Fighting for the Seafloor: From Lawfare to Warfare

Seabed Warfare Week

By LTJG Kyle Cregge

As the United States Navy looks to space and cyber as new domains for warfare, it also ought to look deeper: to the seafloor. Increased competition for vital resources and the intent to control critical sea lines of communication will drive nations and their navies to the seabed. There are three serious operational challenges ahead for the U.S. Navy that will require both technical and intellectual investment to properly establish security on the seafloor.

In the context of seabed warfare the three challenges align with the first three operational phases of war as part of U.S. doctrine: 0, Shape the Environment; 1, Deter Aggression; and 2, Seize the Initiative. In Phase 0, the U.S. will have to grapple with the difficulty of shaping an environment governed by an international legal structure which the U.S. is not party to. In Phase 1, the U.S. will be challenged to deter potential seabed exploitation by submarines and unmanned or automated underwater vehicles (UUVs or AUVs) in the vast depths of the oceans. Such platforms will be limited in their communication with other vehicles or fleet command centers due to their distributed use and the inability to communicate quickly, reliably, and secretly at great water depths. When the Navy is required to seize the initiative in Phase 2, open warfare, the seabed will serve to expand the enemy threat area beyond the first thousand meters of the water column thereby increasing risk for forces entering and exiting critical straits, bays, and other waterways, which will require the greater allocation of assets down into the depths.

The South China Sea and the Seabed: A Blueprint for Future Lawfare

Lawfare, as defined by Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap (Ret.) of Duke University, is “the use or misuse of law as a substitute for traditional military means to accomplish an operational objective.” The U.S. Navy is continuously involved in combating lawfare, such as the recent  freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) conducted by USS Hopper (DDG 70) in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (SCS). While China claims these and similar operations are violations of territorial sovereignty, the U.S. executes the FONOPs in order to repudiate the excessive Chinese island claims, which, if otherwise accepted by international norms, would come with associated economic rights within the SCS.

The basis for the legal battle comes from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that the United States has not ratified, but recognizes as customary international law. Despite the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China, island building in the SCS continues. Chinese lawfare for islands and their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) is a blueprint that many nations could use to exploit the seabed, specifically because the primary reason the U.S. did not ratify UNCLOS was disagreement with Part XI of the Convention which deals with, “[the] area of the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil… beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as its resources.” The United Nations “Reaffirm[ed] that the seabed… as well as the resource[s]… are the common heritage of mankind,” and that developed nations capable of seabed mining should share both profits of mining and the technology to do so. Though there were limited discussions at the U.N. in the early 1990s to assuage U.S. concerns, UNCLOS remains unratified by the U.S. Senate.

Under the current UNCLOS legal structure nations may extend their EEZ based on scientific study and submission approved by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. As the U.S. is not party to UNCLOS, there are no U.S. members on the Commission, nor are there currently U.S. civilian contracts for seabed exploitation through the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA regulates the nearly 50 percent of the Earth which is outside the jurisdiction of national territories, and has contracts to explore for and potentially mine various lucrative metals with Russia, Japan, China, India, the UK, France, Germany, South Korea, Brazil, and other smaller nations. Without a cohesive national strategy or participation in an international legal framework, the United States government has left the shaping of the environment and the execution of national maritime strategy up to the otherwise apolitical Navy at the fleet operational level. Not only is there risk to U.S. forces failing to communicate intent clearly, but other near-peer nations will continue to use political lawfare to shape international norms to their preferences as the Chinese have in the South China Sea.

Seabed Deterrence: Limited Communications, Command and Control

As the Navy will shape and potentially deter actions at the seafloor, the assets called on to execute that mission will include surface ships, submarines, and AUV/UUVs. UUVs will be the only asset able to operate at the seabed, due to their ability to survive and work at depths beyond the first thousand feet of water, where submarines normally operate. Depending on the particular type of seabed exploitation, AUVs and commercial mining vehicles could be operating anywhere from 2,500 – 20,000 feet, with the support of surface vessels recovering both the vehicles themselves and the resources being mined. Yet while the depth of the water will be an issue for the Navy, the breadth of possible areas of operation is also staggering. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which contains numerous polymetallic lodes ripe for mining, is a great deep-water plain as wide as the continental United States in the eastern Pacific Ocean. And while  there  will  be  competition  in  and  around  the  Pacific  Rim,  global  warming  and further  development  of  seabed  mining  technology  has  unearthed the  Arctic  Circle’s available  resources  to be mined which  includes  coal, diamonds,  uranium,  phosphate,  nickel,  platinum,  and  other  precious  minerals  and hydrocarbons. As nations including the United States seek to establish firm economic claims on the seabed, there is the potential for a massive area for coverage, defense, and support of the U.S. flagged seabed mining expeditions (as the U.S. Navy has supported oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf before) by a Navy already strapped for forces required in other areas around the world.

Each colored area on this map represents a different country’s mining claim in the Clario-Clipperton zone. (Map courtesy International Seabed Authority.)

Yet even if industry is able to rapidly develop a low priced AUV or UUV the Navy could serially buy, the UUVs will still be bound by the restrictions of massive water depths. Communication to a UUV at hundreds of meters below the water will at best be limited to the ELF spectrum, requiring massive antenna to transmit short messages, or using acoustic transmissions that would give away the position of a UUV to any enemy UUV’s passive sonar system. Other options include having the UUV surface for radio or satellite communications, or using a buoy to do the same while the UUV remains below the surface. Artificial intelligence may help in such a communications restricted environment by giving some level of control to a UUV with expected return and update patterns, but at the operational level UUVs will be not be a perfect solution in Phase 1, where potential escalation could happen rapidly due to a miscalculation. What might a near peer nation do if it was found that an AUV had sunk another AUV at the seabed? Or more critically, what if the AUV sunk a submarine or surface ship?

The U.S. Navy must think through all these potential ROE considerations before allowing lethal capability on an AUV, so that a computer’s miscalculation resulting in a seabed skirmish would not grow into an undesired broader conflict. Regardless of lethal autonomy, the U.S. Navy will continue to struggle to integrate unmanned systems in all domains. But deep-water seabed presence will remain especially difficult to properly resource for patrolling, as well as maintaining control of those assets, and communicating commander’s intent while deterring diverse enemies over massive areas.

Seizing the Initiative: Keeping the SLOCs Open

In a proposed Phase 2 environment, the seabed will be a fertile ground for exploitation by military assets, primarily as an extension of mine and anti-submarine warfare. While it is possible to imagine a strike warfare or air warfare capability, it would be incredibly difficult technologically to maintain assets such as missiles at the seabed in a ready configuration for extended periods to then be launched either at land targets without a ready communication system to initiate the launch, or at air threats when the system would lack an indigenous radar or missile guidance system. It is far easier for less complicated mines, torpedoes, or UUVs to be moved slowly along the seabed or deployed in waiting for a worthwhile target such as a ship or submarine. And much like in land warfare where terrain is critical, the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and the seafloor in the vicinity will be critical to control. SLOCs and other strategic maritime chokepoints have always been important, but much as the use of the seabed extends the water column for submariners, it will also expand the threat area posed by seabed mines and torpedo-capable UUVs. The U.S. Navy is already struggling to develop replacements for its aging Mine Counter Measures (MCM) fleet and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team would be unable to access deeper seabed mines, given the incredible depths. The Navy would have to rely on other UUVs or Remotely Operated Vehicles to clear an area with limited certainty due to both the massive space required to clear, and the ability for more threats to be moved in via the seabed after time.

One can imagine the threat this poses either offensively or defensively to the Navy’s fleet. Commercial traffic for a large portion of the East Coast could be hampered if a vessel was sunk in the Chesapeake Bay by a seabed AUV during a broader conflict with a near-peer competitor. A UUV capable of traveling via the seabed could cross large portions of the oceans slowly, then maintain a position in a critical strait, bay, or harbor, unbeknownst to an enemy: waiting on a cue to activate and target enemy shipping or military vessels. Beyond homeports and harbors, seabed mines and UUVs could drastically change both the logistics and employment of forces for the U.S. Navy if  critical waterways were infested with numerous AUVs hunting specific acoustic signatures. The Navy’s ability to deploy warships to key maritime regions, such as the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal or Bab el-Mandeb Strait, could be completely denied by seabed-based platforms. Similarly, the thought process that the Navy used historically with the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom) Gap is instructive. There, a listening network provided cues to friendly submarines to get underway and track Soviet submarines when they entered critical waterways. In the future, seabed listening stations could cue AUVs to track, report, and kill enemy UUVs, ships, and submarines.

Conclusion: An Arms Race

While the U.S. Navy will be tested to operate at or near the seafloor in the future, there is reason for hope. First, while the U.S. Navy will have difficulties reliably communicating with seafloor assets due to the environment, so too will its rivals. Second, all nations are vulnerable to seafloor-based attacks, which means the U.S. Navy could just as easily go on the offensive if attacked. Third, the costs associated with developing a sustainable deep water seabed military asset will remain expensive for all nations, and prohibitive for most, as no nation currently has UUVs able to withstand the pressure at depths of thousands of feet. Nevertheless, the United States will have to determine how it will shape its own law-based national security strategy considering America’s failure to ratify UNCLOS. At the operational  level, seabed UUVs will likely lead to an arms race given all of the discrete tactical opportunities they offer. In an inversion of land warfare, control of the low ground will grant victory on the high seas.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Kyle Cregge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He served on a destroyer and is a prospective Cruiser Division Officer. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Photo via actor212 from Flickr.

Seabed Warfare Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC is publishing a series of articles focusing on the seabed as a domain of maritime conflict and competition. This topic week is launched in partnership with the U.S. Naval War College’s Institute for Future Warfare Studies who drafted the Call for Articles. Below is a list of articles featuring during the topic week that may be updated as prospective authors finalize additional publications.

Fighting for the Seafloor: From Lawfare to Warfare by LTJG Kyle Cregge
Forward…from the Seafloor? by David Strachan
Establish a Seabed Command by Joseph LaFave
Undersea Cables and the Challenges of Protecting Seabed Lines of Communication by Pete Barker

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: An ROV imaging a hydrothermal vent. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas)

Sea Control 147 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 2

By Cris Lee

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.), former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff, about the challenges of defining and conceptualizing maritime security. 

Download Sea Control 147 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 2

A transcript of the interview between Admiral Lutz Feldt (LF) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

RH: Admiral Feldt, in addition to the previous discussion, you have said to enhance maritime awareness it is essential to return to the basics of geography. According to renowned geopolitical author Robert Kaplan, a map is a spatial representation of humanity’s division, by which he means not just physical territory but topography. Let me ask: with so much advanced technology providing satellite imagery and real time data, why should we consider the influence of geography?

LF: To answer with a question, are we overestimating all of our technical development? Are we really reliant only on technical information, the internet, etc.? Are we able to take into consideration other important criteria as well? Geography is a big criteria, even today. If you look into geography, you are looking at the people living in that geography, to the culture which is their culture, the weather conditions, the climate, and how people live. This has great importance and great influence on everything which we have to decide in the maritime domain. Therefore I think if you are working together with people from the Southern parts of Europe region, or German authorities to ones in Spain, Italy, South France, Greece, or Turkey, or whatever country you may name, of course the way they are solving problems is different. And this has something to do with the areas in which they live, and the living conditions.

The living conditions are formed and created by geography, and directly and indirectly by the climate conditions in which they live. So I think it is important to look into the geography as well. As a seafarer, even if you believe in civilized navigation, even if you think a satellite is covering the whole globe, you must still learn that that is not the case. It will not happen in the next decade as well. So there will always be areas which are not covered. There will always be areas which are up to today, which have not a reliable a sea map, a sea shot. If you go into the big regions, the only thing you can rely on is the GPS. This makes it very clear that geography and the conditions created by geography are very important. Weather affects all operations. You can have a wonderful operation plan think you have thought through, if you have forgotten the geography of the weather, it is a risk you should not accept.

RH: Admiral Feldt, now that we have looked at a catalogue of issues that have impacted sea awareness, it is critical for our listeners to place these subjects in the role of global stakeholders. Obviously the headlines on this ticket are the NATO and the EU. You distinguish in your piece the remarkably different approaches to issues. Consequently, can you provide a quick snapshot of activities of global stakeholders in the maritime space?

LF: I think we have to talk about the international maritime organizations as well. I always think and call them the guardians of the sea, and they have developed a lot of very helpful legislation for the sea. They are responsible for all the agreements and they have developed a code of conduct for a limited number of countries. So I think yes it is a lot of administrations, a lot of paperwork. On the other hand you need these basic documentation, you need this framework in which you are doing your business as a commercial in which you have to follow the sovereign estate as well.

I think the International Maritime Organization is an important player. The weakness of the IMO that they cannot enforce their own laws. They have no enforcement capabilities and the only nation who is able to enforce the IMO’s laws and other laws is the United States and it will remain to be the United States. Maybe in competition with some other nations, China is trying very hard to become a very important global player in the maritime domain as well as the Russian Federation. I understand very well why they are doing that. I wouldn’t blame them about that, but we have to take into consideration they will in any case be in some sort of competition with the U.S. The U.S. needs a global strategy, maritime strategy, and a naval strategy, this is a comprehensive approach that works very fine.

And then of course we have the European Union. NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was focused on the North Atlantic. During the last years, NATO was much more involved in army and air force business than in the naval business. This is something that I do not appreciate because now we have a lack of maritime expertise which we have to overcome quite soon. The EU is becoming a much more important player, not just in civilian issues, but also in the economic side, from a common defense and security policy side as well. I think the EU will increase its military experience, and NATO will be much more open, civilian-military operations as well. The African Union has developed an all-maritime strategy for the African continent. They are a regional initiative. They have the potential to become a very important player as well. I think they should be interested in taking responsibility for their own territorial waters and increase their independence from others.

And then we have what we did call the BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. China will be a big player, and already is a big player, and will become an even bigger player in the maritime domain. Brazil has for the first time taken on international responsibility in supporting the European navies in the Mediterranean several times for example. Russia is looking for naval bases outsides its territories. Now they are in Syria, it has the occupation of Crimea, not only because they love the people there, but because of a very strategic impact in now having an important naval base in the black sea. So they are all playing to their national interests. The only ones who are trying to improve not only its own capabilities but of its neighbors as well is South Africa. They have a good navy as well. They can support the navies in developing their own coast guards and to a certain degree their naval functions as well.

RH: Anyone listening will get a perspective on how crowded the maritime domain is and how competitive it potentially is both from a bloc perspective or from an individual country perspective. Returning to the EU, its early security ambitions were defined by 2003 European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World by the EU’s common representative for the common foreign and security policy, Mr. Javier Solana. It was more recently amended in 2008 and paid scant attention to the maritime situational awareness. This is particularly frustrating since this piece establishes how crisis can develop far from Europe and still affect continuity on the continent. Moving forward, has the EU addressed this phenomenon?

LF: Yes, it has. I think in 2003, the world, not just the maritime domain, looked very different from nowadays. Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World, updated in 2008, has been overtaken by events. The EU has developed a newer strategy in a very good way. Everyone was involved in that. It took us only three-quarters of a year. We have a new strategy which is a very good build up, taking an important part of security and defense issues in the strategy, which was not the case in the first.

Now I think it is a comprehensive approach. To deliver something of a comprehensive approach, where all the actors know their responsibilities, and knowing that they don’t have to do this on their own in one pillar, in isolation from the other, they are doing this together. Strategy is encouraging them to do that. Perhaps encouraging is not strong enough; it is forcing them to do that. And therefore I really appreciate this approach. You know, in the maritime world, 2014, the European Maritime Security Strategy has been published as well. We have now, not only a global strategy from the European Union side, but maritime strategy as well. We are now working on the implementation of the different subjects. I think that in a good way, a lot of things have been moved in the right direction and I am optimistic that they will carry on. And if I may say so, the commission, the parliament, and the council, they are doing very well. They are doing this in one line.

RH: Any conversation about EU maritime policy or maritime policy will be incomplete without mentioning Turkey and its role in facilitating EU’s maritime sphere. Recently president Erdogan called for a border review of the 1923 treaty of Rozanne in Athens in early December. What do you make of this comment, and how do you think Turkey and the EU can continue to work together on maritime domain issues?

LF: It’s a critical situation. Turkey is a member of NATO, and wants or once at least wanted to become a member of the European Union as well. Greece is a member of NATO and the EU. All these years, all these decades, there has been tension between both countries about sea borders and how the treaty is working. Even in the treaty there are disputes over islands and sea borders. This is a fact. I do not think that in the actual situation the border review will take place. I do not think so. The last signals were bit different. There is another convention we have to consider. This is the Montreux convention which is giving Turkey the responsibility to supervise or monitor the Montreux Strait. You have to look into this as well. Both are very close together.

The EU and Turkey are well-advised if they are accepting of the status quo, or improve the situation. To talk about improving, there is an ongoing operation between NATO and Turkey, as a NATO member, and Greece on the other hand, in the East part of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The part of the maritime civil operations where everyone is looking for migrants, not only to rescue them, but to prevent them from going illegally from one country to another. And the cooperation of the partners in these technical operations level is very good. I have heard from colleagues in this operation, the cooperation with the Turkish coast guard is good. They are doing their jobs professionally and well, and the same with Greece. It is good practical example of good practical cooperation. As often you can find on the practical, pragmatic level, you can find solutions for almost all problems.

RH: Hopefully based on all the encouraging news you’ve provided with us cooler heads will continue to prevail as there are a plethora of issues that the EU and Turkey need to work together on to solve in the future. Finally Admiral Feldt, for the foreseeable future, you reiterate, the complex picture of today’s maritime security issues, is a consequence of three factors: the transition from industrial to the information age, globalization, and climate change. And that the urgent need for maritime domain and situational awareness is a precondition to achieve good governance at sea. Having spoken about sea blindness already, would you count on those leading to take these issues into effect in policy?

LF: I think the first point, the transition from industrial to information age, I think this is a big challenge. This is nothing you can just do automatically. Switching from the industrial to the information age takes time. This issue is not just for the younger generation, it is an issue for my generation and even for those who are little bit younger than I am. A lot of people are still making the assessments and adjustments based on the procedures and experiences that were right and good in the industrial age but which is now overtaken in the information age. And the information age is more than the internet. The social networks are a very important part. The fact that in the information age a hack can be done by a hacker where nobody knows where he’s from, whether it’s his boss telling him now you have to hack the German parliament, or now you have to hack a big company in France or whatever, no one really knows that in the very beginning.

It’s not just the use of the internet and all the advantages which you can take out from networking. This is the second point. Networking is becoming more important. Networking happens all the time. But it’s not only the internet. It’s also the information age as a whole new environment. Think about new technologies and the impact of the industry, all that development and our naval units where you are reliant on the computer system. These all need new thinking. A new mindset. This is very difficult to achieve. It takes time to be aware that not everybody is able or willing to follow you, but this is the real thing. So it’s a big challenge. The challenge is not the technology, the challenge is to understand and to use the new technology to your advantage.

Globalization is an effect, it’s now under pressure again. I always think that there are no ideas without bad sides, and there are bad sides to globalization as well. Maybe the government has to look into that more carefully, but if we go back to nationalist thinking, then we of course are doing the wrong thing, a very dangerous thing. The clear historical experience that nationalism is in the direction of something we do not want. Certain kinds of own interests is always not only acceptable but necessary, and the real impact is that you have to look for your national interest on one hand, but on the other hand balance them with the international interests as well. If you are not able or willing to do that then you are a danger.

Climate change is something very much related to globalization and the change of information age as well. We do not know the final impact of climate change. We only can think about they will change the maritime domain. This will have an impact on everything. The issues and the outcome of climate change, there is only one solution, and this is to prioritize the protection of our maritime domains. Protection of the oceans and the protection of the maritime domain in relation to climate and everything belonging to that, from biodiversity to clean oceans and whatever you may name it, this has a high priority. And it is not a task done by the civilian authorities, the navy must be included as well. They have a responsibility to report and monitor climate protection as well. This is very new to the navy, other things as well, but there is an urgent need to do that. Climate change and the negative sides of climate change are a real challenge. They are a threat.

RH: Admiral Feldt, I want to thank you on behalf of the listeners for such a comprehensive analysis and sobering judgment of the current state of affairs. As we dawn on another sea control podcast, Admiral, do you have any quick operational takeaways for the listeners, or issues related to maritime domain we should keep tabs on?

LF: If you are interested, take some keywords and go into the internet, or even look into the publications. It’s not just Robert Kaplan who publishes a lot of things. There are a lot of authors and scientists who are publishing a lot about the maritime domain and the complexity and they are not only good for students, but for normal people as well. There are sometimes scientists who are able to write in a way everyone can understand it. The awareness is the first method for my side. The second side is that the cooperation and trust and confidence between the different maritime services must be supported as a citizen of my country. I cannot understand that for example how customs is not able to communicate with the navy without taking some risks due to data protection. Data protection is very important, but if data protection is hindering us in providing safety and security, than it has to be questioned.

A lot of people are talking about legal obstacles, who are talking about what we want to do but the law is against us, this is eight out of ten times not the case. They often use the law as shelter not to do something. This is something where citizens must be able to carefully be able to increase security internal and external security in a much more professional way; we are open to information exchange. The internal and external security issue is something which is very crucial thing as well, we have not touched upon that, but it is a very important. You cannot separate internal and external security any longer. And if you do so, you must accept the risk, and you must explain to your citizens why you are doing this, with all the consequences.

My third point is if you love the sea, if you are in favor of the sea, if you are really knowing about the sea, not only from the coast but from the ocean as well, it is much more easier to understand the complexity as well as overcome the challenges. It was a great pleasure for me, thank you very much.

RH: Admiral Feldt, I would say in conclusion, if our listeners want to follow up on the European or international maritime domain, the Routledge Handbook of Naval strategy and Security, edited by Sebastian Bruns and Joachim Krause and published in 2016 is an indispensable resource to have. In addition, please visit for more info on the book and other podcasts derived from the book.

With no shortage of maritime issues in the greater geopolitical landscape, I will be back to keep CIMSEC listeners informed and up to date. From the Institute of Security Policy and its adjunct center for strategy and security, I am Roger Hilton saying farewell and auf wiedersehen.

Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.) served in the German Navy for 38 years and served as Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Since retiring in 2006, Vice Admiral Feldt has taken over several different posts of honor: he was the President of the German Maritime Institute, Bonn, from 2007 to 2012 and is now a member of the Board of the German Maritime Institute, a member of the “Bonner Forum”of the German Atlantic Association; from 2005 until March 2010 he was a member of the advisary board of the “Evangelische  ilitärseelsorge”(evangelical miltary religious welfare) and he is still a member of the advisary board of the publication “Schiff und Hafen”, an International Publication for Shipping and Marine Technology. He is director of WEISS Penns International.

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules

By Tuan N. Pham

More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). 

Near-Arctic State

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.     

Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”

There is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:

Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal
Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper
Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar
Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media
Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China
Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences
Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights
Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy

 Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.  

South “China” Sea

On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.

The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.

An aerial view of the Fiery Cross Reef, now a 2.8 sq km artificial island. (Photo: CCTV)

At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.     

At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned media outlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”

On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper hand in the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.

Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper

In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.

African Union Conference Center (Andrew Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.

The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.


The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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