Tag Archives: PRC

Normalizing Military Operations in the South China Sea

By Brandon D. Hughes

Introduction

On December 22, 2016 Hainan Airlines flew its first chartered flight to Woody Island (Ying Xing Dao), one of the many disputed islands in the Paracel Island Chain claimed by China in the South China Sea. For a mere 1200 Yuan (roughly $173 USD), a patriotic Chinese tourist could purchase a one-way ticket to visit the controversial island outpost.1 Less than a week later, China sailed its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, around Taiwan, accompanied by an escort of five People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, amid vocal protests from the Taiwan and Japanese governments.2 Though decades behind the more advance U.S. Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford class carriers, the deployment of China’s newest power projection platform sends a clear strategic message. The series of moves by Beijing are not only tactical decision points, but part of a broader strategic narrative aimed at regional competitors, periphery countries, and the United States. Beijing is sidestepping concerns over its militarization in the region by simply continuing on its own agenda. By downplaying controversial decisions and promoting “standard” and “scheduled” actions or exercises, Beijing is shaping the narrative to its benefit. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is pursuing multiple avenues to promote mutual interests with its neighbors and shift attention away militarization efforts.

China’s militarization is as much a domestic issue as it is a blunt approach to international diplomacy. The ever-growing military prowess of Beijing is steamrolling weaker countries and brushing off critics. The CCP does subscribe to the age-old analogy using both the carrot and the stick in global diplomacy. For example, in the Philippines case, Beijing has had an on again off again charm offensive, supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, and sidestepping disputes over the Scarborough Shoal.3 The remarkable policy shift in the Duterte administration has allowed Beijing to continue development of the Shoal without widespread pushback. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims nearly all of the South China Sea and therefore has ongoing disputes with nearly every Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member. Officially, the United States declines to take sides in the territorial disputes, and continues to support United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and continues overflight surveillance and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).  Leadership in Beijing does not seem to possess a sense of urgency to resolve the South China Sea disputes, nor does it have enough external pressure to do so. In fact, the first U.S. FONOP patrol since President Trump took office was only conducted on May 24, 2017, passing within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island China near the Philippines.4

Since 1949, China has settled disputes with nearly every country along its borders. These have not always been in Beijing’s ultimate favor, but were instrumental in allowing the CCP and PLA to refocus time and resources towards Taiwan and other core interests. The South China Sea may be seen as a flash point by many, but there remains plenty of room to negotiate. The South China Sea is one of the last disputed “borders” that Beijing has to contend with, and given the sheer volume of untapped natural resources, centrality of international trade, and over-fished Chinese littorals, it is in Beijing’s interest to maintain its position and continue to expand its footprint in the region.

Capabilities and Possibilities

By further wielding this defiant attitude and increased military aptitude, Beijing hopes to grow its footprint farther from its borders. Emplacement of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island and the likelihood of increased air defense and intelligence capabilities in the region are small moves towards a tactical asymmetric proficiency.5 Additionally, a recent article quoted U.S. military officials as having assessed that China’s Hainan Island harbors a robust system of air defense missile systems, including the SA-21 system with a 400km range.6 Once these emplacements are finalized, the accompanied C4ISR infrastructure refined, and defenses fully hardened, these small outposts will most certainly be incorporated into a notional South China Sea air defense identification zone.7

In the event of a Taiwan or South China Sea contingency, the possibility for China to declare a no-fly zone over the disputed islands is a near certainty, albeit one that will present significant difficulties in execution. A functioning aircraft carrier forward deployed into the South China Sea, active patrols by Chinese attack submarines, and Chinese fighters launching and recovering from the Paracel Island Chains, increase the possibility for China to blockade, inhibit, or force the hand of its Asia-Pacific neighbors if a crisis emerges. Emplacing Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Electronic Warfare (EW), and SAM assets on these islands sets conditions for China to be able to enforce stronger coercive options. Granted, these systems function perfectly in theory, and in the absence of outside interference, but will be stressed by the offensive capabilities of the U.S. and their allies in the event of an escalating conflict. A blockade or any sort of crisis places in jeopardy trillions of dollars in trade that pass through the South China Sea each year. The likelihood of a large-scale action is unlikely; however, smaller disputes have the potential to erupt if gone unchecked.

Conclusion

The Chinese strategy is to probe, test, and normalize its economic and military efforts while reinforcing a strategic message characterizing these operations and policies as normal part of statecraft. Actions by the U.S. and other regional stakeholders have been unsuccessful in bringing about significant changes to the current dynamic. FONOPs by the U.S. Navy are met with stern rebuttals from Beijing, but do little to change Chinese policy. The continued Chinese development of artificial islands in the South China Sea will offer a jumping off point for both civil maritime and military operations. This also adds a geographic buffer zone against western influence. So far, none of the artificial islands are assessed to be capable of handling a deep-water port limiting the amount of force projection capability the islands can provide.  However, Beijing has more options should the deployment of its submarine fleet from the Sanya base in Hainan require additional coverage. The buildup of the island and the capability does not greatly increase China’s force projection capability, but it does offer something more valuable at this time, a permanent foothold in South China Sea. The U.S. has few options which may alter Beijing’s path but the longer this policy goes unchecked the more dug in reality becomes. Countering the Beijing narrative is crucial but concrete steps must be taken by the U.S. and the ASEAN countries before these small outposts become bigger militarized stepping stones.

Brandon Hughes is a Senior Regional Analyst-Asia for Planet Risk and has previously worked with the U.S. Army, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and Asia Society. He is a combat veteran and has conducted research on a wide variety of regional conflicts. Brandon holds a Masters of Law in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing and has extensive overseas experience focused on international security.

References

1. “China to Philippines: ‘We’ll go to war’ over South China Sea,” L. Todd Wood, Washington, Times, May 23, 2017, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/may/23/china-philippines-well-go-war-over-south-china-sea/

2. “U.S. Warship Sails Near Island Claimed by Beijing in South China Sea,” Jane Perlez, May 24, 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/world/asia/south-china-sea-us-navy-warship-spratly-islands.html?_r=0

3. “三沙永兴岛民航公务包机成功首航每天往返海口(图),” http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2016-12-22,/docifxyxury8051270.shtml , 2016年12月22日 17:38 央视 AND “China Begins Daily Civil Charter Flights to South China Sea Outpost,” 22 December, 2016, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-idUSKBN14B0UJ

4. “Chinese warships enter South China Sea near Taiwan in show of force,” 26 December, 2016, Reuters, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/27/chinese-warships-enter-south-china-sea-near-taiwan-in-show- of-force

5. “Beijing’s missile move in South China Sea could make US think twice about getting too close,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/beijings-missile-move-in-south-china-sea-could-make-us-think-twice-about-getting-too-close, Euan Graham, Wednesday 17 February 2016 00.43 EST AND “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses”, PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org/chinas-new-spratly-island-defenses/

6. “China is mobilising hundreds of missiles to disputed islands, US officials claim,” December 27, 201611:21am, http://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/world-economy/china-is-mobilising-hundreds-of-missiles-to- disputed-islands-us-officials-claim/news-story/4f375e33d1ef2404bef156c7c3f329df

7. “China Says It Could Set Up Air Defense Zone in South China Sea,” By EDWARD WONGMAY 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/world/asia/china-says-it-could-set-up-air-defense-zone-in-south-china- sea.html?_r=0

Featured Image: Subi Reef in the South China Sea. (CSIS AMTI/DigitalGlobe)

U.S. Options for the People’s Republic of China’s Maritime Militias

This article originally featured on Divergent Options and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Blake Herzinger


National Security Situation:  People’s Republic of China (PRC) Maritime Militias operating in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  February 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 6, 2017.

Author and/or Article Point of View: Author believes in freedom of navigation and maintenance of good order at sea in accordance with customary and written law of the sea. The article is written from the point of view of U.S. sea services leadership toward countering PRC maritime irregulars at sea.

Background:  The PRC employs irregular militia forces at sea alongside naval and maritime law enforcement units.  By deploying these so-called “blue hulls” manned by un-uniformed (or selectively-uniformed) militiamen, the PRC presses its maritime claims and confronts foreign sea services within a “gray zone[1].”  In keeping with national traditions of People’s War, PRC Maritime Militias seek advantage through asymmetry, while opposing competitors whose rules of engagement are based on international law.  The PRC Maritime Militia participated in several of the most provocative PRC acts in the SCS, including the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and the 2014 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) 981 confrontation with Vietnam that also involved the smaller Vietnam Maritime Militia[2].

Significance:  On its surface, employing irregular forces may be an attractive option for a state facing a more powerful opponent, or for a state interested in “a less provocative means of promoting its strategic goal of regional hegemony” such as the PRC[3].  However, incorporating these irregular forces into a hybrid national strategy has deleterious impacts on the structure of the international legal system, particularly in maritime law and the laws of naval warfare[4].  PRC Maritime Militias’ use of “civilian” fishing vessels to support, and conduct, military operations distorts this legal structure by obfuscating the force’s identity and flaunting established international legal boundaries.

Option #1:  U.S. political and military leaders engage the PRC/People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) directly and publicly on the existence and operations of the Maritime Militia, insist upon adherence to internationally-accepted legal identification of vessels and personnel[6], and convey what costs will be imposed on the PRC/PLAN if they do not change their behavior.

As an example, the Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, has voiced his frustration with PLAN unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the PRC Maritime Militia and its relationships with state law enforcement and military forces[5]. In the event that the PRC declines to engage in dialogue regarding the Maritime Militia, discontinuing PLAN participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercise is the suggested response.

Risk:  Without clearly attaching costs to continued use of militia forces in operations against the USN, Option #1 is unlikely to affect PRC behavior.  Conveying possible imposed costs carries risk of further-degrading relations between the U.S. and PRC, but it is precisely PRC perceptions of their behavior as costless that encourages the behaviors exhibited by the PRC’s Maritime Militia[7].

Gain:  Option #1 is an excellent opportunity for the U.S. to underline its commitment to good order at sea and a rules-based maritime order.  By encouraging the PRC to acknowledge the Maritime Militia and its associated command structure, the U.S. can cut through the ambiguity and civilian camouflage under which the Maritime Militia has operated unchallenged.  In the event that the PRC declines to engage, conveying the possible imposition of costs may serve as a warning that behavior negatively affecting good order at sea will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Option #2:  U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF-W) assists the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in developing and implementing an organic maritime domain awareness (MDA) capability with domestic, and international, interagency sharing and response capability.  For the purposes of this article, MDA will be understood to be a host-nation’s ability to “collect, fuse, analyze and disseminate maritime data, information and intelligence relating to potential threats to [its] security, safety, economy or environment[8].”

Risk:  Close to a score of abandoned information portals and sharing infrastructures have been tried and failed in Southeast Asia, a cautionary tale regarding the risk of wasted resources.  Building upon over 20 years of JIATF-W’s experience should help to mitigate this risk, so long as an MDA solution is developed cooperatively and not simply imposed upon ASEAN.

Gain:  By providing focused and long-term support to an ASEAN-led solution, the U.S. can make progress in an area where MDA has been plagued by reticence, and occasionally inability to share vital information across interagency and national borders.  Shared awareness and cooperation at sea will combat the ability of the PRC Maritime Militia to operate uncontested in the SCS by enabling more effective law enforcement and naval response by affected countries.  Working through existing regional institutions such as Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre would add increased value to Option #2.

Option #3:  Utilize U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to provide law enforcement and maritime safety training support to states bordering the ECS/SCS interested in creating their own maritime militias.

Risk:  Expanding a concept that is damaging the rules-based order may increase the rate of disintegration of good order at sea.  Any observable indication that the U.S. is encouraging the creation of irregular maritime forces would likely be viewed negatively by the PRC.  Option #3 carries risk of engendering diplomatic or military conflict between the U.S. and PRC, or between the PRC and U.S. partners.

Gain:  Option #3 might provide some level of parity for states facing PRC militia vessels.  Vietnam has already made the decision to pursue development of a maritime militia and others may follow in hopes of countering the PRC’s irregular capability.  USCG involvement in the organizational development and training of militias might provide some limited opportunities to shape their behavior and encourage responsible employment of militia forces.

Other Comments:  Encouragement for the expansion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is not addressed.  The CUES  was adopted during the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and provides a basis for communications, maritime safety, and maneuvering guidelines for use by ships and aircraft in unplanned encounters at sea.  CUES is not a legally binding document, but an agreed-upon protocol for managing potentially escalatory encounters in the Pacific[9].  This author believes coast guards adjoining the contested areas of the ECS and SCS will continue to resist CUES adoption in order to maintain operational latitude.  Given the reticence of coast guards to accede to the agreement, drawing PRC Maritime Militia into CUES seems an unrealistic possibility.

Recommendation:  None.

Blake Herzinger served in the United States Navy in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida. He is presently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and assists the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. His writing has appeared in Proceedings and The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Endnotes:

[1]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[2]  Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident,” CIMSEC, 21 April 2016, http://cimsec.org/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/24573

[3]  James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies 91.450 (2015): 465, http://stockton.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Christopher Cavas, “China’s Maritime Militia a Growing Concern,” DefenseNews, November 21, 2016,  http://www.defensenews.com/articles/new-website-will-allow-marines-to-share-training-videos

[6]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[7]  The Struggle for Law in the South China Sea, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of James Kraska, U.S. Naval War College).

[8]  Secretary of the Navy Approves Strategic Plan for Maritime Domain Awareness, U.S. Navy, Last updated 8 October 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp? story_id=91417

[9]  Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, USNI News, Last updated 22 August 2016, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea

Featured Image: Reuters video journalist Peter Blaza (C), with assistant Oscar Abunyawan (R), films a Chinese fishing vessel docked on the mouth of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, April 6, 2017. Picture taken April 6, 2017. (Erik De Castro, Reuters)

Reminder and Location Update: CIMSEC DC Happy Hour w/Guest Jim Fanell: What’s the PLAN in 2017?

Location Update: Join our DC chapter for its January DC-area informal happy hour. We will be meeting on the second floor of Fuel Pizza on K Street for an informal discussion on the latest developments of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with CAPT Jim Fanell, USN (ret.).  Jim is a Government Fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, having spent 30 years as a naval intelligence officer specializing in Indo-Asia Pacific security, with an emphasis on the Chinese navy and its operations.

Time: Monday, 23 January 6:00-8:00pm
Place: Fuel Pizza, 1606 K St NW, Washington, DC 20006 (2nd floor)
Washington D.C. 20003

All are welcome – RSVPs not required, but appreciated: director@cimsec.org

Asymmetric Maritime Diplomacy: Involving Coastguards, Maritime Militias in China Dealings

By Alex Calvo

Any objective assessment of developments in the South China Sea over the last few years cannot but conclude that Beijing is successfully expanding and achieving its goals, the ultimate being complete mastery over this body of water. Please note that we can no longer talk about “dispute” since this word fails to capture the essence of the conflict. There is also no point in demanding a “clarification” of Beijing’s objectives in a wishful attempt at integrating China into the post-war liberal order. Third, and most crucially, given that China is deploying a combined force made up of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), a number of Coastguard-like agencies, and a maritime militia, military to military contacts involving only the former are not only useless, they are counterproductive. By engaging the PLAN, in a bid to build trust and work toward agreements, such as the much touted Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, maritime democracies are dangerously ignoring China’s playbook. The PLAN does not operate in isolation. Instead, it follows a carefully orchestrated script featuring an internal division of labour, the coastguard agencies, and the maritime militia. Each has its role, and in some situations and missions they act separately, while in others they work as a team. Broadly speaking, most of the “dirty work” is carried out either by militia-crewed (or at least coordinated) “civilian ships” or by their coastguard counterparts, with the PLAN free to play the “good guy” role in a discreet second line.

This division of labour extends to diplomacy and military to military contacts: PLAN officers meet foreign counterparts, coast guard personnel keep a much lower international profile, and the maritime militias remain a domestic affair. This means that the objectives of these contacts are impossible from the start. What is the point of in engaging only the PLAN when it is just one part of the Chinese forces expanding in the South China Sea? How can we dream of integrating the PRC’s naval and maritime forces into some semblance of an international liberal order when the vast majority of their forces do not even take part in the exchanges and activities designed to bring this about?

 Heated altercation between a Chinese Coast Guard Cutter and a Vietnamese vessel in the South China Sea.
Heated altercation between a Chinese Coast Guard Cutter and a Vietnamese vessel in the South China Sea.

One of the eternal principles of war is the need to seize the initiative. For too long maritime nations in the South China Sea have simply been reacting to Chinese moves, playing into Beijing’s script. The solution is not to complain more loudly every time Beijing expands, or to rearm at the conventional level only, the solution involves seizing the initiative, playing by different rules (not China’s), and forcing the PRC to react for once. This has already happened in some instances, most notably the Philippines’ lawsuit under UNCLOS, but must now become the norm, not the exception.

In accordance with this need to seize the initiative, the following changes are necessary in military to military contacts and negotiations:

A) Maritime nations must refuse to take part in any negotiations where China’s Coastguard agencies and maritime militias are not represented. Dealings must take place only with delegations made up of the full range of institutions involved in territorial aggression in the South China Sea.

B) In order to make the above possible (and prevent Beijing from claiming that they are only sending PLAN personnel because they are just meeting naval officers), maritime nations must also include all equivalent agencies in their own delegations.

C) Third, when a maritime democracy does not have a maritime militia, it must be created. This can be accomplished, for example, by resorting to reserve personnel, maritime industries, and yacht owners associations.

Maritime democracies may also need to adopt measures to grow their fishing and merchant fleets in order to acquire the necessary dual-use assets to wage the non-lethal confrontation seen in the seas near China. 

Adopting an integrated approach to military to military contacts with China may require some cultural and institutional changes. It may be understandable for a naval officer to prefer the company of a fellow officer from another country to that of a fisherman. Equally understandable may be an officer’s somewhat detached view of clashes among fishing boats, or landings by civilian “activists,” but the nature of the mixed warfare being waged by China means that superior conventional naval forces cannot simply wait for war to break out in order to defeat the enemy in a conventional battle. A war may be lost while waiting for it to break out. In theory, Chinese expansion could be checked by drawing a line in the sand and employing conventional force if necessary. However, this is politically unrealistic, given that not even economic sanctions have been discussed in Washington and pacific rim capitals. If the United States and her partners are not even ready to make China pay an economic price for aggression, can they be expected to go to war? The answer cannot be any other than a clear and loud no, and the Chinese are fully aware of it. Hence their “salami slicing” strategy.

coast-guard-june14
US Navy Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer and US Coast Guard Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter at sea.

If we rule out appeasement and surrender, then the only alternative left is to fight. Not to fight the war we would like, a war that is simply not on the menu, but the existing war being waged, and the one, we must regrettably say, which is being lost to date. In this war, the enemy is not simply using conventional forces, but a mixture of naval, non-naval state, and dual-use private assets. It is this complex reality that must be engaged with in attempts at confidence building and agreements negotiations. If it is not just PLAN officers working to conquer the South China Sea, what is the point in just talking to them? Shouldn’t we also be talking to their coast guard and militia counterparts?

This broad approach to military to military contacts is the only realistic approach to the current situation in the South China Sea (and the wider Indo Pacific). If actually resulting in agreements, they will be more likely to be respected, given that they will have been negotiated by the whole range of actors involved. If unsuccessful, then naval and maritime personnel from the nations of these contested waters will have gained a much better understanding of their foes. This will not only give them a clearer picture of the opposition, but will also help them make the necessary but often difficult and even painful cultural transition from leaders used to thinking in terms of conventional sea power to officers equally at ease when facing a trawler or a submarine, a missile fired in anger or a ramming fishing boat. Successful riverine operations in South Vietnam are a good example of a similar cultural and organizational change brought about by the need to fight a dual war, and the resulting transformation is a reminder that this is indeed possible.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College, 23 December 2013, available at http://www.usnwc.edu/Publications/Working-Papers/Documents/WP1-Calvo.aspx, can be found here.