Wednesday, July 03, 2019

America’s Blueprint for War in the South China Sea

The United States has been systematically preparing the ground, make that archipelago, for a military confrontation with the South China Sea and exploit China’s shaky legal standing down there.  How systematically?  Well, since January I did four major segments on my China Watch show at Newsbud about the unfolding US plan and I’ve reproduced the scripts for those shows below.

First, some background.

The South China Sea, in a surprise for people who mindlessly repeat the talking point that the SCS is an indispensable waterway handling trillions of dollars of trade, is eminently dispensable to America and its allies.   

For fun, google the term Lombok Strait.  And if the penny doesn’t drop, read this:

The South China Sea is only indispensable to—China—and its energy and economic security.

As a non-claimant state removed thousands of miles from the action, the US ability to advance its anti-China  agenda directly is limited.  

The U.S. itself has zero standing in the South China Sea to confront China directly, unless the PRC attacks an American warship, which is definitely not part of the PRC game plan.  

The US toolkit is pretty much a matter of Freedom of Navigations operations a.k.a. FONOPS a.k.a. sailing around the PRC’s island holdings and maritime claims provocatively with the hope that China will do something stupid.  Which, to date, it hasn’t done.

The PRC had decent grounds to lobby the United States that the U.S. should recognize the South China Sea as a Chinese core interest and it is alleged that PRC foreign affairs apparatchik Dai Bingguo did exactly that in discussions with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010.

If that was the proposal fed into the Clinton foreign policy jiujitsomatic, the output was just the opposite: Hillary Clinton declared that it was the United States, not China that had a national interest in the South China Sea and, as it transpired, conches, corals, marine fishstocks, fisherfolk, foreign oil rigs, and the American warships that ceaselessly crisscross the SCS all had superior claims to American solicitude.
America loves the SCS mainly because it is a major strategic, diplomatic, and legal liability for the PRC, especially after the Law of the Sea arbitral commission invalidated the Nine-Dash Line, the cartographic exercise the PRC uses to stake its claims in the South China Sea. 

Keeping the pot boiling in the South China Sea is seen as a golden opportunity for the United States to push the PRC into a corner, wedge official/military and public opinion in places like Vietnam and the Philippines away from China and toward the United States, and shift the regional narrative away from the economic/money talks discourse that advantages to China to the military/weapons work approach that is very much in Uncle Sam's wheelhouse.

Interestingly, though it is fashionable to regard Barack Obama as the paragon of modern American presidents, especially compared to the current incumbent, in China hawk circles he is detested as the mushy moderate guy who gave away the South China Sea to China by backing off from Clinton's thumb-in-the-eye approach during his second term. 

The presidency of Hillary Clinton and her more muscular China policy was a much anticipated event, I think, anticipated also in the sense that a China hawk core shouldered aside the Obama-friendly moderates in the DoD and IndoPacom and kicked off the first stage of a planned multi-decade China rollback strategy pretty near the beginning of Obama's second term.

The story of the fall of President Obama’s Secretary of Defense and the elevation of China hawks in the Pentagon—including Admiral Harry Harris, who perhaps not coincidentally, served as the Pentagon’s liaison to Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State—is virtually unknown but you can read about it (and the true history of China hawk ascendancy that began in 2014, well before Trump) here:

Even with the November 2016 unexpectedness,  after much sharp-elbowed jostling I think we can say we are seeing the Hillary hawk policy, just without Hillary.

The U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Navy, specifically IndoPacom the Navy-dominated satrapy headquartered in Hawaii that drives American military policy in Asia, sees the South China Sea as the Big One, with the Chinese presence an affront to American prestige in the region that must be expunged.

In particular, the U.S. has been working and working and working to create a mechanism to bring US force to bear in the SCS via the Philippines—and the Philippines' rather cooperative military apparatus headed by Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana.

The headline event was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly affirming that for the purposes of the  US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty the South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean and therefore within the scope of the treaty.  If Philippine forces are attacked, the U.S. military can respond.

There is a strong political component to the US/PH military of defense moves—an anti-Duterte political component.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is close to China and suspicious of the United States.  As to the long list of whys and wherefores he is not America’s buddy in the Pacific, I can point you to these pieces of mine.

In any case, Duterte’s go to excuse for not confronting China over its South China Sea claims—which the Hague Arbitral Commission under UNCLOS largely repudiated—and its offenses against Philippine interests and dignity in the SCS, was that a military clash with China would be suicidal for the Philippines.

Well, Pompeo’s statement was intended to knock that prop from under Duterte by promising US backup to the Philippine armed forces.  And sure enough, there has been a barrage of local initiatives and criticism designed to put Duterte on the spot for his rather unpopular pro-Chinese leanings.

Most conspicuously, there was the Philippine Supreme Court ruling that Duterte has a constitutional obligation to protect the environment of Philippine EEZ including the landforms controlled by China namely Mischief Reef (a manmade reef on a low tide elevation inside the Philippine 200 nm EEZ that looks to be a patently illegal structure) and Scarborough Shoal (high tide elevation, legalities pretty hazy). 

Subsequent to the ruling, court cases have been filed to compel the Philippines government to “protect and rehabilitate” these two areas and also the Second Thomas Shoal, purportedly victimized by Chinese clam and coral poaching and perhaps not coincidentally the site of a Philippine military outpost precariously housed in a derelict navy vessel.

The spectre of impeachment has also been raised if Duterte declines to shoulder his constitutional responsibilities to protect the Philippines' maritime endowment.

Continuing with this theme, the head of Team America in the Philippines—Alberto del Rosario, ex Secretary of State & executor of the UNCLOS lawfare strategy that yielded the Hague tribunal decision—went the extra mile by urging the indictment of Chinese supremo Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for China’s harming the livelihood of Philippine fisherfolk.

Duterte’s also been hammered by his dismissive attitude toward a collision in which a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Philippine fishing boat at Reed Bank inside the Philippine EEZ on June 9 and then sailed off, leaving 22 Philippine fishermen to their fate.  Fortunately, they were rescued by a nearby Vietnamese boat.  

I tend to think of it as “maritime accident” with the Chinese vessel ignominiously fleeing the scene since it was poaching in Philippine waters (as were the Vietnamese rescuers), but perhaps parallel Chinese & Philippine investigations will yield the truth.

Efforts have been made to paint this incident as an insidious Chinese plot, led not only by the local press but America’s designated sheriff for South Sea affairs, AMTI’s Greg Poling.

Unambiguously, the intent is to put Duterte’s tit in a wringer so that when the presidential elections roll around in 2022, Duterte’s protégé (or Duterte himself, if he decides to revise the constitution to remove the one-term limit on the presidency) will be forced to defend Duterte’s unpopular policies of China accommodation instead of capitalizing on Duterte’s 80% approval rating.

Duterte seems to be pinning his hopes on the long-gestating Code of Conduct for the South China Sea between ASEAN and China to establish fresh “facts on the water” to supersede the Hague & Philippine legal obstacles, and is using the threat of trying to enforce the arbitral ruling as a club to move things along with China.

However, PRC willingness to submit to a legally binding regime of obligations and dispute resolution (especially after it flouted the UNCLOS process) spearheaded by its mickle antagonist (and injured claimant to the PRC’s Paracel holdings) Vietnam! is open to question.

I would not be surprised if Vietnam is encouraged both by its own anti-China hawks and external anti-PRC cheerleaders like Carleton Thayer to adopt a maximalist position to slow down negotiations with the PRC, perhaps even by end-arounding the ASEAN consensus structure, with the idea that it would be foolhardy to make a deal with the PRC now just as the PRC is waaaay out on a limb that the US and Philippines military are getting ready to saw it off.


Instead, China appears to be digging in in the South China Sea to make the costs of dislodging it in an adversarial process unacceptably high.  It has also indirectly floated the idea of withdrawing from UNCLOS (perhaps on the basis that the Western powers are themselves flouting UNCLOS to the detriment of Chinese national security by warship transit of the Taiwan Strait), thereby giving China the opportunity to restate and remake the rules in its maritime domain.

Where does this leave us?

Replacement of Duterte with a pro-US president is clearly on the top of the US wish list for Asia.

But US ambitions probably go beyond winning back the Philippines from Chinese influence and for American military basing.

The expectation that a new Philippine president would utilize US backing, exploit the available constitutional and legal tools, beat the Hague arbitration drum, and finally confront China over its presence inside the Philippine EEZ is, I think, the lodestar for US military planners.

If the Philippines demands that China vacate Mischief Reef and China does, well the Chinese dragon has been shown to bend the knee to Indo-Pacific power.

If China resists, then the full slate of options from blockades & no fly zones to amphibious invasion are all on the table, the PRC slides further into rogue status in the SCS, and the terms of debate are shifted to the military sphere as the US craves.

So it looks like a win-win, at least to Pentagon planners.

The United States has been eager to piggyback its own heightened resolve in the South China Sea on top of its support for Philippine action.

If you took the US Navy’s statement that “China controls the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war” as a sign that the US has given up on the South China Sea, you might want to reconsider as the U.S. recently launched a military exercise in “island seizing” which, per the testimony of General Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was unambiguously targeting China (as well as unambiguously confirming China’s foresight in putting defensive weapons on its manmade islands).

And the United States recently escalated its military game in the South China Sea by declaring it would treat China’s maritime militia as combatants.  

The maritime militia is a deliberately motley crew of special purpose vessels and ordinary fishing vessels designed to harass fishermen of other countries in order to assert Chinese claims in the SCS and, when needed, obstruct and inconvenience US military vessels like the USS Impeccable (a US survey ship that exploits an UNCLOS loophole to map China’s seabed within China’s Exclusive Zone--and compromise the stealthiness of the PRC's submarine fleet).

The intended message—delivered in private by the head of IndoPacom to the PLA in January, stated publicly by the US ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim in June, and advertised to the world by Business Insider in its piece It looks like the US has been quietly lowering the threshold for conflict in the South China Sea – is that the US Navy is not going to turn away from its objectives if the Chinese attempt to impede it with a picket line of unarmed or lightly armed non military vessels in the SCS.

What might the US want to do in the South China Sea beyond sailing around on futile Freedom of Navigation operations?

The objective might be to convoy Philippine supplies to the garrison on Second Thomas Shoal—which has been conducted under a relatively sub rosa US aegis in recent years.

Or it might be to escort a Philippine environmental protection vessel to Scarborough Shoal.

Or it might be to provide a defensive flotilla to protect a Philippine drilling rig at Recto Bank (site of an offshore oil field inside the Philippine EEZ craved by China but considered vital to Philippine security not least because it will fund the anemic national defense budget)

Or it might be to compel the Chinese to vacate Mischief Reef.

As to whether the PRC will meekly fold up their tents and abandon Mischief Reef, here’s a possible data point:

And another data point that will interest fans of war in the South China Sea, the United States is rushing deployment of a submarine-based tactical nuclear missile to be ready by the end of this year, just when things will start heating up.

There are two big years coming up for the United States: 2020 when Taiwan elects a president—hopefully current president and US darling Tsai Ing-wen—and 2022 when the US hopes somebody 180 degrees from Rodgrigo Duterte takes over in the Philippines.

And in both cases, heightened confrontation is seen as the secret sauce to make sure the proper outcome—election of a pro-US anti-mainland chief executive—is achieved.

The question perhaps isn’t, How far will it go?  It is How far does America want to go?

Below are the four scripts covering the US moves in the SCS in detail.  Believe me, if a war breaks out down there, you’ll be looking back at these.

May 15 2019

When China was just a cute little Communist panda, well, an impoverished Chinese panda unable to project power into the Pacific, the United States gave up two of its precious pearls from the so-called first island chain necklace of China containment: Taiwan and the Philippines.

In 1978, the United States withdrew its Military Assistance Advisory Group China from Taiwan as part of the normalization process with the People’s Republic of China.

In 1992, in the wake of the Marcos unpleasantness in the Philippines, the United States military was ordered to vacate a massive naval base at Subic Bay and its Clark Air Force base.

The Pentagon has yearned to return to the Philippines and Taiwan ever since, and the economic and military rise of China and its assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait has created a much more favorable set of conditions for the United States.

A formal US military alliance with independent Republic of Taiwan might be the Pentagon’s ultimate prize, but the Taiwan project is still a work in progress.  The pro-US DPP party holds the presidency in Taiwan, but its policy of pivoting away from engagement with the mainland and toward Japan and the United States does not yet have a lock on public and electoral sentiment.

The DPP and its friends in the Pentagon and Japan are gearing up for a rather desperate fight for the presidential elections in 2020.  The DPP has gotten waxed in their midterms this year and there is genuine anxiety that Taiwan voters might pivot back to the mainland-friendly KMT or, almost as bad, re-elect Tsai with less than a mandate to continue the stand off with Beijing.

Declarations that any electoral outcome favoring the pro-engagement KMT are illegitimate thanks to PRC subversion and infowar manipulation are virtually preordained in DPP circles and in America’s Think Tankistan.  Iin fact accusations have already surfaced and serve as a template for the anti-Chinese influence campaigning in Australia and the United States.

But the battle to gain Taiwan for America looks to be rather difficult.

Things might go better in the Philippines.  The current president, Rodrigo Duterte is wildly popular inside the Philippines even though he is execrated in pro-US international circles as a China appeasing murdering lout.  But Duterte’s termed out and there will be a new president elected in n2022.  Maybe Team America can get a pro-US candidate in there, maybe they can’t, but in any case whoever it is will probably have less stroke than Duterte.

The Philippine military, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere, is staunchly pro-US and is already working with its counterparts in the Pentagon to push the Philippines into the China-confrontation camp.

In recent weeks the Philippine Minister of Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, obtained a public affirmation from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Mutual Defense Treaty would cover any attack on the Philippine military in the South China Sea.

Then anti-China litigators obtained a favorable ruling from the Philippine Supreme Court ordering the government to protect the environment at Scarborough Shoal—an unoccupied landform controlled by China—and Mischief Reef, which is a totally man-made island created by the Chinese island-building operation.

And the Philippine Navy joined Japan, India, and the United States for what it called a “joint transit exercise” in the South China Sea.

So we have a constitutional charge for the Philippine government to protect landforms controlled by China, formal US backing for the Philippine military in case of a clash with China, and the Philippine navy joining the US-led China containment alliance in operations in the South China Sea.

Things could get interesting if Duterte’s successor as president in 2022 decides to put all these pieces into motion together.

How interesting?  

Fortunately not this interesting:

But it could get interesting enough that the People’s Republic of China might withdraw from a major international treaty: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

In the previous episode of China Watch I discussed an interesting gambit by the PRC to use UNCLOS to demand that warships avoid the Taiwan Strait.  UNCLOS states that if a continental state also controls an island, it can demand that warships engaged in innocent passage not use the strait and instead take an alternate route.

In the case of Taiwan, this would mean warships could be required to sail up the eastern or Pacific side of Taiwan on the way from Point A to Point B instead of using the Taiwan Strait—if everybody accepted that Taiwan is indeed sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China.

Unfortunately for the PRC, that is not the case.  Most nations followed the lead of the US in acknowledging the People’s Republic of China as the sovereign power on the Chinese mainland…but not over Taiwan.

So look for the United States to continue to sail up and down the Taiwan Strait and, in fact, persuade other navies to come along to humiliate the PRC and demonstrate the limits of its power.

Add to that the fact that the United States Navy has declared it has no obligation to respect any 12 mile territorial sea when the territory of an island is disputed, as many of the Chinese islands in the South China Sea are.

And now China faces the threat that the Philippine government, backed by the US military, will seek to enforce its environmental protection obligations on landforms controlled by China in the South China Sea, as specified in the UNCLOS arbitration award to the Philippines concerning PRC claims in the SCS.

All in all, UNCLOS has turned into a pretty big liability for the PRC in its confrontation with the United States and its allies.

Therefore, it is not too surprising that the idea of China withdrawing from the UNCLOS regime is being floated.

This possibility was raised in a piece for The Diplomat by Mark Valencia, a consultant to the PRC government who had also written in the international press on the Taiwan Strait issue.

Withdrawing from a major international treaty would not be a good look for the PRC, especially as it is fighting US characterization of China as a rogue state.

But the countervailing argument is that the United States itself is not a signatory to UNCLOS, and PRC withdrawal would level the playing field with the US—by allowing China to unilaterally declare its interpretation of its obligations, instead of subjecting itself to the mercies of UNCLOS and its dispute resolution system.  In other words, behave just like Uncle Sam does!  Call it superpower parity.

Valencia wrote:

China would then be legally free to ‘pick and choose’ the Convention’s provisions and interpret them in its favor – just as the U.S. does now.   China’s withdrawal from the Convention would weaken it and the authority of its dispute settlement mechanism. China may welcome that as it…seeks to alter the interpretation of international law in its favor. At the least, it would give notice that China is not to be trifled with …

 And it would also give the PRC more latitude to play hardball on the Senkakus and offshore oil concessions disputed with the Philippines and Vietnam, including the vital Reed Bank energy play off the Philippine coast.

It’s not a pretty scenario, and that’s the whole point: the PRC is hinting it’s willing to get pretty ugly if its maritime neighbors keep following the US playbook.

How bad things get will probably be a function of how the elections in the Philippines and Taiwan go.  So mark your calendars for a possible war in 2020 or 2022.
May 1 2019

China is conducting a big international naval review in the port city of Qingdao to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy.

A bunch of countries sent warships to participate in a naval review: including Russia, Vietnam, India South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and Japan.  America didn’t, of course.  France was supposed to send a ship but it didn’t show up.

On the eve of the naval review, when the Pentagon apparently thought it was the most appropriate time to crap on China, it leaked to Reuters that a French frigate, the  Vendemiaire, had been disinvited after it sailed through the Taiwan Strait on its way to Qingdao.

Exclusive: In rare move, French warship passes through Taiwan Strait
Responding to a French  report, the Chinese Ministry of Defense allegedly stated at a press conference that a French warship had "illegally entered China's territorial waters" on April 7.

"The Chinese military sent warships in accordance with the law, in order to identify the French ship, and warn it to sail away,"

“Allegedly” because the Chinese didn’t include this statement in the video record of the press conference or the Chinese-language or English-language transcripts, leaving the statement to be recorded, shaped, and spun by the journo fraternity.  As we shall see, that presents some problems.

The English-language report provoked much excitement amid the US Navy loving China hawk fraternity.  Greg Poling, the maestro of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, a subsidiary of the CSIS think tank designed to leak embarrassing intel and tittle tattle about Chinese misdeeds in the South China Sea and elsewhere, thundered on Twitter:
China accuses French warship of "illegally entering Chinese waters" by passing through Taiwan Strait. Umm, what?! Is China now claiming the entire 80nm-wide strait as territorial waters?

Well, couple things here.

First off, the English language report was apparently inaccurate.  The Chinese spokesman did not declare the French warship had intruded on “Chinese territorial waters”.

The Chinese word for “territorial waters” is ling hai 领海

Territorial seas are strictly defined as the 12 nautical mile limit by everybody, including China.

The spokesman used the term zhongguo haiyu 中国海域, or “Chinese waters”.  “Chinese waters” is not a legal term, but is generally construed to be Chinese 12 nautical mile territorial waters plus its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and maybe any other waters that China is interested in.

So, no, China is not claiming the Taiwan Strait as its territorial waters.  It’s doing something considerably more interesting.

First of all, even though the United States ultimately never ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, the US Navy was apparently closely involved in the negotiations.

A key Navy priority was to ensure that its freedom of operation was not restricted by the treaty.

Therefore, the treaty text makes two important exceptions.

First, it does not cover—and therefore does not restrict—naval operations inside another countries’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

Second, the treaty permits warships to engage in “innocent passage” even within the 12 mile territorial waters limit.

So, it would appear that the US Navy—and for that matter, the French Navy--is free to go sailing up and down the Taiwan Strait, no matter what.

Even if the China made the astounding claim that it was claiming the entire Taiwan Strait as PRC territorial sea—which it apparently did not do—or claimed the entire Taiwan Strait as its Exclusive Economic Zone, which it could do, warships could still sail happily up and down the strait on innocent passage without restriction.


Well, apparently, wrong.

A very interesting article was published in the South China Morning Post by Mark Valencia:

It was published on April 8, hours after the confrontation between the French warship and the PLA Navy reportedly occurred in the Taiwan Strait.

Coincidence?  I think not.

Dr. Valencia serves as an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.  That’s a Chinese think tank based on Hainan island charged with making the PRC’s case in the lawfare battles that obsess the US Navy.

In his article Dr. Valencia points out that UNCLOS mandates free passage for ships up and down a strait between a country and an island holding unless…

…unless an alternate route exists!

And, of course for the Taiwan Strait, it does.  Instead of going thisaway up the west coast of Taiwan and in the Taiwan Strait, ships could go thataway and make a detour up the east coast of Taiwan.

Or as the UNCLOS treaty puts it:

“if the strait is formed by an island of a state bordering the strait and its mainland, transit passage shall not apply if there exists seaward of the island a route through the high seas or through an exclusive economic zone of similar convenience”.


The rub here, of course, is the ambiguous status of Taiwan.  The PRC professes to believe that a nation’s endorsement of the one China policy includes acceptance of PRC sovereignty over Taiwan.  As future events will make increasingly clear, this is not the case.

But for now, based on its own laws and the Law of the Sea treaty—which France, if not the United States, has signed-- the PRC has a good case for demanding that foreign warships avoid the Taiwan Strait, and punishing nations that defy it.

Remarkably, the Western maritime lawfare warriors appear to have been remarkably silent on the error in Greg Poling’s tweet, or concerning Dr. Valencia’s remarkably timely article.

Is it because nobody checks the original Chinese language of these reports, and in addition nobody reads the South China Morning Post, an authoritative source of Chinese government military messaging?

Or is it because the Chinese came up with a pretty good argument, and Team China Hawk has yet to come up with a decent counterargument?

April 4, 2019

A while back I highlighted a statement by IndoPacom jefe Admiral Philip Davison that, quote, China controls the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war.

I warned sunny optimists not to draw the conclusion that the US Navy hates war and we were going to let China control the South China Sea.

Well, the Marines just finished an exercise on an Okinawan island designed to show China what seizing an island in the South China Sea would look like.

Island-seizing will be “critical for us to be able to project power in the context of China,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 14.

“If you look at the island chains and so forth in the Pacific as platforms from which we can project power, that would be an historical mission for the Marine Corps and one that is very relevant in a China scenario,” he told the committee.
“You just want to make the Chinese think twice about asserting their claims,” [said an analyst, Paul Buchanan] “That’s a clear signal to the Chinese that they’re not kidding around.”

It involved Parachutes! Seizing an airfield! Flying in troops and artillery!  Bringing in the Hercules!  The F35!  And bringing the bull…poop.

With all due respect to the Marines and their island-seizing awesomeness, war with China in 2020 is not going to be like war with Japan in 1945.  

The US will be able to seize one or more of the PRC’s man-made islands in the Spratly’s without difficulty.

The problem is what comes after.

The US won’t control the skies as it did during World War II.  Those skies will be filled with enough Chinese missiles to deal with whatever occupying forces the US military is able to put on, around, or above a tiny Chinese man-made island.

In other words, we’re not expecting the Chinese to fight back. 

I expect island-seizure is conceived as a less-than-war provocation building on the basic premise that China is a paper tiger that will shun direct armed conflict with the United States. 

The Marines seize the island because China doesn’t dare fight for it.

The Pentagon might call this “reverse salami slicing”—piece by piece taking the facilities in the South China Sea in an environment of “short of war” just like the PRC established them in an environment “short of war”.

Is that going to work?

Well, as the New York Times put it, China Won’t Yield ‘Even One Inch’ of South China Sea, Xi [Jinping] Tells [US Secretary of Defense] Mattis.

To the Pentagon mind, this perhaps means “Xi Jinping will suffer a fatal loss of face after we seize the islands and China does nothing.  Communist rule will collapse.  Let’s do it!”.

To the more skeptical mind, this means, PRC is guaranteed to resist seizure of any of its South China Sea islands, US as well as Chinese military personnel will die, and then it’s war with China.  The Pentagon might be eager for that, and Japan and India might be happy to see China cut down to size by Uncle Sam, but it’s not going to be great for anybody else.  Try to remember that, Australia.

As to the most likely candidate for seizure, one would think it is Mischief Reef.

The aptly named Mischief Reef is an artificial island inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.  The problem for China is the island is built on a low tide elevation, though China is belatedly trying to argue otherwise.  

Low tide elevation means an landform that was covered with water at high tide.  In other words, not an island that the PRC could occupy and claim sovereignty over.  Whatever China built over Mischief Reef is not an island, natural, manmade, or otherwise by international law; it is an illegal structure inside the Philippine EEZ.  Like an oil platform.  Or a floating hotel.

There’s now a lot on Mischief Reef.  1380 acres of reclaimed land.  An airfield capable of landing commercial and military aircraft.  Stuff that looks like local defense guns.

And the Philippines can demand that this illegal structure be vacated.

Current president Phililppine President Duterte doesn’t seem inclined to do that.  But he’s out of office in 2022 and maybe a pro-US successor will be elected.

In that case, the procedure would be:

First, Philippines demand that PRC vacate Mischief Reef; second, if China declines, Philippines send military forces to enforce the eviction notice; third, if China resists, invoke the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty which, as Secretary of State Pompeo helpfully affirmed last month, extends to Philippine military activity in the South China Sea.

As in:

“any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”

And then, cue the Marines! And Commandant Dunford!

And come September 2019, Commandant Dunford will have the W 76-2 submarine based tactical nuclear weapon at hand in case the rosy projections of Chicom surrender don’t pan out.

The W 76-2, whose epic recklessness is covered in a previous episode of China Watch, is being rushed into service by funding from the Department of Defense’s Overseas Contingency Fund, a.k.a. the Pentagon’s $60 billion dollar slush fund designed to fill pressing warfighting needs quickly and with minimal oversight.  The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were financed out of this fund. 

As one arms control commentator asked, why is the W 76-2 funded in a special, emergency war-fightjng budget line? Are there plans to use it?

 Hey, you might not like the answer.  World War III.  It’s easy!

March 6, 2019

When Mike Pompeo was in Manila last week, he said this:

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”

Was this a big deal?  

Zack Cooper of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute said:

Extremely significant policy shift

Walter Lohman of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute said:


Not really a shift. It’s a restatement of policy not clearly articulated since Clinton admin. Long overdue.

The true answer will amuse and surprise you. It involves a stealth plan by the Pentagon and the Philippine Ministry of Defense to circumvent the administration of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to upgrade the US-Filipino military relationship in preparation for an armed clash with the People’s Republic of China. 

First of all, let’s take another look at Secretary Pompeo’s statement:

“As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty.”

The first part sounds pretty dodgy, doesn’t it?  “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific…”

Well, this has been the American position for decades.

In 1979, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance wrote a letter to the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, Carlos Rumolo clarifying that the United States would come to the defense of the Philippines even if an attack on Philippine forces occurred outside the acknowledged Philippine national territory:

An attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific would not have to occur within the metropolitan area of the Philippines or island territories in its jurisdiction in the Pacific to come within the definition of the Pacific in article V.

A few years later, Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Cohen, further stated that for the purposes of the treaty, the “Pacific” included “the South China Sea”.

Long story short, if Philippine armed forces or government vessels in the South China Sea are attacked, the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines can be invoked.

So, when Mr. Lohman tweeted “Not really a shift. It’s a restatement of policy not clearly articulated since Clinton admin. Long overdue.”, he’s right.

Kinda right.

Of course, when Secretary Pompeo made his statement in Manila, it was the first time a US official had publicly and explicitly committed the United States to  “having the Philippines back” in the South China Sea.

But I think the reason why Mr. Zack Cooper characterized this statement as an “extremely significant policy shift” is because Pompeo’s statement is a step in a plan by the Pentagon and its allies in the Philippine Ministry of Defense to conduct a stealth upgrade of the Mutual Defense Treaty to facilitate a military confrontation with China.

It’s got to be a stealth plan because the elected government in the Philippines is headed by Rodrigo Duterte, who is suspicious of the United States and its ambitions for Asia, and sees China as an economic partner.

And it’s a plan because there are term limits in the Philippines, Duterte will be gone in 2022, and the US government and the Philippine military want to be ready to push a pro-US program on the new Philippine president.

For the last couple months, people who follow Philippine security issues have been buzzing about a push by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to have the Mutual Defense Treaty reviewed and maybe even scrapped.

Since Lorenzana is considered the captain of Team America in the Philippines, considerable bewilderment was expressed as to why he would question the treaty that serves as the foundation of US-Philippine defense cooperation.

Not so surprising if Lorenzana is putting the defense treaty in play in order to win some upgrades from Uncle Sam.

There is a laundry list of possible goals for Lorenzana.

One is extension of treaty coverage to the Philippines’ territorial holdings and territorial aspirations in the Spratlys and flashpoint Scarborough Shoal.  Note that Pompeo’s statement only covered Philippine forces in the South China Sea, not islands.  It looks like Lorenzana is trying to squeeze out a statement of support from the US similar to President Obama’s 2012 statement that the Senkakus fall under the US-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty—even though the US does not acknowledge that sovereignty of the islands belong to Japan.

Another stated goal is a mechanism that puts deployment and use of forces into the hands of the US military, and out of the hands of waffling American legislators and politicians.

As Richard Heydarian, a high-profile pro-US commentator put it:

The Mutual Defense Treaty…does not guarantee automatic American assistance in an emergency.

According to the treaty, each party "would act to meet the common dangers [in their area of jurisdiction] in accordance with its constitutional processes." So, the U.S. Congress, for instance, would have a say on whether the U.S. should assist the Philippines in a conflict.

Message being, in today’s fast-paced just-in-time world, war is too urgent to be left to the politicians or the legislators or debate over a War Powers Resolution.

But let’s not forget factor 3: the gravy!

Gravy meaning the beautifully titled Asia Reassurance Initiative Act or ARIA, which is basically a $1.5 billion dollar slush fund for securing the pro-US sentiments of Asian military types at a time when Chinese money is pretty much seducing everyone else.

Or as Heydarian puts it:

Washington's newly-passed Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which allocates an additional $1.5 billion for American security cooperation initiatives in the region, can go a long way in boosting bilateral cooperation.

For sure!

Objective 4 is probably the most important one: creating political difficulties for Duterte and his pro China tilt.

Here’s Heydarian again:

by putting the possibility [of scrapping the Treaty] on the table he has a chance of forcing the pro-China lobby around Duterte out into the open -- and pressing these officials to state clearly what kind of security arrangement they seek and how will this protect the country's vital interests, particularly in the South China Sea. If they balk at the prospect of saying bluntly that they would rather trust China than the U.S., this will undermine their arguments and end up strengthening the traditional ties.

In other words, Philippine public opinion is definitely hostile to Chinese activities in the South China Sea or, as it is sometimes called, the West Philippine Sea.  Duterte not backing his Defense Secretary on the need for upgraded assurances is not exactly a political winner.

And the Duterte vs. Lorenzana dynamic is beginning to play out.

Team Duterte was content with Pompeo’s statement and saw no need to go further and explore treaty revision.

As the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs put it:

"In vagueness lies uncertainty — a deterrent. Specificity invites evasion and actions outside the MDT framework,"

Good luck with that:

Lorenzana, publicly pushed back against Duterte’s position.

He also described the position taken by Locsin who said there’s no need to revisit the MDT, as the secretary’s own point of view as a diplomat.

“That is a revelation. I still want a review,” Lorenzana said.

Background here is that Duterte—by the constitution—is a one term president.  He’ll be out in 2022 and he’s getting pushed into lame duck territory.

The pro-US team is going to make sure that a more muscular pro-US policy will guide the next administration in diplomacy and trade and economics, as well as military affairs.

There are signs that the Philippine bureaucracy are slowwalking Chinese projects to frustrate Duterte and I will be very surprised if the PRC is able to get very far in its dreams of jointly developing the Reed Bank oilfield with the Philippines.  

As Secretary Pompeo made it clear, Philippine energy projects are a piece of juicy meat that the United States is very interested in:

Energy is certainly one area in which the United States is eager to build new cooperation in the region as well. Demand for energy in Asia is going to skyrocket in the coming years, and American companies are poised to invest billions in the region. They’re the best partners to deliver reliable, secure, and affordable supplies of energy.

A pivot back toward America away from China and deeper into security cooperation with the United States is in the cards for the post-Duterte Philippines.

A pro-US Philippines restores to the United States a key piece of the China containment puzzle it’s been lacking: a frontline anti-China state on the South China Sea.

If a post Duterte administration returns to the US fold, look for renewed emphasis on the Philippines arbitration victory at the Hague, a possible demand that the PRC vacate its illegal manmade island at Mischief Reef, US protection for offshore oil exploration at Reed Bank and—who knows—maybe a campaign to push into Scarborough Shoal?

If, by the way, you think this is a pure Philippine initiative, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you for a very cheap price.

Lorenzana is playing tag team with the United States on treaty review.  Pompeo’s public remarks were a way to help Lorenzana keep the pot boiling without the US openly going against Duterte.

Zack Cooper, the guy whose tweet I quoted at the top of the show saying Pompeo’s statement was “an extremely significant policy shift”?

He went on to tweet: “A lot of people have pushed for this change (myself included)”.

In addition to working at the American Enterprise Institute and CSIS, Cooper is also an associate at Armitage International.

Armitage International is, as China Watch viewers know or should know, China hawk central within the Washington Beltway.  Randy Schriver, who does the China rollback strategizing at the Pentagon as an assistant secretary of defense for Pacific and Asian security affairs, co-founded Armitage International together with legendary power-lifting muscular Asianist Richard Armitage.

So, I think Team China Hawk is coordinating with Lorenzana, not just responding, and US fingerprints are all over this move.

A high level US team will visit the Philippines in a few weeks to talk turkey and, I guess, dangle ARIA bucks in front of the Philippine defense establishment.

Top level US officials to review US-PH defense treaty

Reclaiming the Philippines for Team USA is the Big One for the United States in Southeast Asia.  I suspect that the fact that Duterte’s going to term out in 2022 is the main factor in the fact that the U.S. hasn’t orchestrated a coup against him yet.

Putting the United States in harms way to protect Philippine claims against the People’s Republic of China has its price, of course.  And Richard Heydarian is ready to propose that price:

In exchange for greater American assurances, the Philippines should consider granting access to bases near the disputed area, namely the Basa and Bautista air bases, and allow American warships to utilize Philippine ports during the Freedom of Navigation Operations tours, which are crucial to maintaining access in important waterways.

So, consider the Philippines and Taiwan to emerge as key front line players in the US-orchestrated anti-China containment alliance.  And if it looks like the elections—for Taiwan president in 2020 and Philippines president in 2022—don’t seem to be going the right way, Look out!

February 21, 2019

The US Navy is determined to fluff the South China Sea disputes into a showdown between China and the rest of the world.

In order to do that, it has to massively inflate the significance of the South China Sea.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service highlighted the difficulties: 

maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS involving China and its neighbors may appear at first glance to be disputes between faraway countries over a few rocks and reefs in the ocean that are of seemingly little importance to the United States...

Well, if the Congressional Research Service had stopped right there, we could probably save hundreds of billions of dollars, a lot of anxiety, and maybe a nuclear war and millions of lives.
Especially if the research service had added the remark that the South China Sea is an essential waterway only for China, and merely one option for Indian Ocean and West Pacific maritime traffic for American allies Japan and South Korea.

No, the reason that the South China Sea is a flashpoint for a third world war is because Hillary Clinton decided that the ticket for US relevance in Asia was to inject America into some low-level disputes between China and the littoral states of Southeast Asia, escalate freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to a vital US interest, and commit US prestige and credibility to a satisfactory outcome.

A satisfactory outcome which didn’t happen.  Instead, we got determined Chinese pushback, island-building, regional polarization, and confrontation between US and PRC forces.

Now, as the Congressional Research Service tells us, the South China Sea has been transformed into a regional test for US resolve.  

Chinese bases in the SCS, and more generally, Chinese domination over or control of its near-seas region could complicate the ability of the United States to prevent the emergence of China as a regional hegemon in its part of Eurasia." 

which might: "encourage countries in the region to reexamine their own defense programs and foreign policies, potentially leading to a further change in the region’s security architecture."

Heck, let’s go a step further and make winning in the South China Sea the linchpin of the Western system of international law—which, given the inability of the US to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is quite a stretch.

"Overturning the principle of freedom of the seas, so that significant portions of the seas could be appropriated as national territory, would overthrow hundreds of years of international legal tradition..."

So, now that standing up to China in the South China Sea is so darn important, let’s look back at Admiral Davidson’s statement:

China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.

And now let’s look at a statement that came out of a naval conference in San Diego last week:

“We’ve spent a lot of time over the past years playing defense,” Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, director of surface warfare, said at the West 2019 conference here. “Waiting for them to come to you, waiting for the missile to come, for the airplane to come. The best defense is a good offense, and the idea that we will go after the threat — at range — is something that we have to be able to do.”

You know, if you don’t wait for the missile or the airplane to come to you and you fire your missile first, that’s not offense…that’s aggression.

As to why Admiral Boxall wants to “go on the offensive”, it’s because the US has a lot of nothing going for it in the South China Sea.

No standing as a disputant, no Chinese attempts to restrict freedom of the seas.  All the US Navy has got is Freedom of Navigation Operations—the famous FONOPS.

FONOPS are where the US Navy sails around China occupied islands in the South China Sea, entering within the 12 mile territorial waters claimed by China, and inviting the Chinese Navy to hassle it.  So far this has yielded a lot of…sailing around.  

Admiral Boxall’s desire to throw the first punch, I suspect, has something to do with the Navy’s FONOP frustration.

Maybe threatening to attack a Chinese Navy frigate on the pretext that it appeared an imminent threat is supposed to wipe that smug look off China’s face.

And maybe also the way to start that war that Admiral Davidson has declared is the only way to deny China control of the South China Sea.

Wouldn’t be the first time the US started a war in the South China Sea with a FONOP, by the way.
Anybody remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident?

The official story is that on August 4, 1964 North Vietnamese torpedo boats staged an unprovoked attack on the U.S. destroyers Turner Joy and Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin adjacent to the South China Sea.  

President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara used this outrage to push the so-called Gulf of Tonkin resolution through Congress.  It enabled direct US military action against North Vietnam and turned our doomed support for a faltering South Vietnamese regime into a national disaster for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the United States that claimed over 2 million lives.

Later the story came out that, so sorry, there actually  hadn’t been an attack.  There were some confusing radar signals, shells got fired into the empty ocean, inaccurate and panicky cables were sent, the war started, so frickin’ sorry.

Well, the story that finally came out in 2010, 46 years after the fact, through the declassification of a 1968 secret report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was this:

The destroyers Turner Joy and Maddox were sent off the Vietnam coast as part of a series of provocations that included the first attacks of the war against North Vietnamese coastal facilities by South Vietnamese patrol boats.  The two destroyers were tasked with provoking and recording North Vietnamese radar coverage, and also with drawing North Vietnamese attention away from the South Vietnamese attacks going on down the coast.

North Vietnam, like China, claimed a 12 mile territorial sea.  The US government accepted the 12 mile limit for China but unilaterally declared it only accepted a 3 mile limit for Vietnam, and sailed within 4 miles of the Vietnamese coast—hence the US claim that it was operating in “international waters”.

I think it’s worth noting that, just like the 3 mile territorial sea instead of 12 mile trickery for North Vietnam, today the US is working on the theory that China is entitled to zero territorial sea around its manmade islands instead of 12 miles because the islands are contested—in which case the US Navy, instead of limiting itself to so-called straight line innocent passage, can loiter right off the islands and conduct military operations...

...and maybe just maybe do enough hinky stuff to provoke China into a reaction that justifies US offensive military operations to drive the PRC out of the South China Sea, thereby achieving Admiral Davidson’s cherished goal.

Back to 1964.  The US expected North Vietnamese attack in response to the US encroachment.  And when the attacks didn’t materialize, US Pacific Fleet was not pleased…and ordered the patrols to continue in order to “adequately demonstrate United States resolve to assert its legitimate rights in international waters.”

The secret Senate Foreign Relations Committee report commented:

It says clearly that CINCPACFLT was disappointed with the results of the mission thus far - that is, the United States had not yet ''demonstrated'' its resolve to assert its legitimate rights in international waters. This seems to mean that we had not as yet had the opportunity to demonstrate this forcibly.

... Although the administration described the patrol of the Maddox and Turner Joy as routine but prepared for attack, there is considerable evidence that the objective of the patrol was to provoke the North Vietnamese and then to bloody them if they responded to the provocation.
Apparently, the crews of the two destroyers were so anxious about being attacked in this shady and risky inshore operation, everybody freaked out when some glitch radar signals popped up, everybody started shooting their guns off, and the panicked call went out that the Turner Joy and the Maddox were under attack…even though there were no North Vietnamese vessels around for miles.

LBJ and McNamara are alleged to have realized the whole story was bogus, but manipulated the record to sell the attack narrative and pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

So there you have it.  A mixture of covert and overt provocations in the South China Sea exploiting a unilateral US interpretation of freedom of navigation and designed to deliver a casus belli.  And when the casus belli didn’t appear, we manufactured one anyway.

You may be surprised to know 1964 wasn’t even the first time the US Navy tried to jumpstart an Asian conflict with the provocative near-shore positioning of a destroyer to invite an attack, retaliation, and a regional war.

It happened in 1951, off the southern Chinese coast, and the designated piñata was the US destroyer John Bole, dispatched within Chinese territorial waters to provoke an attack by China—and a counterattack by a US task force lurking over the horizon.  If it had worked, Douglas MacArthur, who cooked up the scheme, would have achieved his goal of expanding the Korean conflict into a regional war against China.

I tell this unknown story in my exclusive Newsbud video, General MacArthur’s Conspiracy to Start a War with China.  A link to buy the DVD is in the shownotes.  Buy it!  You won’t get the story anywhere else.

The start a war with China op didn’t come off then, but as you can see, the Navy never gives up on a bad idea, whether it’s 1951, 1964…or 2019.

Remember that if and when the balloon goes up again and another American destroyer somehow ends up shooting up a Chinese vessel…or maybe just the empty ocean.

I’ll give the last word to Senators Case and Hickenlooper of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  They had this exchange in 1968, but it’s clear nothing much has changed since then.

Senator CASE. Mr. Chairman, I think one of the suggestions, I do not know that it has quite been put into these words, is that the Defense Department, for purposes which it considered most pa-triotic and necessary, decided that the time had come to stop shilly- shallying with the commies and resist, and this was the time, and it had to be contrived so that the President could come along, and that the Congress would follow. 

Senator HICKENLOOPER. I think historically whenever a country wants to go to war it finds a pretext. We have had 5,000 pretexts historically to go to war. 

Amen, brother


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