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Sea Control 130 – Stephen Biddle on Future Warfare in the Western Pacific

By Matt Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Professor Steve Biddle of George Washington University. Hosted by Mina Pollmann, the conversation examines the competition between A2/AD technology and the Air-Sea Battle concept in the Western Pacific. The conversation draws on an article Prof. Biddle coauthored with Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia.” Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Download Sea Control 130-Steve Biddle

MP: Dear CIMSEC listeners, my name is Mina Pollmann, and as Director of External Relations for CIMSEC it is my honor today to be interviewing Professor Steve Biddle at George Washington University at the Elliot School of International Affairs. Professor Biddle, thank you for joining us today.

SB: Thanks for having me.

MP: Our first question is about anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) which has become a popular concept when discussing China’s maritime strategy in the Western Pacific. What is the political and strategic motivation for China to pursue A2/AD and what are the greatest technical limitations of A2/AD? How limiting will a fully mature Chinese A2/AD capability be  for U.S. operations in the Western Pacific?

SB: Denial strategies of this kind are very common historically for either weak maritime powers or rising maritime powers that are still at a disadvantage relative to a stronger foe. For example the Soviet Union during the Cold War began with an effort to protect its coast and inland waters from the U.S. Navy and only as it got stronger over time did it make any effort to project power further from its shores than that. So it’s a natural beginning point for any emerging maritime power. What makes A2/AD unique is that the particular technologies that have been emerging for the last two decades or more have the potential to take this philosophy of defending the coast and inland waters from a superior power projection capability and to push it out way beyond what would normally be considered the extent of a coastal defense strategy. If you look at the reach of modern reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RTSA) technologies and the range of the missiles targeted by these technologies, then in fact you could imagine a Chinese A2/AD zone extending all the way out to or beyond the second island chain, a long, long way from the Chinese coast and far enough to threaten all of the U.S. major allies in the Pacific rim. If that capability were fully realized by the Chinese, it would be a major change in the geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific.

You mention the issue of potential vulnerabilities in A2/AD, as I mentioned RTSA is part of the whole concept. If you can’t find it, you can’t destroy it. The heart of this is one of A2/AD’s greatest vulnerabilities. To get the kind of all-weather, day-night, 24/7 surveillance coverage to make the most of what precision-guided missiles could do at these kinds of ranges largely requires radar. And radar is an active emitter, and as an active emitter gives away its location and makes it vulnerable to counter-attack. Many of the technologies that create A2/AD threaten A2/AD. As long-range precision guided weapons proliferate, it’s particularly easy to target transmitting, emitting radars. And if you destroy the radar you then make it much harder for the Chinese to extend the reach of these kinds of technologies to anything like the distances people talk about when they talk about the second island chain.

MP: Is the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JCAM-GC), previously and more commonly known as AirSea Battle, a meaningful way to deal with the A2/AD challenge? And how cost-effective is this concept compared to A2/AD?

SB: The concept formerly known as AirSea Battle, and the new concept whose name no one uses because it’s so awkward, is a natural response very much in the tradition of the way the U.S. military responds to these kinds of capabilities if you’re worried about Chinese A2/AD getting out to the second island chain: preemptively destroy it. Rather than tolerating this, the basic idea behind the concept is that we are going to reach into the Chinese mainland and destroy before they can be used the radars, the logistical infrastructure, and the mobile missile launchers that are required for A2/AD to actually reach out very far at all beyond the Chinese coast. It involves a lot more than just that idea, the bygone name of AirSea Battle was meant to harken back to the Cold War concept of AirLand Battle which was all about the Army and the Air Force combining their activities in two different domains, the land and the sky, to be more effective against Soviet forces in a potential invasion of Western Europe. The concept of AirSea Battle would similarly combine multiple domains with the Navy and the Air Force cooperating to make it easier to deal with what would be an extremely difficult problem in penetrating hundreds of miles inland to the Chinese mainland to destroy mobile targets that can hide amidst the complex background of the earth’s surface. Not withstanding all the advantages of multi-domain operations in this respect, it is still an immensely difficult project.

It seems to me that the right way to think about this project, AirSea Battle versus Chinese A2/AD, is that you have to look out beyond the immediate military balance into the fairly distant future because the technologies we are talking about won’t mature to the point where they are a serious threat to the second island chain until you get out into the more distant future.

But when you decide that to evaluate this fairly we have to look out beyond 2017, beyond 2020, the paper I wrote recently looks out to 2040, then you have to assume that both the U.S. and China are going to be engaged in a rather energetic, two-sided, adaptive competition in which they each try to thwart the other’s capabilities and where both of them are plausible economic peers after a decade or two of this competition. If you think of the competition between A2/AD and AirSea Battle as a long-term, mutually adaptive competition between economic peers, then the cost-exchange ratio becomes decisive. If the way the U.S. is going to deal with the A2/AD threat to the second island chain is to spend China into the ground, which we did successfully against the Soviet Union in the Cold-War, we are going to spend ourselves into the ground.

Where the Soviet Union was a declining economic power that you could beat in an all-out economically exhausting arms race, we are not going to be able to do that with China unless the economic projections are way wrong. So what that means in turn is if one side or the other has the cost advantage, it means that they are going to win the race if it’s fought to extremis. When you look at the details of how AirSea Battle operates against A2/AD, there is a systematic cost advantage in creating and maintaining area denial as opposed to battering it down in a preemptive strike as AirSea Battle would do.

MP: In your paper you give several concrete suggestions for the U.S. going forward, such as investing in larger, heavier missiles and an anti-ship missile with a range of at least 600km, deploying long-range mobile surface-to-surface missiles to the region, and making policy decisions to reduce U.S. reliance on space and restrict Chinese access to space. What are the greatest limitations for implementing these recommendations politically and operationally?

SB: Before I discuss the challenges let me explain very briefly why these things are important. They emerged naturally from the problem of RTSA and countering RTSA in a long-term competition. Radar is a central technology in all of this, that means defending radar and limiting the range of the opponent’s radar is critical, and much of what the paper does is talk about a long-term competition between an attempt to push radar coverage further out and an attempt by its opponents to keep it from getting further out. The modernization and acquisition agenda is driven largely by the requirements of the competition. In space, the easiest way to extend radar coverage over an arbitrarily great distance is to put a radar in space. The Soviets did something like this during the Cold War, this isn’t a particularly exotic capability. If in fact the U.S. grants military sanctuary to space what we are doing is enabling China, through space-based radar, to establish RSTA that could threaten any U.S. ally in the Western Pacific. The capability produced by the range of the missiles and the ability of terminal guidance to take advantage of that range, given surveillance that can localize targets, is very impressive.

It seems that unless the U.S. is prepared to blind Chinese space-based radar then A2/AD could undermine the entire U.S. alliance system in the Pacific. Therefore, it’s important the U.S. seriously consider both the technologies and programmatic capabilities to develop anti-satellite weapons to remove this threat, but also to think very hard about the policy issues about whether we want to wage war in space, whether we want to pursue weapons bans in orbit. The conventional wisdom of the U.S. for a long time is that space is a unilateral U.S. advantage and if we could somehow make space a demilitarized zone that this could benefit the U.S. In the emerging world of potentially very-long reach Chinese A2/AD, that older assumption that space is a unilateral U.S.-advantage is subject to serious challenge. If China has military access to space, the military prognosis in the Western Pacific could be radically different.

If you then say let’s at least take seriously the idea that the U.S. might want to deny military sanctuary in space to the Chinese, what would be involved in that is the Chinese won’t grant us sanctuary either. Anti-satellite weapons have massive cost advantages over satellites. If sanctuary is denied in space either side is going to be able to destroy satellites vastly more cheaply than either side can replace them, but that means the U.S. would have to be prepared to make war without access to space.

There’s no reason in principle why we can’t do this. All of the things that we do with space could be done with airborne alternatives such as communications relays and airborne radars for surveillance. We could, if we chose to do it, develop the capacity for redundancy where we can make war without these capabilities, but we have not expected to do that for a very long time, so it seems to me that one important acquisition priority and planning priority is to recover the ability to wage war in the Pacific without space-based assets.

This is not a popular agenda. The general thrust of U.S. force design and modernization for at least a generation, maybe two, has been to rely more heavily on space-based assets to enable smaller, more widely distributed maritime and terrestrial force structure to survive. It’s time to seriously rethink that but that’s subversive of very longstanding tradition of thinking about force design.

Also as important as acquisition and modernization issues, if you think about the military problem in the Western Pacific, you need to develop capabilities with the range needed to keep Chinese radars from venturing too far beyond China’s shores and extending A2/AD beyond what we argue in our paper is a natural limit in the neighborhood of 400-600km from the coastline. If we deploy things like long-range radiation-homing missiles that can take advantage of the range you would need to force Chinese radars back over the mainland. Similarly, A2/AD in the long-term, two-sided mutually adaptive competition is something both sides will be able to employ and should want to employ. Just as, in our view, the impracticality and the cost disadvantage of preempting Chinese A2/AD should prevent us from doing it, so China would have a cost disadvantage in trying to preempt an American A2/AD capability, and the capacity to close much of the Western Pacific to Chinese maritime traffic is an important military capability the U.S. would want to have. To do that, we need anti-ship missiles of a range for exploiting a 400-600km U.S. A2/AD bubble beyond friendly homeland masses and that will require anti-ship missiles of substantially greater range than today’s Harpoon.

MP: What really struck me was the space part of this, but as you put it this is a debate we should be having more actively and publicly. It’s going to have implications across all of U.S. security policy. To quote from your book Military Power, “In continental warfare, many great powers failed to master complicated modern-system force employment, and variations in such behavior have been more important that technology per se for observed outcomes” (43). Could you elaborate on this central finding of Military Power? How do you weigh the relative importance of technological change versus force employment?

SB: Arguably, the most important trends in land warfare or continental warfare since about 1900 has been the discovery by most great power militaries very early in the 20th century, before the end of the first world war actually, that the complexity of the earth’s surface offers enough cover and concealment to substantially shield land forces from the increasing potential lethality of modern weaponry. However, to operate a mass military of potentially millions of soldiers in a way that can exploit the natural complexity of the earth’s surface for cover and concealment means accepting tremendous complexity in tactics and operational art. Relative to, for example, Napoleonic tactics where armies could be lined up in shoulder-to-shoulder linear formations and simply marched towards an objective, if you’re going to use the complexity of the earth’s surface to provide cover in ways those massed shoulder-to-shoulder formations couldn’t do, then you’re going to have to break down those massed formations into small handfuls of soldiers few enough in number that they can fit into the folds in the earth that create what militaries ironically call dead ground, where dead ground is of course where you can live (I didn’t coin the term).

But that means you’ve got thousands upon thousands of small formations of independently maneuvering soldiers working their way through the terrain trying to find their way forward by the path that provides the most cover and the least exposure, to do that and not get caught by surprise in the open requires thousands of junior officers to have the professional training to use their own eyes, judgment, and ability to size up the terrain and ascertain likely fields of fire of enemy weapons to be able to wind through complicated terrain and find the right way forward.

Moreover, even if they do that, they are going to occasionally get caught in the open. If you are going to advance any significant distance toward a meaningful objective, sooner or later you’re going to get caught in the open. To cross those open patches of ground require suppressive fire. The weapon types best suited for suppressive fires are machine guns and artillery with access to enough ammunition to keep the enemies’ heads down as you sprint from one patch of cover to another. Access to that kind of ammunition requires location in the rear where you can safely amass that quantity of ammunition, that in turns means that not only do we have thousands of small formations lead by junior officers winding their way through complex terrain toward an objective, they are depending on coordinated activity from fire support systems that they can’t see. And they’re firing over their head or across their frontage at targets in front of them that the gunners can’t see. And if they get this just a little bit wrong, the result is catastrophe if the gunners fire a bit short they slaughter their own forces. If the gunners fire a bit long they fail to suppress the enemy and you get slaughtered when you get caught in the open. So the sheer complexity of all these moving parts and all of this communications demand and coordination requirement is a daunting undertaking for mass militaries consisting often of people who just recently were drafted into military services and have not had a 40-year military career to learn how to do this.

The net result of all that is, in principle, that the complexity of your surface can in fact substantially mitigate the nominal technical lethality of improving weapons. But only if the military is capable of carrying out very complicated techniques on the battlefield and some militaries have and others have not. And in fact the book argues that much of the variants in military outcomes in continental warfare since 1900 is attributable to variations in how well or badly any given mass military masters this very complex set of tasks, much more so than whether their weaponry was more lethal than the other side’s weaponry.

But all of that is driven at its base by the complexity of the earth’s surface and how that impacts the military environment. Now let’s transfer this picture to maritime warfare and air warfare and now the background and environment is much simpler. Obviously maritime environments aren’t as simple as the brown wooden tabletop on which the recording device is for this interview sits. There are thermoclines in the oceans, sea states can create background clutter, there are clouds in the skies, so it’s not literally transparent. On the other hand, it’s a lot more transparent than the Fulda gap in West Germany or than the Ardennes forest from the 1940 campaign.

What that means is that whereas maritime warfare can be extremely complex and A2/AD in the way we are talking about it now requires very rapid coordination among a significant range of very different pieces of equipment located in very different places–not a trivial enterprise–but by comparison with the kind of complexity we are talking about on land this is a lower order of difficulty. What that suggests is that probably in the maritime and air domain the relative contribution of technological variations to combat outcomes is likely to be greater relative to skill and mastery of the earth’s complexity by comparison with the picture on land. None of that is to suggest that tech is irrelevant on land or that skill is irrelevant at sea and in the air – certainly that is not true. But given that they both matter in both domains, the interesting question is the relative importance of these two things that both matter and I think there is very good reason to argue that the relative importance of tech is lower on land and the relative importance of tech is higher at sea and in the air above the sea.

MP: This definitely highlights the importance of innovation and tech in the maritime domain. Moving on, what strategic and operational advantages are offered by blockade versus other acts of war and how can a blockade compliment both Chinese and U.S. strategies in a Pacific conflict?

SB: Blockade has played a big role in the debate over the military balance in the Western Pacific, usually people assume that it’s something the U.S. is going to do to China, especially distant blockade at maritime straits that the Chinese would use to import oil. And it seems to my coauthor and I when we were writing the paper that, yes, that’s an important capability but that it’s too narrow a way of thinking about blockade. In particular, A2/AD is a natural blockade weapon. If you assume a two-sided long-term competition in which both sides are doing this sort of thing then the capacity of the Chinese to invade Taiwan, Japan, or other U.S. allies in the region will be very limited because our ability to exclude the logistical shipping the Chinese would need to sustain an amphibious invasion ashore would be very powerful. We think it is very unlikely that China would be able to master what is at best an extremely demanding logistical challenge, an amphibious invasion in this kind of environment.

By contrast, even if you have mutual A2/AD exclusion over an area of water, that sets up a very impressive blockade potential. Perhaps Chinese surface shipping couldn’t get access to Taiwan, but if Taiwanese surface shipping can’t get access to Taiwan, then Taiwan is looking at a potential economic catastrophe. Not only does the country’s economy depend on trade, but keeping the population fed depends on trade. In fact, many of the U.S. major allies in the region are island nations that are dependent for their very survival on seaborne commerce. If A2/AD is used to deny access to commercial shipping bound for these ports, that is potentially a very impressive coercive lever that China could use to contest control of the various territorial stakes that constitute the normal casius belli in conversations about a potential war. So we tend to focus more attention than most on the prospect of not just the U.S. blockading China but on the prospect of China blockading U.S. allies, because that looks to us like a more viable threat than amphibious invasion. It is also more viable in a variety of ways than missile-based strategic bombing.

The same tech that created A2/AD can also destroy power plants, they can destroy bridges and comms systems, and can be used to do what Americans have traditionally used airplanes to do – essentially a form of coercive strategic bombing. Whereas this hits targets that are ashore and often in close proximity to populated areas, and therefore is very likely to involve large scales of collateral damage not just to the civilian economy but also to lives, blockade need not. Blockade takes place at sea against container ships that in the modern world have remarkably small crews – it would in principle be possible for a coercive Chinese campaign aimed at the interdiction of maritime shipping to impose a truly impressive level of economic pain on U.S. allies while killing very few civilians and physically destroying very little civilian property – therefore posing substantially lower escalatory perils in a potential conflict with a nuclear armed superpower like the U.S. We think that a two-sided consideration of blockade in an A2/AD environment is an increasingly necessary part of the strategic debate.

MP: Seems politically less costly as well–the escalatory dynamics and risk of retaliation if you’re pursuing a strategy where your own troops aren’t at the front lines. The U.S. DoD is pursuing a third offset strategy to restore conventional deterrence against peer competitors with an emphasis on battle networks and human-machine teaming. In this vein, what sorts of OPCONs and capabilities do you see offsetting a mature Chinese A2/AD capability and establishing a credible deterrent in the mid- to long-term?

SB: Third offset is the flavor of the moment in the U.S. defense debate, I find it a difficult thing to evaluate in part because it’s so hard to pin down exactly what it is. Now that we have offset language floating around, the first offset was pretty easy to identity – nuclear weapons – you can analyze their effects. The second offset, precision guidance, similarly is a relatively discrete set of things that you can talk about – you can talk bout their effects in an integrated way and build out some analysis. The third offset is a pretty amorphous collection of things we think we’re going to be good at, the connection between, for example, big data and robotics, is kind of hard to pin down, so, given that it has this kind of scattered amorphous quality to it, it’s hard to produce a coherent assessment of it as a thing.

What one can do though is talk about the underlying physics of the problem when you’re looking at this long-term, mutually adaptive, two-sided A2/AD competition. And ask, what would you have to ask of AI or big data or of robotics or miniaturization, all the various bins that make up the third offset in an environment where you can reasonably expect the Chinese will be doing the same thing. At the end of the day, I don’t think any of these things overturn what we see as the central asymmetry at the heart of A2/AD versus its assailants, which is the complexity of the earth’s surface as a military environment as opposed to the water and the air. So in an environment which both sides are going to be getting better at big data, both sides will deploy AI, both sides are going to be looking at robotics with ultimately seekers and searchers in the air penetrating the Chinese mainland looking down into this complex environment to try to find things like air defense, mobile missile launchers, and logistics bases. They are looking at a background that poses a much more complicated targeting problem than they have looking up at you – you’re silhouetted against an open sky, you’re burning fuel at a prodigious rate in order to stay airborne which means you’re producing a tremendous amount of heat and you’re moving very rapidly which simplifies Doppler processing.

You look at all these things and it’s a profound and systematic asymmetry between the survivability of things that can operate on the land in the midst of this complicated environment and things that cannot. Nothing that I see in the third offset will affect that underlying asymmetry in any profound way – it may very well improve both sides ability to find each other, but it’s the difference between the two that determines the outcome of the campaign and the only source of fundamental asymmetry in this long-term, two-sided mutually adaptive competitive is the asymmetry in the military environment that one is operating in. I don’t see the third offset overturning that.

MP: What would be the strategic effect of China launching a first strike on U.S. Pacific allies and forward-deployed forces in the region in a 2040 timeframe and what could such a strike entail?

SB: The long-range precision-guided missile technologies we’re talking about may or may not have any easy time finding mobile targets. But, fixed targets are going to be increasingly vulnerable, and especially things like runways. If the U.S. deploys in peacetime large air forces or naval assets in fixed forward bases, a preemptive strike would be able to destroy whatever we choose to deploy there and it’s going to be very difficult to provide terminal defenses that will protect those kinds of targets given their static nature and the increasing capacity of long range missiles to destroy especially fixed targets.

That does not however mean that China will have the ability to destroy the U.S. military in the Pacific. If for example the U.S. responds to a crisis by dispersing aircraft, some of which will be beyond the range of Chinese A2/AD, or if the U.S. in peacetimes simply deploys the majority of its military beyond the 400-600 km plausible reach of Chinese A2/AD, China will have very limited ability to preemptively destroy any asset that we don’t deliver to them with gift wrapping on by predploying them on fixed bases within reach of Chinese missiles. Mobile targets will become very difficult to find once radar and satellites are destroyed and once airborne radars are restricted to a 400-600 km reach from the Chinese mainland. And that means that dispersed air bases for example, or aircraft carriers for sea basing, operating beyond the reach of Chinese A2/AD, will be able to provide basing assets that China will then have a very difficult time destroying. This is especially true if you posit an environment in the future in which modern airborne radar will be less relevant, a very important technology for A2/AD which was designed in an era in which the processing technology and the human crew needed to do that processing had to be carried in the airframe. In the future, improvements in microelectronic tech and high bandwidth secure comms will allow more and more of that to be offloaded to mobile ground stations, which in turn enables the airplane to be made substantially smaller and therefore able to operate from smaller and less elaborate basing structure. In fact, it’s plausible to imagine airborne radars with range comparable to that of today’s JSTARS will in the future be put on airplanes that can operate off unimproved highways. In an environment in which you can, if necessary, operate from an unimproved highway or operate from small regional airports, and in which runways repair continues to mature in the way that it has in the last two generations, it becomes harder and harder to imagine that a cost effective competition between basing attack and basing repair and basing dispersal can be won by the attacker. Assets forward deployed in peacetime and struck preemptively will be very vulnerable. Their replacements, once long-range surveillance is taken down, will be vastly more survivable.

MP: What strategic and operational benefits and limitations do Chinese naval forces incur by operating under an A2/AD envelope in the Western Pacific?

SB: We tend to believe that naval assets that venture within range of an American A2/AD zone are going to be extremely vulnerable in the same way that an American naval asset would be if they sailed into the teeth of the Chinese A2/AD system. If the competition unfolds in the way that we expect, we’re going to be looking at an environment in which surface maritime operations that reach the enemy’s A2/AD zone are simply going to be too vulnerable. What that means, however, is that naval assets can be viable if either a) they’re operating more than 400-600 km away from enemy-held land areas or b) if they’re operating in close inland waters where they’re within reach of protection by anti-missile systems that are deployed in a mobile basing mode on land that emits the complexity that I talked about earlier.

That suggests in turn though that if the way China is going to think about a future war with the U.S. is by building a seagoing blue water navy, it’s going to sally forth and extend the reach of Chinese A2/AD beyond 400-600 km which cannot threaten U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea. Instead, they may use naval assets to extend that bubble further out, but they’re going to have a great deal of difficulty enabling those surface naval platforms to survive because they’re going to have to move within reach of U.S.-friendly A2/AD capabilities deployed on allies like South Korea, the Philippines, or Taiwan.

MP: How do you envision deception operations factoring into the strategy for both those forces seeking to deny access and secure it?

In a sense, the whole analysis I just presented is premised on an argument about deception. It’s premised on the argument that the complexity of the earth’s surfaces makes things harder to find. Cleverer forms of deception, causing the corpses of convicts to wash ashore with phony orders in their pockets and so on, to take an analogy from an earlier era, have incredibly difficulty in an environment in which RSTA technologies are as good as they’re going to be. Certainly there are all sorts of forms of electronic deception that are part and parcel to these technologies, but at the end of the day, we tend to think that the power of searchers, if the environment is conducive, is going to make it harder and harder to hide unless the environment is conducive. The two-sided searcher/hider competition where the hider is embedded in the complexity of the earth’s surface is a situation in which the hider can use deception. When using deception to win if you’re a stealth bomber trying to penetrate into a heavily defended airspace silhouetted against a blank sky burning huge amounts of fuel moving at very high speed into the teeth of very powerful, mobile land based radars isn’t a deception strategy we think has much potential.

MP: Thank you so much, this was a really fantastic conversation Professor Biddle and I am excited to share this with our listeners.

SB: My pleasure.

Dr. Stephen Biddle is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before joining the GW faculty in fall 2012 he was the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and previously held the Elihu Root chair in military studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute (SSI). Dr. Biddle served on General Stanley McChrystal’s Initial Strategic Assessment Team in Kabul in 2009, on General David Petraeus’ Joint Strategic Assessment Team in Baghdad in 2007, and as a Senior Advisor to General Petraeus’ Central Command Assessment Team in Washington in 2008-9. He has served as a member of the Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board, and has presented testimony before congressional committees on issues relating to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; force planning; conventional net assessment; and European arms control. His book Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2004) won four prizes, including the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Award Silver Medal for 2005, and the 2005 Huntington Prize from the Harvard University Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. His other publications include articles in Foreign Affairs, International Security, Survival, The Journal of Politics, Security Studies, The Journal of Strategic Studies, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, International Studies Quarterly, The New Republic, The American Interest, The National Interest, Orbis, The Washington Quarterly, Contemporary Security Policy, Defense Analysis, Joint Force Quarterly, and Military Operations Research; shorter pieces on military topics in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other news outlets; various chapters in edited volumes; and 31 SSI, IDA, and NATO reports. He co-directs the Columbia University Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS), and has held teaching and research positions at Columbia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), and Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA). His research has won Barchi, Rist, and Impact Prizes from the Military Operations Research Society. He was awarded the U.S. Army Superior Civilian Service Medal in 2003 and again in 2006, and was presented with the US Army Commander’s Award for Public Service in Baghdad in 2007. He holds AB (1981), MPP (1985), and Ph.D. (Public Policy, 1992) degrees, all from Harvard University.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control and the Host of Sea Control: North America. He works as Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Contact him at seacontrol@cimsec.org.

Liaoning Raises More Questions for China

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

Introduction

China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had put on a display of its skills recently as the carrier group transited the Western Pacific. Liaoning’s excursion, marking Beijing’s core interests, is a political message to the United States and the world as uncertainty grips them. It also marks the beginning of a new episode in the military history of Western Pacific, which has been dominated by American aircraft carriers since the Cold War, especially during the Taiwan Strait crises. Taiwan also believes that Liaoning represents China’s military ability to break through the first island chain.

Historical Context

A recount of Cold War history and Beijing’s narratives of its historical and maritime supremacy in the Western Pacific serves to put this development into a more sober perspective, informing future political and military balance in the region.

China’s civil war led to Communists controlling the mainland territory while the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. Subsequently, the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China were established on either side of the Taiwan Strait. In the 1950s, the U.S. drew up security and mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand as a bulwark of its containment policy against the spread of Communism in Asia. The U.S. also extended its diplomatic and military support to Taiwan while confronting China in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

In the 1950s, China and Taiwan clashed over the control of strategically located islands in the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. deployed its naval assets to the Strait, forcing cessation of hostilities and also signaling its political will to defend Taiwan from military aggression. However, U.S.-China relations improved in the 1970s with the former recognizing the PRC. The diplomatic recognition by the U.S. helped China modernize its industries and expand its economy.

As China’s domestic circumstances and international stature improved, it sought to define its national interests. In 2003, China’s Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, identified Taiwan as one of China’s “core interests” in his meeting with then U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The subsequent official writings use terms such as ‘upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty’ and ‘reunification’ in an attempt to extend China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. The South China Sea was included in the ‘core interests’ in 2010 and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea in 2013. China is undertaking reforms and modernizing its military capabilities to attain and defend these core interests.

Admiral Liu Huaqing, called China’s Mahan, was the most influential in lobbying for a blue-water navy for the country. He oversaw the radical modernization of China’s navy in terms of concepts, strategies, and capabilities. He even drew up a timeline for China’s navy to be able to exert sea control within the first island chain by 2000, control second island chain waters by 2020 and project power as a true global navy by 2050. The aircraft carrier is the quintessential military platform that embodies such intentions, particularly for global power projection. The fact that American aircraft carriers operating across the globe, including the Western Pacific, underline this fact to China.

Signaling Capability and Strategic Intent

Liaoning then speaks of Beijing’s political will and ambition to break through the first island chain, which China considers a geographical and political containment of its power. The first island chain is a virtual line drawn from the islands of Japan passing Taiwan and the Philippines and curving at the southern end of the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. Variations include the line either passing through the west coast or the east coast of Taiwan as well as extension of the line through the Indonesian archipelago to even reach Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In any case, China is bound to come in contact with its immediate neighbors Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, countries with which it shares a long, complex history of both cooperation and conflict.

China has also shown its knack for picking its moments to send political messages using military means. It took advantage of the world’s fixated attention on the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958 to resume the bombing of Jinmen and Mazu islands in the Taiwan Strait. China’s armed incursion across the Indian border in 1962 coincides with the Cuban Missile Crisis. At present, the domestic political transition phase of the U.S. had lent Liaoning political space to carry out its objectives in support of Beijing’s core interests. Liaoning’s excursion also occurred just as President Trump signaled possible recalibration of ‘One China’ policy before his inauguration. Carrier operations require significant advance preparation, so while President Trump’s comments may not have triggered the Liaoning’s transit, the Chinese surely planned this December deployment well in advance of the U.S. election to send a message to the U.S. president-elect, whomever it would be. 

China has liberally shared photographs and videos of Liaoning’s deck operations, perhaps as an aid to counter the criticism of its minimal experience in carrying out carrier operations in deep seas. Nevertheless, China cannot be expected to master those skills and capabilities inherent to maintaining a carrier strike group as its Asian peer India or the U.S. have acquired over many decades and at considerable costs. Most importantly, before China can earn international prestige, Liaoning or its successors must operate outside the overshadowing Anti-Access/Area Denial protective bubble and sustain their operations to become true power projection assets.

Liaoning operations in December 2016. PLA Navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli is seen shaking hands and speaking to crew members. (CCTV)

Even if it is the intention of China to intimidate its smaller neighbors by parading the Liaoning in the near seas, investing the financial and human resources demanded by an aircraft carrier in the Coast Guard and maritime militia makes better sense. China’s maritime militia deployed on the open seas backed by the Coast Guard and the Navy has emerged as the true instrument of coercion for altering the status quo in the South China Sea, complicating the response mechanisms of disputant countries while the U.S. has yet to officially recognize it as a concentrated force.

Extending the cost-benefit perspective to a wartime situation, it again makes better sense for China to continue investing in its missile capabilities that better serve its sea denial strategy against an adversary advancing over the seas towards its shores. The new classes of China’s destroyers and submarines, owing to their numbers and increasing technological sophistication, are already considered formidable. Even if the carriers are able to extend the reach of China’s military aircraft over the seas, they would tie down some of the aircraft and naval assets for protection against the adversary’s own long-range missile strikes.

Conclusion

In essence, China has made a fine point: it finally possesses a steaming aircraft carrier that has operated without incidents on its first venture over the seas. Beijing successfully highlighted and marked some of its core interests. While Liaoning’s foray into the seas certainly sets a mark in the fluctuating military balance of the Asia-Pacific, China has some decent obstacles to maneuver before it can claim or demand recognition for possessing an aircraft carrier. And given China’s zero tolerance for accidents, it remains to be seen how the cautious approach would help China gain mastery in this domain. As the carrier operations continue and more platforms join the Navy, China will have to determine if these platforms are indeed worth the risk and costs. Even so, China needs to assess the optimum roles that can be assigned to its carriers within the country’s overarching political and military strategies.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Liaoning steams with PLA Navy surface combatants. (Andreas Rupprecht, via China Defense Forum)

Arctic Security and Legal Issues in the 21st Century: An Interview with CDR Sean Fahey

By Sally DeBoer

The changing Arctic is a topic of increasing interest to the maritime security community. Rapidly receding sea ice and increasingly navigable waters combined with the promise of rich natural resource deposits have made investment in the Arctic – particularly military and infrastructure investment – a priority for Arctic nations and other parties that stand to benefit from the region. To discuss these issues and more, CIMSEC interviewed Commander Sean Fahey, USCG of the U.S. Naval War College Stockton Center for the Study of International Law for his expert insight on legal and security issues in the High North in the 21st Century. 

SD: CDR Fahey, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss legal and security challenges to the Arctic in the 21st Century. We are honored to have someone with your experience and expertise speak with us! To begin, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

SF: Great to be with you; thank you for the invitation. I serve as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, at the U.S. Naval War College. In this role, I conduct research and teach global maritime security law. In particular, I focus on the intersection of law and security in the Arctic Ocean. For example, I recently collaborated with Professor James Kraska on a position paper for the U.K. House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee, Defence in the Arctic Inquiry. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies, the Stockton Center’s peer-reviewed law journal, and the oldest journal of international law published in the United States.

By way of background, I am an attorney and commissioned officer in the rank of commander in the United States Coast Guard, and have advised various levels of command on the legal issues impacting maritime security operations, primarily counter-drug, fisheries enforcement, migrant interdiction and environmental law enforcement. I have also served as a Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as a legal advisor in the operational law division of USAFRICOM, where my focus was on maritime security operations, namely counter-piracy and maritime law enforcement support, and counter-terrorism.

SD: Can you characterize the United States’ current position in the Arctic? Is the U.S. prepared – materially and strategically – for challenges ahead in the Arctic?

SF: The United States is an Arctic nation, and the region is of significant strategic, economic and environmental importance to us. Some of the challenges we face in the region, for example, energy and mineral exploitation, are future challenges, but many, such as preserving freedom of navigation and overflight, are immediate. Climate change – whatever the cause – promises to be a major factor in how we prioritize our responses to those challenges, but it is not the only factor. Our strategy is influenced by the actions and priorities of the other Arctic nations as well, and in some areas the United States is not in the lead.

Strategically, we have comprehensive guidance on how to structure our approach to the region. American priorities are set forth in National Security Presidential Directive-66/Homeland Security Directive-25 and the “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” and the accompanying Implementation Plan. Broadly, U.S. strategy is to advance U.S. security interests, pursue responsible Arctic stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation in the region. Each of those priorities has several detailed lines of effort. For example, the U.S. has four primary lines of effort to promote security: (1) preservation of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the Arctic region; (2) enhancement of Arctic regional domain awareness and presence; (3) development of future U.S. energy security; and (4) evolve Arctic strategic capabilities, military force structure, and civilian infrastructure to be able to best respond to challenges unique to the region.

Many of the federal departments and agencies tasked with taking the lead on a particular line of effort within the national policy further refine the National strategy with additional guidance documents, among them the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense. So, in response to the second part of your question – is the United States prepared for future challenges in the Arctic? Strategically we are. We know the priorities and we know who is responsible for advancing them. Materially, however, the United States is not in the best position it could be to advance its strategic priorities. The most pressing example of this lacuna is the requirement for icebreakers.

One of two USCG Polar Icebreakers (Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst/Coast Guard)

Enhanced icebreaking capabilities are vital to properly support U.S. security interests in the Arctic. You cannot be present if you cannot get there. Virtual presence is actual absence. A persistent presence in the Arctic region is a condition precedent for the effective exercise of law enforcement jurisdiction and improved domain awareness. Currently, the U.S. has two icebreakers. The Russian Federation has 37. A fleet of at least six heavy icebreakers would provide one full-time U.S. presence within the Arctic Ocean in both the east and west, while also allowing enough hulls for training, work-ups, and post-deployment maintenance. This requirement is supported by the Pentagon, and is the single most important capability for the U.S. to pursue in the Arctic. Only a robust ice-breaking capability allows the U.S. to respond to all threats and all hazards in the region.

SD: The United States is in a time of flux, politically – how do you think a U.S. position that is perhaps less invested in preventing the effects of climate change might affect the security situation in the Arctic and the role of the U.S. as an Arctic leader?

We certainly are in a time of flux, but it is too early to say how the administration will address the challenges posed by climate change. Time will tell. That said, the data on the environmental changes occurring in the Arctic are alarming. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is directly supported by NASA and NOAA, the minimum Arctic sea ice extent has reduced by 40 percent since 1978. Last year the maximum (wintertime) sea ice extent was at a record low for a second year in a row. Additionally, NASA reports that global surface temperatures – to include in the Arctic – were at record highs in 2016. In short, the data indicate that the melt will not only continue, but will likely accelerate.

Trends in sea ice thickness/volume are another important indicator of Arctic climate change. While sea ice thickness observations are sparse, this figure utilizes the ocean and sea ice model, PIOMAS (Zhang and Rothrock, 2003), to visualize October sea ice thickness from 1979 to 2017. Sea ice less than 1.5 meters is masked out (black) to emphasize the loss of thicker, older ice. Updated through January 2017. (Zachary Michael Labe, Ph.D. Student, Department of Earth System Science, The University of California, Irvine)

Responsible regional stewardship – over the Arctic and its resources – is one of the pillars of our national strategy. It would be unfortunate if the United States were forced to effectively abdicate its leadership position in the Arctic due to a perceived lack of credibility on this issue by other Arctic nations. If we abdicate our leadership position, we abdicate our ability to shape regional security issues, and other Arctic nations may be reluctant to partner with us.

SD: Can you speak to some of the impacts that climate change has had on the Arctic security situation?

SF: The changing Arctic climate has already had a recognizable impact on the regional security landscape. Less ice means greater access and more activity. Some of the impacts may be positive. For example, the Arctic has enormous importance for long-term U.S. energy security. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves (90 billion barrels) are in the Arctic. This estimate is in addition to more than 240 billion barrels of petroleum reserves that have already been discovered. The USGS estimates that one-third of this oil is in the circum-Arctic region of Alaska and the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Responsibly and safely developing new domestic energy sources strengthens U.S. energy security by reducing U.S. reliance on imported oil, some of which, as you know, travels vast distances from extremely unstable regions before entering the national supply.

That said, competition for energy resources in disputed areas of the Arctic could destabilize the regional security balance. I am confident however, that the United States and the other Arctic nations will resolve their boundary disputes peacefully. We have seen evidence of this already with the Russian Federation and Norway resolving a long-standing maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea.

The more immediate impact of climate change on the Arctic security situation will be on freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. Broadly speaking, freedom of navigation and overflight are critical for the U.S. to be able to support peacetime and wartime contingencies across the globe. If the Arctic ice melt continues at its current pace, the Northwest Passage, the shipping route along the Canadian Arctic coastline, and the Northern Sea Route, the shipping route along the Russian Arctic coastline, will be accessible for longer periods of time, possibly year round.

Strategic mobility throughout the Arctic could become critical to support strategic sealift for U.S. contingency operations worldwide, and the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route could serve as waterways to support such contingency operations. Portions of both shipping routes cross areas where the respective coastal state has made, in the opinion of the U.S., an excessive maritime claim, and these claims threaten the ability of naval forces to exercise their navigational and overflight rights. Preserving these rights is a central tenet of the National Arctic strategy. The U.S. Department of State, the lead agency for this strategic priority, is actively engaged with Canada and Russia on this issue, but it may be prudent for the United States to conduct freedom of navigation operations – the peaceful exercise of international legal rights in disputed sea areas – in areas of the Arctic Ocean that are subject to unlawful maritime claims.

SD: Many of our readers may not be aware of the pivotal role the U.S. and international Coast Guards have in maritime operations, specifically on operations in the high north. What improvements could the United States make to its infrastructure to be more prepared for operations in the Arctic?

At the risk of sounding redundant, I think greater icebreaking capability, and the shore-based infrastructure required to support icebreakers, is absolutely critical for the U.S. to achieve its maritime security goals in the Arctic. In order to respond to regional threats and hazards, U.S. surface forces need to be able to safely navigate the Arctic Ocean.

In the same vein, the U.S. should also commit to constructing ice-strengthened patrol ships for its seas services, similar to the Arctic Offshore Patrol ships being commissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy. The increased security presence in the region that greater icebreaking capability and ice-strengthened patrol ships would enable will help further deter conventional and unconventional maritime security threats and also ensure that U.S. near-shore and offshore oil and gas industry infrastructure is properly safeguarded. Search and rescue (SAR) also requires both ships and aircraft that are capable of operating in extreme climate. The United States has inadequate force structure to meet SAR contingencies.

Additionally, the U.S. needs to strengthen is pollution response capabilities and infrastructure in the Arctic. Needless to say, as the energy sector expands in the Arctic, so too does the risk of pollution. Given the remoteness of the region, sufficient pollution response capabilities and infrastructure need to be in place and accessible in order to ensure a timely response.

Finally, as the region becomes more accessible to year-round commercial navigation, the U.S. needs to ensure we have the sufficient infrastructure to support safe and secure maritime commerce. This could include harbor and dock improvements, aids to navigation, management systems for high risk vessel traffic areas,  search and rescue capabilities, and effective communications networks. Some of these are in place, some just need to be enhanced, and some need to be created.

SD: As you are a legal scholar, we’d like your insight on competing maritime claims in the region. First, what legal foundation, if any, does Canada have for its claim over the Northwest Passage? We know this is a controversial topic; what does the letter of the law dictate on the matter?

The Northwest Passage Route (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.)

Canada asserts they have complete sovereignty over the waterways that comprise the Northwest Passage. Their legal argument for doing so is that the waters comprising the Northwest Passage lie within either Canadian internal waters or its territorial sea, and are thus subject to their jurisdiction and control. The United States and the European Commission have rejected Canada’s claims, and consider the Northwest Passage, a strait used for international navigation, open to navigation without coastal state interference.

Canada’s internal waters claim is predicated on straight baselines and the assertion of historic title to the waters of the Northwest Passage. Though the normal baseline used to measure the extent of a nation’s territorial sea is the low-water mark along their coast, UNCLOS does permit nations to draw “straight baselines” if certain criteria are met. Once a legal baseline has been drawn, waters seaward of the baseline, up to twelve nautical miles, are considered territorial sea; waters landward of the baseline are considered internal waters, subject to absolute coastal state sovereignty and jurisdiction. In short, Canada claims that, through its application of straight baselines, the entire waterway of the Northwest Passage became part of its territorial sea or internal waters, and is subject to its exclusive control. Remember though, that the Northwest Passage is some 100 nm wide in many areas, and Canada may not claim these areas as internal waters or territorial sea.

The U.S. position is that Canada’s application of straight baselines along the Northwest Passage is excessive and constitutes an unlawful interpretation of the criteria for establishing straight baselines under UNCLOS. Straight baselines may be used in the case of fringing islands or a coastline that is deeply indented and cut into. But even in these cases, the coastal state must draw the baselines narrowly. Under Article 8(2) of UNCLOS, even if countries accepted the limits of coastal state jurisdiction, then vessels from any nation would be completely free to traverse the area in innocent passage.

Consequently, even if nations accepted Canada’s straight baseline claims on their face, the ships of all nations would still be entitled to “innocent passage” through these “internal waters.” UNCLOS is clear on this issue; when the application of straight baselines have the effect of enclosing as internal waters areas which had not previously been considered as such – as is the case in with the Northwest Passage – the right of innocent passage still exists. Canada asserts that – the UNCLOS provisions about straight baseline enclosures notwithstanding – they have a historic claim to the Northwest Passage as well, one that precedes its straight baseline application. One of the weaknesses with that argument, however, is that a claim of historic title to internal waters requires, among other things, the acquiescence of foreign nations to that claim. The United States have never acquiesced to Canada’s claim, but have, instead, openly protested it, and continue to do so.

As you indicate though, it is a controversial matter, and much stronger legal scholars than I have written at length on the issue, but I think the position of the United States and European Commission is the legally correct one; the Northwest Passage is an international strait. Various legal characterizations aside, I am confident that the dispute over the Northwest Passage will be resolved amicably. Canada is a longstanding and indispensable ally of the United States – one that we have the deepest respect for – and an invaluable partner in the Arctic. The U.S. shares the same interests as the Canadians in ensuring a safe, secure, and environmentally protected Arctic, and many of the systems employed and contemplated by Canada to protect its interests – ship reporting, designating sea lines, vessel traffic separation schemes – do not require absolute sovereignty to affect. A diplomatic solution will be found.

SD: Can you provide some context for Russia’s extensive maritime claims? Can they reasonably expect a favorable ruling on their extension of their continental shelf?

The Russian Federation has several maritime claims of interest, particularly their claims regarding the Northern Sea Route and, as you note, their claim to an extended continental shelf. The Northern Sea Route claims need to be looked at closely from a maritime security perspective, as they have the potential to adversely impact maritime mobility.

As you know, the Russian Federation enacted national legislation establishing a state institution (the Northern Sea Route Administration or “NSRA”) with a mandate to “organize navigation in the water area of the Northern Sea Route.” This national legislation also defined “the water area” of the Northern Sea Route to include the Russian Arctic internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and – notably – their exclusive economic zone. Shortly after its establishment, the NSRA published their “Rules of Navigation on the Water Area of the Northern Sea Route,” which contains several provisions that adversely impact freedom of navigation and may not be consistent with international law, chief among them the unilateral requirement that all ships must request advance permission from the NSRA to enter “the water area” of the Northern Sea Route.

The potential impacts of this provision alone to maritime mobility could be significant; the regulation is arguably an attempt to unilaterally bypass vital high seas freedoms and navigational rights, such as innocent passage and transit passage that ships would otherwise be entitled to, in order to assert greater control over the shipping channel. Though UNCLOS (Article 234) provides for limited legislative and enforcement rights in “ice covered areas” of a coastal state’s EEZ, any coastal state legislation adopted under this limited authority must have “due regard to navigation.” As such, the Russian Federation’s reliance on Article 234 as the international legal basis for its regulation requiring ships to request permission to enter the water areas of the Northern Sea Route is overreaching. The impacts to navigation of this provision are severe.

Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy (Sputnik, Sergey Eshenko)

With respect to whether the Russian Federation can expect a favorable ruling from the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on their extended continental shelf claim, I would say that the Russians are certainly doing everything in their power to see that they do. And if they do not receive a favorable ruling, I fully expect them to continue conducting research into the Arctic seabed, compiling data, and submitting revised claims, much like they did in 2015 after their 2001 application was rejected and the Commission requested additional scientific evidence from the Russians to support their claim. The natural resources potentially at stake are too valuable for Russia to simply walk away.

SD: The PRC’s response to the arbitration ruling on claims in the SCS indicated a disregard for international law – can you see such a reaction leading to similar reactions when it comes to Arctic rulings?

There’s always the potential for it and, in fact, already some evidence of it. In 2013, the Russian Federation refused to directly participate in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea proceedings in the Arctic Sunrise case, the dispute between Russia and the Netherlands over law enforcement actions taken by Russia in their Exclusive Economic Zone against a Netherlands-flagged Greenpeace vessel protesting against Russian oil exploration in Arctic waters. To be fair, the Russian Federation did, however, submit several position papers to the arbitral tribunal about various aspects of the case, to include protesting the jurisdiction of the tribunal, but ultimately Russia rejected the tribunal’s ruling.

More generally though, any given nation’s strategic priorities may not always be in perfect alignment with what international law requires. Ideally though, in such a situation, nations will recognize that short-term national “gains” may ultimately compromise their standing within the international community, and erode their ability to partner with other nations. My concern is that as energy resources become less plentiful in other regions and more accessible in the Arctic, particularly in the disputed areas, we may see some nations more inclined to act solely in their own national self-interest, even if their actions are in direct conflict with international law.

To date, however, many of the challenges facing the Arctic have been addressed collectively. There appears to be a genuine spirit of international cooperation in the region. We’ve seen this in the Ottawa Declaration establishing the Arctic Council as a forum for intergovernmental cooperation in the region, the commitment to the Law of the Sea as the legal framework to govern the Arctic Ocean made by the Arctic coastal states in the Ilulissat Declaration, the participation of the Arctic coastal states in the formation of the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, and the successful development of a binding multilateral search and rescue agreement between all of the Arctic nations, governing the entire region. There are many examples of international collaboration in the Arctic, and I am cautiously optimistic that nations will respect collective interests – such as adherence to international law – even when there may be some short-term national advantage to be gained by disregarding them. The Arctic is not a region where you can “go it alone.”

SD: Let’s discuss militarization in the Arctic – do you foresee a trend toward greater military presence in the Arctic and what possible implications of this movement might you caution?

I do, and it is a trend that cannot be solely attributed to any one nation. Many of the Arctic countries are increasing their military footprints in the region, which of course has a ripple effect. As you know, the Russian Federation recently stood up a Joint Strategic Command for the Arctic. The entirety of Russia’s Northern Fleet was completely absorbed into this new Arctic Command, and the land component is comprised of two brigades, with plans for a third, as well as specially trained Arctic coastal defense divisions. Fourteen airfields and sixteen deepwater ports are in various stages of development along the Northern Sea Route. Russian submarine patrols across the North Atlantic rose by nearly 50 percent last year. These capabilities and this infrastructure positions Russia to have a dominant military presence in the Arctic for the foreseeable future.

Despite this escalation, however, I think the potential for a large-scale, conventional conflict in the region is low. Perhaps that’s naïve, but there is little evidence that the Arctic nations will abandon diplomacy as the preferred dispute resolution tool in favor of force. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary. I think what is more likely is another “Black Sea Bumping Incident” type scenario between an Arctic coastal state, defending what they believe their territorial integrity, and a foreign naval vessel, exercising freedom of navigation, perhaps along the Northern Sea Route. Of course, this kind of scenario can – in and of itself – lead to an escalation.

SD: How would you answer those who feel UNCLOS is insufficient when considering legal issues in the High North?

I agree with the wisdom of the signatories to the Illulissat Declaration. The Arctic is primarily a maritime region, and the Law of the Sea is the appropriate international legal regime. Many of the future challenges in the Arctic – delineating the outer limits of the continental shelf, which will hopefully resolve many of the potential resource disputes in the region; ensuring freedom of navigation along shipping routes that may become increasingly more accessible with the changing climate; ensuring comprehensive, but fair, environmental stewardship – are challenges that the Law of the Sea already addresses. Bilateral and multilateral treaties on specific issues – for example, the Arctic Search and Rescue Treaty – can help fill most of the gaps not directly addressed by the Law of the Sea. In terms of a governing body of law, however, the Law of the Sea, to include UNCLOS, is more than sufficient.

Commander Sean Fahey, United States Coast Guard, is currently assigned as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies. He can be reached at Sean.Fahey@usnwc.edu

The views and opinions expressed here are presented in a personal and unofficial capacity. They are not to be construed as official policy or reflecting the views of the United States Coast Guard or any other U.S. government agency. 

Sally DeBoer is currently serving as the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at president@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy (Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich)

Sea Control 128 – Bonnie Glaser On FONOPS and U.S.-China Relations under Trump

By Mina Pollmann

CIMSEC spoke with Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser to better understand freedom of navigation, U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, and recent maritime operations in the region. Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Mina Pollmann: Hello, CIMSEC listeners. My name is Mina Pollmann, and as CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations, I have the honor of hosting Bonnie Glaser as our guest for this episode. Bonnie is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy.

Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us.

Bonnie Glaser: Thanks for having me.

Mina: I’d like to focus today on potential areas of conflict between the U.S. and China, specifically in the maritime domain. To lay the groundwork for that conversation, I wanted to ask a couple questions first about your take on the Trump administration and how China is reacting to the new president.

Early speculation of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy emphasized that it will be “transactional.” Based on the signs so far, such as his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the call with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and the call with Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull last week, would you agree with this characterization? Is Trump’s approach really that calculated?

Bonnie: Well, as a businessman, it does appear that President Trump is looking to make some “deals” with other countries. We don’t know yet what kinds of “deals” that would be. He has indicated, for example, that the One China policy, which the United States has held for almost 40 years, might be reconsidered unless the Chinese make some concessions in the area of trade. But as far as I know, we haven’t started a dialogue with the Chinese yet. Maybe the Chinese will try to offer some things up in advance, but the Chinese have also told the United States, and they have said so publicly, that the One China policy is nonnegotiable.

I think the premise of the Trump administration is that the Chinese can be influenced. That if the United States pushes back, stands firm in some areas, the Chinese will simply have to accept it. They’ll have to adjust. That is a hypothesis that hasn’t really been tested. Whether we look at the South China Sea or Taiwan or other areas, we don’t yet know whether an effort to try and establish new “redlines” – for example, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion during his confirmation hearings that we might seek to deny China’s access to some of its islands in the South China Sea – will influence China. We don’t know where decisions are going to be made to try to force the Chinese to change their position, or where the Trump administration is going to bargain. We’re still in the very early days of the new administration, and we just don’t know.

Mina: It’s safe to say that unpredictability will be a defining feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In light of this, how can China craft a sustained and constructive foreign policy towards the U.S.?

Bonnie: I think that every country has to deal with a degree of unpredictability when they are talking to the Trump administration and making their own policy decisions. There is not a lot of certainty yet. And it may be that the Trump administration decides to maintain a large degree of unpredictability if it believes that ambiguity serves its interest.

I think as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are trying to convince the Trump administration to limit the ambiguity to areas that do not affect China’s “core interests.” At the top of that list of core interests is sovereignty and territorial integrity – which is why the issue of the One China policy is so sensitive to the Chinese. I think that Beijing is trying to establish the opportunity to have an early, in-depth conversation with President Trump. I think they believe that a Sunnylands-type conversation where they can lay out their interests and try to engage in a one-on-one conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may help establish some understandings early on. I don’t know whether they will be able to achieve that goal.

Right now, the first potential opportunity for Xi Jinping to talk to Donald Trump is likely to be at the G20 in the first week of July, unless something is arranged before then. But we are seeing phone calls taking place. China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We don’t know what took place in that conversation, but I think that the Chinese are looking for greater certainty in trying to narrow this area of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Mina: Moving on to questions more directly related to the maritime domain – in your commentary with Zack Cooper and Peter Dutton, “Mischief Reef: President Trump’s First FONOP?” last November, you and your co-authors explain how regional observers will judge the Trump administration’s willingness – or unwillingness – to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertiveness based on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation in Asia. What message would conducting a naval operation that goes beyond “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef send to China?

Bonnie: To introduce some background here, the Obama administration started conducting freedom of navigation operations around the Spratlys and the Paracels in October 2015 – but this was not the first time. Apparently, as early as 1997, there were some freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels. And it’s important to make the point that the U.S. freedom of navigation program is, in fact, a global one. It goes back to the 1970s, and it is intended to enforce freedom of navigation for all countries in the world, to protect high seas freedoms that all seafaring nations have under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

When the Obama administration resumed these operations, there had been a hiatus for a couple years where they had not been carried out in the South China Sea. They were conducted two times in the Paracels, and two times in the Spratlys. And in all of these cases, with the exception of the last one that was conducted in October 2016, they were what we call “innocent passage.” That means, simply sailing in, in an expeditious and continuous manner, through waters that are 12 nautical miles around a particular feature.

Now, this is complicated by the fact that in the Paracels, the Chinese drew base points and baselines in 1996. They drew what’s called “straight baselines,” connecting these 28 base points. Under UNCLOS, only an archipelagic state that is composed of islands can draw these straight lines legally. China is a continental state. And it illegally drew straight baselines, and inside these baselines essentially claimed an “internal sea.” Under UNCLOS, if you have a legal internal sea, another country cannot sail inside those waters without getting permission first. The Chinese, contending that they have this legal right, demanded that the United States and other countries ask for permission before entering this internal sea. And the Chinese believe that they have a right under UNCLOS to demand that every country sailing in their territorial sea – whether it be coastal or around one of their land features – get prior permission. The United States has a different interpretation, and some countries require notification but not permission, so there are different interpretations of what the provisions are under UNCLOS.

So, with that background, in the last freedom of navigation operation in October of 2016, the USS Decatur crossed these illegal straight lines, and they conducted a maneuvering drill for the first time out of the four FONOPs publicized during the Obama administration. This is an exercise that is demonstrating high seas freedoms, and of course the Chinese objected to that. This was not “innocent passage” – simply sailing in a continuous and expeditious manner. Why is this important? If the United States simply sailed through these straight baselines through the Paracels and conducted innocent passage, that would signal an acceptance of China’s unlawful straight baselines.

Facilities on Mischief Reeef as of January 2016. (CSIS AMTI)

The reason why Peter Dutton, Zach Cooper and I are advocating conducting a FONOP around Mischief Reef is because the July 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS found that Mischief Reef is a low-tide elevation. That essentially means its part of the seabed – so no country can have sovereignty over it, and it exists inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. So indeed it belongs to the Philippines.

Mischief Reef is one of the three land features that the Chinese have built out into a massive island, creating military installations, including a 10,000-foot runway, hardened aircraft shelters, anti-aircraft missiles, and other capabilities. So if the United States were to conduct freedom of navigation around Mischief Reef – because Mischief Reef is not within 12 nautical miles of any other feature which would affect how the FONOP be legally conducted – simply conducting innocent passage around these 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef would once again lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. And of course China has illegally occupied the feature to begin with. This means the United States, with any FONOP around Mischief Reef, would have to conduct some military activity to not lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. The U.S. could fly a helicopter, conduct an exercise of another kind, circumnavigate the feature, loiter within – those are the kinds of options the U.S. has.

The risks here are that the Chinese might respond. Perhaps the Obama administration did not conduct this particular FONOP because they were worried the Chinese might respond or interfere with that kind of freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese could interfere by sending fighter aircraft and flying very low and dangerously, or they could use maritime militia or even naval vessels to try and interfere and block the United States or force the United States to leave the area. This could potentially lead to a confrontation or even an accident. And it appears, based on the nature of the FONOPs the Obama administration did conduct, one of the factors in the decision making process was that the Obama administration wanted to minimize any potential for confrontation with China. I think they were risk-averse.

And I think the Trump administration will approach this issue a little differently. They might be willing to incur more risk. And by demonstrating to China they are less risk-averse, they hope to strengthen deterrence. Now, this is still a logic that is yet to be played out – as to what the Trump administration’s approach will be, and how the Chinese will respond. But this will be, from the Chinese perspective, a test of U.S. intentions and operations in the South China Sea. They will be looking to see whether the Trump administration is going to act differently than the Obama administration did. And the Trump administration will be looking to see how the Chinese respond to what they do. This is a critical test of where the U.S.-China relationship will go going forward.

Mina: Moving to a different part within the same region, on January 11, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait after completing exercises in the South China Sea. Is this meant as a signal? If so, what specifically was it a response to? What message is it meant to convey?

Bonnie: Well, first we should note that the Liaoning aircraft carrier first went through the Taiwan Strait as part of an exercise in 2013, so this was not the first time. And preparing to conduct an exercise with an aircraft carrier – given the fact that the Chinese do not have much experience – a lot of work and preparation went into that. And the Liaoning was operating in the South China Sea, there were flight operations that were going on – the Chinese were trying to build their capabilities.

My guess is that the preparations were underway maybe five, six months in advance. So it’s doubtful that this exercise was substantially modified in reaction to anything that was happening in international politics at the time. That’s my view. But nevertheless it is a useful signal and can be played that way.

The Liaoning, heading back to Hainan Island from its exercises, really had three options to head back to China, if they did in fact consider changing routes. They could have gone through straits in Japan, or in the Philippines, or through the Taiwan Strait. They may or may not have decided initially to go through the Taiwan Strait, but my guess is that they simply were exploiting the opportunity to present it as a signal to Taiwan. The reason would be that the Chinese are more concerned about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She had a conversation with Donald Trump when he was just elected, on the phone. That was the first time ever a Taiwanese president has spoken on the phone with an American president-elect and that was made very public. And then President Tsai traveled through the United States. In fact, when this transit took place, President Tsai was in Central America and she passed through the U.S. and the Chinese are concerned about the potential for more cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, the possibility that President Trump could be emboldening Taiwan to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty. That would be a reason why they might have done that.

Chinese J-15 fighter jets wait on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in December. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

I should note, however, that the Liaoning sailed on the Chinese side of the midline between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and did not cross that centerline. As I understand it there were no flight operations that were conducted as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. If that had happened it would have been seen as far more provocative. And finally, I would add that, three times prior to that transit through the Taiwan Strait, bomber flights took place around the South China Sea and also circumventing Taiwan. In my view, those bomber flights, combined in some cases with other aircraft, were probably intended to send a very direct warning signal to Tsai Ing-wen. And I view those with greater concern than the transit by the Liaoning through that Strait. 

Mina: Historically, China has tested incoming U.S. administrations with assertive operations. Do you think an assertive operation in the maritime domain – looking beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, considering possible contingencies even in the East China Sea – is likely? If so, what form might this take and is there anything the U.S. can do to deter it? How could the U.S. respond?

Bonnie: It has been suggested, and I believe, many observers believe that China has tested incoming administrations. In 2001, in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were aggressive intercepts that were being conducted by a Chinese pilot that ultimately resulted in a collision with an EP3 aircraft and led to a forced landing on Hainan Island. And in 2009, there was an early incident with a U.S. oceanographic vessel called the Impeccable, with various types of Chinese vessels harassing the Impeccable, and tried to convince the United States to reduce the intelligence, surveillance ,and reconnaissance operations around China and to move those operations further away from China’s coast.

So, one possibility is that the Chinese do try to test the Trump administration. My guess is that given the fact that the Trump administration has signaled early on that it is going to get tough against China, and the fact that they have tried to introduce a lot of unpredictability into future U.S. policy towards China, the Chinese likely see that there is a very high risk in testing the Trump administration – because they could force this new administration to become even tougher. They could even cause an early confrontation.

So far, it is remarkable how restrained, how disciplined the Chinese have been not just in their behavior, but in their rhetoric as well. There have been very carefully worded statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Defense Ministry reiterating China’s principled positions on various issues. But there have not been very strong threatening statements or actions form the Chinese. I think that they recognize that if President Trump is potentially seen as weak, he may overreact, and this could create an outcome that the Chinese don’t want to see.

There’s also the potential that in the past, some of these “tests” that took place in the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, took place at a time pre-Xi Jinping, when the Chinese civilian control over all of the activities of the military were probably not as firm as they are today. That’s not to say the military might not do things in some areas that are not completely decided by the civilian leadership. There are still some issues in civil-military relations in China. But, it is clear that the coordination between the civilians and the military, and the instructions by Xi Jinping to operators in the aircraft and military vessels – particularly the instruction to avoid an incident with the United States – is quite clear. In the past, where some of these incidents have taken place, there was speculation that maybe the top Chinese leaders did not endorse that particular action at that particular time – I think that is less likely to take place.

Mina: Thank you so much for your time today, and I’m really excited to get this out to all of our listeners. This was such an insightful conversation. Thank you, Bonnie.

Bonnie: Thanks for having me.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum, and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.