason.
The strategic nuclear submarine issue has considerably greater existential zing and persuasive power in explaining US SCS policy than the stated US obsession with sustaining the rules-based order or even using the SCS issue to d*ck with the PRC and create a favorable environment for the pivot/rebalancing.
In the corridors of American power “PLAN subs will nuke us” carries more weight—and shuts up more doubters and critics—than logically bankrupt arguments about cargo ships, anxiety over coral polyps, or fond notions about the sanctity of international treaties that the US hasn’t signed or hydrocarbon rights that the Philippines hope to enjoy.
And the concern that PRC island-building activity will hobble US ASW measures automatically becomes a critical geostrategic issue.
And it seems obvious that’s the argument that carried the day in the last few months.
I find it interesting that reams of Western journalism are devoted to imputing division and disorganization within the opaque CCP bureaucracy on the SCS issue even as a major purge of the China policy apparatus occurred within the US Department of Defense just a few months ago under our noses.
For a fuller accounting, please see my South China Sea ultimate backgrounder. But the short version is, China hawks saw Chuck Hagel as wobbly on the China threat and Admiral Locklear too understanding concerning the PLAN’s interpretation of its regional prerogatives. By early 2015, the China hawks had prevailed, Hagel was gone, replaced by Ash Carter, Locklear was gone, replaced by Admiral Harris, the US committed fully to the Japanese alliance and the “China’s nuclear sub threat in the South China Sea must be contained” became an overt and irrefutable justification for an escalating US military presence in the SCS, opposing PRC efforts to turn it into a primarily PRC (and PLAN) preserve, and the context for the US elevating this economically insignificant stretch of sea to a big, big deal.
However, the “strategic anxiety” knife cuts both ways.
If, as I think is pretty clearly the case, the PRC sees the US interest in the SCS as not only mischievous and downright hostile to the PRC, but also a key element in its full-spectrum effort to neutralize the PRC’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, the PRC will happily accept heightened local tensions as a cost of its national security business.
In a case of exquisite and almost perfect symbolism, Assistant Secretary Russel misunderstood, either inadvertently or by design, the key question for the PRC in the South China Sea, at least from the military security point of view: would the US try to stop the PRC island buildout, an activity which bolsters the PRC's ASW capability and which, it is absolutely clear--at least to people who listened to the question--the PRC has no intention of stopping?
Wu Shicun: As I know China won’t, you know, stop construction work in those island… reclaimend [sic] islands …What would be US actions if China won’t follow US requirement as you just mentioned to stop construction works…and does US State Department share the same status in this regard with the Pentagon?
Daniel Russel: You raise a very important second question. Which is, what if China agreed that in the interests of regional stability and harmony it would enter into a reciprocal freeze, a moratorium where neither China nor Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, any claimant undertook large-scale construction, upgrades, or certainly militarization. What would our reaction be, what would we do?
I can think of few other steps that China could take that would do more to create a conducive…an atmosphere in the United States conducive to progress in the US-China relationships. I think the concerns generated by the tensions and the disputes and the behavior in the South China Sea have raised real concerns and real questions in the minds of so many American citizens. These are questions that would be answered in a very reassuring and persuasive way if China in this sensitive area of the South China Sea exercised the forbearance, the generosity of spirit and the good strategic judgment, show restraint and created the space for and time both for a code of conduct that I think we all would like to see completed before the end of this year and a process that would lead to the end of the underlying disputes.
Consider Professor Wu’s question unanswered. Or maybe not.
With the United States and its allies promising a military envelopment of the South China Sea, I don’t think the PRC is going to take Russel’s unctuous suggestion of a freeze seriously as a US negotiating point. More likely, Russel’s dodging the island-building ultimatum question indicates to the PRC that, no, the United States is not currently prepared to wipe these islands off the map, yes, the PRC can keep building, and the military cat-and-mouse in the South China Sea will continue indefinitely.
In fact, a scenario that hasn’t received a lot of airing anywhere as far as I can tell is the possibility that the PRC, on the grounds of its national security interest, will withdraw from UNCLOS if the arbitration doesn’t go its way. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the withdrawal threat has been discretely brandished before the arbitrators, to encourage them to think twice about the consequences to the universality and validity of the UNCLOS regime itself if they are too eager to claim jurisdiction and get into China’s grill.
In that case, the US would be placed in the somewhat difficult position of excoriating the PRC for exercising a cherished US prerogative: opting out of inconvenient international obligations, not just UNCLOS, which it signed but never ratified, but also the International Criminal Court, which it signed, ratified, and then withdrew from under President G.W. Bush.
Based on precedent, the PRC might be loath to formally withdraw from the treaty and flirt with the international pariah status it occupied from 1949 until the 1970s; but I think it’s quite likely that, even if the PRC stays in UNCLOS, it will be increasingly inclined to honor the treaty’s obligations “in the breach” and assert the right to interpret its spirit as it sees fit.
Just like the US does.
Which means, perhaps, that the PRC will declare that Japan’s dramatic island building and EEZ grab at Okinotorishima is more of a guiding precedent for Chinese claims for Fiery Cross than whatever the handwringers at the UNCLOS arbitration panel seek to impose.
And if the United States proves especially sedulous in supporting the Philippines’ efforts to drill at Reed Bank without PRC buy-in and participation, expect the PRC island campaign—and the headaches for US anti-submarine-warfare strategy—to increase.
Below the break: my transcript of the exchange between Russel & Wu, with a link to the relevant video.