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South China Sea: U.S. Commences Freedom of Navigation Patrol; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0196/2015


Patrol-1 : 

QUESTION: As you know, the U.S. Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands (Subi and Mischief reefs) in the Spratly archipelago this morning. The move is said to be in a challenge by the US to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. We request your assessment of this development and what you think the likely reactions will be from both the US and China.

ANSWER: The US freedom of navigation (FON) patrols are too little too late. The US should have acted in 2014 when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands. US FON patrols will not prevent China from consolidating its infrastructure on its artificial islands. In the fullness of time China will militarize these artificial islands when it suits its purposes. China will not confront the US directly with PLAN warships. China will wage information and legal campaigns to try and dissuade the US from continuing the patrols, these campaigns will be aimed at regional states with the aim of stirring up anxieties that the US is destabilising the region. The United States should alter its declaratory policy of not taking sides in territorial disputes. The United States should come out firmly in defense of the status quo and oppose unilateral actions that have strategic affects. The US should join with the Philippines to ensure that Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoals. US Marines should join their Filipino counterparts at Second Thomas Shoal claimed by the Philippines but invested by Chinese paramilitary ships. The US and the Philippines then should conduct joint resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, beached at the shoal. In other words the US should adopt cost imposition strategies to restore the status quo and to confront any Chinese unilateral attempt to alter the status quo.

Patrol – 2: 

Very interesting development happened today. CNN reported that the U.S. Navy plans to send a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea within the next 24 hours. This was confirmed by a U.S. defense official. We request your assessment of this development.

ANSWER: China has already begun to respond to the freedom of navigation patrols by the USS Lassen. China’s foreign ministry will continue to make verbal protests that US actions are upsetting peace and security in the region. This is typical Chinese misdirection to take the eyes off its blatant violation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It is China that has complicated and escalated disputes in the South China Sea. Chinese propaganda will print outpourings denouncing the patrol and retired military commentators will huff and puff calling for a strong reaction. If China responds at sea it is unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army Navy will be directly involved. China may stage incidents involving its Coast Guard and fishing boats. But nothing China can do will alter US resolve to continue its freedom of navigation patrols. On the other hand, U.S. patrols will not change China consolidation of infrastructure on its artificial islands.

Patrol – 3: 

As you might have read in the news the US Navy will deploy the USS Lassen to conduct a patrol within 24 hours near Subi and Mischief reefs. We request your assessment of this development.

Q1. The US Navy chooses to deploy the USS Lassen to patrol near Chinese artificial islands. Some observers point out that the ship has experienced in interactions with Chinese Navy.Could you elaborate on the decision to deploy the USS Lassen destroyer?

ANSWER: At long last the United States has finally acted to assert freedom of navigation (FON) by deploying a major warship, the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer. The deployment of the USS Lassen is the first of many planned FON patrols. On this occasion the USS Lassen will sail within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief reefs to demonstrate that these are artificial islands, built on submerged features, and are not entitled to a maritime zone under international law.

Q2. According to Reuters, the USS Lassen will be accompanied by P-8A and even P-3 surveillance plane. How will the Chinese Navy respond? Will they try to prevent US ship from intruding near the artificial islands?

ANSWER: The People’s Liberation Army Navy is in no position to challenge seriously the USS Lassen. The deployment of P-8A aircraft is to give the USS Lassen and other US naval commanders, a real time picture of Chinese response efforts. China will make mainly verbal protests through its foreign ministry and by radio from the artificial islands. China might deploy Coast Guard or even fishing boats. But these vessels will be mainly for propaganda purposes.

Q3. USS Lassen will sail within 12 n.m. of Subi and Mischief, but it’s expected not to enter the 500-meter safety zone around them. Could you please explain more in detailed about this 500-meter zone?

ANSWER: Artificial features are entitled to a 500 meter safety zone if they have been declared in advance. But artificial islands are not entitled to international airspace. China uses vague expressions like “territorial waters” or “military safety zones” but it is unclear what it is actually claiming around Subi and Mischief reefs. These features fall within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and in international law fall within the sovereignty of the Philippines. But this is hypothetical sovereignty because China actually occupies the reefs.

Q4. The US ship will conduct patrol at Subi and Mischief artificial islands. In your assesment, why did the US pick these two reefs among seven features where China has carried out land reclamation?

ANSWER: Both features are at the northern end of the Spratlys and on the periphery of the island chain (not in the middle), near features currently occupied by the Philippines. These features are relatively “exposed.” This is just the beginning of US patrols, I ethe US can be expected to sail by other Chinese-occupied features as well as features occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Q5. The US move of deploying the US Lassen takes place weeks ahead of many high profile events in Asia-Pacific that President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to attend. How do you expect the Chinese to respond to the US action?

ANSWER: China’s response will be predictable. It will raise a hue and cry about the US making trouble out of nothing and negatively affecting peace and security in the region. China’s response will be like its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea, it will make propaganda statements but it will be unable to alter US actions. If China continues to protest this will ensure that the artificial islands will be the talking point at the East Asia Summit. China will be diplomatically isolated.

Patrol – 4: 

QUESTION: What is your assessment of China’s response to the U.S. sending a warship within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef? The response so far has been surprisingly muted. We are interested in your assessment of both the U.S. decision to dispatch the USS Lassen and China’s decision not to more aggressively respond to what it sees as a violation of its sovereignty.

ANSWER: The US freedom of navigation (FON) patrols are too little too late. The US should have acted in 2014 when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands. US FON patrols will not prevent China from consolidating its infrastructure on its artificial islands. In the fullness of time China will militarize these artificial islands when it suits its purposes. China will not confront the US directly with PLAN warships. China will wage information and legal warfare campaigns to try and dissuade the US from continuing the patrols, these campaigns will be aimed at regional states with the aim of stirring up anxieties that the US is destabilising the region. The United States should alter its declaratory policy of not taking sides in territorial disputes. The United States should come out firmly in defense of the status quo and oppose unilateral actions that have strategic affects. The US should join with the Philippines to ensure that Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoals. The US should patrol with Philippine warships to prevent interference by China. US Marines should join their Filipino counterparts at JSecond Thomas Shoalclaimed by the Philippines but invested by Chinese paramilitary ships. The US and the Philippines then should conduct joint resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, beached at the shoal where the Filipino Marines are stationed. In other words the US should adopt cost imposition strategies to restore the status quo and to confront any Chinese unilateral attempt to alter the status quo.

QUESTION: If the United States were to take the actions you recommend, what do you think would be China’s response? Do you think there is potential for actual military conflict if the US and other countries were to truly challenge China?

ANSWER: China does not have the wherewithal – naval warships and aircraft – to directly respond to the US if it became more assertive in supporting the Philippines. China boldly declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea but stepped back when the US conducted a B52 flight. China’s official position is that there is no threat so it doesn’t need to challenge. This was a back down. The two cases I suggested would exploit China’s weaknesses at present and put the onus on China to escalate or back down. China is not in a position to use the threat of force to deter the US Navy. The US needs to carefully tailor its response so that China cannot respond with military force. Nonetheless, challenging China at Scarborough Reef and Second Thomas Shoal will not alter China’s consolidation of its presence on its artificial islands. The US can only confine and hem in China but it can’t overturn China’s fait accompli. If the Arbitral Tribunal were to rule in favour of the Philippines, the US could use this legal basis for more assertive action. The US needs more than the support of the Philippines, it needs but won’t get ASEAN endorsement. Japan might join the US but Australia has distanced itself – Canberra supports freedom of navigation but has backed away from joint patrols with the US at the present time. In the larger scheme of things, China is promoting a “new model of major country relations” to convince the US that cooperation on global issues is more important than “a few rocks” in the South China Sea. The bottom line is that the US is playing catch up.

Patrol – 5: 

QUESTION: The US Navy has sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief reefs. Can you give us an assessment on this newest development ? The move of the US is still cautious, is’nt it ? What are the likely Chinese reactions in the next few days?

ANSWER: The US freedom of navigation (FON) patrols are too little too late. The US should have acted in 2014 when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands. Nonetheless, the US FON patrols are necessary to challenge China’s claim of maritime jurisdiction from its artificial islands. Failure to challenge China is tantamount to acquiescing to China’s so-called legal claims. US FON patrols will not prevent China from consolidating its infrastructure on its artificial islands. In the fullness of time China will militarize these artificial islands when it suits its purposes. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy warships will not confront the US directly. China will wage information and legal warfare campaigns to try and dissuade the US from continuing the patrols, these campaign will be aimed at regional states with the aim of stirring up anxieties that the US is destabilising the region. The United States should alter its declaratory policy of not taking sides in territorial disputes. The United States should come out firmly in defense of the status quo and oppose unilateral actions that have strategic affects. The US should join with the Philippines to ensure that Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoals. US Marines should join their Filipino counterparts at Second Thomas Shoal claimed by the Philippines but invested by Chinese paramilitary ships. The US and the Philippines then should conduct joint resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, beached at the shoal. In other words the US should adopt cost imposition strategies to restore the status quo and to confront any Chinese unilateral attempt to alter the status quo.

Patrol – 6: 

Q1. Why do you think the US chose Subi (and perhaps Mischief) reefs for its most recent freedom of navigation patrol?

ANSWER: Subi is a low tide elevation and clearly anything built on it cannot claim any maritime zone such as a territorial sea. Since Subi is contested it is doubtful that it can command a 500 metre safety zone. Subi has no claim to airspace under international law. Subi is at the northern end of and on the periphery of the Spratly islands in relative uncongested maritime space. The US, however, has given no explanation why Subi was chosen for the first freedom of navigation patrols in three years.

Q2. What do you think the USS Lassen actually did — just passed through, or conducted military operations/exercises to show it was in international waters and not innocent passage?

ANSWER: The Pentagon has been tight lipped on what the USS Lassen did. I suspect it merely sailed through with all its sensors alert to any possible threat. Innocent passage is not an issue as an artificial island built on a low tide elevation is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.

Q3. How do you think China will respond in the short and longer term?

ANSWER: China’ response is already a matter of public record. Its foreign ministry has huffed and puffed about the putative violation of China’s sovereignty and the provocative nature of the USS Lassen’s activities. China might stage a confrontation for propaganda purposes but this would be a symbolic show of “defense of sovereignty” rather than a real attempt to interfere with the USS Lassen. In the longer term China and the US will settle down to choreographed patrols and protests. Recall China’s Air Defense Identification Zone, after China’s diplomatic huff and puff things have settled down.

Q4. What happens next? More U.S. patrols? Joint ones with allies? Or a one-off?

ANSWER: The US will conduct continued Freedom of Navigation patrols through the Spratlys into the maritime zones putatively claimed by China. At the moment it is clear Australia will not directly participate in joint patrols with the United States.

Q5. Do you think the U.S. will/should conduct similar patrols near other claimants’ features in the Spratlys?

ANSWER: Yes, the US should assert freedom of navigation where ever it thinks regional states are claiming a maritime zone beyond what international law allows. Neither Vietnam nor the Philippines has made clear what their maritime zones are and they too could be targets for freedom of navigation (FON) patrols in the future.

Q6: One quick follow-up. What do you make of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt’s presence in Singapore at the same time (it’s leaving tomorrow)? Do you think it could be heading for the South China Sea next, and was it likely brought into the area just in case things escalated rapidly (or maybe it was coming anyway and they waited until its arrival to conduct the FON patrol)?

ANSWER: The US would not have planned the USS Lassen deployment without contingencies related to the level of Chinese response. The P8 would certainly provide real time maritime domain awareness. If the Chinese mobilised ships and/or aircraft to respond then the USS Roosevelt would have set to sea. China’s air force would be operating at extended ranges. Like China’s ADIZ, China cannot enforce a “no go” area – by sea or land – in the South China Sea at present. The USS Lassen is a guided missile destroyer more powerful than any Chinese surface ship in the area. The USS Roosevelt exercises maritime control. China is unlikely to use its PLAN to interfere with the USS Lassen, the presence of the USS Roosevelt makes it more unlikely. The US Lassen puts the onus on China ”to put up or shut up”.

Patrol – 7: 

The U.S Navy is sending the USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, China’s man-made island, we request your assessment of the following issues:

Q1- What you think are the real US reasons for these patrols?

ANSWER: The real reason for the patrol by the USS LASSEN is to challenge any Chinese claim to sovereign rights from artificial islands and airspace in the South China Sea. Artificial islands are not entitled to a territorial sea or airspace.

Q2- What does it mean for the South China Sea dispute?

ANSWER: US naval patrols will alter nothing. China will continue to consolidate its presence on the artificial islands. The US patrols will come and go and China will continue to make routine protests. There is a risk of confrontation at sea but both sides will work hard to prevent this. The real audience is Southeast Asian nations. They will not want to take sides.

Q3 – At the same time as the U.S is conducting naval patrols to challenge Beijing’s maritme claims in the South China Sea, Japan’s Ministry of Finance is seeking to cut host-nation support for the U.S military in Japan. Is this an indication that Japan will not support the U.S. in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: Japan has a strong interest in freedom of navigation. This is a separate issue from host nation support for the US military presence in Japan. Japan is more likely to support the US and perhaps conduct coordinated patrols in the South China Sea than Australia.

Q4 – China is using its Coast Guard’s patrol boats to assert its claims to South China Sea. According to a report by Bloomberg, the China Coast Guard vessels do not have deck guns. This makes is difficult for U.S. naval warships to challenge the China Coast Guard.

ANSWER: No China Coast Guard vessel is likely to challenge directly a US Naval guided missile destroyer. The China Coast Guard vessel could be employed in a stage-managed confrontation for propaganda purposes to show the US warship engaging a Chinese civilian ship. Some China Coast Guard ships are armed but neither they or People’s Liberation Army Navy warships will confront directly US naval warships.

Q5. What do you think about US freedom of navigation patrols?

ANSWER: The US freedom of navigation (FON) patrols are too little too late. The USA should have acted in 2014 when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands. US FON patrols will not prevent China from consolidating its infrastructure on its artificial islands. In the fullness of time China will militarize these artificial islands when it suits its purposes. China will not confront the US directly with PLAN warships. China will wage information and legal warfare campaigns to try and dissuade the US from continuing the patrols, these campaigns will be aimed at regional states with the aim of stirring up anxieties that the US is destabilising the region. The United States should alter its declaratory policy of not taking sides in territorial disputes. The United States should come out firmly in defense of the status quo and oppose unilateral actions that have strategic affects. The US should join with the Philippines to ensure that Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoals. US Marines should join their Filipino counterparts at Second Thomas Shoal claimed by the Philippines but invested by Chinese paramilitary ships. The US and the Philippines then should conduct joint resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, beached at the shoal. In other words, the US should adopt cost imposition strategies to restore the status quo and to confront any Chinese unilateral attempt to alter the status quo.

ADDITIONAL COMMENT:

The US freedom of navigation (FON) patrols are too little too late. The USA should have acted in 2014 when it was clear China was embarking on a major effort to create artificial islands. US FON patrols will not prevent China from consolidating its infrastructure on its artificial islands. In the fullness of time China will militarize these  artificial islands when it suits its purposes. China will not confront the US directly with PLAN warships. China will wage information and legal warfare campaigns to try and dissuade the US from continuing the patrols, these campaign will be aimed at regional states with the aim of stirring up anxieties that the US is destabilising the region.The United States should alter its declaratory policy of not taking sides in territorial disputes. The United States should come out firmly in defense of the status quo and oppose unilateral actions that have strategic affects. The US should join with the Philippines to ensure that Filipino fishermen can return to Scarborough Shoals. US Marines should join their Filipino counterparts at Second Thomas Shoal claimed by the Philippines but invested by Chinese paramilitary ships. The US and the Philippines then should conduct joint resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, beached at the shoal. In other words the US should adopt cost imposition strategies to restore the status quo and to confront any Chinese unilateral attempt to alter the status quo.

(Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and Director of Thayer Consultancy registered in Australia. email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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