Tag Archives: South China Sea

Thinking About Prevention, Pt. 1

 

How to keep the missiles in their tubes?

The panel debate last month at the Center for Naval Policy on U.S. strategy in the Asia Pacific helped start a discussion on potential strategies and the tools each would require. I served up my initial thoughts here.

As I noted, one of the difficulties in balancing the ends, ways, and means in any strategy designed to win an armed conflict is that the tools to win are not necessarily those that can help prevent the conflict from erupting in the first place, or to keep a conflict from escalating.

MAD or MEOW

As many have remarked, neither the U.S. nor China would benefit from a protracted conflict between the two powerhouses. The 50-year stand-off between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that preceded it had its own cold logic of prevention derived from the balance of nuclear first- and second-strike capabilities. MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction as the calculus was known, did two things. First, it helped prevent direct conflict between the two belligerents, knowing that unchecked escalation could lead to a war of unlimited aims and means, and ultimately mutual destruction. For this reason both sides took great pains to disguise active participation of their combatants in hostilities against the other, such as Russians in the Korean War. Second, if direct violence ever did flare between the two, MAD was there to act as a check to prevent it from becoming a war of unlimited means – to keep the conflict “conventional.”  

In many ways a similar check acts to keep sabre-rattling from becoming sabre-thrusting due to the intertwined interests of the U.S. and China. In this arrangement, the devastation swiftly wrought by a conflict would be economic, and the blast-radius global. So, in an effort to coin a term that I’m sure will become widely used, I give you Mutual Economic Obliteration – Worldwide, or MEOW.

Yet an oft-repeated fact is that the unprecedented levels of economic interdependence in Europe prior to World War I could not prevent that war’s outbreak. So it is today. Economics and rationality maximizing polices of nations can certainly help, but can not alone prevent a conflict in the event of a range of scenarios driven by nationalist passions, the self-interests of individuals, or just plain accident.  

An Ounce of Prevention

So how can the U.S. aid prevention in these cases? Nothing can completely eliminate the possibility of armed conflict, thus even the most pacifist of prudent nations retain militaries and self-defense forces, but there are steps available beyond economic co-dependence. These can be categorized as those steps taken to sow respect (often involving means useful in the event prevention fails) and those taken to enhance familiarity. I will explore some of the options available in the next post, but by no means have all of the answers. In an environment of fiscal restraint and a time of hard budgeting choices we can’t lose focus on the importance of trying to prevent conflicts as much as we prepare to win them. Financial resources, time, and creative energies are needed for both equally important endeavors.

Parallel Rocks

Civilian authorities spot a foreign fishing vessel trawling their nation’s territorial waters. The authorities move to intercept but are held at bay by the offending vessel’s government escorts. The scene: Gibraltar. The actors: The U.K. and Spain.

As readers of this blog know, stand-offs over fishing rights and territorial disputes have made a lot of news of late when they occur between China and its Asian neighbors. But they don’t happen solely in the Pacific.

The long-running territorial dispute between Spain and the U.K. over the famous gateway to the Mediterranean has grabbed headlines locally in recent weeks as Spanish trawlers have twice fished in Gibraltar’s territorial waters while Spanish Civil Guardia vessels escorted the vessels.

According to the BBC, in the latest incident four police vessels and a British Royal Navy patrol boat intercepted a single trawler but did not attempt to board the vessel as it was shadowed by two Civil Guardia vessels. Spokesman for the Royal Gibraltar Police, Richard Ullger, said “we avoid active enforcement because it could provoke an incident.” Yet the captain of the Spanish trawler, Francisco Gomez, highlighted the tenseness of the confrontation claiming the vessels were so close that some of the hulls scraped each other. After 6 hours the vessel left. The Royal Gibraltar Police will issue a court summons for the crew, but it is not expected that they will appear in court.

In light of the incident a Member of the European Parliament for Gibraltar, Julie Girling warned, “What we don’t want in Gibraltar is a situation like the Falklands: there seem to be disturbing parallels in attempts to damage the livelihoods of Gibraltar’s fishermen.”

These are not The Rocks you’re looking for

Girling was of course referring to the current situation in the Falkland’s, not the situation preceding the 1982 war. Yet a comparison between Gibraltar, the Falklands (then and now), and the South China Sea yields interesting insights.

In all three locales, resources contained therein play a role in pushing confrontation. In the South China Sea, rich fishing banks and oil exploration are primary causes for the scramble for territory. In Gibraltar, resources are not really the prize (besides for the local small-scale fishing operations) – the fishing expeditions merely provide a convenient means for pushing the larger territorial claim. Resources didn’t play much part sparking the Falklands War, but today many believe the resurgence of Argentine clamor for the islands is due to the potential oil reserves and fishing that invigorated the islands since the war. Today, the U.K. claims harassment of its own boats in Falklands water by Argentine coast guard vessels.

With regards to both the Chinese and Spanish fishing vessels, one of the more interesting questions is whether it is fishermen or government officials who are the driving force for journeys into contested waters. Are the maritime officials simply assisting their citizens in pursuit of excellent fishing grounds, or are they providing safety to vessels recruited and sent forward in calculated moves? How high in the government do such sensitive expeditions need approval?

The strategic value of these bits of territory also plays a role in their attraction. Gibraltar, dominating the chokepoint between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, also oversees much traffic that heads through the Suez Canal. Islands in the South China Sea sit astride trade routes vital for many economies, and can serve as forward operating bases or logistics and communications relays. The only exception is the Falklands, despite one Argentine paper’s claim at the time of the war that the islands were “strategically important because they were on a direct maritime route to India.”

Another Rock with a contested past

One of the most important distinctions between the South China Sea and the other two instances is that of self-determination. On the issue of sovereign control of territory, international law, international institutions, and disinterested intentional sentiment routinely come down on the side of the principle of self-determination. In Gibraltar the locals have voted in referendums for continued British rule (by 98.9% in 2002). The British meanwhile say they are open to a UN-sponsored referendum in the Falklands, where a similar result is likely, and tellingly it’s an offer the Argentines ignore. This makes it hard for Argentina or Spain to rally legal or global public opinion to their side. The difference for the South China Sea islands is that by and large there are no locals. Most of the bits of territory are tiny non self-sustainable pieces of rock or submerged reef, making resolution harder.

Of these points of conflict, the only that so far turned into a shooting war in modern times was the Falklands. In that case the dictatorship generated a nationalist distraction from a plummeting economy. As smarter people than me have said, this is one good reason no one should wish for the Chinese economy to slow precipitously. While Spain and Argentina today are in their own economic messes, both have the safety valve and check on their actions of democracy.

The good news is that the most common denominator in all of these cases is at least lip service towards peaceful resolution. Despite the nationalist push for the Falklands, President Cristina Kirchner has stated she will obtain the islands only through peaceful means. Foreign ministers of Spain and Britain met Tuesday and urged a peaceful resolution to the fishing issue. In Cambodia the defense secretaries of China and Philippines did the same on the same day.

One final thought. All of this shows the importance of coastal patrol forces, including those administered by civilian agencies, and that they can be used for either defensive or offensive strategic-level maneuvers. Interesting then to see that the Chinese ship construction buildup is not in naval forces alone – the Chinese Maritime Surveillance agency will commission 36 cutters in the next 3 years. (h/t CGblog)

Resource Rush

Two quick videos from Al-Jazeera English (which this week was kicked out of China) portraying two of the most important motivators in the scramble for territory in the South China Sea, oil and food. In the first, China is demonstrating increased deep-sea drilling know-how, which may mean a near-to-medium-term increase in unilateral oil exploration and drilling in contested waters.

The second video shows the impact of the stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal on Filipino fishing villages in the area.

Of Rocks and Reefs

Taking a break from our series on 3D printing’s potential impact on the world’s fleets, I thought today a graphic would be in order.

China’s claims continued on page 2.

The South China Sea is and will be in the news for the foreseeable future. However, if you’re a visual person like me it’s hard to keep straight the Paracels from the Spratleys without a good visual guide. Luckily The Economist developed a nice graphic complete with the various maritime neighbors’ layer cake of competing territorial claims.

The at-times silliness of these claims is brought home when you see that most of the exclusive economic zone (out to 200nm) of Brunei on the island of Borneo is claimed by China (Malaysia’s claim should not overlap Brunei’s as they resolved their maritime border dispute in 2009 and further clarified it the next year).

So keep this in your pocket (or perhaps more practically saved away on your desktop somewhere), it’ll likely come in handy in the future for following the news.

Graphic: The Economist