Monday, May 29, 2017

Freedom of Navigation - Trump Version

We’ve previously noted that the infrequent Freedom of Navigation (FON) actions by the US Navy in the South China Sea have done more harm than good, legally, by serving to reinforce China’s claims of sovereignty.  The actions were carried out as “innocent passage” which is a prescribed method (see the UNCLOS documents for the exact procedure) for warships to pass peacefully through the waters of another country.  By conducting the FON actions as innocent passages, they served to bolster China’s claims since innocent passage can only be applied to another country’s territorial waters.  Thus, the US was implicitly recognizing China’s claims.  Alternatively, some FON actions were conducted at greater than 12 miles from any disputed islands or lands which, again, bolsters China’s claims of sovereignty. 

Had the US wanted to dispute China’s sovereignty claims, the FON actions should have studiously avoided following innocent passage procedures or observing the 12 mile territorial limit. 

Interestingly, the Navy has just recently executed a FON action near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands that explicitly ignores the innocent passage procedures.

“A U.S. destroyer sailed within six nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island on Wednesday in the strongest challenge of hotly debated Chinese claims in the South China Sea, USNI News has learned.

Around 7 P.M. EST on Wednesday (7 A.M. Thursday local time), USS Dewey (DDG-105) passed within six nautical miles of the Chinese installation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island chain, several U.S. officials confirmed to USNI News

The guided-missile destroyer operated normally and did not conduct the transit under the rules of an innocent passage – the restrictions that allow a warship to pass through another country’s territorial waters with no notice.

The ship was within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef for about 90 minutes zig-zagging in the water near the installation. At one point during the operation, the ship’s crew conducted a man overboard drill, a U.S. official told USNI News.” [emphasis added] (1)

This is good news in a minimalist sense.  At least this FON did no further legal damage.  Presumably, this change in policy is due to the new Trump administration.

On the other hand, this kind of FON serves no concrete purpose if the other side, the Chinese in this case, choose to ignore it.  It does not hinder development of artificial islands or bases.  It does not blockade any Chinese actions.  It does not lodge an official protest with the UN.  It does not establish a “counter-island” developed and controlled by the US.  In short, it does nothing but offer a silent, unspoken, token, symbolic protest in the mildest manner possible.

Previous FON actions have clearly done nothing to dissuade China from their expansionist policies and actions in the South and East China Seas.  FON actions, even this type, accomplish nothing but ratcheting up tensions.  We need to either back out of the area and concede the South and East China Seas as Chinese territories or begin taking concrete, productive actions along the lines we’ve discussed in previous posts and comments.

As a reminder,

“Unlike other Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Mischief Reef installation isn’t subject to overlapping territorial claims from any other country and is built on a low-tide elevation, as determined by the 2016 Hague tribunal ruling on Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention [UNCLOS], a low-tide elevation cannot be claimed as the territory of any country and does not command a territorial sea.”

China, you’ll recall, is a signatory to UNCLOS and, therefore, bound by it’s rules and regulations.  Despite this, China is actively violating several aspects and provisions of the agreement.

Setting aside the myriad political and economic actions that we could and should take, the following actions, which cover a range of intensity, should also be considered.

  • Close, high speed passes to attempt to cause wake damage to island facilities
  • Blockade of islands and bases
  • Physical hindering of resupply ships
  • Physical disruption of, and interference with, reclamation vessels
  • Covert disruption of island facilities (SEAL missions)
  • Electronic jamming of island communications

China is clearly on a militaristic expansionist path.  It is only a matter of time before China and US come to blows.  One can make a pretty compelling argument that it is better to do it now while China has not yet gained complete parity/superiority than to wait and do it under even less favorable circumstances.

If we’re not going to contest the South and East China Seas then we need to cede the area and retire from the region, diffuse tensions, and save the wear and tear on our ships and aircraft.  Of course, if we’re going to do all that, one can also reasonably ask why we need ships and aircraft.  We can cede entire regions without the use of our military!

Our policy of token resistance is having no positive effect whatsoever.  We need a new geopolitical and military strategy for the region.


(1)USNI News website, “U.S. Warship Came Within 6 Miles of Chinese Artificial Island in Toughest Challenge Yet to Beijing South China Sea Claims
”, Sam LaGrone, 25-May-2017,


  1. " China is clearly on a militaristic expansionist path...We need a new geopolitical and military strategy for the region."

    While 2nd part is common sensible and given, I think your first part is not looking fully at PLA's purpose in China's geopolitical calculation into the future.

    1. By now, you are aware of China's Belt&Road, the seminal strategy of using its focused economic heft to establish its hegemony. The main toolkit is its market/factory/free money, and its military supplementary.

    2. If China is embarking on a blue water navy (building very expensive and vulnerable fleets 1-2 generation behind USN of blue water tradition, thereby enlarging the USN advantage in such setting), not double down on near shore A2AD (keep narrowing the gap thru asymmetric preparation.) Then, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this: China is betting on eventual big-2 accommodation, and building (transitioning to) a future force-projection presence (much like USN global presence) to protect its maritime trade.

    This is only way I can square points 1 & 2. If China is looking for a fight, not only point 1 will be a total waste (bec. of trade embargoes), point 2 will be a total waste also (sinking of its fleet at high sea, far from its shore protection). Therefore, while Chinese military is expanding (as you stated), it is not for the purpose as you think.

    As for your point of the US pre-empt now than later for whatever justification; China knows Americans (or our values and redlines) too well to let it progress to such crisis.

    1. Your views on China border on naive. China takes the long view and their long view is total world domination. Looking down the road, they see the same thing I do - that war between China and the US is inevitable. Oddly, China and ComNavOps are in total agreement on this! They are building a massive military for that eventual war. They aren't there yet, with their modernization and build up but they are well on the path. That is the purpose behind the Chinese military.

      China has no interest in peaceful coexistence. If they did, they wouldn't be trampling international treaties, laws, conventions, and traditions in their quest to seize control of the South/East China Seas. They've made clear that they WILL seize all the bordering lands and WILL use their military to back it up. In China's view, might makes right and the ends justify the means.

      I can present endless mountains of evidence but I'm not going to change your mind so I'll leave it at that. You're welcome to your opinion. I'll simply remind you that ten years ago, anyone who warned that China would seize the South China Sea was laughed at. China would never do such a thing because they needed good trade relations and all the other rationales that were offered. And yet, China seized the region and didn't care about any potential public or international relations damage. They'll continue to do so as they secure the Seas. They've already begun to lay the foundation for seizing the second island chain. We're looking at slow motion, Nazi Germany takeover of the world and, so far, we are the Neville Chamberlain allowing it through endless appeasement.

      Either your view is naive or my view is outlandish. So far, mine seems to be happening exactly as I've predicted. Time will tell.

  2. I'm going to climb on your tree limb, and see how far I go before it snap.

    "Nazi Germany..and Neville Chamberlain"

    When Chamberlain waved that handkerchief, German armed force were the top of the Europe, if not the world. Right now, PLA is #3 and will stay either #3 or #2 for a long time.

    If you want to use IJN for comparison (since it challenged USN at high sea scenario to start off the fight). IJN had about 7 or 8 carriers pre-Pearl Harbor, so was USN (had about 7 or 8 carriers). Right now, USN has 10 carriers/60 Burke/25 Tico/??subs. PLAN has 1 carrier/13 Burke-light/0 Tico/?? subs. If WW2 Pacific naval war sets the precedence, China needs at least 2X of USN to ensure a win. Let's just use carriers for measure stick: 20 carriers at 3-5 yr/carrier at peace time = 60-100 years. So, it will be 2077 to 2117 before PLAN can really have a go at USN at high sea; yet China thinks its economy, if uninterrupted, will go ahead in around 2030 to 2040. That means, it will be rich before it is strong. That reality will dictates China's foreign policy- it must have a peace-able rise (if you don't like the word 'peaceful')

    1. Two things:

      1. China will be perfectly content to never go to war if they can get what they want without it. They've seized the entire South China Sea without firing a shot. As long as the US will continue appeasing China and not contesting their conquests, there's no need for China to fight!

      2. Your view of military "might" is very simplistic. You're looking simply at numbers of comparable ships. That only tells a very small part of the story. I could write a book on this, however, due to limited space, I'll just point out a couple of examples for you to consider as you evaluate military might.

      For example, you're ignoring China's extensive ballistic missile inventory. That kind of firepower compensates for, or obviates the need for, carriers and Burkes. What the US has to send carriers and Burkes to do, China can do with simple missile launches. Guam, for instance, will be wiped out with a volley of ballistic missiles. Who needs carriers when you can do that? Since the US is unilaterally restricting its ballistic missile development and deployment, this is, and will remain, a significant Chinese military might advantage.

      For example, for the near and medium future, China will be fighting on its "home field", meaning that combat will occur in Chinese waters and within easy reach of Chinese airfields and naval bases. That means China can generate a much higher sortie rate of ships and aircraft than the US can. Again, a significant advantage.

      For example, once Guam is eliminated, the US will have no significant and useful bases in the Chinese region. Conversely, China will have dozens (hundreds?) of bases. A huge advantage.

      I could go on all night with these examples (Chinese mine inventory versus non-existent US mine countermeasures, for example) all night but this should serve to illustrate that your simplistic ship comparison doesn't even begin to accurately assess the relative military might of the two countries. You need to consider the overall militaries and how they would fight in order to begin to be able to assess relative strengths.

      I offer this as a sincere educational opportunity for you to take advantage of as you consider US-China relations and how they might be affected by relative military strengths. Having a better understanding of the two country's militaries may allow you to better assess their motives and strategies, both military and geopolitical.

      China is not the top of the world military, to use your phrase, yet, but it is RAPIDLY getting there.

    2. Let me ask you, which way are you thinking (in terms of potential US-China arm conflict),

      1. PLA's arms advancement and westpac geopolitical maneuver is part of a continuum, ultimately ending with a high noon showdown to fight/replace the status quo alpha dog of world order.

      2. PLA's arms advancement and westpac geopolitical maneuver will end with a fight attempting to push out US military from the region, and..

      a: that's it (with the US still the alpha dog for greater part of the world)

      b: top dog in westpac is also top dog globally.

      Are you thinking of 1 or 2b?

    3. I'm not quite sure exactly what your options mean. I'll give my standard answer and you can decide for yourself which option, if either, it fits in.

      For reasons I've explained in earlier posts, China has no choice but to attempt global domination. Eventually, that will lead to an act that the US can no longer respond to with appeasement. At that moment, war will occur.

      China will not stop with control of the South/East China Seas. We're seeing them lay the groundwork and political justification, now, for eventual seizure of the second island chain. In their writings and public statements, they've begun to question Japan's ownership of their southern territorial islands and begun to make claims about "historical" rights to the second island chain.

      War is inevitable. China will someday be reviled alongside Nazi Germany - unless, of course, they win the war in which case they'll be writing the histories and they'll portray themselves as the magnanimous saviors of the world.

    4. 1.

      ".. China has no choice but to attempt global domination.."

      " War is inevitable. China will someday be reviled alongside Nazi Germany - unless, of course, they win the war in which case they'll be writing the histories and they'll portray themselves as the magnanimous saviors of the world."

      Sorry, we'll have to agree to disagree. I just can't rationalize, from all angles, your fatalism.

      Thanks for your time.

    5. If you haven't already, you might want to check out this earlier post for some background on why war is inevitable: War With China - Part 1

    6. "Sorry, we'll have to agree to disagree."

      I'll remind you that a few years ago, my views on China seizing the South China Sea were considered extreme and far-fetched. Today, it's an accomplished fact. All the China apologists were wrong - they're still wrong today about China's next moves. So far, I've been spot on with my predictions.

    7. You know my predictions for the future. What are yours. Now that China has effectively seized the South China Sea, will they revert to the meek, mild, peace loving, good worldly neighbor that they were before the evil Americans forced them to seize the SCS or will they continue to expand their holdings beyond the SCS?

      Make a prediction!

    8. Belt & Road: that's Chinese ticket to Pax Sinica (from peace to peace, not peace-war-peace). Power and Money are flip sides of the same coin. If B&R pans out (say, >50% success of planned) outside of its border (as its efficacy already proven inside its border), then there will be Money (i.e. better economy) to participants, and Power to Beijing. Everybody choose the side of Money, that is why otherwise adversarial parties (either ideology, religion, history, matter) such as Israel/Iran, Iran/Saudi, India/Pakistan, US/NK, Russia/US, Japan/China..all, in matter of degrees, jump on China's B&R/AIIB wagon.

      History & geography: a lot of folks refers to pre-ww2 Europe to describe E.Asia today. But looking back, unlike China today, German economy then was built on military industry- a one-tool tool bag for foreign policy. Unlike Germany (vs. France, GB) then, today's multi-tooled Chinese economy (compare to its contiguous/near neighbors) is 3X of next place holder, Japan. And one thing remains the same, then and now: the largest economy, the US, is a comfortable/secure ocean away. Had Germany not attacked GB and declared war on the US, the US would of stayed isolationist far longer. Or, look this way: Germany (by its econ muscle) today accomplished what Nazi Germany can't by force, be the top dog of W.Europe.

      Therefore, the greatest strategic challenge to the US is already turning economic, not military. In addition, global US-Military could be the unaware security provider for B&R. (remind me of USN's ad: global force for common good. Whose good, or goods, eventually?)

      Barring (or unprepared for/mismanaging, if happened) any black swan events, China's future will rest in its own (B&R) hand.

    9. This isn't an attack on you, most companies and industries with in China have military connections, so they're alot more like Germany then most people understand.

      Thou you're quite right in your opinion had Germany wait, they most likely would have succeeded more them what they did. China will not make that mistake, why would the do it now while we still busy ourselves in buying fundamentally flawed weapon systems? They declare war after we dig the ourselves.

  3. "When Chamberlain waved that handkerchief, German armed force were the top of the Europe, if not the world. "

    Not to go too far afield, I'm going to have to disagree with this.

    From what I've read, especially in Shirer's book, When Chamberlin tried to buy peace by selling the Czechs the Heer was *very* skeptical. The French Army was still more powerful and could mobilize quickly. Heck, the Heer wasn't even sure they could beat Czechoslovakia due to the Czechs relatively mechanized force and strongly built defensive lines, they figured it would take 90% of the German Army to do it and then thought the French would undoubtedly then savage their Western border and bring the war to a very quick end.

    The German Army was good, but they were still too slow along re armament and training.

    Had they called Hitler's Bluff and told him they'd invade Germany if he attacked Czechoslovakia its highly unlikely he could have done it. And had he done so and they invaded we win.

    I don't always agree that every new works circumstance looks like Munich, but there at least it does appear that we could have saved a lot of grief by a little backbone early on.

    1. The czech's were sold out, plain and simple, as was Poland. If the French had act decisively earlier, they could have avoided nearly 6 years of occupation.

      Furthermore, let history remind those that keep advocating the impossibility of war because of trade, that Germany's biggest trade partner in 1939 was France, in 1941 it was the soviet union.

      Trade only delays inevitable conflict if the underline causes for potential conflict remain unaddressed.


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