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Warship Diplomacy: British Intervention in the Baltic from 1800-1801

By Jason Lancaster

Setting the Scene

In 1801, it seemed as if Britain had made the entire world her enemy. Her allies had dropped by the wayside, Spain had swapped sides and allied with France, Austria was defeated, and Russia, under Tsar Paul, schemed to divide Europe between itself and France. Three coalitions formed against Republican France had already collapsed, leaving Britain friendless and alone. Yet, Britain fought on, alone. Britain relied heavily on naval stores, which came out of the Baltic; supplies such as fir trees for masts and spars, hemp for cordage, and tar and pitch. As the French revolutionary armies swept across Europe, borders changed and the number of ports Britain had to blockade increased, stretching the Royal Navy to the limit and further increasing the requirement for Baltic naval stores. Merchants from overrun nations transferred their cargos and vessels to neutral flags, such as Denmark and Sweden. As a result of this, the merchant marines significantly increased after the wars broke out in 1793.  Many of the ships carried legitimate cargos, but some carried contraband. However, to a nation fighting for its life, all goods going into an enemy port could be constituted a threat. As the struggle at sea intensified toward the end of the 1790s, the need for the Danes to protect their convoys from privateers, as well as the Barbary pirates, increased. Convoys escorted by Danish warships involved themselves in several naval skirmishes with British blockading squadrons in 1798, 1799, and 1800. These skirmishes resulted in the British seizing Danish convoys. The seizures led the Danes toward reviving the old League of Armed Neutrality, which had last formed in 1780 to protect the Baltic Nations’ ships during the American Revolution and to protect merchant vessels from belligerent privateers.

Tsar Paul was happy to help revive the League. He had recently fallen out with the British over the island of Malta. The Swedes and Prussians also joined the League. The formation of the League was a threat to British security. Britain’s fleet protected the island from invasion. Anything that jeopardized her access to Baltic naval stores was a threat. Therefore, a Baltic coalition formed around a hostile Russia could only be interpreted as a threat. His Majesty’s government decided that the best way to disrupt the League was by striking out at the weakest link in the Alliance. Britain demanded Denmark leave the League. When she refused, Britain prepared a fleet to remove Denmark from the League by force. 

The Creation of the League of Armed Neutrality

As Britain’s allies were defeated and dropped out of the conflict, Britain’s struggle for naval supremacy began to yield results. The battles of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Aboukir Bay in 1798 had defeated the Spanish and French navies and left them to regroup and refit. Britain controlled the seas. With naval superiority, Britain could blockade French ports and enforce restrictions on neutral ships. Some ships flew Danish flags as a convenience. The registration and flag were from Denmark, but little else was Danish. In reality, many were former Dutch merchant ships with Dutch cargos and crews.1 This was especially prevalent amongst the “Danish” ships bound to and from the Dutch East Indies. In 1797, 1798, and 1800 British ships sighted Danish Convoys and compelled them to heave-to. However, the Danish escorts refused to allow the British frigates to search the convoy for contraband goods. On July 25, 1800, the British frigates Nemesis, Terpsichore, La Prevoyant, and Arrow – all of 40 guns – and Nile – a small lugger – found the Danish frigate Freya escorting a convoy of six ships. Captain Baker of the Nemesis sent a boat to the convoy to search for contraband, however, the Danish Commander replied, “that if he attempted it he would fire into the boat.” Captain Baker lowered his boat and the Freya opened fire on the boat, missed it, and struck the Nemesis killing one of her crew. With this, the Nemesis gave the Freya a broadside, and “a most spirited action took place, which lasted for about twenty-five minutes, at the end of which time the Danish frigate, being much crippled in her masts, rigging, and hull struck her colours.” The British ships escorted the Freya and her convoy into the Downs to await the adjudication of a prize court. Regulations set down in 1673 stated, “When any ship met withal by the Royal Navy, or other ship commissioned, shall fight or make resistance, the said ships and goods shall be adjudged lawful prizes.” The prize court ruled that, “free ships make free goods,” but only to a certain extent, and that belligerent powers do have the right to “[ascertain] whether the ships are free or not.” Many Englishmen thought that the Danes and the Swedes were aligning themselves with the French by going out of their way to force engagements with the British over the convoy. The British insisted that the privilege “of visiting and searching merchant ships on the high seas, whatever be the cargoes, whatever be the destinations, is an incontestable right of the lawful commissioned cruiser of a belligerent nation.”2 The British had to insist on this steadfastly, otherwise, their entire blockade of France and her satellite republics would have been futile. Food, weapons, and supplies for her army would find their way into French ports in Danish and Swedish bottoms. If the French and Dutch received the naval stores that the British blockade denied them, then the Franco-Dutch fleets could come out and fight the British fleet, possibly defeating them and invading England.             

The British claimed to have the right to search neutral vessels for contraband, while the Danes insisted that neutral ships meant neutral goods. With overpowering maritime supremacy, Britain was in a far better position to dictate policy than Denmark. Despite her small size and stature, Denmark was not without recourse. She made overtures to Russia, Sweden, and Prussia to recreate the old League of Armed Neutrality. Each of these countries had different reasons to revive the League. Sweden and Denmark desired to protect their convoys from British searches and defend their idea of neutral rights, while Tsar Paul of Russia coveted British possession of Malta. Prussia was the most apathetic to joining the League, forced into it by the diplomatic wrangling of Russia and France. Prussia was very reluctant to do anything for the League, since she had little maritime commerce of her own, and felt threatened by borders with both France and Russia. In addition to convoy protection, Sweden coveted Danish Norway. The members of the League agreed to escort convoys with larger combined forces. Instead of a national frigate or two, the Northern League would escort convoys with a combined squadron of several ships of the line, while a fleet of 10 to 15 ships of the line cruised in the North Sea.3

The British viewed this armed League arrayed against them and proceeded to neutralize the Northern League’s threat. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, remembered what had happened when his predecessor, Lord North, failed to neutralize the threat of the League in 1780 – his government had fallen in 1782. The Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and Russians managed to form their convoys and protect their freedom to sell naval stores to Holland, France, and Spain. As a result, the British met well equipped Dutch, Spanish, and French fleets across the world, from Jutland to Ceylon. At the Dogger Bank in August, 1781, the British and Dutch fought an indecisive, but bloody battle. The seven Dutch ships remained in line, but the British fleet of seven ships of the line bore down on the Dutch and crossed through their line. However, Admiral Hyde Parker’s fleet failed to break the Dutch line. Admiral Parker could not reform his ships into line and the engagement ended.4 To prevent a repeat of the 1780 League, British national security demanded the dissolution of the 1800 League of Armed Neutrality by whatever means necessary.

Diplomatic Efforts

Denmark did not desire to go to war. On the contrary, the Danish Foreign Minister, Count Bernstorff, desired nothing more than to remain neutral in a world caught in the flames of world war. Count Bernstorff hoped the recreation of the League would “not be productive of any more serious consequences [than] those which had followed the convention of 1780.” However, Lord Drummond, the former British Minister to Denmark, reminded Bernstorff, “the circumstances of the times rendered the present alliance of the Northern Powers infinitely more hostile to England than that which had taken place.” Britain’s failure to neutralize the previous League had led to disastrous results in the Atlantic. Britain lost naval supremacy and suffered defeats at sea, one of which led to the Franco-American victory at Yorktown. Britain had to contend with Spanish, French, Dutch, and, to a lesser extent, American warships in a global war. These nations harassed the British while they were busy guarding the English Channel from invasion fleets, protecting the naval stores convoys from the Baltic Fleet, and fighting a major land war in North America.5 

Not all British politicians were for directly attacking the Armed Neutrality, despite the fact that it was perhaps the best and only option available to prevent them from entering Napoleon’s camp. Mr. Charles Grey, MP, feared that war with Russia would,

“Give to France, as allies, the fleets of our new enemies. From Archangel to the Tagus, and from the Tagus to the Gulf of Venice, there will not be a single friendly port out of our own possessions where a British fleet can take shelter…. Will it then be possible for our navy, with all its skill, to stretch along such an extent of coast?”6

The prevention of French control from Archangel to Venice was precisely the reason why Britain had to act against the Armed Neutrality. “Free ships with free goods would accomplish nothing except enabling the French economy through neutral shipping. In hindsight, it is easier to say this than it would have been to act upon such notions in 1801. Nevertheless, the only way to disarm the Northern League was by force of arms. Most reports of the day said that it would require only twenty British sail of the line to blockade the Baltic Sea. By blocking the passage out of the sound, the League would be forced to come to terms with Britain, for lack of any way to trade with the world. Alternatively, a bold admiral could destroy the Danish, Swedish, and then Russian fleets piecemeal, as was the original plan of Lord St. Vincent and Lord Nelson. Tsar Paul resented the British occupation of Malta. Tsar Paul’s Francophile tendencies combined with Malta’s strategic location meant that they were reluctant to surrender the island to Russia. Especially since it would give Russia a warm water port in the center of the Mediterranean at the very moment Russia negotiated with the French.

The British Attack

The British decided the easiest way to destroy the Northern League was to remove the weakest link. Denmark was that link. Denmark was fearful for her dominions: the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, as well as Norway. Sweden schemed constantly to seize Norway, while Prussia or France could easily snap up Schleswig and Holstein, or the whole of the Jutland Peninsula. Count Bernstorff was in a difficult position. He had to decide which threat was more dangerous: the Russian threat, which could result in the loss of Schleswig, Holstein, and Norway, along with the cities of Lübeck, Altona, and Hamburg or the British threat, a threat which was not yet ready, and could possibly be avoided through diplomacy. Count Bernstorff decided that the British were the lesser threat. Count Bernstorff demonstrated Denmark’s fealty and loyalty to the Coalition with a hard line stance against the British. Count Bernstorff did not believe that Britain would fight a friendly power, and Denmark had historically been a friendly power. As a small maritime power, and gatekeepers of the Baltic, the Danish have always been very cordial with the English. Bernstorff was gambling that this international amity would prevent an English assault. The Danish government also believed their own propaganda that the batteries at Kronborg Castle could prevent any ship from entering into the sound.

The government of Denmark headed by young Crown Prince Frederick put a great emphasis on the national prestige of Denmark. Crown Prince Frederick’s government failed to negotiate even after it was evident that the British were serious and a British fleet anchored at the entrance to the sound. Apart from pride, the Danes were sick of British infringements on their neutrality and the inspection of their merchant ships by British men of war. Five years of inspections and seizures had embarrassed the nation and lowered her prestige. Crown Prince Frederick and Count Bernstorff remained unconvinced by British negotiators, and handled a mission by the British Finance Minister, Vansittart, incredibly poorly by returning the note he had brought from England, because it was written in English and not in French.7 

With the British fleet anchored nearby, Danish leaders still considered Russia as a greater threat than the British because of Prime Minister William Pitt’s resignation. However, Pitt’s resignation was due solely to domestic considerations and not foreign policy. Pitt had resigned because the King refused to grant Irish Catholics emancipation and allow them to hold government offices. Many foreign officials misinterpreted this domestic issue as a collapse of the British war party, and that the British people, weary of war, were going to make a peace with France. This was not the case. Pitt’s supporters formed a new British government and intended to carry the war to its rightful end: the destruction of the French republic, and the removal of Bonaparte.8 While diplomatic efforts stalled, the British fleet prepared to neutralize Denmark, by diplomacy if possible, and force if necessary.

While diplomacy withered, both sides looked to their arms. Admiral Hyde Parker, the hero of Dogger Bank, commanded the expedition. His deputy was Admiral Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte. Admiral Parker was expected to be the calm, diplomatic officer in the hopes that the Danes would seek a diplomatic solution. In case that failed, Admiral Nelson was the energetic, dashing admiral expected to chastise the Danes into submission. The Danish defenses were commanded in person by the Crown Prince, and at sea by Commodore Olfert Fischer and Captain Steen Bille. The British fleet composed 19 ships of the line, including two 98 gun second raters along with seven frigates and 23 smaller vessels. The Danes opposed this force with about 30 ships of various sizes moored in line to protect the city of Copenhagen, supported by the Trekroner Fort.9 Before the battle, Diplomat Johan Georg Rist regarded the defense of the sound as another Thermopylae saying, “viel Ehre, mit wenig Hoffnung” or “much honour with little hope.”10 As a member of the Danish Government, his opinion demonstrated how greatly the British had underestimated the Danes, who would rather fight a losing war than turn their backs on their allies.

Copenhagen lies on the island of Zealand, and partially on the tiny island of Amager. Copenhagen Roads, the easiest and most obvious route for an attack, is to the northeast of the entrance to the harbor. To the east of the island, about 2,500 yards from the island of Amager, and about 2,000 yards from the Trekroner Fort, lies the Middle Ground, a large shoal that splits Holland Deep from the King’s Deep and the entrance to the port of Copenhagen.

Depiction of the layout of the Battle of Copenhagen

Lord Nelson suggested to Admiral Parker that Nelson take 12 of the ships of the line, four frigates, and several smaller vessels down the Holland Deep, around the Middle Ground, and up the King’s Deep to attack Commodore Fischer’s anchored ships. Parker agreed, and Nelson immediately set to work preparing the way. Nelson had the channel sounded and buoyed. He called his captains onboard to explain his plan of attack.11

On April 1, 1801, Nelson’s squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down their marked channel towards the Danish defense line. As the British approached, the Danes were unsure what to expect. Were the British really going to attack? Would they shell the city with bomb vessels and fire ships? Would they engage the anchored Danish fleet? As night approached, the British fleet was forced to anchor instead of proceeding down the unknown channel in the dark. The British fleet was just 3,000 yards away from the Danish fleet. Crown Prince Frederick gave the order for mortars in the Stricker Battery on Amager Island to open fire on the British fleet. Three shells were fired from the battery into the middle of the British fleet. However, from shore it appeared that the range was too great and the battery ceased fire.12 

The British fleet outnumbered the Danish fleet 262 guns to 150 guns. Nelson’s plan was for his ships to approach the enemy ships, bombard them into submission, and then reduce the Trekronner Fort. Nelson’s advantage in guns was matched by the maneuverability of his fleet fighting against a moored fleet, unable to maneuver. Yet, there were two factors that could make or break Nelson’s plan: wind and water depth. For success, Nelson needed the wind out of the south and water depth sufficient for his fleet to approach the Danish fleet. Throughout the night of April 1st, the wind veered into the south, promising victory on the 2nd. The British fleet could only sound the waters outside of Danish cannon shot. This left plenty of space for ships to run aground. The British Baltic Sea pilots that the fleet had brought with them refused to risk their necks or the ships on the uncharted waters. Instead, Sailing Master Alexander Briarly, of Audacious, volunteered to take responsibility and lead the fleet towards the Danes. Master Briarly had done the same at the battle of the Nile.13 Several British ships of the line ran aground on the Middle Ground Shoal. Nine of the 12 ships of the line were available to Nelson, but the fleet’s pilots refused to come within 300 yards of the Danish line for fear of the Refshale Shoal which was thought to be near the Danish fleet. Instead, the British would fight from 600 yards.

View of Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle with the Danes before Copenhagen. April 2, 1801. (William Elmes prints from Royal Museums Greenwich)

The battle began at 1000. The Danish fleet composed of man-of-war’s men, merchant sailors, and citizens of Copenhagen fought tenaciously. From his vantage point, Admiral Parker could see three of the ships, Agamemnon, Bellona, and Russell, not participating in the battle as all had run aground in the Hollander Deep. Admiral Parker saw that the Danish fleet had not been overwhelmed and at 1315, Admiral Parker signaled for the action to be discontinued. Upon being told this, Nelson asked if his signal to “engage the enemy more closely” was still flying. He then ordered that signal to remain flying. Nelson turned to Captain Foley and said, “you know Foley, I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.” Nelson’s captains saw both Admiral Parker’s signal and Nelson’s signal, and kept up the fight trusting Nelson.14 

Battle of Copenhagen. Nelson holding the telescope to his blind eye. April 1801.  

At 1345, Nelson left the quarterdeck to write a note. Nelson sent a flag of truce on shore with a note, “to the brothers of Englishmen, the Danes,” so that the wounded Danes could be evacuated and the captured ships could be taken into possession, as well as to spare further loss of life. Nelson also threatened to burn Danish vessels with their crews if they did not stop firing. Whether this was a ruse de guerre or belief in his victory, Nelson’s note had the desired effect. By 1400, there was only sporadic firing from the Danish fleet and the bulk of the ships had surrendered. Despite having beaten the Danish fleet into submission, the British fleet was still exposed to the fire of the Stricker Battery and the Trekronner Fort, as well as the dangerous shoals.15

The Danes and Nelson sat down to negotiate an armistice. Because Denmark could not leave the Armed Neutrality, she would halt all military preparations for fourteen weeks and the British would not come within cannon shot of Copenhagen’s fortifications.

Aftermath of the Battle           

News that Tsar Paul had been murdered, and that the new Tsar Alexander favored the British and disliked the French, meant that the Armed Neutrality ceased to exist. The neutralization of Denmark, combined with lack of Russian hostility to the British meant there was little to organize over. Tsar Alexander had renounced all claims to Malta and was ending the embargo against British ships. The Swedish fleet never left Karlskrona; it would certainly have met with defeat at the hands of the British fleet commanded by Lord Nelson. In Egypt, General Abercrombie had decisively defeated the French army, although he paid for his victory with his life. His army had ended French occupation of Egypt. Britain thought it was in a position to make peace with France on equitable terms and not from a position of weakness. However, that peace proved to be elusive; the people of Europe had to wait another 13 years after the Peace of Amiens for lasting peace to come. In 1800, the British took the lesson of 1780 to mind and met the Armed Neutrality head on. Through luck, skill, and the determination of the British Sailor, she defeated it.

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Endnotes

[1] Feldbaek, pg 14.

[2] Tracy, pp 92-96.

[3] Feldbaek, pp 34-35.

[4] Harding, pg 247.

[5] Pope, pg 99.

[6] Ibid, pg 113.

[7] Feldbaek, pp 202-210.

[8] Pope, pg 135.

[9] Anderson, pg 304.

[10] Feldbaek, pg 151.

[11] Pope, 311.

[12] Feldbaek, pg 126.

[13] Feldbaek, pg 134.

[14] Feldbaek, pp 192-193.

[15] Feldbaek, pp 194-195.

Bibliography

Anderson, R.C. Naval Wars in the Baltic. London: Francis Edwards, First Pritning 1910, Second Printing 1969.

Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Forces in History. New York: St Martins Press, 1998.

Feldbaek, Ole. Denmark and the Armed Neutrality 1800-1801: Small Power Policy in a World War. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1980.

Harding, Richard. Sea Power and Naval Warfare: 1650-1830. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons Press, 1976.

Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organisation 1793-1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Pope, Dudley. The Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Tracy, Nicholas. The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War 1799-1804, Volume II. London: Chatham, 1998.

Featured Image: The Battle of Copenhagen 1801. The extremely young Sub-lieutenant Peter Willemoes putting heart into his men on his floating naval battery. (Painting by Christian Mølsted 1901. Willemoesgaardens Mindestuer, Assens)

CIMSEC’s Forum for Authors and Readers (CFAR) 2018 – Nominations Open

On 15 May CIMSEC will host the fourth annual CIMSEC Forum for Authors and Readers (CFAR), an event for our readers and the public to engage our contributors on their work and topics of interest. Thanks to the generous support of CNA we are pleased to offer a professional conference on a range of maritime security issues.

The evening will provide a chance to engage your favorite CIMSEC contributors on their work over the preceding year, hear their thoughts on how their pieces have held up, and explore predictions for the coming year. Following last year’s success, CNA speakers will again participate in the proceedings.

9 Apr – 17 Apr: Nominations Open
18 Apr – 22 Apr: Voting
23 Apr: Winners Announced
15 May: Event

Event Details:
Date: May 15th
5:00pm-6:00pm: Pre-Event Reception (Details upon RSVPing)
6:00pm-6:15pm: Welcome
6:15pm-8:00pm: Author Discussions and Q+As
Location: CNA, 3003 Washington Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22201

How will the speakers be chosen? All CIMSEC readers are welcome to submit nominations for articles with the only criteria that the article nominated must have appeared on the site on or after 15 April, 2017. After nominations closed, CIMSEC members will vote and the top vote-getters receive invites to speak at CFAR. Not yet a member? Consider joining CIMSEC for free!

Tropical Currents: SOUTHCOM’s 2018 Posture Statement

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean, has released its 2018 Posture Statement as its commander, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, testified before the Senate Armed Forces Committee of the 115th U.S. Congress on 15 February. In this commentary, we will discuss some of the major points brought up by the Statement regarding maritime security issues in the Western Hemisphere.

SOUTHCOM as a Low Priority

  • “… the combined impacts of defense spending caps, nine years of continuing resolutions, and insufficient spending in the diplomacy and development arenas make it increasingly difficult to sustain this regional network. Because our global security responsibilities outpace the resources available to meet them, we have had to make a series of tough choices, resulting in compounding second and third order effects. The net result is the perception among our friends—and the palpable anticipation among our competitors—that we no longer stand by our commitments, that we are relinquishing our strategic position, and that we don’t take the challenges in this region seriously.” –Admiral Kurt Tidd
ADM Kurt Tidd testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 15th, 2018. Image Credit: DoD News

Past Posture Statements have, in very straightforward manners, declared that SOUTHCOM is the lowest priority of the Combatant Commands (COCOMs) (see the 2015 Posture Statement), thus it receives limited resources. Part of the reason for this situation is that most Latin American and Caribbean nations that fall under SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility have close and cordial diplomatic relations with the U.S. Moreover, the countries that are at odds with Washington do not pose a traditional military threat to U.S. national security.

In other words, since most governments have good relations with Washington, and the few countries that do not are not going attack the U.S. anytime soon (if ever at all), then there is little reason to assign significant numbers of assets and platforms to SOUTHCOM. Thus, the concern is that, regional allies may interpret this situation as Washington no longer being interested in supporting their own security problems, which include transnational challenges like drug trafficking. SOUTHCOM’s lack of naval platforms is an example of this situation and potential perception.

It will be interesting to see if the Fiscal 2019 defense budget proposed by the Trump administration, which requests USD$686.1 billion, will trickle down to SOUTHCOM, though this seems unlikely given other U.S. military operations elsewhere on the globe. Nevertheless, a 12 December, 2017 story in the Navy Times reports that SOUTHCOM will receive “Littoral Combat Ship and Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport vessels,” which will be of great help for counter-narcotics and assistance operations.

The USCG

  • “I’d like to go on record to express my strong support for the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to recapitalize its fleet, especially its medium endurance cutters, which directly support JIATF South-led interdiction operations. As I have stated repeatedly, without U.S. Coast Guard cutters, USSOUTHCOM would have virtually no afloat maritime forces.” –Admiral Kurt Tidd

SOUTHCOM’s naval component, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/Fourth Fleet, relies on platforms that are temporarily assigned. For example, aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) participated in the 2015 UNITAS exercises, while USS Somerset (LPD 25), USS Chafee (DDG 90) and USCGC Escanaba (WMEC 907) participated in 2017 UNITAS. SOUTHCOM does occasionally get assigned surface platforms, especially Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates prior to their decommissioning, which are deployed to patrol Caribbean waters to combat maritime crimes, particularly drug trafficking, as well as the hospital ship USNS Comfort.

A Coast Guard Cutter BERTHOLF boarding team aboard an Over the Horizon Long-Range Interceptor boat approaches a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel suspected of smuggling 7.5 tons of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Aug. 31, 2015. The seized contraband is worth an estimated $227 million. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

With that said, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is arguably the cornerstone enabler of SOUTHCOM maritime operations, particularly as employed by Joint Inter Agency Task Force South (JIATF-S) in the Greater Caribbean region. Indeed, there is a regular stream of reports about drug smuggling vessels being successfully interdicted by USCG platforms, like USCGC Tahoma (WMEC 908), which successfully interdicted over 1,800 kilograms of cocaine during a two-month tour in 2017. USCG platforms have also carried out humanitarian assistance in the Caribbean region, including, interestingly, in Nicaragua – via USCGC Northland (WMEC-904) in early 2018.

The LCS and SOUTHCOM

  • “I’d also like to express my unqualified support for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which we can leverage for multiple mission sets, including D&M, SOF support, partner nation capacity building, and potentially HA/DR response and medical engagements…My view is that the sooner we can deploy these ships in theater, the greater the impact we can have on interdicting the flow of illicit drugs into our country.”–Admiral Kurt Tidd

Admiral Tidd’s support for the LCS program is not surprising since, as previously mentioned, a number of them will hopefully be deployed to SOUTHCOM this year to help combat maritime crimes. The US Navy has reportedly decided not to re-activate its Perry-class frigates to support SOUTHCOM operations, thus all eyes are on the LCS and the Spearhead-class vessels for these operations.

Medical Diplomacy and HA/DR

  • “From a goodwill and engagement perspective, operational funding for the Navy’s hospital ship COMFORT has been a proven game-changer for USSOUTHCOM. We ask for the COMFORT every other year, but the Navy has been unable to source its employment due to the ship’s maintenance challenges.”
  • “We are working to transition future iterations of UNITAS from a traditional scripted exercise to an actual humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR) capable force that can exercise at sea against real world, unscripted missions.” –Admiral Kurt Tidd

As previously mentioned, USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has participated in several HA/DR operations in the Western Hemisphere in recent years. As the author explains in a 16 January commentary for CIMSEC, “Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico to assist those in need after Hurricane Maria hit the island. The vessel also traveled to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to assist with the relief and support efforts as part of Operation Unified Response.” The platform has also operated in initiatives like Partnership for the Americas and Operation Continuing Promise.

It could be argued that Comfort should be permanently assigned to Fourth Fleet so that it could be deployed more regularly to the region, but logistics, the ship’s age, and the fact that there is only one other hospital ship in the fleet, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19), make this highly unlikely.

It is worth noting that after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in 2016, Comfort was not deployed to the Caribbean island, but rather USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) and USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19), which provided humanitarian relief. Given recurring natural disasters, the general lack of inter-state warfare (maritime or not) in the region, and not being able to deploy the Comfort with much regularity, it makes sense that future multinational naval exercises, such as UNITAS, focus on disaster response so that regional countries can also provide relief services quickly when the next disaster occurs.

China and Russia

  • China, Russia, and Iran are courting some of our most strategically important Latin American and Caribbean partners and supporting authoritarian, anti-American regimes.”
  • “Expanded port and logistics access in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela provide Russia with persistent, pernicious presence, including more frequent maritime intelligence collection and visible force projection in the Western Hemisphere.”
  • “China’s commercial and diplomatic advances move it closer to its larger strategic goal of reshaping global economic and governance architectures… Increased reach to key global access points like Panama create commercial and security vulnerabilities for the United States…”–Admiral Kurt Tidd

China and Russia’s presence in Latin American and Caribbean waters is quite limited. The most significant deployment, in terms of numbers, occurred in 2008, when a small Russian fleet traveled to Caribbean waters to carry out military exercises with Venezuela – some of the vessels included “nuclear-powered Peter the Great cruiser and anti-submarine warship Admiral Chebanenko.” Nevertheless there have been some recent incidents, like in 2017, when intelligence ship Viktor Leonov docked in Havana, Cuba, and also traversed international waters off the East Coast of the U.S.

Russian AGI Viktor Leonov enters the bay in Havana, Cuba,on March 24, 2015. Image credit: Desmond Boylan / AP, file

Meanwhile, China is known in the region for the 2011 and 2015 deployment of its hospital ship Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital vessel. There have also been sporadic visits of Chinese warships to the region, like the 2013 visit to Argentina, Brazil and Chile of destroyer Lanzhou, frigate Liuzhou and supply ship Boyanghu.

It is conceivable that, in a more challenging scenario, Chinese warships could be invited by Latin American and Caribbean states to participate in naval exercises in the region, particularly as most of them have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, not the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan). The Posture Statement’s reference to the Panama Canal is likely tied to the fact that the government of Panama switched from having relations with Taiwan to China in 2017.

Maritime Crime

  • “Criminal networks move drugs and engage in a wide array of illegal activity, including weapons trafficking, chemical importation, poppy and coca cultivation, fentanyl smuggling, and illegal mining.”
  • “Naval Special Operations Forces in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama are now among the most competent and responsive counternarcotic (CN) units in Central America, integrating with air assets, effectively responding to JIATF South “cues,” and executing numerous joint and individual interdiction operations”
  • “We also supported our partners in the Dominican Republic to improve maritime interdiction in the Caribbean through the establishment of a Joint Task Force that combined SOF-trained CN units with Dominican naval aircraft.”
  • “We see great opportunity to build on the multinational cooperation that characterizes these international interdiction efforts, especially the successful inter-institutional coordination of last year’s Operation KRAKEN, in which the United States, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica targeted illicit maritime pathways in the Central American littorals.”–Admiral Kurt Tidd
Drugs produced and imported into South America follow numerous routes through the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific (not depicted) in order to get to market in the United States. Image credit: The Economist

Over the past year, U.S. platforms, whether from the Navy or Coast Guard, have successfully interdicted several vessels in Caribbean waters carrying narcoticsAdditionally, U.S. allies in Central America and the Caribbean are modernizing and expanding their naval forces. Fortunately, they have also enjoyed successes, for example the naval force of El Salvador’s seizure of over 700kg of cocaine aboard a suspicious vessel in January 2018.

Certainly, and tragically, these accomplishments are only slowing down the flow of drugs from south to north, as production continues in the former and there is still a market for drugs in the latter. The successes of SOUTHCOM and its regional allies against drug trafficking must go hand-in-hand with more comprehensive strategies to address this problem.

Final Thoughts

  • “We seek to mobilize and organize the unique strengths of each of our partners and Allies, to expand information sharing and collaboration, and to align security, development, and capacity building activities that allow us to translate short-term successes into long-term gains, sustained by an adaptive and inclusive regional security network.”–Admiral Kurt Tidd

In spite of being the lowest priority COCOM, SOUTHCOM has achieved various successes in maritime security in recent years, including a plethora of successful interdictions of suspicious vessels that were transporting contraband, particularly drugs. Humanitarian missions via USNS Comfort and other vessels are also a great achievement toward strengthening relations with regional states and exercising soft power.

SOUTHCOM benefits from the fact that most Latin American and Caribbean nations have cordial relations with the U.S. and would actually welcome greater U.S. defense assistance. Obviously, SOUTHCOM cannot do everything itself, hence it is important for it to promote the professionalism and modernization of the naval forces of partner nations. (While this commentary has focused on SOUTHCOM’s operations, other branches of the U.S. government, namely the State Department, should continue to work together with this COCOM to promote U.S. national interests in a region full of U.S. partners.)

SOUTHCOM’s 2018 Posture Statement demonstrates that while the U.S. continues to enjoy a network of allies in the Western Hemisphere, there are plenty of clear and present dangers and concerns that warrant greater support from Washington for this region.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: A U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces Airman with Special Operations Command South secures an airfield with Panamanian security force counterparts Feb. 1, 2018, during a culmination exercise in Colon, Panama. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Osvaldo Equite/RELEASED)

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.

Conclusion

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)