The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.
The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.
Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.
The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.
Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.
Engagement also served to counter China’s growing influence in the region. India’s relationship with its giant neighbor has been difficult and tenuous. Both sides have been embroiled in a long, ongoing border dispute that resulted in a war in 1962 and till today remains a source of tension that has resulted in occasional crises. This has perpetuated the sense of suspicion and mistrust between the two. As the Doklam standoff in 2017 shows, conflict between the two sides remains a very real prospect. Hence, from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required shrewd diplomatic awareness and delicate balancing from India. On one hand, the South Asian state wants to maintain friendly relations with the various SCS claimants; on the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking its Chinese neighbor. In New Delhi’s view, while activities such as energy exploration and weapon sales to the region would incur Beijing’s disapproval, such ventures are unlikely to instigate anything more than a verbal response from the Chinese. Taking a stand on the territorial disputes is another matter. China has repeatedly described the SCS as a “core interest”, indicating its willingness to use force to protect its claims. Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the South China Sea Arbitration ruling in 2016, India, which had not taken sides in the dispute, urged all parties to respect and uphold the verdict of the UNCLOS-based tribunal.
Recent developments in the SCS, however, have been a source of concern for New Delhi. China, which lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region, has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession. Between 2013 and 2016, Chinawas reported to have reclaimed seven islands and built military installations including airfields, radar systems and missile bases on its reclaimed possessions in the area. Furthermore, Chinese vessels in the area have been known to act aggressively, harassing and intimidating vessels of other nations into steering clear of islands they claim. In response, other SCS claimants have also begun augmenting their deterrence capabilities on their islands with infrastructure such as coastal defenses, airfields and surveillance systems. Rather than peace, such actions have generated tension and destabilized the region.
Even the United States (US), once a strong proponent for ‘freedom of navigation’ in the region, has been of little help to India. During his first year in office, President Trump failed to show any willingness to challenge Beijing over its behavior in the SCS. The new administration seemed to lack a clear policy towards the SCS, choosing to focus its attention instead on North Korea. More recently however, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. In late 2017, the once dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a defense partnership involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – made a sudden comeback, indicating the growing unease over China’s rise. The recently unveiled U.S. military strategy also indicates a shift in focus back towards China and Russia. While it is too early to tell how well this plan will be carried out under this administration, the U.S. is likely to seek closer ties with India as a counterweight to China’s regional dominance. Furthermore, it may also signal Washington’s renewed interest to check Beijing’s behavior in the SCS.
What does the future hold for the SCS? New Delhi’s decision to recently host all ten ASEAN heads of state shows its intention to buckle down on its policy of strengthening ties with the region. Beijing’s policy in the SCS also seems unlikely to change. It has already swung the opinion of states like Malaysia and the Philippines, who have since softened their stances, and chosen to focus on cooperation with the Asian giant. With or without the U.S., India will have to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing its turbulent waters.
Byron Chong is a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia & Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies with a Masters in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Sino-Indian relations and international security in Asia.
The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.
Featured Image: As part of the ongoing sea trials, the first indigenously built, Scorpene class submarine Kalvari undertook it’s first torpedo firing on 26 May 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)
As a part of CIMSEC’s South China Sea topic week and our regular Sea Control Podcast, we bring you a discussion on the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on territorial disputes in the South China Sea with one of the China-watching community’s best known, most respected, and outspoken voices, retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell. Captain Fanell and host Sally DeBoer discuss the implications of the ruling, thoughts on Chinese, American, and international reactions to the court’s findings, and possible directions for the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific going forward. A transcript of the discussion can be found below, as well as a download link of the audio recording. This interview has been edited for clarity.
SD: On July 12th, the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruledon territorial disputes between the PRC and the Philippines in the South China Sea (SCS). The court ruled largely on the side of the Philippines, denying the legitimacy of China’s claims and upholding international law as outlined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, recognizing territorial seas, but not exclusive economic zones, of several disputed features, including the Spratly Islands. Further, the court found that China violated the Philippines’ sovereignty when they interfered with fishing and petroleum exploration activities in the Philippines exclusive economic zone. The court also upheld the right of both China and the Philippines to conduct fishing in and around Scarborough Shoal. China, who has denied and continues to deny the legitimacy of the court’s ruling, publicly stated its intention to both ignore the court’s findings and continue construction of artificial islands. Immediate responses from Chinese media stated that the ruling was an “American-backed farce,” while statements from Chinese officials echo this sentiment and reinforce their commitment to exercising control over their “nine dash line” claims. Clearly there is a great deal to unpack and discuss on this ruling and its implications going forward. Fortunately for us, our guest today is an expert on the matter. Joining us today is retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell, former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, and founder of Red Star Rising. In the tradition of our Sea Control podcast, we will give Captain Fanell a chance to introduce himself before we get started.
JF: Good Afternoon, Sally, thanks for inviting me to participate in Sea Control and CIMSEC’s valuable efforts to bring information to the general public and raise our consciousness on what’s going on in the maritime domain. I’m pleased to talk about this subject and there’s a lot to cover and I will just say that I am happy to be talking to you from Eastern Switzerland where I’m currently a fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
SD: I want to begin by characterizing the ruling. Sir, what was your general impression of the courts’ finding? Is the finding more or less sweeping than you had expected – are there any facets of the ruling that surprised you?
JF: The ruling itself is a resounding repudiation of China’s actions, statements, and posture over the last five years in the Asia-Pacific region. The court went much farther than I think anyone predicted in the academic or intelligence communities that I’m associated with. I think the court surprised many people by pointing out the things you described in your opening, which is to say they ruled on whether or not a feature is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or a territorial sea. [The ruling] raised the bar on what constitutes an island with respect to Itu Aba. Previously, many had thought that the requirements, based on a general reading of UNCLOS, would suggest that if [a party] could provide habitability from a land feature to include it’s own water sources, that would somehow guarantee an EEZ. The Court raised that bar and said, no, it has to be more than just water to be life sustaining, it has to demonstrate habitability and the ability to sustain life – in that case the court looked back and said there was nothing on Itu Aba that would suggest that. That’s caused a bit of a development between Taiwan and China.
But besides that one point, I think the larger issue is that there was nothing here for China. They had nothing to hang their hat on, there’s nothing for them to go forward with and from that standpoint, it is going to be very difficult for them in terms of saving face. But from an international law perspective and what most of the world accepts – China’s actions in the SCS were unilateral, aggressive, and threatening to their neighbors. This ruling states that this behavior is not correct and that this is not an accepted way to act in the international community.
SD: So definitely a precedent setting ruling then. You talk about China’s ability to save face. Let’s talk about the Chinese response to the issue. It is an understatement to say they have not taken the ruling well. Before we talk about their international response, I would like to briefly discuss China’s internal reaction to the ruling. In 2017, the PRC’s 19th party congresswill occur and there is significant potential for change in the Politburo. How much of Xi Jinping’s response to the ruling is for domestic consumption and to maintain credibility and consistency with his domestic audience?
JF: I think that based on the research from Red Star Rising and open-source scouring of Chinese media and press reporting in English and Chinese, what we’re seeing is that China has presented a unified response across the domestic and world audience that says they refuse to accept this. You mentioned that they used the term ‘farce,’ just about every Chinese response to this ruling has used the word farce. The main Chinese press organs all have special web pages devoted to this SCS arbitration…“the farce should end.”
There’s no question that the party has set a pretty strict line on responding to this. The senior leaders of China, [up to and] including President Xi Jinpingand Admiral Wu Shengli have said they’re not going to accept this and that China won’t abide by this ruling. What’s more worrisome is that they’ve said that they’re going to – if pushed, if challenged – respond in kind. So I think that’s the great concern for the international community – just how far will China go to disregard this ruling and will they use physical force, physical violence, to maintain their, if you will, physical possession of these disputed areas? They say they won’t do that, they say they are peace loving and they won’t inhibit anyone’s freedom of navigation, but in the same speeches they tell us that they’re going to not accept outside influence from non-parties of the region and that they’re not going to accept having their sovereignty violated. So that’s the concern that people have now.
SD: In your opinion, is this response to serve a larger Chinese narrative that the region is peaceful and that the U.S. is interjecting in affairs where it doesn’t belong?
JF: That’s exactly what they’ve said. They’ve characterized the U.S. as being the offending party. In fact, just today there was an article in one of the press organs that stated that just the presence of the United States is offensive and causes problems. Not just that [the U.S.] does FONOPS, but just [their] very presence has been a destabilizing factor. So the narrative over the last five years from China has changed [from having] said we’re not trying to displace the U.S., to this argument that the US’ very presence is causing the turmoil…they need to get out of here, it’s not China that is the problem. Which is in complete contradiction of what this impartial, unbiased tribunal out of the Hague handed down two weeks ago. As you can imagine, the Chinese press has gone after the Hague’s ruling, first to discredit them by saying they are not part of the UN, and now they’re going after one of the senior members of the tribunal, saying that he is a biased Japanese national and therefore was only implementing the desires of [Japanese] Prime Minister Abe. So their attack on this ruling is across the board and across all facets of conversation and ideological perspectives. They are 100 percent going after this thing, and I think that’s an indicator of what they’re actually going to do in the physical domain in the lead up to the party congress that you mentioned.
SD: This week, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Richardson visited China and had a discussion with the PLAN’s leader, Admiral Wu Shengli, where he was roundly assured that Chinese construction in the Spratly Islands would “never stop.” What do you make of this directness, and what can the United States do to reinforce the courts’ rulings?
JF: Admiral Richardson’s visit has caused some level of controversy in the U.S. regarding the timing of this visit. He accompanied NSA (national security adviser) Rice to China – and the issue was – what kind of message was he taking and what kind of message did he receive? As you mentioned, the message he received was very clear and unambiguous from Admiral Wu. [He said] we reject the findings of this court, it has no legitimacy, it has no authority, and these are our sovereign territories…it’s been that way since ancient times, and it will be at our place and choosing to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), it will be in our time and choosing when to place military equipment on these islands, and we will do that in response to the challenges that we get from the Philippines, Japan, or the U.S. So, Admiral Richardson, in many respects, was given a lecture by Admiral Wu.
We can talk about that at another time, but the simplistic answer is that it appears the Chinese were able to spin this visit, which was surely prearranged while knowing the date the ruling would be released, and use that to their advantage to portray to the people of China that the U.S. kowtowing to the leaders of Beijing saying ‘hey, we’re in charge despite any piece of paper…possession is nine tenths of the law and we own and physically control it all.’
What will be interesting to see is what will come out of the dialogue between the CNO and Admiral Wu regarding the specific issue of Scarborough Reef. Admiral Richardson made some statements back in March that China was preparing to build up Scarborough Reef just like it had done in the southern Spratly Islands. The question is whether or not China will use this ruling as justification for going ahead and reclaiming land around Scarborough and building another base, another naval installation…not sure it will be a Naval Air Station as Hainan Island is fairly close. If they do they’ll have control of the northern approaches to the SCS just like they have physical control and possession of the southern approaches to the SCS. This is the concern, and I don’t speak for the CNO, but I feel disappointed and ashamed that he had to take that kind of public treatment when we knew that the Chinese were going to reject the ruling in the first place.
SD: So they’re sending an unambiguous message in terms of their statement, but they’re also sending a physical message. Earlier this week there was the H-6K over flight of Scarborough Shoal. What do you make of that, and what do you make of the exercises around Hainan Island that were likely planned before this ruling, where China announced they would be “closing off” a part of the SCS which is not in line with any legal precedent.
JF: Some Chinese experts commented in the press that this is the first time that we’ve publicly provided these pictures [of the bomber overflight]. Some were implying that this was the first time an H-6K had directly overflown Scarborough Reef, some made the point that the plane was vectored and pointing toward Manila, implying that it could be used to do more damage than maybe some would consider. In that same vein, some mentioned Chinese planes can now reach everywhere in the SCS and that China can control an ADIZ. This is an allusion to the fact that they declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea and haven’t been able to effectively control that given the amount of commercial air traffic there and the international community’s ire [should the Chinese] try to implement something that restrictive. It may be different in the South, and they may be practicing ‘salami slicing’ where they may just be slicing the slices very thinly to get to the point where they can implement the ADIZ. We should expect more flights of this nature, including flights down to the three new naval air stations.
Regarding the SCS exercise closure areas, I don’t know if those were timed ahead of time. One can imagine they were planned ahead of time knowing the ruling was going to come out sometime this summer, and that the PLAN had been prepared to conduct an exercise and were waiting for the timing to be right. I don’t know that for a fact, but I am just going off your assumption that it may have been already planned. The fact of the matter is they used the exercise to heighten and emphasize their displeasure at this ruling. I think that’s the real key, which is to say that it’s not just words and rhetoric, but it is actual physical movement of naval forces and other forces into the region or around the region in a show of force to the United States and the rest of the world.
The intention is to say, “not only are we (China) saying we don’t agree, but we will physically not agree with this ruling.” I think that’s the real question about how the United States should respond. I would submit that we need to sustain our commitment to the presence that we have demonstrated this year such as the dual carrier ops, the continued Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), the continued presence that we’ve displayed over 7 decades needs to sustain itself, and we need not fear that there will be conflict started because we’re down in the same water space. I don’t believe that the PRC, at this time, are ready to start a shooting war. They’re pretty upset, they may get very close, but they recognize they have too much to gamble, too much to lose, both internally and externally, for their dream of restoration and rejuvenation. I think you saw that even recently with some of the press reporting that the Chinese press is clamping down on internal protesters [sending the message that] patriotism is good, we understand why you’re upset because this ruling is abhorrent to us, but you don’t have to demonstrate your patriotism by protesting in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.
SD: That was an interesting choice! Going on that same theme, you’ve talked about how the U.S. can counter this escalation or perceived escalation. Are continued FONOPS something you’d like to see there as well?
JF: I think we need to do that, I think there’s been a lot written about that in the last week or so. Bonnie Glaser has written about that. I actually agree with her position that we should do [FONOPS] but not announce them or provide advanced warning. I disagree with her when she said [the U.S.] shouldn’t tell people what we’ve done. I think there is a process to report these out post-facto, post-event, to say “here’s what we’ve done this year and here’s the legal reasons why.” I think that’s important, but to advertise them ahead of time, to put our sailors in harms way, I think is not very smart.
I think we should not just [conduct] the FONOPS, which typically are a single ship or aircraft, but [consider] doing more naval exercises in the region unilaterally, but also bilaterally and multilaterally. I think the more we demonstrate that these are waters that anyone can work in and that China is going to have a tough time covering exercises down in the SCS and ECS.
One example is ANNUALEX with the JMSDF. We should be [conducting] ANNUALEX west of Okinawa to send this message to the Chinese: if you really want to prevent people from exercising their militaries all over the first island chain, then you’re going to be stretched very thin. Some would say, maybe the Chinese can match us ship for ship, and maybe they can against the U.S. 7th fleet today. But they cannot [do so] against the allied naval forces of the region and that’s the real strong position there. If we take that, we will demonstrate to China that they need to change their behaviors.
SD: Going back to your point about FONOPS and pre-announcing them, I think the point has been made that the announcement itself implies some sort of wrongdoing. If we truly believe that its freedom of navigation and that these are international waters then there should be no need to announce. Is that what you are saying?
JF: Yeah, I think it’s daily business, just going about daily operations. If [warships] happen to sail through some place that is disputed, then they do that or they don’t do that, but they don’t have to make a big deal out of it. And I would say that there’s a nuance here. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it not because you’re concerned that China is going to get upset, and granted I don’t think we should go out of our way to antagonize China, but we should not limit our actions because we’re always concerned about that, which seems to be what we normally do. I think we don’t advertise for the security and safety of the sailors who are now going to be put in a position where someone knows they’re coming and may set up an ambush or a set of circumstances that could cause someone to lose their life. That’s really why I don’t think we should pre-announce the FONOPS.
SD: Its not hard to imagine a scenario where, intentional or not, something could happen. Accidents happen at sea, especially when ships are getting close, so that could be escalatory. Your point is very well taken.
JF: I think that the position here is nuanced, because there’s many inside the “China-watching” community that are suggesting we don’t want to embarrass or upset or provoke China. That seems to be our constant concern before acting in our national security interest. The U.S. seems to be more concerned about not upsetting [China] because there’s this belief that if we do, then our national security will be worse off.
I don’t think the evidence supports that logic over the last decade, but that still seems to be the predominant mindset, which is “provoking China makes things worse.” Instead of saying that China is the [party providing the provocation] and changing the status quo, not following their own declared and signed declarations like the ASEAN code of conduct from 2002, or even their signature on UNCLOS. The court of arbitration was very clear in its message, ‘you signed into this, China, you agreed to follow these rules and now you don’t want to.’ I think that’s the issue, and not so much that the U.S. is somehow parachuted into the SCS in the last two years and caused everyone to get upset. We’ve been there a long time, and we’ve given everybody a great opportunity to raise their standard of living across Asia, including China. We need to reject this notion that we’re the problem, and we need to start identifying that China is the problem. If we cant do that, they’re going to continue to take advantage of this [narrative].
SD: It was reported that China approached the Philippines for bilateral talks with the condition that both parties agreed to disregard the UN Court’s ruling. The Chinese did not even want to broach the subject at said talks and the Philippines declined to talk with these conditions. Is this an attempt by China to save face and does this indicate to you that there’s a politically acceptable way for an agreement on the outside of this ruling?
JF: It was informative to see the Philippines’ response under the new Duterte administration. There was some concern in certain circles in China and outside about [what] Duterte’s approach to China [would be]. Now on this first overture by the PRC, it is clear that the Philippines are not going to accept this kind of [off the table negotiation.] They won’t set aside the ruling and say that’s not valid.
This represents a classic Chinese approach. I live up here in the Alps and I see a lot of these granite rocks, and sometimes the rocks crumble off the face and crash down. They do that because every winter, water comes in and finds the smallest crevice, freezes, and expands. It does that over time and then finally the rock cracks and gives way. The Chinese approach to diplomacy is like this, find the smallest little crack, the smallest little diplomatic nuance or change in language, and try to break someone off from their core interest, and if you accept that you’ll be separated from your strategic national objective.
In this case, they suggested they could work with the Philippines, as long as they said the ruling was invalid and they’re not going to accept it. Maybe the Philippines will, and maybe they wont, but right now they’ve said no. I think it should be informative to people to watch how the Chinese approach these things. That’s the soft sell. There’s the hard sell, which is the bomber overflight, the declaration of SCS exercise areas, there’s the speech that Admiral Wu gave to Admiral Richardson, and then there’ll be this behind-closed-doors deal making.
SD: How much of the Philippines’ calculus on rejecting these talks has to do with the fact that they tried that angle with China over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and were betrayed? China did not uphold their side of the deal.
JF: I think that’s an excellent point, and now some would say “how much does the new administration know about what happened in 2012?” I think most people in the Philippines do know that they were hoodwinked by the Chinese in that agreement. Their fingers are still numb from being burned before. So they’re less likely to buy into something like this. But, China is very persuasive in their soft power attempts and so things like business opportunities for Philippines in China and visa versa. These will all be brought up in closed door sessions, away from the media, and there’ll be extreme pressure exerted on this administration to dismiss this ruling and “go from there.” But you can go back to 2002 and say the same thing, China told everyone they agreed that no one should change the status quo in the SCS, and then they did over the next 14 years. China has a track record of saying one thing and doing something else. I think the more people are exposed to this through bad experiences ,the less inclined they are to buy into it again.
SD: So, if that “soft sell” is rejected, how do you see the Chinese responding? How will they amend their strategy, this two-pronged approach of soft and hard sell, if nobody’s buying anymore? What’s next for China?
JF: As I mentioned earlier, possession is nine tenths of the law. They’re betting that no one is going to launch a major naval operation or invasion of these islands to kick them out based on the PCA’s ruling. I don’t think anyone on the planet is planning to do that or would want to do that. I think China knows that. So the reality is, what do we do from here? Where do we go from here? Is there a way to stop China’s expansionism? Well, Scarborough Shoal will be that test. They’ve built up most of the islands that they want in the Spratlys, Second Thomas Shoal is another one, there’s the grounded LST Sierra Madre they could try to physically take, so the Philippines and our allies need to watch for that.
China’s already been vociferous over the last 5-6 years; since 1999 they’re been very upset about this. Now, with the ruling out, they may use this as one of those areas to seize in the middle of the night. [China could] come in with a bunch of warships in the cover of darkness against a poor indications and warnings network. We need to watch Second Thomas Shoal, we need to watch Reed Bank, [there are places] that China could just move in and begin dredging. Scarborough, clearly, is a place where the Chinese already have a toe hold, they have a section of it, so it would be easy for them to try to do something. The U.S., Philippines, and other allies in the region have to ask themselves what they’re going to do to physically prevent China from doing this. Taking back Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross, Subi Reef, or Caurteron Reef is going to be hard and nobody really wants to do that. Those may be gone forever.
The other areas I just mentioned are areas where [the U.S. and its allies] can go on a routine basis and show continuous presence, which is going to require more than the 60/40 split from the U.S. Navy. It is going to require more assets, it may require our Coast Guard, it may require other nations’ Coast Guards to be physically present and prevent China from [taking ownership of these features]. That would be the strongest signal we could send, and it would require not just ships, but subs and also aircraft, and reconnaissance flights with fighter escorts. This would get across to China that they really crossed a line without publicizing red lines, and without getting into that geopolitical mess, just a physical presence. I think what we’ve seen with the[USS] Stennis Strike Group’s operations are a nod to that, but now it’s got to be more than just high profile exercises and dual carrier ops. It has to be a commitment to a daily presence. Otherwise, China knows they will be there daily, having increased their presence in the SCS by my own estimates at last tenfold. They have a lot of platforms from the Coast Guard and Navy that are in and around those waters 24/7/365. If we really want to stop them from expanding, we’re going to have to be there and match them hull for hull in some sense.
SD: Understood. I want to wrap up with this question on how the disparity between the Chinese response to this ruling and the American public’s response could not be more disparate. Having a presence there will cost money and will take increased investment and a larger navy. How can we as navalists, or China watchers, communicate to the larger American public the importance of this issue?
JF: You’re exactly right. It will take a larger navy. I think that’s a topic of discussion [for] one of the parties in this upcoming election cycle. What’s the size of our navy and is it big enough to do the kinds of things we need it to do? There’s arguments on both sides that there’s not enough money to procure this, and even if we had the money, it would take years to get. That’s a difficult issue. But we need to address [the need for a larger Navy] in a dialogue with the American people. As I mentioned before, it’s the responsibility of senior naval leadership to articulate this message to our senior policymakers, and to make it something that gets articulated to the American people. When I talked to a naval officer a week ago, after the ruling had come out, the response I got was ‘hey, these are just a bunch of rocks, and they have no bearing on U.S. National Security.’ That really troubles me.
In the 1980s, when Secretary of the Navy Lehman helped create the maritime strategy, there was no question about our national objective of making sure that the spread of communism didn’t go worldwide. There was no question that the U.S. Navy was a key part of that national objective. We need to have naval leaders explain to the American public and policy makers from both parties that the reason we need this large Navy is because if China can control the SCS and can control who can come in and out, (even though they’ve denied that they will do that, we do have knowledge that they may have plans to do that), this will adversely affect our national interests, the interests of all the countries in the region, and the global economy. We need to have leaders that are going to be more forceful in articulating this requirement. The pivot, the re-balance, is one step. The 60/40 split that [the U.S.] announced for our Navy is good, some of the new capabilities that we’re bringing out there like the P-8, Virginia-class submarines, and Zumwalt-class destroyers, are all good uses of our bully pulpit with the resources that we have.
But I’m concerned when I see things like our State Department giving an anemic response the day after the PCA ruling. [The statement] basically equivocated and said that China and the Philippines are co-equals in the ruling and they both need to pay attention to it. We had a chance, in that small window, to come out and endorse international law, this ruling, and [state] that we will back it up with not only our own physical forces but those of our allies. This would build on cooperation of nations to suppress China’s unilateral aggressive behavior; we missed that opportunity. I’m still waiting from the State Department’s detailed analysis of the ruling. It’s now been well over a week and a half, and we still don’t have that, yet, very smart people like Jerome Cohen have already come out with a detailed analysis of the court’s 500 plus page ruling and given it an endorsement. I think this is the kind of comprehensive national power that China applies to a problem that we seem to be lacking. I think we need to come together on this. Otherwise we risk our ability to say that Freedom of Navigation is around the world.
SD: There’s a fundamental misunderstanding, coming back to your “bunch of rocks” quote, where the U.S. Navy has been the arbiter of the freedom of the global commons for a long time now, and it has fostered a system that has allowed people to raise their standard of living and a successful global system that is unprecedented. Perhaps people don’t appreciate the U.S. Navy’s role in that.
JF: If you believe that, and not everyone does, but if the people within the [U.S. Navy and U.S. policy making bodies], can’t get unified on that belief, then we’re going to fail in articulating that to the American public. Especially in times when we’re in crisis in other areas of maritime endeavors, like Russia and what’s going on in the Mediterranean, Syria, Iran, and the threats that they’re making to naval forces in the Persian Gulf. These [issues] are not just isolated to the East Asian arena. This is a global issue. We’ve been a global navy. People say we can’t be the world’s cop, okay got it, maybe not in different land areas, but we have been committed to being the ‘world’s cop’ in the maritime domain.
If we’re not going to do that, let’s have a discussion about that as a nation and let’s save billions of dollars and cut back, bring the 7th fleet back to Hawaii or San Diego, quit building Ford-class nuclear aircraft carriers, SSBN(X), etc. There are a lot of things that are implied in this idea of standing down from being a global navy. We are being challenged right now in East Asia. It is not just in the SCS, but the ECS as well, and Japan will be one of the next points of attack for the Chinese based on how they do in this SCS scenario.
SD: It has been an honor to speak with you today, Sir. I’m sure that there will be a lot more to discuss on this topic in the future, and I hope you will join us again. If our readers want to subscribe to Red Star Rising, and I recommend they do, how can they do so?
Captain James Fanell, USN (Ret.) is currently serving as a fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He previously served as Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC, and also serves as CIMSEC’s Book Review Coordinator. Contact her at President@cimsec.org.
This article was originally posted at India’s National Maritime Foundation. It is republished on CIMSEC with the author’s permission. Read the piece in its original form here.
By Gurpreet S. Khurana
During the ‘Raisina Dialogue’ held in March 2016 at New Delhi, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of United States (US) Pacific Command (USPACOM) referred to the first ever tri-lateral (Australia, Japan and India) [i] ministerial discussions held in September 2015. ADM Harris’ comments addressed “maritime security – including freedom of navigation patrols,” and proposed “expanding this tri-lateral to a quadrilateral venue” by involving the US.[ii] Later, while addressing questions, the crux of his message was that the high level of ‘inter-operability’ achieved during complex India-US Malabar exercises should not be an end into itself, but translated into “coordinated operations.”[iii] Admiral Harris’ answers suggested– albeit implicitly –that India undertake ‘coordinated freedom of navigation patrols’ in the South China Sea (SCS). Evidently, such patrols could be used to restrain China’s growing military assertiveness in the SCS, and its process of legal “norm-building” in the maritime-territorial disputes with the other littoral countries of the SCS.
India has consistently upheld the US position in terms of being a non-party to the SCS disputes by supporting dispute-resolution through well-established norms of international law and freedom of navigation in international waters, including the SCS. Nonetheless, Indian Defence Minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar lost little time in clarifying India’s position, saying that “As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; we only do joint exercises. The question of joint patrol does not arise.”[iv]
The case indicates an ‘apparent’ mismatch between US expectations for India, and what New Delhi is willing to deliver to its ‘strategic partner.’ This can be contextualized and explained through analytical insight into the salient policy pronouncements from either side. The most instructive among these are those articulating India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ in Asia. This essay aims to analyse such a role to understand the ‘aberration’ in the otherwise healthy trajectory of India and the United State’s contemporary strategic relationship and in doing so, enable a better comprehension of the India’s perspective on its compelling strategic and foreign policy considerations.
The ‘net security provider’ concept emerged during the 2009 ‘Shangri La Dialogue.’ when then-US Secretary of Defence Mr. Robert Gates stated,
“When it comes to India, we have seen a watershed in our relations – cooperation that would have been unthinkable in the recent past… In coming years, we look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”[v]
This sentiment of the USA was thereafter reiterated on various occasions – both formally and otherwise – including in the 2010 US ‘Quadrennial Defense Review’ (QDR). The statement in QDR-10 predicted,
“India’s military capabilities are rapidly improving through increased defense acquisitions, and they now include long-range maritime surveillance, maritime interdiction and patrolling, air interdiction, and strategic airlift. India has already established its worldwide military influence through counterpiracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief efforts. As its military capabilities grow, India will contribute to Asia as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”[vi]
India’s political leadership and policymakers clearly supported the proposed role for India in principle. Addressing the top brass of the Indian Navy and Defence Ministry in 2011, then-Indian Defence Minster Mr. AK Antony emphatically assured India’s maritime neighbours of “unstinted support for their security and economic prosperity.” He continued to say that the Indian Navy has been:
“mandated to be a net security provider to island nations in the Indian Ocean Region… most of the major international shipping lanes are located along our island territories. This bestows on us the ability to be a potent and stabilising force in the region.”[vii]
“We have…sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well positioned… to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond.”[viii]
These seminal articulations represent a valuable starting point in analyzing India’s projected role as a ‘Net Security Provider.’ This is divided into three parts for the sake of objectivity, with each one analyzing a specific facet of India’s broader national-strategic imperative to fulfill such a role. These aspects are Geographical Area, Capacity and Capability, and Cultural Ethos.
Primary Area of Interest
By virtue of its geographic location and peninsular disposition, India’s most critical national interests are closely connected with events in the Indian Ocean. This is broadly so for the northern Indian Ocean, and more specifically for regions categorized as ‘primary areas of maritime interest’ in the Indian Maritime-Security Strategy, 2015 (IMSS-15). [ix]
In nearly all articulations of India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ – both Indian and American – the ‘Indian Ocean” is a ‘common thread’ while the phrase “…and beyond” has never been specifically defined. Arguably, the latter phrase would refer more accurately to the Persian Gulf or Red Sea as India’s ‘primary areas of maritime interest,’ rather than the SCS that – notwithstanding India’s increasing economic and strategic stakes there – is a ‘secondary area of maritime interest.’ (Such classification does not, however, undermine the criticality of the SCS to India’s vital interests). In this context, India’s Professor Mahapatra aptly inquires:
“If India and the U.S. have not contemplated similar kinds of patrol in Indian Ocean, what could justify India and U.S. patrolling waters of South China Sea?”[x]
A related, though distinct, definition of ‘Geo-Strategic Frontiers’ is also relevant here. As part of a country’s military-strategic calculus, this phrase refers to geographical boundaries necessary for that country to achieve ‘strategic depth’ against a potential State adversary. Recent American analyses, such as the one by Professor James Holmes on ‘Get Ready, India: China’s Navy is Pushing West’[xi] (towards the Indian Ocean), are indeed instructive for India, and add to trends that were noted in India nearly a decade ago.[xii] However, it is unlikely that India would need to extend its strategic depth vis-à-vis China eastwards beyond the Southeast Asian straits. Notably, these maritime choke-points constitute a major strategic challenge for the PLA Navy itself.
The ‘Geo-Strategic Frontiers’ of a country are also contingent upon the ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’ of its own and friendly military forces to influence events in the area within the said frontiers. This aspect is addressed below.
Capacity and Capability[xiii]
In 2012, the IDSA undertook a study on Out of Area Contingency (OOAC) missions by Indian armed forces. The study deduced that:
“the reach of current air and sealift capabilities means that, realistically speaking, India can conduct OOAC operations only within the Indian Ocean region (IOR).”[xiv]
Even while India’s strategic sealift and airlift capacities are being augmented, the finding of the aforesaid study is likely to remain valid for the foreseeable future. The same is true for India’s capability in other forms of maritime power projection.
The new Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS-15) aptly emphasizes the term ‘net security’, rather than ‘net provider [of security].’ Further, it pegs India’s role as a ‘net security’ provider to the question of ‘capability.’ Accordingly, it defines the term ‘net security’ as:
“a state of actual security available in an area, upon balancing prevailing threats, inherent risks and rising challenges in a maritime environment, against the ability to monitor, contain and counter all of these.”[xv]
The analysis of IMMS-15 clearly indicates that the Indian Navy seeks to contribute to maritime security and stability in its primary and secondary areas of interest, broadly constituting the entire swath of the Indo-Pacific region. To do so, India is not only developing its own capabilities for distant operations, but also providing ‘capacity building’ and ‘capability enhancement’ assistance to friendly countries in the region. However, since the November 2008 seaborne terrorist attacks against Mumbai, the sub-conventional threats to India’s coastal and offshore security will continue to pose major challenges for the Navy. These challenges will require it to deftly balance its force expansion and modernization between the two competing imperatives of ‘blue water’ and ‘brown water’ operations.[xvi]
As stated above, IMSS-15 dwells upon India’s regional role as a “provider of net security” rather than a ‘net provider of security.’ Ostensibly, an additional aim is to dispel any notion that India seeks to act as a hegemonic power or a ‘policeman’ in the region. Such intent flows from India’s cultural ethos and is closely linked to its evolution as a modern nation-state.
Another facet of cultural ethos is the pride with which Indians identify themselves based on their civilizational genesis, something more profound and deep-seated than the concept of ‘nationalism’. Together with the aforementioned non-hegemonic stance, this facet manifests in India’s long-standing policy of not involving itself in coalition military operations, except those mandated by the United Nations. This policy also manifests in the operational domain. Unless operating under the UN flag, Indian military forces are averse to undertaking ‘joint’ (or “combined”) operations, like joint patrols, since such operations would involve placing Indian forces under foreign Command and Control (C2). The Indian Defence Minister’s negation of the possibility of ‘joint (naval) patrols’ may be seen in this context.
Other conditions notwithstanding, the statement by ADM Harris at the Raisina Dialogue deserves more attention than it has received. He proposed turning India-US “joint (naval) exercises” into “coordinated (naval) operations.” His preference for the term ‘coordinated’ rather than ‘joint’ is noteworthy. While in common English parlance, the two terms may be considered synonymous, the difference is significant in ‘operational’ terms. Whereas a ‘joint’ operation involves a unified C2 of military forces, a ‘coordinated’ operation permits the forces to maintain their respective national C2 structures. In the past, the Indian Navy has indeed undertaken ‘coordinated’ operations with the US Navy on various occasions. The examples include the 2002 escort missions for US high-value ships in the Malacca Straits and the 2004-05 Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission in the aftermath the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Even during more recent anti-piracy missions to escort merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Navy coordinated its operations with the US-led coalition naval forces, as well as other navies deployed for the same mission. The notable commonality among these operations, however, was that these were all conducted in the Indian Ocean or its contiguous straits.
The subtext of the US-India Joint Statement of January 2015on “our diversified bilateral strategic partnership”[xvii] clearly indicates our broader strategic convergence, and the fact that India needs the strategic partnership of America as much as the other way around. However, occasional dissonance in the bilateral relationship cannot be ignored. Notwithstanding the diplomatic ‘refrain’ as a natural occurrence between two major democracies, the dissonance cannot be slighted, particularly in the light of the emerging regional security environment. Also, the discord may not lie in Indian’s longstanding foreign policy tenet of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ (or ‘Non-Alignment 2.0’), as is usually touted. As with other facets of the bilateral relationship, the occasional discord mostly manifests at the functional level. In context of India-US military strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, the aberrations at this level could be addressed by bridging national policymaking with strategy formulation of the military forces.
Given America’s ‘overstretched’ maritime-military resources and its increasing contribution to capability and capacity in the Indian Navy over the years, a US expectation for India to provide for regional security and stability in the maritime-centric Indo-Pacific region is not misplaced. At the operational level too, the US expectation for India to convert ‘joint’ naval exercises into ‘coordinated’ operations may be justifiable. However, it seems that India’s broader strategic imperatives in terms of the three key facets of Geographical Area, Capacity and Capability, and Cultural Ethos are not in consonance with such expectations, at least not yet.
Captain (IN) Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD is Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[viii] PM’s speech at the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the Indian National Defence University at Gurgaon, Press Information Bureau, Government of India (Prime Minister’s Office), 23 May 2013, at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/mbErel.aspx?relid=96146
[xiii] The ‘capacity’ of a military force refers to its wherewithal in the limited context of its hardware. ‘Capability’ refers to the ability of the force in a more comprehensive sense encompassing not only its physical capacity, but also the conceptual and human components. For details, see Gurpreet S Khurana. Porthole: Geopolitical, Strategic and Maritime Terms and Concepts (Pentagon, New Delhi: 2016), pp.30-31
[xiv] Net Security Provider: India’s Out-of-Area Contingency Operations (IDSA/ Magnum Books, October 2012), p.53
The following article is the first in CIMSEC’s first regular column: The Red Queen’s Navy. Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the influence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. The column will also identify relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”- The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lexi’s Carroll.
By Vidya Sagar Reddy
During his recent visit to the Philippines, the United States Secretary of Defense promised delivery of a variety of sensors and communications equipment worth $42 million to the host nation. One of the critical sensors in this suite is an observation blimp that can peer across the South China Sea (SCS), providing maritime domain awareness to the Philippines.
The Philippines is one of several claimants to sovereign rights over few SCS islands; they are faced with a coercive China claiming such rights over 80 percent of the sea. China has forcefully seized control of maritime features in the SCS from both Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition, the PRC has started land reclamation projects and built artificial islands. Radars and missile batteries have been installed on some of the features, and military planes operate and land there routinely.
In 2012, China overwhelmed Philippine forces in a two month long conflict, resulting in China’s defacto control of Scarborough Shoal, located barely 140 miles off Manila. The Philippines filed a case against China before the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, challenging 15 claims from China’s so-called nine-dash line to Scarborough Shoal. The tribunal is likely to find China’s activities around the Shoal illegal.
In spite of this, China has refuted the authority of the arbitration tribunal to rule on these claims. It is reported that China is now considering construction of outposts on Scarborough Shoal. Military installations on this Shoal would allow China to control the Luzon Strait, a gateway to the Pacific and tremendously busy trade artery, therefore further consolidating its control over the SCS. The proximity of the Shoal to Manila would also allow China to monitor military installations and maneuvers on the Philippine islands, of particular interest as the US visiting forces begin to deploy.
The primary concern is the expansion of China’s coast guard and maritime militias around the Shoal to erode the Philippine legal rights like fishing, maritime trade, and exploitation of natural resources in these waters. Establishing new facts on the ground will defeat Philippines’ legal standing. Continuous monitoring of China’s actions is required for validating these assumptions and in order to respond proactively to new security threats.
A network of sensors established in and over the SCS would enable monitoring of land reclamation activities, build up of military assets on the islands, transits of coast guard and maritime militia units, oil exploration rigs, and any other object that can potentially fly or sail as China has become innovative in asserting its claims. The communications equipment offered to the Philippines will enable secure transmission of data from these sensors for faster and more transparent decision-making.
One of the critical sensor nodes in this suite is an observation blimp that can peer across the SCS using onboard radar. Theblimp is a powered, gas filled lighter-that-the-air airship. It does not have a rigid structure like that of a balloon, but can instead be steered while floating in the air. Hindenburg is a famous example of these airships, which had a rigid structure.
Historically, airships have been used for both commercial and military activities, including ferrying passengers across the Atlantic, the American Civil War, bombing raids during World War I, polar exploration, advertisement campaigns, etc. The US Navy developed the airships USS Akron and USS Macon for ocean surveillance with the ability to launch and recover aircraft, dubbed flying aircraft carriers. Most of these airships crashed, but public interest truly faded with the Hindenburg disaster. The simultaneous advent of airplanes ferrying passengers far more efficiently across the oceans sealed their fate completely.
The potential of airships to provide constant mass area surveillance renewed military interest in them. Airships were useful to coalition forces in Afghanistan, forces along the US-Mexico border, and by Israel over Gaza, just to name a few.
The US Army initiated a $2.8 billion project called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) that uses a blimp-duo hovering about 10,000 feet and covering an area the size of Texas. One blimp is capable of providing high resolution 360 degree radar coverage while the other is used for focusing on specific targets including fixed or rotary-wing aircraft, cruise missiles, unmanned air vehicles, tactical ballistic missiles etc. JLENS is designed to connect to the nation’s air defense networks for faster response to incoming threats.
Last October, one of the prototype JLENS blimps broke loose from the mooring station. Without the steering controls in place, the blimp dragged part of its tether across Pennsylvania causing power outages and damages to private property. Two F-16s were scrambled to monitor the movement of the blimp until it deflated and crashed into the trees.
Already looked upon unfavorably for cost overruns, the US Congress awarded a mere $2.5 million instead of the $45 million sought by the Pentagon, a measure supposedly aimed at killing the program.
Although details are yet to emerge regarding the size and observational scope of the blimp promised to the Philippines, this set of incidents and accidents points to knowledge gaps about the inherent risks of airships that contain highly inflammable gases and are prone to various atmospheric phenomena. Given this tenuous history of blimps, a loose one free floating over the SCS would invite further aggression from the PRC. It is in the interest of all parties to avoid such a situation. How can the US prove the blimp platform has been rigorously tested, despite Congress having killed the program? This is a critical question for the Philippines. It may be wiser to avoid creating, even accidentally, another tense situation in an already contested environment. Therefore the Philippines should explore additional options to improve its maritime domain awareness and security. Such options include acquiring patrol boats and light aircraft that can not only provide the Philippines maritime domain awareness, but also enhance the security of its territory and possessions.
Vidya Sagar Reddy is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
Featured Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Air and Marine, Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) Deming New Mexico. Photographer: Donna Burton