Monday, December 3, 2012

What's Mandarin for "Avast, ye scurvy dogs"..?

Fallows has been doing some spadework on geopolitics in the South China Sea and the People's Republic of China/Hainan Island People's Congress' latest statements regarding what they see as their rights in the littoral they consider their "near abroad".

And this "abroad" is at least to my eye pretty broad:
Look at the size of the East-is-Red line on the map above: I don't see any real way that historical claim, international, or maritime law could be twisted to support that reach of "territorial waters". That seems to me to be a hell of an over-reach.

Much as I don't agree with the commonly-heard U.S. conservative trope that places the PRC in the military cross-hairs as "our next enemy" this announcement does seem to me to be an unpleasant sort of geopolitical overreach from the Hainan government and makes me wonder what the hell the PRC was thinking to let this leak out. If "hard cases make bad law" then "making broad statements potentially applicable to nearly-impossible-to-enforce-maritime-territorial-claims makes dangerous foreign policy".

IF taken to the territorial extreme this claim would seem to give any ambitious, aggressive, or just-plain-batshit-crazy PLAN commander a ready made casus belli.
Mind you, there does seem to be a strong strain of opinion that this announcement is NOT intended to genuinely apply to the areas around the Spratley Islands, for example, that while notionally under Hainan Island's "adminstration" are well outside the PRC's 12 or even it's 200-mile limit. The linked article above says conclusively:
"...the actions outlined above are all concern with Chinese territory or territorial waters – not the much larger maritime areas that press accounts have suggested."
In other words, using the map above to conclude that the PRC is saying it has the right to "...inspect, detain or expel foreign ships illegally entering waters..." less than 50 miles off the coast of Brunei, say, would be taking counsel from fear.

But I am watching to see what, if any, further explication of this statement comes from Hainan. Interesting times, perhaps?


  1. Interesting times indeed. So what is with Hainan anyway - do they have their own provincial Coast Guard? Let us hope that no more casualties happen here than what happened in the Cod Wars btwn Iceland and the UK. But the potential of oil flowing in the Spratlys probably means that blood will flow there too.

    Seems to me this has nothing to do with that big red thumb jutting down almost to Singapore. It is more to do with the 12-mile limit around those uninhabited islands and shoals that they claim due to some historical claims whether real or imagined. But then there are so many of those tiny islands and atolls spread over a large area that a 12 mile limit around each assumes a gigantic area. Not quite as big as that red line but close.

    Freedom of navigation through any countries EEZ is pretty well set in international law so I do not see the Chinese Navy stopping any ships transiting through there. During the cold war the US used to send navy ships into the Sea of Okhotsk, the Black and Baltic Seas, and other waters. We did this for no other reason than just to let Moscow know we were exercising our rights to navigate freely in international waters even if they considered them Soviet lakes. Ditto for North Korea, that did not always work out happily though.

  2. It's kind of like a bigger asian version of Rockall.

    The Chinese are claiming ownership of almost all of the little Islands in the SCS and then, based on that claim of ownership, they assert the 12NM limit for territorial waters as well as the 200NM exclusive economic zone.

    Tensions in the SCS are flaring up now, but they go way back. The last flare up was, IIRC, in the mid-1990's. At that time it was an area of professional interest for me as I was in the Navy and our ship passed through there several times. As I recall, one country would go plant a flag on some little spit of land and then the Chinese or some other country would come along, rip it up and plant their own.

    Over the last 20 years or so, the Chinese have slowly built the ability to more actively enforce their claims, to include at least one military airfield on one of the larger islands.

    Of course, there is also reported to be large petroleum deposits in the area, but I'm sure that has nothing to do with the various disputes....

  3. As Andy notes, Mike, the PRC has been quietly going about claiming a pretty large swathe of the maritime region between the SE Asian mainland and the archipelago (Borneo-north-to-the-PI) to the east since they started seriously upgrading the PLAN in the 1980s. It's based on some pretty sketchy (to my eyes) claims to a whole bunch of these little midocean rocks like the Spratleys. Rumor has it that there is some amount of recoverable petroleum in the region, although I'm a little skeptical; the geology isn't quite right, for one thing. But the PRC is unique among the claimants in having the actual naval force to back its plays.

    And the Hainan Island region is the Chinese province that has the technical "authority" over this ocean area; so the Hainan Provincial Council is, in effect, the local ruler of these sea rocks.

    For me this isn't really a "threat" - unless the PRC decides that they need to control passage through this area. PRC "control" over the little islands themselves is of issue only to their neighbors who'd like to be as tough as the big guy from Beijing. It'd suck for the Philippines not to get in on the oil drilling, if any, but that's their problem.

    BUT...if the PRC decides it controls the east end of the Sunda Straits and passage through the South China Sea? That's a problem for the U.S. and everyone else that traffics through the region, and wars have been fought for less.

    So, definitely something to keep an eye on, IMO...

  4. Interesting point raised on Andy's link to Rockall:

    ' The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states, “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”'

    The PRC and all the other participants in this little drama have ratified the 'Law of the Sea'.

    So that brings up the question: how do you define uninhabitable? Does an island with people and fortifications or an airfield or lighthouse meet that criteria if it has to be constantly resupplied from another place?

  5. Here is the deal with PRC, IMHO. It isn't a "military" threat in the traditional sense. The issue is that they own us right now, and the trend isn't getting better. If war is diplomacy by other means, the new Chinese version of war is already established to take the route of coercion through computer network attack and potentially financial. Add to that the suspected level of access that the Chinese have to our military technology secrets, and they have quite an advantage despite less numbers in a maritime fight.

    If the Chinese want to retake Taiwan, or they want to militarily enforce their claim to any islands in the Pacific, we, the US, are powerless to stop them, no matter what our Political desired outcome happens to be.

    A good book that illustrates this is America the Vulnerable. Written by a former NSA info assurance lawyer and former Counter Intel chief at the national level, he illustrates how the Chinese government very likely already have the capability to shut down our power grids and sell off our debt to the point of economic disaster. It IS NOT in the Chinese interest to do so at this time because their economy is so dependent on our money (for now), but just the threat of doing so could force the US to make concessions against our national interests or political will. If that isn't warfare, I don't know what is.

    1. " The issue is that they own us right now, and the trend isn't getting better. "

      Or rather, if US debt is downgraded, a lot of people in China will be out a lot of money.

      Or, as the saying goes, when you owe the bank a trillion dollars, you own the bank.

    2. Sorry Barry, "own" a poor choice of words because it implies the debt issue. It goes way beyond that. Many believe that they "own" control of our power grid and other SCADA systems. The concern is the damage they could do if they wanted to, and it would be very hard to say with any certainty exactly who did it, if it truly originated in China or if it was state sponsored.

    3. I agree with Barry. Even if China could do us a tremendous amount of damage, they'd be doing themselves at least as much damage seeing as how we are their biggest trade partner these days by a lot.

      I cannot find a reasonable scenario where China decides to use this power, thus making it a moot point.

  6. The Chinese are simply laying down their markers, from a strategic theory perspective. They plan long-term, but are willing to take advantage of strategic weakness given the opportunity, should it knock . . . The US refuses to acknowledge that we are in terrible shape and continues to act as if nothing has happened/everything's fine, when it obviously isn't.

    What about those new Chinese passport pages . . .

    See a pattern? And there will be more Chinese assertiveness to come . . . especially as long as we continue to "party" like it's 1945 . . . as bg implies, it's not about them, it's about us . . .

  7. Just for context, to see things from a Chinese perspective, China has had the leading world economy for something like 15 of the last 17 centuries, with the last 200 years being the exception. Americans see China as rising, they see themselves as simply returning to their rightful place. All a matter of perspective.

  8. But to continue the Chinese perspective, China has never been a particularly aggressive or assertive maritime power and has not had any particular interest in dominating anything outside her own coastal waters since Tang times.

    So while I tend to agree with seydlitz that this is the PRC thinking speculatively about the "long" geopolitical game, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are already "blue-water" and "brown-water" factions in the hierarchy of the PRC government. Hainan province would be a likely place to find "blue-water" types, so the origin of this announcement from there makes sense.

    But history and geography has tended to make China a continental power, so I can easily see this being walked back by those who disagree that China's destiny is on the Seven Seas...

  9. Or ... some wild a$$ speculation on my part.

    It could be that they are getting ready to do some serious SubEx's of the new type 095 nuke boat from their huge submarine pens at Sanya in the south end of Hainan Island.

    In the South China Sea a Hainan based Chinese fighter plane collided with (or rammed some say) one of our EP-3's on 1 April 2001. Later they harassed one of the ocean surveillance ships in March 2009 with a Frigate, several other ships, and aircraft. They reportedly came within 25 feet and one stopped directly in front of her bow to either get her to stop or end up ramming. Obama had to send in a DDG in to protect her.

    So this could be a not so subtle warning to the US Navy to keep our Ocean Surveillance ships and EP-3's noses out of the area???

    Or maybe I have been drinking too much of my homemade cherry hootch.

    In any case maybe I will rethink any plans to play golf at Yalong Bay or any of the other two dozen luxury courses on Hainan designed by Nick Faldo, Jack Niklaus, and Greg Norman. Not that I could afford it anyway.

  10. Being who I am, mike, this whole business makes me thing back to the whole "strong-Navy" versus "strong-Army" disagreements in Germany in the two decades surrounding the turn of the 20th Century.

    Remember that the Kaiser, Tirpitz, and their buddies saw Germany's "destiny" as a maritime power and wanted a big fleet? As I recall it was Bismarck and HIS pals who were all over that with a wet blanket, insisting that Germany should concentrate on continental power and warning that trying to expand into the oceans would just precipitate conflict with Great Britain, who would see building warships not as a "colonial Great Power" move but a "threat to British seapower" move. He was agin the whole idea of colonies for a long time, only reversing himself in the late 1880s when - I think - he felt he had to get Germany into the colonial race to undercut his rivals who were getting the Kaiser all jiggy about it. The disagreement about the "maritime strategy" was (I think) one of the many reasons that Bismarck got the sack in 1890.

    And, as it turned out in many other things (like his wisdom regarding the Treaty of Frankfurt), the old man was right; it WAS dangerous to build battleships...

    So I think there is likely to be a faction in the PRC government that wants to flew the PLAN muscle in their "near abroad"; and that would include trying to "fear-up" the USN by making life difficult for its small units and recon elements. These guys probably think that they have a "solution" to the USN carrier power with a combination of ballistic missile ASMs, sea-skimming SSMs, and submarines, much as the IJN felt that they had a plan to beat the USN and advocated for a lurch southwards in 1941 while the IJA wanted to concentrate on China and the mainland...

    BUT I'll bet that there's also a "Bismarck/IJA" faction in Beijing, too, that thinks the "strong-Navy/IJN" faction are nuts who are poking with the sea-tiger without thinking of the tiger's claws.

    It WILL be revealing to keep an eye on this area. I wish that the U.S. government wasn't so heavily influenced by the right-wingnuts who are 1) careless about the decay of the social and infrastructure capital we built up between 1945 and 1980 as well as 2) lunatic about tearing around throwing cash at goofy shit like Star Wars/ballistic missile defense and goofy COIN anti-Islamofascism schemes (and the Democrats and few-remaining-sane-Republicans who refuse to talk sense for fear of being Limbaughed).

    It is by our own feathers and not by others' shafts are we now smitten...

  11. Chief,

    If you look where the money is, China is definitely more interested in the maritime domain than it has been historically - IIRC, the Navy receives the bulk of the modernization effort compared to the other domains.

    Although China is currently focused on its own littoral inside the "first island chain," under its "active defense" strategy it's expected to conduct operations out to the "second island chain" which runs from Japan to Guam, the Marianas and then south.

    It's definitely planning bigger things for the future though, even though it doesn't talk much about it. A bit over a week ago, for example, it passed a milestone by recovering and launching an aircraft from it's aircraft carrier. Blue water capabilities are a big area for investment and it seems to me one doesn't invest in those capabilities if one intends to remain focused on littoral waters.

    Of course, we'll see what happens. China's primary concern is still internal stability, economic growth, and the continued political dominance of the Chinese Communist Party. Personally I think it will be very difficult for them to maintain the status quo....

  12. I tend to agree, Andy, that the PRC is the most "outward-looking" government we've seen in China for, well, pretty much all of modern history. And foreign adventures are often useful for rallying the proles around the flag; a little jingo can go a long way to making Xuan forget that his rice bowl is empty.

    It's kind of interesting to me, though, the recent excitement about the Liaoning . I've always felt that the naval aviation enthusiasts in the PLAN were the black-shoe navy of the 21st Century. Given that the PRC possess a plethora of unsinkable aircraft carriers around the West Pacific littoral and the vulnerability of the PLAN carrier to US SSNs and airpower this vessel just seems like more of a bunch of PLAN wing-wiping-types wanting to join the Big Boys Carrier Club than a genuinely useful military asset to the PLAN.

    It's the PLAN's submersible force that I see as their genuinely dangerous tactical element. Combine a fleet of truly stealthy electric/nuke boats armed with SSMs and guided torpedoes with air assets harassing the sub-hunting units in the USN and IMO you've got a pretty nasty sea-denial threat to an American task force trying to crack open the West Pacific...

  13. Here is the wild card ECOA, as the Russian Federation's population gets thinner and thinner, crowded and male dominated Chinese slip north into largely unoccupied, resource rich land. Won't happen this decade, but keep your eyes on the north over the next 10 years. You heard it here first.

  14. Chief - good points, but maybe the carriers aren't meant to fight America. A greater ability to project power helps cement China's territorial claims in the near-abroad and there is also India.