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Hainan’s Maritime Militia: China Builds a Standing Vanguard, Pt. 1

Through the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the authors have just published China Maritime Report No. 1, entitled “China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA.” In it, they propose a more formal term for China’s maritime militia: the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The present article, the first in a three-part conclusion to their  nine-part series on the PAFMM of Hainan Province, will instead use the term “maritime militia” to maintain consistency with all preceding installments and to facilitate discussion of China’s broader militia construction.

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Hainan Province’s unique geography makes its buildup of maritime militia units the spear tip of China’s prosecution of gray zone operations in the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force whose leading units are lauded as models for other localities to emulate. This series has therefore examined Hainan’s leading maritime militia units, located in Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen (in parts one and two), and Sansha. To understand these grassroots units and their development, it has delved deeply into their respective local environments. Having examined these leading entities in depth, it is time to take a province-wide look at larger policy processes and trends in implementation. This installment will also examine the intentions of China’s leaders to construct new elite militia units tailored to meet heightened requirements in China’s armed forces. This new type of front-line militia will serve as a standing force for more regular employment in support of China’s objectives at sea. Part 1 of this final series will therefore explore maritime militia building in a more systemic organizational context, chiefly at the Provincial Military District level; while Part 2 will address specific challenges and how they are managed. Part 3 will conclude this series by appraising the results of Hainan’s maritime militia construction effort and discussing some additional dynamics at play in the provinces. This first part will thus start by probing how a frontier province like Hainan responds to national level militia building initiatives and the measures taken by provincial leaders to oversee its implementation.

China’s national defense system is divided geographically into Theater Commands, previously termed Military Regions. Each Theater Command contains several Provincial Military Districts (MD), where the militia’s direct chain of command begins. As each province is divided into municipalities, each MD is divided into multiple Military Sub-districts (MSD); within each are numerous county-level and grassroots People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). County-level PAFDs are staffed by active-duty personnel while the grassroots PAFDs are non-active duty organizations staffed by “full-time people’s armed forces cadres” (专职人民武装干部) who represent the direct interface between the militia and the PLA chain of command. Each MD oversees the militia work conducted by the MSDs and PAFDs within its area of responsibility.

Local governments provide funding and support while local military commands assume the bulk of responsibilities in maritime militia organization, training, and command. Government agencies such as the Maritime Safety Administration and the China Coast Guard (CCG) assist with aspects of maritime militia building pertaining to their bureaucratic functions, such as training in search and rescue and instruction on maritime law and regulations relevant to their operations.

The National Environment in Which Hainan Province and Its Militia Operate

Propelled by strategies and policies at the national and provincial levels, China’s Maritime Militia continues to grow and develop robustly. Many PLA and government leaders from all levels have some understanding or experience in building or working with the militia as an official component of China’s armed forces. Leaders from the top echelons of Central Military Commission (CMC), Party, and State leadership; as well as leaders of the PLA services, military regions, and provincial MDs; all attended the last National Militia Work Conference held in Beijing on 15 December 2011, a meeting to establish guidelines for nationwide militia work. President Xi Jinping himself likely became intimately familiar with the militia system during his career, particularly as the former deputy director of the Nanjing Military Region National Defense Mobilization Committee from 2000 to 2003. Overall militia policy is first set in Beijing and implemented through the principal civilian and military leaders of the provinces and counties via a dual leadership system of militia work (民兵工作双重领导制度). The militia itself represents an important personnel-centric line of effort in China’s Military-Civilian Fusion concept, recently elevated to a “national strategy.”

Ongoing PLA reforms mandate a reduction in militia personnel nationwide, continuing a trend of replacing outdated infantry militia units with technically capable militia more suited to supporting each of the PLA services in modern, informatized warfare. Maritime militia, meanwhile, are growing in proportion to their land-based counterparts as China prepares for “maritime military struggle,” as highlighted in its 2015 Defense White Paper. This seaward shift is materializing in national-level militia policy as well as in actual militia unit construction. Coastal cities like Shanghai and Beihai have all reported increased maritime militia growth. However, as China’s southernmost province tasked with administering all of Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Hainan bears commensurately large expense for border and coastal defense militia construction.

PLA reforms have also modified management of the MD system by splitting the former General Staff Department (GSD) into several new departments, one of which is the new Central Military Commission-level National Defense Mobilization Department (CMC-NDMD). Already deemed to be in “post-transfer” (转隶后) status by China’s military press, the MD system is now managed by the CMC-NDMD, relieving Theater Commands of many administrative burdens, including the supervision of militia work in the provinces. Discussion in the PLA over the exact role of Theater Commands in the development of national defense mobilization capabilities appears to be ongoing, indicating that the exact relationship between Theater and MD commands in the building and management of reserves has yet to be clarified. Huang Xiangliang, director of the National Defense Reserve Force Department of the Nanjing Army Command College, explains how the PLA reforms strengthened “centralized strategic-level leadership over the nation’s militia and reserves” by directly connecting MDs to the CMC. As the reserves diversify to meet the demands of each PLA service, Huang elaborates, those “services will put forward their requirements for the reserves, which will then be organized, trained, and supported by each level of the MD system.” For the maritime militia, this will entail greater numbers of specialized units trained to support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations.

Statements and policies guiding maritime militia construction are emerging from the CMC-NDMD. During a March 2016 interview, the newly promoted head of the CMC-NDMD Lieutenant General Sheng Bin confirmed the prominence afforded maritime militia building in the 13th Five Year Plan. China, he declared, will “adjust and optimize the scale, structure and layout of its militia and reserves, emphasizing construction of the maritime militia, coastal defense militia, emergency response militia, and new types of reserves.” Indeed, the Outline of the 13th Five Year Plan emphasizes strengthening the reserves and “maritime mobilization forces” in particular. On 28 July 2016, the head of the CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Department, Major General Wang Wenqing, also gave public guidance for solving common issues in maritime militia building.

Implementation is progressing apace. As CMC-NDMD Deputy Head Major General Hu Yishu describes in an October 2016 article in China’s Militia, a PLA Daily publication guiding national militia work, that revisions are underway on the nation’s Guidance Law for Maritime Militia and Border Defense Militia Military Training Work. This will regulate the tactics and training methods for “maritime militia participating in rights protection actions and support for PLAN actions.” With significant PLAN South Sea Fleet presence, the Hainan MD will likely see greater demand for maritime militia units configured to support PLAN operations in the South China Sea.

The Provincial Command

The Hainan MD’s military leadership published extensive articles in late 2015 comprehensively outlining missions, organization, training, and other aspects of Hainan’s maritime militia development and operations. The writings, by MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin and MD Commander Major General Zhang Jian respectively, appeared in National Defense, a domestically-oriented journal sponsored by the PLA Academy of Military Science. They reveal much about how the Hainan MD envisions and plans to execute national militia guidelines to help operationalize Beijing’s South China Sea strategy. Essential to directing a province’s construction of its maritime militia, such leaders directly promulgate militia construction requirements to their civilian government counterparts. The works of Liu and Zhang thus warrant close examination.

Invoking Chairman Xi’s and the Central Party’s guidance on maritime militia building and “strategically managing the ocean,” Political Commissar Liu Xin focuses on the role of the maritime militia in “maritime rights protection” (efforts to uphold and enforce China’s maritime claims). Liu explains how drawing in the people, especially fishermen, will help give China freedom of action—and the initiative—in maritime rights protection. According to Liu, the bulk of the maritime militia force will comprise the province’s original units, but will be led by newly created emergency response units with “new types” of maritime militia as the core. Evaluations will be strengthened to ensure there is a core force of “new-type fishing vessels” and “elite standing maritime militia emergency response units.” They must “be able to respond when called upon and win emergency maritime rights protection wars of initiative” (打赢海上应急维权主动仗). Liu’s remarks reflect a combination of higher combat readiness levels for emergency response units—i.e., the elite units—and the more regular rights protection roles of the majority of maritime militia units.

News reports state that Liu lead a new initiative in early 2016 to promulgate policies and plans for maritime militia organization and involvement in rights protection. Under his lead, the province passed the 13th Five Year Plan on Hainan Province’s Maritime Militia Construction,” providing systematic planning for missions; as well as guidelines, requirements, and measures for maritime militia building. Liu reportedly devoted great time and effort to key maritime militia construction issues, visiting numerous islands and reefs in the process. He was also reported to have been personally involved in multiple joint training events with active duty forces, emergency response plan drafting, and the strengthening of over ten maritime militia emergency response detachments. He also spent time working with local governments, ensuring that such pressing issues as expenditures and maritime militia base construction were included in their military affairs meetings.

Hainan MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin (center) and Sansha Garrison Political Commissar Senior Colonel Liao Chaoyi (left) inspect one of Sansha City’s new “militia fishing vessels.”

Writing in more operational terms, MD Commander Zhang Jian explains how to increase the professionalization of maritime militia personnel and vessels. According to Commander Zhang, ships must be large-tonnage, high-speed, seaworthy steel-hulled fishing vessels strong enough to withstand collisions. These vessels should be drawn from fishing enterprises and cooperatives whose vessels frequent the sea areas in which their services are required for missions, as well as those vessels whose crews have previous experience engaging in rights protection. Furthermore, material and equipment are allocated according to the requirements of maritime rights protection and naval combat support, including communications and reconnaissance equipment and “defensive combat weaponry.” Personnel from different specialties should be grouped in units according to the following formulation: “Recruit experienced fishermen to serve as vessel operators as well as military personnel and veterans with maritime specialties to be core combatants; and select People’s Armed Forces cadres with maritime rights protection experience and medical staff with at-sea experience to be command and support personnel [respectively].” This implies that a mixture of personnel may crew maritime militia vessels, as embodied in the widespread phrase “determine troops based on the vessel” (以船定兵) for maritime militia organization. This style of organization could also conceivably be tailored to different missions. This is echoed in other provinces as well, such as Liu Xuan, head of the Shuidong Township PAFD in Guangdong Province. He stated in early 2016, “next year we will take in even more experienced and hardened fishermen with good work ethics, bolster them with primary militiamen, and hold targeted training in the subjects of maritime rights protection and war time support.” Liu Xuan’s statement indicates that formerly land-based coastal militia may also be assigned to maritime militia vessels. This demonstrates how local military commands are mobilizing current resources in varying ways to produce stronger maritime militia forces.

Commander Zhang stipulates three types of operations for the maritime militia:

  1. Their use as “civilians against civilians for regular demonstration of rights” (以民对民常态示权). The government will take the lead in implementing command and organizing maritime militia to fish in even the more remote waters (within the Near Seas) with greater organization and scale. This ensures that a certain number of China’s fishing vessels are present in “China’s waters” at any given time, achieving regular presence and declaration of sovereignty. Maritime militia are to be summoned immediately when foreign civilian vessels from neighboring countries are found encroaching on fishing rights or disrupting Chinese development of islands and reefs, resource extraction, or scientific surveys. Such civilian countermeasures against other civilians are envisioned to gain the initiative rapidly.
  2. Their use in “special cases of rights protection by using civilians in cooperation with law enforcement” (以民协警察专项维权). Maritime militia will “receive orders” from their command to conduct special rights protection missions when neighboring countries violate China’s maritime rights and interests and when China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) requires their assistance. This often entails the combining of maritime militia and MLE forces to form a joint law enforcement force, whereby the militia participate directly in rights protection law enforcement actions by supplementing MLE forces. In these actions, together with MLE forces, maritime militia primarily conduct perimeter patrol (外围巡逻), sea area control (海区封控), alerting and expulsion (警戒驱离), confrontation (海上对峙), and combining to push back (合力逼退) foreign vessels.
  3. “Participation in combat and support-the-front by using civilians to support the military” (以民援军参战支前). When a maritime armed conflict or maritime local war erupts, coastal cities and counties will organize their maritime militia to participate in combat and support-the-front operations, exploiting numerical advantages in personnel and vessels, as well as their familiarity with the seas, islands, and reefs. Units will conduct transport, supply, rescue, repair, and medical support in the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) and on front-line islands, reefs, and mission areas. Meanwhile, maritime militia will assume direct combat support by coordinating with maritime combat forces to conduct reconnaissance, sentry duty, and guarding against surprise attacks.

The Hainan MD leadership emphasizes that Hainan’s maritime militia forces contain a core set of more professional units with higher levels of readiness, ensuring that militia forces can mobilize rapidly out to sea. These points echo the call to action by Major General Wang Wenqing, head of CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Bureau, for resolving issues involving maritime militia construction nationwide. He affirmed the emphasis on an elite standing force of maritime militia composed of captains, engineers, and veterans operating year-round. These are the elite front line units that are most likely entrusted with sensitive missions involving foreign vessels, such as potential interference in future U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and routine operations; as well as the disruption and attempted sabotage of foreign survey vessels.

Joint Military-Law Enforcement-Civilian Defense (军警民联防)

The National Border and Coastal Defense Conference, last held in Beijing on 27 June 2014, provides guidance for the Border and Coastal Defense Committees (BCDC) established to coordinate defense of territorial sovereignty, protect maritime rights and interests, and ensure border security. Organized in a similar fashion as the mobilization work of China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee System, the BCDC system assembles leaders and staff at each level of government and military command into a single body for planning border and coastal defense work. President Xi Jinping stated in the 2014 meeting that China’s border and coastal defense will “wield the features and advantages of joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense” (发挥军警民联防的特色和优势). Also contained in China’s defense white papers, such as the 2013 Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, and featured frequently in Chinese reporting on the militia, this operational concept has been a part of China’s coastal defense system since the PRC’s founding. It is the primary means for the militia to participate in combat readiness for coastal defense. It entails the mobilization and integration of the various military, law enforcement, militia, and societal forces into a joint defense force.  

Today, Hainan Province is actively implementing this joint defense concept. The joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense concept is also often referred to as the “three lines,” with the maritime militia constituting the front line, backed up by a second line of CCG and a third line of PLAN forces. The Hainan MD has reportedly held workshops and major exercises with active duty forces since 2013 to determine campaign and tactical guidance for the maritime militia. Located in a key maritime frontier province, the Hainan MD is continually working alongside the PLAN and CCG to fine-tune its joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense through large-scale exercises.

Provincial Implementation

Following the 2011 National Militia Work Conference, Hainan began a pilot project for maritime militia development in February 2012. The Hainan MD sent research groups to study grassroots maritime militia organizations, gaining better understanding of the force through meetings with unit leaders. On 20 September 2012, the Hainan Province Party Chief and Hainan MD First Party Secretary Luo Baoming launched a Provincial Committee Military Affairs Meeting on the subject of “Advancing to a New Level Party Control of the Military and Construction of National Defense Reserves in Preparation for Military Struggle in the South China Sea.” As Hainan Party Secretary since August 2011, Luo has been a champion of maritime militia building, instructing during a 2015 Provincial MD Conference on Maritime Defense Work that the province “expend great effort to strengthen maritime defense construction focusing on maritime militia.” While Luo was in Beijing in March 2016 working on his province’s 13th Five Year Plan, a Reuters reporter raised the topic of Hainanese fishermen acting as militia. Denying nothing, Luo stated publicly that the fishermen in his province participate in the protection of maritime rights and interests, and undergo training in self-defense. Meanwhile, other influential voices in the province, such as former head of the Provincial Government Center for Social and Economic Development Research Liao Xun, were emphasizing the role of the maritime militia in their writings.

Provincial civilian and military leaders were busy crafting policies and plans for bolstering the maritime militia, releasing the “Opinions on Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” in 2013. This also resulted in an official “Notice on Further Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” released by the Hainan Provincial National Defense Mobilization Committee. These two official documents stipulated manifold requirements for the 2013 annual reorganization of the militia force guided by the MD and executed by counties. This annual reorganization process is conducted to implement reforms and correct outstanding issues in militia organizations. The documents also required that provincial and county governments split the cost of maritime militia construction. By the end of 2013, the province added 28 maritime militia companies with 2,328 personnel and 186 vessels to its maritime militia force.

In early 2014, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee, the State Council-level coordinating body, hosted a symposium in Hainan entitled “Maritime Mobilization 1312” to ensure that each level of Hainan’s government focused on maritime militia development. The meeting featured maritime rights protection demonstration events in Tanmen Township’s harbor and also established a leading small group to coordinate the province’s maritime militia construction, headed by Provincial Deputy Party Secretary Li Xiansheng. National directives likely bolstered maritime militia readiness in the province, preparing them for the province-wide mobilization of maritime militia to defend the HYSY-981 oil rig in May 2014.

According to Political Commissar Liu, Hainan will develop its maritime militia in three phases. The first phase entails finding the proper regulations through pilot projects, research and discussion of tactics, and at-sea testing. The second phase will focus on increasing capabilities through intensified training of the new, elite maritime militia and improving its support system. There should also be further testing and evaluation to ensure that the maritime militia are readily available and operationally effective. The third phase will focus on the “regular use” of the maritime militia (mechanisms for enduring maritime militia organization and employment). This effort will integrate units into the “three lines” joint rights protection system and increase their ability to regularly conduct reconnaissance and escort support missions in relatively “remote waters” (within the Near Seas). Progress to date in Hainan’s maritime militia forces suggests that they may have begun phase one after the 2011 National Militia Work Conference; and entered phase two with the development of a core force of maritime militia, through the introduction of increasingly capable vessels, communications equipment, and joint training. Looking forward, increased maritime militia presence in the Spratlys may also be an indicator of advancing progress in phase three.

Since militia building must proceed in accordance with local conditions, different provinces may exhibit distinct practices in organizing their maritime militia forces. Reflecting their large marine economies, Hainan and Guangdong provinces have signed cooperation agreements involving many fields of social and economic development. During the recent meetings to deepen cross-provincial cooperation in September 2015, Hainan Party Secretary Luo made several proposals for the two provinces. These included cooperation in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, marine science and technical research, maritime joint rescue, rights protection and law enforcement, and—most pertinent to this article—maritime militia construction. It remains unclear if the provinces have fostered some form of cooperation regarding their respective maritime militia forces. In October 2015, however, Sansha City mayor Xiao Jie hosted a forum to consult with Guangdong- and Guangxi-based fishing companies on the development of Sansha’s marine fishing industry, including the Sansha Fisheries Development Company, a state-owned maritime militia organization. Cooperation in maritime rights protection efforts was one of Xiao’s key points to Guangdong and Guangxi fishing companies, suggesting that Party Secretary Luo’s provincial maritime militia cooperation initiative may have gained traction rapidly.

This image from the August 2014 edition of National Defense shows former director of Sanya City’s National Defense Mobilization Committee and city mayor Wang Yong visiting (看望) the maritime militia.

Despite apparent enthusiasm within Hainan’s leadership, however, there appear to be broader concerns about the lack of initiative shown by local governments across China in building the militia, centering on the “separation between construction and use” (建用分离). With little prospect for utilizing reserve forces, local governments may show less enthusiasm for supporting their construction. For example, the Lingshui County Government leadership used to avoid meeting its military counterparts, which previously consumed money and materials without providing reliable troops to respond in emergencies. Having the militia serve as a source of manpower during emergencies and disasters helps rectify this discrepancy, as encapsulated in the oft-used slogan “a reserve force that responds in times of war and emergencies” (一支战时应战、平时应急的后备力量).

The Tanmen Maritime Militia, for instance, is lauded for its daring rescues of mariners in distress over the years, providing an organic emergency response force that is most familiar with local marine conditions. A recent example was when the Sansha Maritime Militia was mobilized when a Hainanese fishing vessel ran aground near Fiery Cross Reef on 28 February 2017. Having received numerous distress calls, the Sansha Maritime Militia mobilized one of its vessels, Qiongsanshayu 000312, to attempt a rescue. However, shallow waters and poor weather conditions prevented them from getting close enough. After two days of standing by, a nearby PLAN helicopter flew in to evacuate the stranded fishermen.

Maritime militia play a significant role in responding to emergencies, helping local governments with search and rescue and disaster relief. When PLAN aviator Wang Wei went down in waters 70 miles south of Hainan after colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane in 2001, Hainan’s fishing fleet and militia contributed notably to the search effort. Sanya City alone organized over 500 fishing vessels to search at sea while more than 4,000 people and militia scoured the coast for Wang. Sanya’s PAFD Head Zhou Naiwu also ordered the Tianya Maritime Militia Rapid Response Unit out to sea to join the effort. Other neighboring localities involved included Ledong Autonomous County, which dispatched hundreds of fishing vessels and over 3,000 cadres, militia, and fishermen. That event demonstrates direct support by local government-built militia forces for national military objectives. Today, increasingly capable maritime militia forces can more effectively assist local governments and military organs in responding to future emergencies at sea.

July 2015: A maritime militia company from Chengmai County conducts “near seas” training. A banner declaring in Chinese and Vietnamese China’s maritime jurisdiction, likely in the Gulf of Tonkin, is hung across the port side of the vessel’s house. (Chengmai County Government Website)

Conclusion: Trolling Together for Sovereignty Claims

A confluence of national strategy, structural reforms, and development plans has informed China’s future national militia development, giving increased prominence to the maritime militia. The front-line maritime militia units documented throughout this series have developed and operated within the Hainan MD’s evolving reserve force structure and PLA chain of command. As such, Hainan’s principal military and civilian leaders have critically shaped maritime militia force development, and continue to do so. Part 1 of this series has illustrated how national-level guidance has resulted in actual implementation in China’s key maritime frontier province, and how the Hainan MD leadership envisions the construction and use of maritime militia under its jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Additionally, while fishermen constitute a core body of personnel to operate maritime militia vessels, there may also be a variety of other personnel aboard to fulfill other functions within their units. Part 2 will address specific policy implementation to date, and how Hainanese officials are working to manage challenges in maritime militia development to achieve further progress. Part 3 will evaluate the results of Hainan Province’s maritime militia construction and suggest corresponding implications. Due to the varying economic conditions and geographies among the provinces, understanding how MD leaders execute maritime militia force planning, construction, training, and utilization can help to anticipate the extent and limits of Chinese Maritime Militia capabilities at sea.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: June 2013 Sansha Maritime Militia personnel were sent to a militia training base on Hainan Island to receive a week of intensive training by the Hainan Provincial Military District, including weapons training as shown in this photo.

Gauges for Inspecting U.S.-Philippine Relations

By Ching Chang

U.S.-Philippine relations have started to encounter significant challenges since the inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte on June 30, 2016. President Duterte has made contentious statements which have been supported and accepted by the Philippine general public in spite of the controversial nature of his comments.

Given the historically long-lasting relationship between the United States of America and the Republic of the Philippines, both nations still maintain positive interactions. Regardless of its national strength, the Philippines has always been a significant supporter of the United States in the Western Pacific region and a strategic non-NATO ally. America retains a positive image in the Philippines, gaining wide approval from its citizens for its influence and policies in the region.

Given the conflicting situation between the positive perception of the U.S. of the general public and the negative criticism from President Duterte on U.S. policies, how should we make a fair assessment about the future of interactions between the White House and the Malacanang Palace throug the rest of Duterte’s presidency? The author would like to provide several reference gauges for inspecting U.S.-Philippines relations.

Security

First, security and military cooperation is undeniably a vital dimension of U.S.-Philippines relations. The Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America signed on August 30, 1951 in Washington, D.C. is the solid foundation defining the alliance relationship between these two security partners. It was an elevation from the 1947 Military Bases Agreement. During the Cold War era, the United States maintained operations from the Clark Air Base until November 1991. On the other hand, the Subic Bay Naval Complex and several other relatively insignificant and subsidiary establishments in the Philippines remained operational until the effort of extension for another ten-year lease offer was rejected by the Philippine Senate on September 16, 1991. Eventually, U.S. forces withdrew from Subic Bay on November 24, 1992.

An aerial view of ships moored at the station. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) is in the foreground. (Vern Rowe)
An aerial view of ships moored at the station. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) is in the foreground. (Vern Rowe)

As the regional security situation gradually changed after the Cold War, the United States and the Philippines have regained momentum to enhance their security cooperation. The Visiting Forces Agreement was settled in February 1998 and subsequently led to the arrangement of the routine U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises names Balikatan, a Tagalog term meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder” as part of the War on Terror. Alternatively, the Philippines government also benefited from counterterrorism support against the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah groups in areas previously afflicted by insurgency movements such as Basilan and Jolo. Apart from the Visiting Force Agreement, another Mutual Logistics Support Agreement was also signed in November 2002. Finally, the Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation settled on April 28, 2014 symbolized the peak of  U.S.-Philippines security cooperation in recent years. This framework agreement indeed expanded the scope of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Diplomacy

Therefore, we may identify the ceiling of U.S.-Philippines security cooperation for now as the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the floor being the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The possibility of returning to the scale and degree of defense cooperation during the Cold War era as U.S. forces retain overseas bases in the Philippines is relatively slim. The maneuvering space for President Duterte to play political games is well defined unless he would like to have a structural change, which he already firmly denied. Comparatively, cancelling the joint exercise could be a good bargaining chip. Nonetheless, it has not undermined the overall structure yet. Furthermore, the diplomatic game will not be played by President Duterte alone. The future development of U.S. Asia policy after the new administration will be more influential to the U.S.-Philippines security relations. Nonetheless, the fundamental truth that we should bear in mind is that a single dimension does not speak for all.

Second, as we try to observe U.S.-Philippines relations, we must understand that these actors do not interact alone. There are other regional players who may also influence the overall strategic equation or security formula. The responses from these regional players should be a concern as we examine the interactions between the United States and the Republic of Philippines. As in aforementioned situations, there are various considerations within the foreign policy formulation process. Accommodating animosities or inconsistencies occurring from various dimensions of the interactions among states should be a matter of reality that all parties should accept.

Unity of opposites is a general practice of diplomacy nowadays in the East Asia. To assure their economic prosperity, every state would enhance their relationship with the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, a certain level of concern in the security dimension would force all parties in the region to keep a positive relationship with the United States. As President Duterte emphasizes his desire to improve the relationship between Beijing and Manila, it might be necessary to surrender elements of the U.S.-Philippines relations as the price. Certain statements condemning Washington seem to be political maneuvers to please Beijing. Nonetheless, all these improvised grumbles are magnified by the press. Their importance was overstated since no structural change had been attempted yet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) holds talks with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 20, 2016. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) holds talks with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 20, 2016. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

Though unpleasant to Washington and to the alliance states in the region, the value of delivering formal responses to Duterte’s spontaneous statements does not exist. Most of the regional players may not enthusiastically react to Manila’s provocations unless certain substantial maneuvers may actually undermine the balance of power or the security structure. The interactions between the White House and the Malacanang Palace do matter to other regional players. Their responses are the vital references and the essential driving forces for managing U.S.-Philippines relations. Policymakers should expand their scope of consideration by observing other regional players and expanding their calculation beyond Manila and Washington.

Third, we must never forget that President Duterte is only the head of the administrative arm of the Philippine government. The administration is unquestionably playing the center role in the diplomacy. Nonetheless, other branches such as the legislative and judicial institutions of the Philippine government may also be influential to U.S.-Philippines relations. We should never forget that the attempt to extend the lease of Subic naval bases was blocked by the Philippine Senate in 1991.

Moreover, if President Duterte tries to retract from the present position of the Philippine government claiming the sovereign rights to those land features and maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea, the possibility of facing an impeachment could not be totally excluded though these islands and reefs were never specified by the Philippines Constitution like the rest of its legal territories. These unconstitutional land features are so closely associated with national esteem now that no one would have the courage to point out the flaws of their own argument in the Philippines. So, checks and balances on the diplomacy should be another appropriate reference to consider the future of Duterte’s adventurism and opportunistic ambition.

Last but not least, most diplomatic plots are slow-cook stews, not fast food. Beijing’s reactions towards Duterte’s political maneuvers of rapprochements are very cautious. Civilizations with long memories will not forget the situation that occurred during the visit of President Benigno Aquino III to China in August 2011. Many agreements containing financial support and cooperation were signed and a joint communique confirming that those disputes in the South China Sea would be solved through consultations and negotiation was publicized. However, President Aquino broke his promise almost right after the visit and submitted the arbitration case eight months later.

All surprise maneuvers in diplomacy are not trustworthy. This is especially true when those involved have a conviction of dialectic principle known as “from change in quantity to change in quality” who will never trust any unexpected turn about. When comparing the long existing basis of the U.S.-Philippines relations, it is very hard to believe that the term of “separation” with the United States as President Duterte said in Beijing can be a meaningful long-term policy. Many political statements will be eventually proven to be void promises. Duterte’s diplomacy at the moment is matched with good timing. As the United States is at the peak of its presidential campaign, few would be distracted by Duterte embracing of Beijing. No decisive policy change toward the Philippines can be decided before at best next spring, when the national security team of the new U.S. administration attends its positions and forges the consensus. In other words, President Duterte would have several months to alleviate the uneasiness of the new U.S. leadership. The political calendars separately existing in Washington and Beijing should also be good references to scrutinize the future of U.S.-Philippines relations.

Conclusion

Although there are many transitional phenomena with the capacity to attract our attentions, the ultimate principles securing the basic structure of the alliance should never be neglected. These gauges would provide a better lens for us to observe future interactions between Manila and Washington.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Chinese Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies masters degree program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert of the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights into its military thinking. 

Featured Image: President Duterte speaks during a visit at a military camp in the Philippines. (Francis R. Malasig /EPA/Newscom)

Countering Chinese Expansion Through Mass Enlightenment

By James E. Fanell and Ryan D. Martinson

From Newport to New Delhi, a tremendous effort is currently underway to document and analyze China’s pursuit of maritime power. Led by experts in think tanks and academia, this enterprise has produced a rich body of scholarship in a very short period of time. However, even at its very best, this research is incomplete—for it rests on a gross ignorance of Chinese activities at sea.  

This ignorance cannot be faulted. The movements of Chinese naval, coast guard, and militia forces are generally kept secret, and the vast emptiness of the ocean means that much of what takes place there goes unseen. Observers can only be expected to seek answers from the data that is available.

The U.S. Navy exists to know the answers to these secrets, to track human behavior on, above, and below the sea. While military and civilian leaders will always remain its first patron, there is much that USN intelligence can and should do to provide the raw materials needed for open source researchers to more fully grasp the nature of China’s nautical ambitions. Doing so would not only improve the quality of scholarship and elevate the public debate, it would also go a long way to help frustrate China’s current—and, to date, unanswered—strategy of quiet expansion. Most importantly, sharing information about the movements and activities of Chinese forces could be done without compromising the secrecy of the sources and methods used to collect it.

The Constellations are Visible…

The basic story of China’s maritime aggrandizement is printed in black and white, no need to read tea leaves. There exists a public life in China, even if highly circumscribed. Chinese journalists are paid to write articles that satisfy the urges of an inquisitive and patriotic public. Chinese scholars spend careers trying to understand the intentions and capabilities of their own country—like academics elsewhere, they banter back and forth in defense of “truth,” and bruised egos. Government agencies release reports that catalog their achievements, outline key objectives, and mobilize their personnel for the new tasks at hand. The Chinese military, communicating through service publications, seeks to inculcate a collective consciousness of what it does and why it does it. All of these sources are open to the foreign observer.

The available information provides important clues about the nature and extent of Chinese activities at sea. This is true for all three of the sea services: the coast guard, the maritime militia, and the PLA Navy.  

The movements of the Chinese coast guard are particularly amenable to open source analysis. China does not operate a single maritime law enforcement agency analogous to the United States Coast Guard. It instead funds several different civilian agencies, each with a different mission. Prior to the creation of the China Coast Guard in 2013, the agencies most active along China’s maritime frontier were China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). Both agencies released surprising amounts of information through official newspapers, annual reports and yearbooks, and other channels.

In this Sept. 23, 2015, photo, provided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac, a Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. A landmark ruling on an arbitration case filed by the Philippines that seeks to strike down China's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea will be a test for international law and world powers. China, which demands one-on-one talks to resolve the disputes, has boycotted the case and vowed to ignore the verdict, which will be handed down Tuesday, July 12, 2016, by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. (Renato Etac via AP)
Sept. 23, 2015. A Chinese Coast Guard boat sprays a water cannon at Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. (Renato Etac via AP)

These sources include significant quantitative data. For instance, it is possible to track the expansion of CMS presence in disputed waters that started in 2006. In that year, CMS began to regularize its sovereignty—or “rights protection”—patrols, first in the East China Sea, then in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea. Each year, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) published data on these operations. In 2008, CMS conducted a total of 113 sovereignty patrols. These missions, which covered more than 212,000 nm, established CMS presence in all of the waters over which China claims jurisdiction. Four years later, in 2012, the service conducted 172 sovereignty patrols (>170,000 nm) just in the South China Sea alone.

Qualitative data also abounds. Before 2014, both CMS and FLE regularly invited Chinese journalists aboard ships operating in disputed areas. These civilian scribes chronicled China’s campaign to reclaim “lost” land and sea. While primarily designed to inspire and titillate Chinese audiences, their work provides excellent source materials for the foreign observer. For instance the eight-part Chinese television documentary that aired in late 2013 showed extensive footage of CMS and FLE ships operating in the South China Sea, including during hostile encounters with Indonesian and Vietnamese mariners.

Chinese sources also provide raw materials for understanding the activities of the second major instrument of Chinese sea power—the maritime militia. This force is comprised of civilians trained to serve military and other state functions. In peacetime, a segment of the militia, mostly fishermen, constitutes an important tool in Chinese maritime strategy. It sails to disputed waters to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty and justify the presence of the Chinese coast guard and navy. The militia also harasses foreign vessels, and helps protect China’s own.

18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)
18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)

China’s maritime militia is particularly active in the South China Sea. The Chinese press eagerly covers their activities in disputed waters, often revealing ship pennant numbers and the names of key militiamen. Websites owned by provincial, municipal, and county governments also highlight their local contributions to the “people’s war” at sea. Using such sources, Conor Kennedy and Andrew Erickson have tracked the militia’s activities at places such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and deciphered its role in pivotal events such as the 2009 assault on the USNS Impeccable.

The PLA Navy also releases information about where, when, and how it is operating. Air, surface, and undersea deployments are called “combat readiness patrols” (zhanbei xunluo). Service publications regularly report on these patrols—including, perhaps surprisingly, those conducted by China’s “silent service.” For instance, one October 2014 article in People’s Navy recounts a story of Song Shouju, a submarine skipper from the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet (SSF), whose diesel electric boat was prosecuted by a foreign maritime patrol aircraft and a surveillance vessel during one combat readiness patrol. According to Song, his boat was subjected to 80 hours of active sonar, placing him on the horns of a dilemma. If he surfaced, it would mean a mission failure and “put Chinese diplomacy in an awkward position” (suggesting the submarine was not operating where it should have been). But if he remained below, the boat would risk the consequences of depleting its battery. In the end, the captain decided to stay submerged until the threat had passed, which it ultimately did.1

The PLA Navy is particularly forthcoming about patrols taking place beyond the “first island chain.” These are regularly reported in the Chinese press, both in English and Chinese. In May 2016, for example, six vessels from the SSF—including three destroyers, two frigates, and an auxiliary—completed a 23-day training mission that took them through the South China, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific by means of the Sunda Strait, Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and the Bashi Channel. At least one Chinese journalist was onboard to cover the 8,000 nm voyage. Again, the available data is not limited to the movements of surface combatants. For instance, a January 2014 People’s Navy article revealed that since 2009, 10 submarines and 17 aircraft from the ESF had traversed the first island chain to conduct “far seas” operations.2 Sources like these have enabled foreign researchers such as Christopher Sharman to trace the connection between Chinese actions and its declared naval strategy.

Chinese missile destroyer Haikou (171) is seen while docking in Hong Kong on April 30, 2012. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese missile destroyer Haikou (171) is seen while docking in Hong Kong on April 30, 2012. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

To follow Chinese activities at sea, one need not rely on Chinese sources alone. Foreign governments also sometimes release data. Often this information is associated with a particular incident. For instance, in mid-2014, the Vietnamese press published numerous articles in English covering China’s provocative deployment of an advanced new drilling rig (HYSY-981) in disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands. More recently, Indonesia released useful information about its response to illegal Chinese fishing and coast guard activities taking place near Natuna Island.

For its part, Japan systematically issues data on Chinese presence in the waters adjacent to the Senkaku Islands. Graphical depictions of these data vividly show Chinese expansion over time, from the inaugural intrusion of two CMS vessels in December 2008 to the regular patrols that started in September 2012 and continue today. Indeed, the quality and consistency of this data has enabled foreign analysts to use quantitative methods to test theories about shifts in Chinese diplomacy.

…But Darkness Still Prevails

The information described above, while useful, nevertheless presents many problems. This is true even in the case of data on Chinese coast guard operations, which are easily the richest available to the open source researcher. A “rights protection” patrol can mean anything from a two-day sweep of the Gulf of Tonkin to a several-month mission to the southern reaches of the Spratly Archipelago. Thus, while the available data unmistakably capture the broad trends of Chinese expansion, they lack the fidelity needed for closer examination of deployment patterns. With the creation of the China Coast Guard, all this is now moot. The Chinese government no longer publishes such data, and Chinese journalists are now seldom allowed aboard ships sailing to disputed waters.

The problem is much worse in the case of the maritime militia. No Chinese agency or department systematically tracks and releases information on militia activities. Because only a portion of fishermen are members of the militia, fishing industry data is a poor proxy. Thus, there is no way to scientifically track the activities of irregular forces operating along China’s maritime frontier. We generally only learn about particular incidents, remaining largely ignorant of the context in which they take place.

Consistent data on PLA Navy activities in disputed and sensitive waters is simply not available. We do know that in recent years the service “normalized” (changtaihua) its presence in the Spratly Archipelago, but Chinese sources provide no definition of what that term means. Thus, while it is clear that the PLA Navy has augmented its surface ship patrols to these waters, we have no means to gauge the scale of that augmentation.3 In the East China Sea, Chinese sources do speak candidly about hostile encounters with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. However, the open source researcher has few options for gauging the extent of PLA Navy presence east of the equidistant line.

There is a more fundamental problem that must be reckoned with: in most cases, the foreign observer often lacks the means to validate deployment data found in Chinese sources. Ultimately, one must take the word of the Chinese government, which naturally considers political factors—both internal and external—when issuing such content. Information released by other governments can be valuable, but foreign statesmen have their own motives. Sometimes they seek to downplay differences. For example, it is likely that for many years China and at least some Southeast Asian states had a tacit agreement not to publicize incidents at sea.

In sum, the available open source data can account for only a tiny fraction of what Chinese maritime forces are doing at sea. Moreover, the validity of information that is available must be seen as suspect. This is where naval intelligence can help.

Sharing the Spotlight

Naturally, U.S. naval intelligence professionals, particularly those in the Pacific, pay close attention to the comings and goings of Chinese maritime forces. To this end, they employ a wide variety of sources, from highly sensitive national technical means to visual sightings made by U.S. and allied forces at sea. They also optimize other resources of the U.S. intelligence community to support their mission requirements.4 Suffice it to say, the naval intelligence community is well aware of the disposition of China’s naval, coast guard, and militia forces.

The foundation of this effort is the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation (PFIF), established in September 2013 by then United States Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Cecil Haney. The PFIF “provides direction for the organization and collaboration of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence and cryptologic resources to support the maritime Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL) mission” of “tracking adversary ships, submarines and aircraft at sea.” It represents a level of focus and systematization not seen since the Cold War.

The PFIF is a true collaborative enterprise, involving “coordination from Sailors across multiple organizations at various echelons, afloat and ashore, working in unison 24 hours a day, seven days a week providing the most precise maritime OPINTEL to our afloat forces.”5 Efforts are “federated” across nodes in Japan, Hawaii, San Diego, and Washington D.C.6 Relevant data collected by regional allies are also included. The result is the adversary Common Operational Picture (RED COP). Through RED COP, the PFIF provides Fleet Commanders and deployed forces precise geo-coordinate level intelligence regarding the location of maritime platforms across the Pacific Fleet area of responsibility. It also contains a detailed pedigree of the sources used to identify the location of an adversary unit.

How might the USN translate RED COP into information that is valuable to the public  yet does not risk sources and methods? The answer lies in the format of the transmitted product. While American forces require the detailed information contained in the RED COP, the U.S. public does not. Therefore, the USN could issue a standardized series of PowerPoint graphics that contain generic depictions of PRC maritime force disposition across the Indo-Pacific region, if not the rest of the world. Since the technology used today by PFIF watch-standers can automatically produce this type of graphic, this would involve no new burden for naval intelligence professionals.

Some may argue that placing an adversary unit in a location where there is no “plausible deniability” could expose a source or method of intelligence collection. Four factors eliminate this risk. First, the generic placement of an adversary platform on a PowerPoint graphic would, by definition, not contain the level of fidelity required to determine the source of the contact. Second, as mentioned above, nearly all locations of maritime forces at sea are derived from multiple sources. This fact further complicates the task of determining any one particular source. Third, generic graphics would be published monthly, or biweekly at the most. This would dramatically reduce the potential risk to sources and methods. Fourth, and most importantly, there may be times when the Fleet Director of Intelligence (or higher authority) may deem the location of a particular ship, submarine or aircraft to be too sensitive. In such instances, they can simply remove the platform(s) from the briefing graphics. This would provide a final, fail-safe check against revealing any sensitive intelligence collection sources or methods. Together, these four factors would eliminate the possibility of compromising sources and methods, even with sophisticated algorithms of “pattern analysis.”

Such an initiative would not be entirely without precedent. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) already produces the “World Wide Threat to Shipping” and “Piracy Analysis Warning Weekly” reports, which provide graphic and textual laydowns of the global maritime domain as derived from unclassified sources. The recommendations outlined in this essay would represent an expansion of current efforts under the auspices of ONI, using the PFIF’s all-source data as the primary source.

Office of Naval Intelligence (U) HORN OF AFRICA/GULF OF GUINEA/ SOUTHEAST ASIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report for 6 - 12 October 2016
10 Day Piracy small boat operations weather forecast from Office of Naval Intelligence (U) HORN OF AFRICA/GULF OF GUINEA/SOUTHEAST ASIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report for 6 – 12 October 2016.

The Rewards of Mass Enlightenment

Releasing such data would immediately benefit efforts to understand Chinese maritime strategy. It would open up whole new swaths of scholarship. Chinese actions could be directly correlated to Chinese words. Incidents could be placed in their correct context. Theories about China’s pursuit and use of sea power could be proposed and tested with new levels of rigor.

Better open source analysis would also benefit the intelligence community itself. The strengths of academic scholarship—such as understanding strategic and organizational culture—could be applied to the same questions that preoccupy USN analysts, perhaps yielding fresh insights. Efforts to contextualize the activities of China’s maritime militia, for example, would be especially welcome, given its peculiar social, cultural, and political roots.

While scholarship is valuable in and of itself, the ultimate purpose of such an initiative would be to improve the ability of our democracy to respond to the China challenge. Elected officials, who ultimately decide policy, take cues from public discourse. Thus, if wise policies are to be crafted, the broader American public must be fully aware of the threat that China’s pursuit of maritime power poses to American interests. This is especially important given that any proper response would require the whole nation to bear costs and accept risks. Unlike Russia, China’s actions are carefully calibrated not to arouse a somnolent American public. This places a very high premium on information about the actions that China is taking.  

To be sure, information is not an antibiotic. Ingesting it in the right quantities at the right frequencies may not cure the disease. Indeed, there is already enough data in the public domain for Americans to see the key trends. Yet there remain some very smart people who cannot, or will not, recognize the perils we face. Even so, the correct antidote to intellectual biases is ever more information; as data accumulates, the naysayers must either alter their theories or risk self-marginalization.

Sharing facts about Chinese activities at sea is not just good for democracy, it is also smart diplomacy. At this point, merely shining the spotlight on Chinese maritime expansion is unlikely to persuade China to radically alter its strategy. The China of Xi Jinping is less moved by international criticism than the China of Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. However, releasing detailed data on Chinese activities at sea would likely have an impact on foreign publics, who will use it to draw more realistic conclusions about the implications of China’s rise. Moreover, making such information widely available would help counter spurious Chinese narratives of American actions as the root cause of instability in the Western Pacific. Both outcomes are in our national interest.

To adopt the approach advocated in this essay would require a political decision. On matters of national policy, naval intelligence professionals must yield to civilian leaders.7 In the end, then, this essay is for the politicians. And so is its last word: share with the scholars.

James E. Fanell is a retired U.S. Navy Captain whose last assignment was the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and is currently a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

1, 周卓群, 李克一 [Zhang Yuannong, Zhou Zhuoqun, and Li Keyi] 潜航深海磨利刃 [“Sailing Submerged in the Deep Ocean to Sharpen Our Blade”] 人民海 [People’s Navy], 8 October 2014, p. 3.

2.  [Gu Caohua]   中抓建,造深蓝铁 [“Seize on Construction While in Action, Mold a Blue Water Iron Fist”] 人民海 [People’s Navy] 8 January 2014, p. 3.

3. 李唐 [Li Tang] 海化巡覆盖万里海疆 [“Normalized Naval Patrols Cover the Maritime Frontier”] 人民海 [People’s Navy] 23 June 2014, p. 1

4. James E. Fanell, Remarks at USNI/AFCEA conference panel: “Chinese Navy: Operational Challenge or Potential Partner?”, San Diego, CA, 31 January 2013.

5. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.

6. Ibid. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.

7.The authority for conducting an effort such as this would require approval from the Director of National Intelligence and the various “Original Classification Authorities” as outlined in Executive Order 1352. “Executive Order 13526- Original Classification Authority”, The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 29 December 2009, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/executive-order-original-classification-authority

Featured Image: A sailor of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning. (REUTERS/XINHUA)

Military Activities on the Continental Shelf

This piece was originally published by the Lawfare Institute in Cooperation with Brookings and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By James Kraska

The recent Philippine-China Arbitration Award determined that China’s construction of artificial islands, installations and structures on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Hughes Reef were unlawful interference with the Philippines’ exclusive sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the seabed of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. Since the three features are low-tide elevations (LTEs), rather than islands, they are incapable of appropriation and are merely features of the Philippine continental shelf, albeit occasionally above water at high tide in their natural state. Although the tribunal’s legal judgment with regard to China’s activities was correct, its reasoning was a bit too categorical. This article adds further fidelity to the tribunal’s determination by distinguishing between lawful foreign military activities on a coastal state’s continental shelf, and unlawful foreign activities on the continental shelf that affect the coastal states sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its resources – a distinction that evaded the tribunal’s analysis.

It is important to understand the lawful scope of foreign military activity on the seabed of a coastal state’s EEZ or continental shelf, as the issue is likely to recur. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, is exploring the idea of “upward falling payloads,” or pre-positioned containers or packages that lie on the ocean floor and wait until activated, at which time they “fall upward” into the water column to perform undersea missions, such as powering other unmanned systems. With some narrow exceptions, such as emplacement of seabed nuclear weapons or seabed mining, the use of the deep seabed is a high seas freedom enjoyed by all States. The more compelling question, however, is the extent foreign states may emplace naval devices or construct installations or structures on the continental shelf or within the EEZ of a coastal State for military purposes.

Article 56(1)(a) of UNCLOS provides that coastal States have certain “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living….” in the EEZ. Coastal States also have “jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions [of UNCLOS] with regard to “(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations, and structures.” Under Article 60, coastal States enjoy the “exclusive right” to authorize or regulate the construction of structures, a rule that is extended to the continental shelf by virtue of Article 80. Coastal State jurisdiction over artificial islands and structures is not all encompassing, however, and is limited to jurisdiction “as provided for in the relevant provisions [of UNCLOS].” The relevant provisions of the EEZ, of course, relate principally to exclusive coastal State sovereign rights and jurisdiction over living and non-living resources in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, and not sovereignty over the airspace, water column, or the seabed.

In the recent Philippine-China Arbitration Award, the tribunal determined that China’s artificial island construction on Mischief Reef was an unlawful violation of Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its continental shelf. Since Mischief Reef is a LTE and not a natural island, it constituted part of the Philippine continental shelf and seabed of the EEZ. China failed to seek and receive Philippine authorization for its artificial island construction, and therefore violated Articles 56(1)(b)(i), 60(1), and 80 of UNCLOS (Arbitration Award, para. 1016).

Foreign States, however, are not forbidden to construct installations and structures on a coastal State’s continental shelf per se. Only those installations and structures that are “for the [economic] purposes provided for in article 56” or that “interfere with the exercise of the rights of the coastal State” over its resources require coastal State consent. (See Article 60(1)(b) and (c)). 

But even if China converts its installations and structures into military platforms, their size and scope are so immense that they dramatically affect the quantity and quality of the living and non-living resources over which the Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction. Although normally installations and structures that are built pursuant to military activities are not subject to coastal state consent, the industrial scale of Chinese activity lacks “due regard” for the rights and duties of the Philippines and its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over resources under Article 56 of UNCLOS.

If China had merely emplaced a small, unobtrusive military installation or structure on the seabed or landed an unmanned aerial vehicle at Mischief Reef as part of occasional military activities, it would not have been afoul of UNCLOS. Such incidental use of the seabed or an LTE (which is part of the seabed) are within the scope of permissible military activity in the same way as emplacement on the continental shelf of a small seabed military device. Foreign States may use the seabed for military installations and structures, and even artificial islands, as these purposes do not relate to exploring, exploiting, managing and conserving the natural resources. Only those military activities that rise to the level of or of sufficient are of such scale that they do not have “due regard” for the coastal state’s rights to living and non-living resources of the EEZ and continental shelf are impermissible.

The distinction is important because creation of the EEZ and recognition of coastal state sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the continental shelf was never envisioned to limit normal military activities. Current and future naval programs, in fact, may utilize a foreign coastal State’s seabed EEZ and continental shelf in a manner that is completely in accord with UNCLOS.

Where do we draw the line, however, between an insignificant presence and negligible interference that is lawful, and large-scale disruption that is unlawful? Like all legal doctrine, what constitutes genuine interference to coastal State sovereign rights and jurisdiction must be reasonable, i.e. not de minimis or trivial, but rather a substantial and apparent effect on the resources in the zone, as I discussed in Maritime Power and Law of the Sea. Emplacement of military devices or construction of military installations or structures in the EEZ and on the continental shelf of a coastal State must be judged by reasonableness, and not be of such scale or cross a threshold of effect that it interferes in a tangible or meaningful way with the coastal State’s resource rights.

China’s operation of military aircraft from a LTE is not a priori unlawful, any more than operation of military aircraft from a warship in the EEZ would be illegal. The reason that PLA Air Force military aircraft flights from the runway at Mischief Reef are objectionable and a violation of the Philippines’ coastal State rights is the magnitude of the activity and its effect on the living and non-living resources. Operation by a foreign warship of a small aerial vehicle that lands temporarily on an LTE, for example, would not be unlawful. Likewise, if a naval force emplaced a military payload inside a container and placed it on the seabed of the EEZ – that is, on the coastal State’s continental shelf – that would also be a lawful military activity.

James Kraska is Howard S. Levie Professor of International Law at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, U.S. Naval War College, Distinguished Fellow at the Law of the Sea Institute, University of California at Berkeley School of Law, and Senior Fellow, Center for Oceans Law and Policy, University of Virginia School of Law.

Featured Image: MARCH 10, 2016- Philippine Naval Ship, BRP Sierra Madre, sails near disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (REUTERS/Erik De Castro)