Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mischief Is Afoot at Mischief Reef

Chinese Dredging Operations at Subi Reef
Pointless wars, endless military interventions and meaningless saber-rattling are very bad strategies for international relations. The US has been far too willing to engage the world with a military-first strategy - that simply cannot be argued. With 25 years in Iraq and 15 years in Afghanistan, with nothing, not a single positive outcome on offer, it's worthwhile for the American leadership to examine how we deal with foreign challenges and adversaries, and what international leadership really looks like in the 21st century. So given that interpretation, the current American naval 'provocation' in the Spratley Islands would seem to be irresponsible and unnecessary. But maybe not. Let's think this through.

As you probably know, the Chinese have claimed sovereignty over a number of tiny island chains in the South and East China Seas, delineated by the infamous "Nine Dash Line". These rocks and outcrops, mostly uninhabited, stretch from Taiwan down to the Philippines, and are alternately claimed as sovereign territory by Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, The Philippines and even Brunei. But go back and look at that list of competitors for these lonely rocks. China has nothing close to a peer-competitor in the international contest for the ownership of the South China Sea. So the Chinese rolled out a massive dredging program to build islands where there had been nothing but submerged reefs. On Mischief Reef, on Subi Reef, on Fiery Cross Reef, they turn submerged rocks into islands large enough to support an airstrip and a garrison.

Here's the thing. The Chinese are claiming a 12 nautical mile 'Exclusive Economic Zone' around these man-made islands. Setting aside that 12 mile EEZ doesn't allow the restriction of international navigation, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea addresses this specifically and directly - you get 500 meters around a man-made island. And here's the really fun irony. The Chinese have signed and ratified the UNCLOS, and are making claims that run directly counter to its specifications. Meanwhile, the US, who signed the UNCLOS twenty years ago but has never ratified it, is demanding the power to enforce its provisions.

So there's the background. It's in this environment that the US Navy dispatched the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) to conduct FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) by sailing intentionally through the 12 mile EEZ claimed by China around Subi Reef. And to be very clear, this is a good thing. China is what we call a 'regional hegemon', the 800 pound gorilla in their neighborhood. Nobody's going to go to war over shipping traffic in the vicinity of man-made islands in the middle of the South China Sea, but China could easily intimidate her smaller, weaker neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines. But it's very hard to intimidate a Burke class Destroyer, arguably one of the most powerful surface warships in the world.

This isn't about beating our chests or provoking war. This is merely telling a regional bully that we're not going to sit back and let them take control of international waters. This mission wasn't about the US at all, it was intended to show the Chinese that if they make statements like this, we're going to make them eat those words with the whole world watching...

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