Category Archives: Asia-Pacific

Analysis relating to USPACOM.

(Updated 9/18) Keeping up with the Senkakus: China Establishing a New Reality on the Ground…er, Sea

UPDATE: 9/18:

Japan’s Coast Guard has its hands full: Latest reports indicate up to 11 Chinese maritime surveillance ships have entered the Senkakus/Diaoyus’ Continguous Zone while a pair of fishermen swam ashore one of the islands before departing.

UPDATE: 9/17:

In addition to the anti-Japanese protests and violence which has flared throughout China this weekend, Chinese state media has indicated the possibility of further reaction to the nationalization of the Senkakus/Diaoyus to come later this week.  Chinese state radio said Monday that “1,000” fishing vessels are headed to the waters near the islands, as a fishing ban comes to an end.  Of note, the report quoted a Chinese source who said the vessels’ activities would be monitored by a “marine observation satellite.”  It is unclear whether this is an attempt to say the six vessels still believed in the vicinity of the islands will attempt to avoid a confrontation with the Japanese Coast Guard on station, or whether it just indicates China will be watching the situation very closely.  Meanwhile, Hong Kong reports that the ship Kai Fung 2, which earlier helped keep the islands in the spotlight, will attempt a return voyage this week as well.

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Hi, Hai Jian!

In the past week, while American attention has largely been diverted, China appears to have taken a number of steps to change the reality of the situation in the Senkakus/Diaoyus (hereafter referred to as Senkakus for brevity’s sake) in a coordinated diplomatic, media, legal, and physical push.

 

With the maelstrom of news emanating from the Muslim world, U.S. media coverage of other, possibly more consequential events inevitably slackened.  Fortunately our international and domestic partners have carried the ball a bit with regards to the disputed islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan.  While we noted the reports on Tuesday of two Chinese ships – the Hai Jian 46 and Hai Jian 49 – dispatched to and arriving outside the islands’ Territorial Waters (TW), the number that arrived eventually totaled six, twice as many ever previously sent by China at one time.  A good account of the stand-off, on pause for now, can be found at The Asahi Shimbun.  Although the Chinese vessels have all left the islands’ TW, they remain in the direct vicinity.

 

The Senkakus are the same five islands, under administrative control of Japan (and populated only by goats), at the center of Japanese Coast Guard clashes with Chinese fishermen and most recently protestors from all claimants.  The Atlantic Council of Canada has a good article on the history of the conflict, but the immediate cause of the Chinese flotilla was the purchase of three of the islands by Japan’s national government (another was already government-owned, and the last owned by another private owner).  The decision to go forward with the purchase was forced by Tokyo’s nationalist metropolitan government, which also attempted to buy the islands but would have furthered their use as a provocative cause célèbre – whereas the central government has mostly sought to play down tensions between the two economic partners.

 

However, with the lead-time given by advance warnings of the sale date on Sept. 11th, China had time to prepare a coordinated response.  As our counterparts @Galrahn and @cdrsalamander noted, this response not only involved the vessels themselves (which, significantly or not are from State Oceanic Administration while previous vessels were from the Ministry of Agriculture) but also articles backing the move ready to run in China’s state media.  Further, these actions appear timed to coincide with the PRC’s announcement of baselines demarcating their claims and the start of weather forecasts for the area.

 

Peaceful…but effective?

Although unprecedented for this particular conflict, China appears to be following a course it charted earlier this summer in the South China Sea, where it has so far successfully established a new reality on the ground with the Philippines-claimed and previously administered Scarborough/Pantang Shoal.  The Philippines Coast Guard pulled back its vessels on June 16th due to bad weather and has yet to return, effectively ceding control to the Chinese civilian maritime agencies, who have maintained a presence in the area and attempted to physically impede any non-Chinese vessels.

 

Back in the East China Sea, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, China likely had to take some action to appease nationalist sentiment at home in reaction to Japan’s moves.  But the paper also said that the movement of the vessels back out of the islands’ TW can be taken as a sign of China’s unwillingness to take things too far.  Here’s hoping they’re right – and that fears of further turmoil before the country’s leadership transition will serve as a break.  But with precedence already established in the South China Sea, and the vessels still loitering in the area, many signs point to the potential for future confrontation – and it may begin as early as next week. 

 

On Friday Xinhua said the vessels will start “patrol and law enforcement around the Diaoyu Islandswhile the catalyst for conflict could begin Sunday, when China’s self-imposed three-and-a-half-month fishing ban in waters near the Senkakus ends (although a typhoon to the east of the islands may further complicate the situation (h/t Galrahn)).  A Bureau of Fisheries official stated: “A large number of fishing boats will leave their ports…We will resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and the safety of fishers and step up controls in marine areas that include the Diaoyu Islands.”  Adding to the fun, Taiwan has also sent two Coast Guard vessels to protect any of its own fishermen brave enough to wade into the waters.

 

Not a pretty kitty. MEOW: Mutual Economic Obliteration Worldwide

From the perspective of the U.S., hoping to de-escalate any conflict between two of its most important trading partners and avoid being dragged in to an armed conflict, it’s clear we need better mechanisms with the PRC in case of emergency.  The threat of MEOW (mutual economic obliteration worldwide) is not enough.  It’s vital to separate the sides in the early stages to prevent a confrontation going past a point of no return – so we need to know who to call, and that they’ll have actual authority to call vessels back.  That is of course easier said than done with a country whose future president can drop of the face of the Earth for over a week at a time.  What the U.S. can work on, however, is building “habits of trust and cooperation,” through increasing partnership opportunities with China – a topic I will return to shortly.

 

If the long-term solution has to be through international diplomacy, China, by demarcating its claims to the specific rocks and islands around the Senkakus – a step experts have called the Chinese to take in the South China Sea – might this week actually have made progress of a sort.  But next week might not be as useful.

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

China’s Maritime Policies: An Opportunity for Canada

China now regards some of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as part of its “core interests.”

By Joelle Westlund

In some ways overshadowed by events elsewhere in its maritime claims, China added fuel the regional fire that has characterized its relations with neighbouring states for the last several decades on July 10th. This time it did so by launching a naval exercise in the waters near the Zhoushan islands in the East China Sea. The maneuver comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) placed a ban on shipping and fishing vessels entering the designated exercise area. The CCP have chosen a heated time to send the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Navy to practice its ability to operate in contested waters. But the timing of this maneuver was far from fortuitous.

The exercise in the Zhoushan has been interpreted as a demonstration of China’s ability to specifically counter the claims on another set of islands in the East China Sea – Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese – that have been at the center of an ongoing row between China, Taiwan, and Japan. The territorial dispute over the islands recently resurfaced when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda offered to purchase the chain of islands from their private owners. University of Tokyo professor Akio Takahara pointed out that the offer was submitted in an attempt to “stabilize the situation […] not to escalate the situation.” Logistically, Japan’s acquisition of the island makes sense, given that its central government rents the three islands and keeps them protected through landing restrictions and access to nearby waters. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin responded curtly to the proposition by stating, “China’s holy territory is not ‘up for sale’ to anyone.” State-owned news agency, China Daily called for “more aggressive measures to safeguard its territorial integrity […] Should Japan continue to make provocative moves.”

The disputed islands are not the only quarrel in which China finds itself. The Asian superpower is currently locked in a wrangle with Vietnam and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Sovereignty claims to the islands are touchy since the islands are believed to provide rich fishing grounds and potentially huge oil and gas reserves. The situation has escalated since the beginning of April when Chinese civilian vessels found themselves in a standoff with the Philippines Coast Guard. Chinese embassy spokesman Zhang Hua stated, “The Chinese side has been urging the Philippine side to take measures to de-escalate the situation.” In response Philippine President Benigno Aquino ordered the withdrawal of its government vessels in “hope[s] this action will help ease the tension.” China, however, has yet to do the same as it still has seven maritime vessels encircling the Shoal and has rejected attempts to resolve the tiff through the employment of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, as recommended by officials of Vietnam and the Philippines.

China is well versed in threatening navigational freedom in territorial waters, making countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia weary, since China appears to have set its sights on the Malacca Strait. The Strait is one of the most critical maritime choke points as over 1,000 ships a day pass through its channels that link the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. At the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China’s Minister of Defence Liang Guanglie called for China to take a more active role over the management of the Strait of Malacca. For China, which relies on nearly 80 percent of its crude oil imports from the Middle East and Africa, security of the passage is crucial and military involvement offers the opportunity to mitigate terrorist and insurgency risks in the lanes.

But given China’s aggressive posture adopted towards its neighbours, expansion into the Strait warrants concern and suspicion from regional powers. Exactly how states should tackle China’s multiple squabbles dominated discussion among senior diplomats at ASEAN’s latest meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has continued to look to the United States to increase its role in the area to minimize tension and this year’s gathering echoed a similar appeal. China however, has expressed its distaste for U.S. involvement and “hyping” of the dispute, arguing, “This South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and the U.S. because the U.S. doesn’t have claims over the South China Sea.”

A Role for Canada

To many Asian states, Canada represents an affluent and pluralistic country ripe with opportunity. Its diplomatic engagement in the region has predominately played a supportive and capacity-building role in maritime security initiatives. Canada has sought to expand its role in the area militarily and economically, and has done so most recently with Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s trip to Singapore. MacKay spent the weekend in talks with Asian defence ministers regarding the enlargement of a Canadian presence and toured potential sites for a ‘hub’ for Canadian military operations. 1,400 Canadian sailors, soldiers, and air force personnel will also be taking part in the biannual ‘Rim of the Pacific’ military exercises held from June 29 to August 3.

This involvement represents an important opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its commitment to the region, but even still, there needs to be a more concrete diplomatic engagement to secure relations. With announcements like U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s latest statement that 60 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be stationed in the Pacific by 2020, Canada must to buff up its presences before it loses out.

The disputes over the South China Sea, the Scarborough Shoal and the potential strain over the Malacca Strait, opens the door for Canada’s involvement. James Manicom of The Globe and Mailargues that Canada can use its status as an impartial dialogue partner to engage in regional track-two diplomacy. If Canada hopes to expand its economic relations in the region, such engagement outlined by Manicom is necessary. Canada currently stands as the ASEAN’s ninth largest investor and 13th largest trading partner, totaling over $1.6 and $9.8 billion, respectively. The Harper government needs to ditch the reluctance that has defined Canada-Asia relations and push for a peaceful resolution of the current disputes with China. Doing so would allow Canada to gain credibility in the region and supplement U.S.-Japanese-Philippine calls for stability. Further, as China continues its somewhat predacious behavior towards its neighbours, Canada can reassert itself as an agent of peace and diplomacy in the region.

Joelle Westlund is an Asia-Pacific Policy Analyst at The Atlantic Council of Canada. She is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto. Joelle holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Toronto and has studied at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and the news agencies and do not necessarily represent those of the Atlantic Council of Canada. This article is published for information purposes only.

Blog cross-posted with our partners at the Atlantic Council of Canada

Northern Hospitality

Fishing for trouble?

While some adversaries come to the aid of each others’ mariners in distress, some supposed friends have squabbled over claims of officially hostaged fishermen. A good Washington Post article details the fate of Chinese fishermen who ran afoul of the North Korean navy with new interviews from those aboard. While it isn’t clear whether the fishermen were illegally poaching in North Korean waters, their treatment at the hands of a purported ally is markedly different from that they’ve received in recent similar disputes with Japanese and Filipino authorities, among others.

Significantly, the hostile reaction of the Chinese public towards North Korea in this incident mirrors the online anger that erupted against the Philippines earlier this month over the Scarborough Shoal stand-off. As can be expected, the indignity voiced is especially acute for the fact that the two nations are often considered each others closest allies. Said one Chinese internet-user: “We raised a dog to watch the door, but were bitten by the crazy dog!”

However, few experts believe this latest row is likely to shake an alliance cemented more for fear of the second-order consequences of a collapse in the North and strategic reasons than an enduring affinity between the two people.

Beyond AirSea: Quick Thoughts

I had the privilege of today attending a debate at the Center for National Policy on “Asia and the Future of American Strategy.” (the audio and video are included in the link and I encourage readers to check it out). It featured friend of the forum Cdr. Bryan McGrath (Ret.), Dr. T.X. Hammes, Col, USMC (Ret.), and free cookies.

Dr. Hammes described the occasion for the debate as the dearth of strategic thinking over how the U.S. would actually prosecute a war against China should it find itself in the completely undesirable position of being in one. He said the “Pivot to Asia” had not been accompanied by deep strategic thinking, and that misunderstandings over the Pentagon’s “AirSea Battle” has “sucked the air out of the room” for that discussion. To the point, over at the Brookings Institute this morning, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Greenert said that AirSea Batte is “a concept, a way of thinking things through, a conceptual approach to establishing access.” In other words, something closer to a Sun Tzu-esque guiding principle than a fully fleshed-out strategy.

With the Pivot, the spotlight is on Asia. With the AirSea Battle the U.S. knows the main actors it intends to cast. But they roles they’ll play, and how they’ll work together are unclear. Dr. Hammes laid out a summary of the thesis of his article “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy, available in the Infinity Journal. He argued that by building defensive capabilities and defensive alliances along China’s first two island chains, from Japan through Malaysia, and focusing on a war of economic attrition (establishing a maritime exclusion zone, and conducting maritime interdiction ops and submarine warfare to enforce it) the U.S. could forgo the need to develop and deploy deep-strike penetration capabilities. This would, in the event of a conflict, help negate the Chinese focus on anti-access/area-denial by effectively ceding the areas within their range (for the time being) and establishing “offshore control” to bring the Chinese government to the negotiating table.

There is much merit in this approach, and I am thankful for the bold attempt at a strategy. I plan on taking up the gauntlet thrown down Dr. Hammes in a more in-depth post – if not to develop my own divergent strategy, then to at least hopefully help move the discussion forward.

For now, these are some of my own initial thoughts along, with some of the counterpoints that Bryan did a good job in bringing forth:

 

To deter, defeat, or bring together.

1. Dr. Hammes took as a starting point that the U.S. has been drawn into a war with China, and from there proceeded to list the ends, ways, and means to bring it to a conclusion. The means derived from this strategy were primarily those that would support the defense of the island chains and prosecute the economic war. But are these the same means one would develop if the mission was focused instead on deterring war? Bryan’s main point of divergence was along this line, as his core concepts: “Presence, Assurance, Deterrence, Power,” may be better served by the higher-end assets Dr. Hammes hopes to cut to find cost savings. In a stand-off over any particular piece of rock, is China more likely to begin a conflict if it (or a over-ambitious on-scene commander) believes it can forcefully seize the immediate objective? The tools that would allow the U.S. to win a long, drawn-out conflict are not necessarily the same as those that would effectively deter it from beginning in the first place.

The difficulty of determining this lies in the difficulty of determining how China would enter into a conflict with America. Most probably it would not be a decision so much as a stumble – a minor squabble with an American ally that through human error ends in bloodshed and a refusal to back down. But there are many possible variables. So if China didn’t think it was entering into conflict, the knowledge that America had an effective strategy for ending it on its own terms might not deter China – but then again neither might a nearby aircraft carrier if China doesn’t expect it to come to the aid of a beleaguered friend.

2. In order to bring the conflict to a close, Dr. Hammes’ strategy relies on a measure of China face-saving since the conflict would undoubtedly generate high-pitched nationalism in the country. As a reporter for the Asia Times detailed on Tuesday on China’s current stand-off with the Philippines:

many common Chinese people are inclined to take a harder line on the dispute than their government itself. I recently asked a Chinese friend about the ongoing dispute, and he, who declined to be identified, told me “Everyone wants to go to war with the Philippines. They say the government is being too weak.” I asked him why a dispute over a small island has taken on such significance. He said, “Chinese people care much about face, and the Philippines is a small country.”

It is unclear how a face-saving measure would be possible if the dispute begins with a territory grab, short of allowing the Chinese to maintain their new possession. Sure, there’s room for clever diplomacy, perhaps both sides agreeing to submit a claim for international resolution, but a focus on limited capabilities to serve limited aims removes the ability to enact higher psychological costs (letting the population see the full impact of war), if it continues to push the government to not back down from the initial claim or cause of the conflict. This is not to say it’s not worth the trade-off, or that strikes “going downtown” would be productive, but as Bryan pointed, the benefit of the option should be considered before it is given up.

3. The importance of allies and world opinion plays a heavy role in this strategy. While the U.S. can supply hardware, maintain bases, and jointly operate all it wants with its allies in the region, when the chips are down, it will come down to the specifics of the conflict to determine which way the allies go. The economic consequences of cutting off trade with China will be economically disastrous for not only America and China, but America’s allies as well. As Dr. Hammes admitted, China’s strategy is to attack America’s alliances, so you can bet it would try to exploit reluctance to fulfill military commitments. It may be hard for South Korean leaders to risk their nation’s military, economic livelihood, and subsequent constituents’ ire over a conflict escalating from a fishing dispute in say Malaysia.

 

In review.

4. Similarly, the backlash against the U.S. from friends and partners around the globe could be immense if the U.S. loses the public relations battle over the necessity for the economic disruption. There would be hostility at the intrusive enforcement no matter the length, and its legality would be questioned as there would be no Security Council resolutions since China is of course a veto-wielding member of the Security Council. The need to interdict overland routes in South East Asia in countries unwilling to sign on to the effort could also pose enormous challenges. It is unclear how the U.S. would be able to maintain its position for long if the end does not appear in the near-term, but much again depends on the circumstances.

5. U.S. domestic pressure may become equally, quickly tired. If it is “only” an ally that has suffered a lose of territory or lives there may be a temptation to cut our losses. I would not be surprised to hear voices ask “is it really worth it?” This could happen no matter the strategy, but could be magnified if the fight is portrayed as passive. Conversely, if the lives of Americans have been lost there could be enormous pressure to “go downtown” from the start, and again especially if the pace of the conflict were to drag. What may start as a calculated strategy to maximize American defensive advantages could be turned into a campaign of power projection by overwhelming domestic pressure, only without the capabilities to do it effectively.

5. Lastly, the enemy gets a vote. Part of Dr. T.X. Hammes’ strategy includes broadly advertising both the defensive nature and general concepts of the plan. While Kurt Albaugh in an earlier post on LCS talked about the benefits of clarified intentions, the Chinese would nonetheless begin to focus their efforts on developing effective counters for the strategy and strive to keep them far from the public eye.

This is a great start to thinking about our strategic posture in Asia. Despite the above criticisms, I found much to commend Dr. Hammes’ strategy. To their credit, Dr. Hammes and Bryan both admit they don’t have all the answers, and I’ve shown so far I only have questions, but I look forward to the continuing discussion.