The personal blog of Peter Lee a.k.a. "China Hand"... Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, and an open book to those who read. You are welcome to contact China Matters at the address chinamatters --a-- prlee.org or follow me on twitter @chinahand.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Manhood-Measuring FONOP in South China Sea Comes Up Short
When the US
destroyer USS Lassen finally executed
its Freedom of Navigation sailthrough a.k.a. “The FONOP” within 12 miles of
Subi Reef on October 27, the China hawks were ecstatic.
exulted that the United States had bested the PRC in a “seminal test of
wills”.On his Twitter feed plugging his
piece he speculated that revealing the PLA Navy as a paper porpoise might
encourage a rethink on Taiwan:
I wonder about the big prize, Taiwan,
now the U.S. has finally called China's bluff over its fake islands
John Garnaut added, China's great
wall of sand is theatrical bluster
The thinking here,
presumably, is that the FONOP revealed the PRC would back down in any
confrontation with resolutely brandished US military force, so the DPP could
and should explore those Taiwan-independence scenarios without excessive concern
that the PRC is really going to try to fight its way past the US 7th
assumption that the United States had successfully defied the PRC’s red line in
the SCS is a misconception born of some magical combination of goalpost shifting,
misunderstanding, and wishful thinking.
Because there was no
The PRC repeatedly
declared it would frown upon, indeed not “condone” a US Navy sailthrough that
disregarded the (extremely murky) Chinese position on the inviolability of nearshore
waters of its faux islands project.
However, it never
said it wouldn’t allow it.
The PRC current position
is that the US, as befits the world’s only hyperpower, gets to sail where it
wants whether the PRC likes it or not.And as long as the keystone of the PLAN’s power projection is a
converted casino with balky engines masquerading as an aircraft carrier, that’s
how it’s going to be.
In any case, the
defiant posture of China hawks was deflated by the revelation that the Lassen sailthrough fell under the
heading of “innocent passage” i.e. an internationally-accepted hustling of a
military vessel from Point A to Point B through some other country’s seas for
purposes of transit only (though “hustling” is something of a misnomer here;
the Lassen apparently engaged in a
“lingering” passage of several hours).
Indeed, the US action
appeared to recapitulate a Chinese naval flotilla’s “innocent passage”
sailthrough of US waters in the Aleutians in September.
In order for the Lassen operation to openly repudiate any
PRC claims to territorial water rights, it would have had to engage in military
operations deemed unacceptable in other countries’ territorial waters: turn on
attack its attack radars, perhaps, or launch a drone or a helicopter, maybe
drop some sensors.
But that didn’t
happen, to the chagrin of proponents of the “FONOP”.Via twitter, from the feed of an analyst who
watches the issue closely:
needs to set record straight ASAP on unattributed statements Lassen engaged in
innocent passage near Subi. Huge blunder if true.
it was true!Either through leaks of
disgruntled hawks or background briefings by the White House to the Financial
Times the story came out.
The revelations shrank the mighty FONOP to the puny dimensions
of an “innocent passage” sailthrough.
According to five people familiar
with the operation, the USS Lassen conducted what is known under international
law as innocent passage when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef,
which could leave the legal significance of the US manoeuvre open to different
But that decision angered many Pentagon and Navy officials
who think the US should adopt a more forceful stance.
“It makes the [Obama] administration look weak externally
and internally divided,” said Euan Graham, director of the international
security programme at the Lowy Institute in Australia.
Some critics suggested that the US operation was no
different from when several Chinese warships recently made an innocent passage
through waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska coast.
Mr Graham said that while most countries in the region were
relieved when the US conducted the Subi operation, a “sense of anticlimax”…
Insert sad trombone sound here.
As befits the underpopulated
insignificance of these small atolls in a rather large sea, it is very
difficult to figure out what is actually going on there.And it would not be beyond the cupidity of
various participants to make stuff up.
The administration could just as
easily have leaked disinfo that the Lassen
had defiantly dropped some sonobuoys and recorded the cries of polyps
groaning under the oppression of the Red landfill, and thereby mollified the
China hawk quadrant.Instead, the shortcomings
of the FONOP were gracelessly and callously revealed.
If the info came courtesy of FONOP fans in order to embarrass the White House, it's another indication of the borderline
insubordination of the Pentagon hawks on the SCS issue and their inclination to try
to drive policy execution their way through leaks to the press.
There is another possibility: that
the Obama administration was willing to advertise its FONOP dysfunction through
backgrounders by not one, not two, but five insiders.
In terms of the White House, there
are, I think, a few things at work.
One, obviously, is that President
Obama is not too interested in rocking the boat with China right now, what with
climate change, cyber, & whatnot on the agenda.
Second, and perhaps less obviously,
I suspect President Obama is not too interested in creating additional
headaches for himself as he winds down his second term.The “innocent passage” FONOP threw a bone to
the China hawks at home and abroad, but leaves it up to the next president,
presumably Hillary Clinton, the creatrix of the pivot, to decide on the
frequency and intensity of these operations over the long term.
Third, and my personal favorite, is
perhaps President Obama also shares my opinion that the whole “confront the PRC
in the SCS” strategy is stupid.
The obvious PRC riposte to enhanced
US and ally presence in the SCS is not to resist prematurely; it is to
massively muscle up the PRC military presence, not on the exposed islands, but
in the Paracels, Hainan, and on the adjacent mainland.
And that’s what’s happening.
The PRC just deployed J11 fighters
to Woody Island in the Paracels, recently completed its aircraft carrier dock
at Sanya on Hainan Island (700 meters; big enough for 2 carriers!), and is
certainly looking at studding the coast with ship-killing missiles.
Considering the PRC’s geographic and
marginal cost advantages in militarizing its backyard vs. the sizable expense
of power projection enhancement into the SCS from outside, I leave it to
interested strategists to decide whether sustained military superiority by the
U.S., Japan, and their allies in the SCS via the pivot is something really
worth betting on…
…even if the US is able to return to
Subic Bay in the Philippines and/or Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, prospects that
certainly make the Navy’s heart go pitty-pat.
It seems inevitable that eventually
the South China Sea will look as inhospitable as the Taiwan Strait, and a
confrontation with the PRC over the SCS will require attacks to neutralize PLA
capabilities inside PRC sovereign territory, a replay of the AirSeaBattle total
war scenario that undoubtedly has fans among the Apocalypse Now! crowd but
gives other people the heebie-jeebies.
The FONOP program didn’t start this
process; but it’s safe to say that it will accelerate the PRC’s militarization
of the SCS and move up the day when the PRC finally decides it really is able
to circumscribe the activities of the US Navy.
For what it’s worth, I think the
South China Sea is not a flashpoint for World War III; instead I see it as the
golden trough where PRC, US, Philippine, and Vietnamese militaries expect to
glut themselves for a generation.
Here’s hoping I’m right!
And if the PRC does
finally issue an ultimatum to the United States on the activities of the US
Navy in the seas surrounding China, here’s hoping we won’t be around to see
it.Because the PRC will only issue that
ultimatum when it’s confident of prevailing, not against the cautious US
civilian leadership, but against the China hawks in the US milsec
I suggest a useful if
not exclusive metric is the carrier race in the West Pacific.The US is shifting the focus of its carrier
operations at San Diego westward to support the activities of the Japan-based
Seventh Fleet; the PRC is pushing ahead with construction of its first
domestically-born carrier with more undoubtedly to come; and Japan is pushing
out two ships that masquerade as helicopter carriers but can quickly be
converted into conventional aircraft carriers.
If and when the PRC
has more aircraft carriers and overall lethal tonnage in the regional seas than
the aggregate of the US, Japan, and any other local ally that wants to pitch
in, that’s when we can expect a hard PRC challenge to the potency of the US