Archive for the 'Soft Power' Category
Question: What do you get when you combine ballistic missile defense technology imported from Moorestown, New Jersey, with a former Soviet-Bloc Air Base in Deveselu, Romania?
Answer: The beginning of the next phase of a 135-year bilateral relationship with Romania and a brand new Aegis Ashore site designed to provide for the ballistic missile defense of NATO Allies in Europe.
Deveselu is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach and the newest responsibility of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet. The drive southeast of Craiova, Romania takes you through what has rightly been called Europe’s breadbasket. At harvest time, the crops are piled up in sheaves. Bucolic fields stretch like waves as far as the eye can see. Then a gray mass looms on the horizon, and you do a double-take at what appears to be an actual ship steaming on the horizon, its hull obscured by a sea of green. What you are looking at is the profile of the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System usually associated with the Aegis DDG but now firmly planted in Romanian soil, a concrete example of our commitment to collective defense in Europe.
Aegis Ashore is essentially the Aegis Weapon System built on land instead of on a U.S. Navy destroyer at sea. A major difference between the ship-based and shore-based systems is space. Hull space, size, weight, balance, and ballast are not limiting factors when installing equipment on a concrete pad in a warehouse that is quite literally in the middle of an old Warsaw Pact airbase.
This odd shaped deckhouse building is filled with the latest technologically and highlights the adaptive part of European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The deckhouse was originally built in Moorestown, New Jersey, then packed into 156 forty-foot containers and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The pre-fabricated pieces meant that assembly of the 900 tons of steel occurred faster than it normally would when building a U.S. Navy warship.
On December 18, 2015, my good friend and one of the finest engineers in the world, VADM Jim Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency formally reached the Technical Capability Declaration (TCD) milestone and handed the “keys” to Aegis Ashore over to the Navy. Sailors will now be the ones operating the equipment and testing the systems, instead of contractors. Sailors will train and conduct exercises until they and the systems are fully certified, similar to conducting “sea trails” with a new ship.
Aegis Ashore-Romania has one extremely important mission: ballistic missile defense of the population and infrastructure of U.S. and NATO allies. We hope that we will never need to fire a missile from Deveselu because that would imply a ballistic missile from Iran had been launched against a target in Europe. That said, the US military and our NATO allies must always be prepared to conduct this sort of mission precisely because we hope we never need to execute them. Capabilities, equipment, and training give credence to the words of diplomacy. Aegis Ashore is a major component of EPAA, which is the U.S. national contribution to NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and the collective defense of Europe.
The singularity of purpose of Aegis Ashore means that it must always be ready. The designed redundancy is robust, taking advantage of the large space to add more backup equipment. The technology is impressive, but like anything in the U.S. Navy, Sailors are the true heart of the mission. The Sailors who live and work in Deveselu are pioneers in the purest form. They are simultaneously standing up the first Aegis weapons system at a new base–Naval Support Facility Deveselu–and training to operationalize this system into EPAA and the NATO Alliance. And they are doing an impressive job!!!
There has been a dramatic amount of progress made in the support facilities as well as the Aegis Ashore system since my last visit to Deveselu in February 2015. This month, Sailors are moving from CLUs (Containerized Living Units, pronounced “clues”) into new two-person barracks rooms that are comfortable but austere. Three of the nine rotational Aegis Ashore crews will be in Deveselu at any given time for six-month deployments.
The Sailors I met serving in Deveselu are extremely competent and highly motivated. I am confident that the perseverance they showed during the construction phase will continue as we move into the operational phase. I am proud of these Sailors, and appreciate all that they do on a daily basis to protect the United States and our allies. Think about them over the Christmas holidays. They are unaccompanied, away from family and friends, and keeping us safe. They have the watch…
The USA can’t do it all in WESTPAC, and we shouldn’t do it all. When it comes to regional security, the USA does have comparative advantage compared to some of our friends and allies, specifically economic power, and technology.
They have comparative advantages in geographic location and manpower. If we can combine our advantages in to the right package, there is more then enough there to give China pause in her expansionist ambitions.
Over at The National Interest, Jerry Hendrix is thinking about this and thinking right;
There is a Goliath menacing the western Pacific. China’s construction of three huge artificial islands with obvious military capacity in the South China Sea has already destabilized the security equilibrium in the region. Given the rising tensions and outright challenges to the established international security order in the western Pacific, it is time for the United States to align its Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program with its Pivot to Asia initiative, in order to strengthen the region’s Davids.
Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Singapore have been increasingly united in their resistance towards Chinese aggression, but their unity, though powerful symbolically and legally compelling, can go only so far in the face of China’s rapidly expanding military capacity and capabilities. They will need new platforms adept at complicating China’s territorial designs and integrating with allies, partners and neighbors.
Jerry covers the math well further in the article, but when reading it, I kept coming back to the title, If China’s Goliath Threatens Asia, Then Arm David.
So David, in that story, is supposed to be the underdog, right? In fact, that term, David and Goliath, has entered our language as a metaphor for improbable victories by some weak party over someone far stronger. Now why do we call David an underdog? Well, we call him an underdog because he’s a kid, a little kid, and Goliath is this big, strong giant. We also call him an underdog because Goliath is an experienced warrior, and David is just a shepherd. But most importantly, we call him an underdog because all he has is — it’s that Goliath is outfitted with all of this modern weaponry, this glittering coat of armor and a sword and a javelin and a spear, and all David has is this sling.
Well, let’s start there with the phrase “All David has is this sling,” because that’s the first mistake that we make. In ancient warfare, there are three kinds of warriors. There’s cavalry, men on horseback and with chariots. There’s heavy infantry, which are foot soldiers, armed foot soldiers with swords and shields and some kind of armor. And there’s artillery, and artillery are archers, but, more importantly, slingers. And a slinger is someone who has a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it, and they put a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball, inside the pouch, and they whirl it around like this and they let one of the cords go, and the effect is to send the projectile forward towards its target. That’s what David has, and it’s important to understand that that sling is not a slingshot. It’s not this, right? It’s not a child’s toy. It’s in fact an incredibly devastating weapon. When David rolls it around like this, he’s turning the sling around probably at six or seven revolutions per second, and that means that when the rock is released, it’s going forward really fast, probably 35 meters per second. That’s substantially faster than a baseball thrown by even the finest of baseball pitchers. More than that, the stones in the Valley of Elah were not normal rocks. They were barium sulphate, which are rocks twice the density of normal stones. If you do the calculations on the ballistics, on the stopping power of the rock fired from David’s sling, it’s roughly equal to the stopping power of a [.45 caliber] handgun. This is an incredibly devastating weapon. Accuracy, we know from historical records that slingers — experienced slingers could hit and maim or even kill a target at distances of up to 200 yards. From medieval tapestries, we know that slingers were capable of hitting birds in flight. They were incredibly accurate. When David lines up — and he’s not 200 yards away from Goliath, he’s quite close to Goliath — when he lines up and fires that thing at Goliath, he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes. If you go back over the history of ancient warfare, you will find time and time again that slingers were the decisive factor against infantry in one kind of battle or another.
So what’s Goliath? He’s heavy infantry, and his expectation when he challenges the Israelites to a duel is that he’s going to be fighting another heavy infantryman. When he says, “Come to me that I might feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,” the key phrase is “Come to me.” Come up to me because we’re going to fight, hand to hand, like this. Saul has the same expectation. David says, “I want to fight Goliath,” and Saul tries to give him his armor, because Saul is thinking, “Oh, when you say ‘fight Goliath,’ you mean ‘fight him in hand-to-hand combat,’ infantry on infantry.”
But David has absolutely no expectation. He’s not going to fight him that way.
So the Israelites up on the mountain ridge looking down on him thought he was this extraordinarily powerful foe. What they didn’t understand was that the very thing that was the source of his apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness.
And there is, I think, in that, a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem. And sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.
Let’s stick with this angle on David vs. Goliath.
If we want to help our Davids, how do we do that? By using each partner’s comparative advantage, and acknowledging critical vulnerabilities as well – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We should make sure we keep our Davids light, mobile, efficient and deadly. If we do that, who knows, perhaps we too can stand in the distance and watch them fight and win for themselves.
By Mark Tempest
Please join us on Sunday, 6 Dec 2015 at 5pm EST (US) for Midrats Episode 309: Law and the Long War:
In a decade and a half of fighting terrorism, the laws that define our actions overseas and at home have morphed as the threat and strategy for dealing with it has.
From fighting ISIS, operating with and in failed states, dealing with the expanding “refugee crisis,” to keeping the balance between security and safety – what has the legal shop been up to?
Our guest for the full hour is returning guest Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., Major General, USAF (Ret.), Professor of the Practice of Law, and Executive Director, Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.
General Dunlap’s teaching and scholarly writing focus on national security, international law, civil-military relations, cyberwar, airpower, counter-insurgency, military justice, and ethical issues related to the practice of national security law.
Join us live if you can (or pick the show up later) by clicking here.
You can also find the show later by visiting our iTunes page here.
By Bill Asdal
The citizens of our great country know little about the military, even less about what military members do, and scarcely are informed about the issues of the day. I did not serve in the military, but my kids do. All have served our country, whether in Teach for America or in the Navy. As I see it, most of my neighbors understand and appreciate service. Our volunteer fire companies are generally well manned. The Parent-Teacher Association and local service groups may have an ebb and flow, but they maintain a public presence, and my neighbors understand what they do. I don’t think that this awareness is so prevalent about contemporary military service. My neighbors’ understanding of training, deployment, geography, or mission might be generously described as “foggy”.
Being community minded (and an educator by trade), I propose a simple outreach program to alter the nation’s understanding of military service. To get us started, some math might help. There are 1.4 million in current service, and nearly 22 million veterans. We all have personal and community networks. These networks leverage from dozens to hundreds of contacts for each military person. If even a small percentage of those with military experience were to work their networks, the entire country could be exposed to this new information several times over. A local community will relish a short overview of veterans’ military perspectives. This overview might include a post-deployment discussion of what it means to be deployed, what you did, how important is it to get care packages, or what it means to trust your shipmates. I am not advocating lobbying or any persuasive posturing here, simply bridging the gap from those who have knowledge and experience to those who do not. The chasm is currently deep. It need not be. Like a mountaineer setting some pins for a safer traverse, are not we all better informed with enlightenment?
Against such a concept, I have asked our kids to share some of their thoughts with local audiences. Each time, they have graciously responded and prepared some thoughts for delivery and fielded questions. A local restaurant has donated their back room on a weeknight for the event, and I have made some postcards for hand delivery to the librarian, butcher, UPS deliveryman, teachers, neighbors, local government folks, and friends of all stripes. I buy a few trays for appetizers and leave the cash bar to the audience for drinks. The topics have been fascinating: “How the Navy prepares future leaders,” “Deployment 2013 – Who, What, Where, When and Why,” and “ The Rise of China’s Naval Power”. Every time, the question and answer periods have been wide-ranging and penetrating. Neighbors look at former school kids in a whole new light of respect, and the local business community gains confidence in our local citizens in service.
I have five daughters, four of whom have attended the Unites States Naval Academy. The fifth is a Duke grad who worked two years in Teach for America. LT Ashley O’Keefe is our eldest. Upon her return from her first deployment, she spoke to a gathering of more than 40 people about her experience on her destroyer. She made a map of the port stops, clarified her role on the ship, and talked about enlisted and officer roles. Her perspective was very helpful to the uninitiated and veterans in the audience alike. She also found it personally helpful to put her thoughts together in a logical sequence – to make sense of the major milestones and accomplishments that she had just achieved. LT Lindsey Asdal just returned from her second deployment, and will put together a similar program on her next trip home.
Sharing our insights to interested audiences can take many forms. Annie Asdal is a smart senior staffer for a regional real estate investment firm, and has spoken several times to a local hometown audience about return on investment, financial analysis, and investment models.
Finally, LTJG Kirsten Asdal recently reported to her first ship at Pearl Harbor. Before she reported, she completed a Masters’ in Contemporary China Studies, so she chose to mesmerize 50 or so attendees with a talk on “The Rise of China’s Naval Power”. She is well versed in the subject matter and her graphics and maps made sense to all in attendance. They were rapt with the implications of these global policies at work. Our youngest, MIDN 2/C Charlotte Asdal, is still a student at the US Naval Academy, yet she held the audience in crisp attention telling how the Navy trains future officers. She detailed leadership lessons, the mission of the Academy and how some of her many experiences shaped her ability to lead.
The French call these local discussion groups “salons” – they have existed for several hundred years. It would be my hope that a simple outline template could be circulated, perhaps by local public affairs offices, so that everyone in the military might utilize their existing community networks to chat about our military. The immediate benefits include keeping the community tight, a fun night in town with a strong speaker, and some national and international perspectives. Longer term benefits might include enhanced support for the military and a softening of the distance between military and civilian sectors. What topic would spark your community’s interest? I hope you can join us.
The gap we have is one that has been growing for over a half a decade as the war and those fighting it on the front lines have faded not just in numbers, but as part of what the citizens are talking about among themselves and what the sources they get their information from dedicate less time to covering.
This fade has a variety of sources. Part is the very real reduction in fighting forces on the ground. Part is a war weariness in some quarters of our nation. Some is that we have been at war for so long, it has simply become part of the background noise.
A large percentage of it, I would argue, is coming from a retreat from those in leadership willing to engage on the topic either by desire or by direction. It is well known that national security and defense issues are not President Obama’s preferred areas he wants to invest his time and political capital. His Secretary of Defense is a quiet yet effective technocrat. When you look to the Service Secretaries, take a moment to think what you have heard from them as of late.
Let’s start close to home and do a news.google search for Secretary of the Navy Mabus and limit it for what comes up in the last month.
- A Harvard Law lecture where he talked about his efforts to reduce DON carbon emissions and combat sexual abuse.
- A meeting with the Zambian President.
- Announced the first director of unmanned systems (OPNAV N99).
- Announced that feminist and founder of the Navy’s latest endorsed sociopolitical fad, “Lean In Circles.” as sponsor of our next submarine, USS MASSACHUSETTS (SSN-798).
If you are a seapower advocate, that should give you some pause when you wonder how we fight “sea blindness” and all that comes with it – not to mention the larger issue of keeping the American people informed and inspired.
As sense of disinterest at the top can, naturally if let to settle, filter down. There are multiple indicators that it is filtering down, and has been for awhile.
Via MilitaryTimes’ Hope Hodge Seck’s survey of last year;
“that the mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who studies the military. “For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].
Troops say morale has sharply declined over the last five years, and most of those in uniform today believe their quality of life will only get worse. Compared to 2009, more are unhappy with their pay and health care, and very few trust that senior leaders fully support them. A closer look at what’s driving this trend:”
That is the feeling of many who are serving now. No small part of this is hearing, and being told again and again – why they are doing what they are doing – and even more important, that their fellow citizens know. A lot of focus has been on retaining “our best” via new tools, but this general feeling of drift and fading presence may be impacting attracting “the best” to our service academies.
Of colleges with decreasing applications for enrollment, #14 is the Naval Academy, and #2 is the Air Force Academy. There are a complex reasons for both that are not helped by sustained internal efforts to tarnish their brand with constant public posturing on sexual abuse, social issues unrelated to the mission and even micro-aggressions and safe spaces. Regardless of the cause, these are two more data points along a trend.
We have all been in commands where the Commanding Officer, however good he is in one area or another, has some areas that he just isn’t that good in. Perhaps it isn’t an area of interest, natural skill, or simply an oversight. In such cases, what does the XO, CMC, and the rest of the command do? Ignore it? No. They compensate for it as best as they can. They reinforce their CO’s weak areas through their own efforts and carry out the plan of the day.
If you are not happy with your civilian neighbors’ and friends’ understanding of the national security situation; if you are not happy with the image the press and media culture gives of those who have served; if you are not happy with the lack of a military point of view in the public arena – then do something about it. Support your leaders getting more involved, and if they won’t then do it yourself.
We cannot complain of a civil military gap or a frustration with friends and neighbors who don’t know a bomber from a boomer, Syria from Sri Lanka, if we have not made the effort to do our part to fill the gap.
If you have a skill to write, there is a venue for all skill levels to engage – from the swamps we blogg’rs hang out in, to fruited plains of online journals, to the heights of publication on dead tree. If you are comfortable on the stage with a microphone in hand – there are organizations all around who are looking for speakers. If you are part of organizations from networking groups to hobby clubs, join their leadership team.
Think no one is talking about military related issues? Be that voice. Think that veterans are invisible to the general public? Slap your mini-warfare device on your lapel and be that presence.
If you refuse to be that voice, and refuse to move from the shadows – then accept where we are and where we are drifting, as you are not participating in civil society, you are subject to it.
Get involved. Write. Say “yes” to the invitation. Go on the talk show. Engage in the conversation. Support what is good and correct, oppose what is not.
No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.
“Hey 1980s! The second decade of the 21st century is on the POTS line, and they are wondering if they could make some copies of your stuff in the vault.”
As history shows, most times you don’t pick a war – a war picks you.
Of course, in a way, all wars are wars of choice. When faced with aggression, a people can always decide to surrender without a fight – or only after a token resistance. War is a test of national wills on many levels – big wars often result when one side misreads the national will of another.
In the 21st Century, could there possibly be a situation where we would, once again, have to fight our way across the Atlantic to support another entanglement in a European war? As 2016 arrives, are the odds of this greater or lesser than they were 1, 5, or 10 years ago?
Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold at WSJ have a little required reading for you. From their article, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, USAF put out this call that should have all navalists sit up and notice;
“For two decades we haven’t thought about the fact that we are going to have to fight our way across the Atlantic.”
Let’s pull that thread a bit. Don’t bother on how you get there, just start with waking up one day and getting the D&G that you need to ready a sustained opposed crossing of the Atlantic.
For those 45 and older, this should sound familiar.
NATO countries are discussing increasing the number of troops stationed in members bordering Russia and putting them under formal alliance command. The next talks on that idea are likely to come in early December, when foreign ministers gather and begin discussing proposals to be formalized at a Warsaw summit in July.
The Army currently has two brigades—of about 3,500 soldiers each—based in Europe. It has assigned one additional brigade in the U.S. to serve as a regionally aligned force that will rotate into and out of Europe. Gen. Milley said he would like to add more brigades to those rotating to Europe, and add attack helicopter units, engineering teams and artillery brigades.
Throughout the later years of the Cold War, the U.S. military conducted a massive exercise called Reforger, that practiced moving tens of thousands of troops from the U.S. to Europe quickly. While there is no need to revive the exercise on that same scale, a new kind of drill that echoed the old Reforger operation would be helpful, Gen. Milley said.
“Nobody wants to go back to the days of the Cold War,” Gen. Milley said. “We don’t need exercises as big as Reforger anymore. But the concept of Reforger, where you exercise contingency forces … that is exactly what we should be doing.”
Technology has changed, but geography has not. There are some constants from the 1st and 2nd Battles of the Atlantic in the first half of the 20th Century that still apply a century later. Some will repeat, some with rhyme. Some will surprisingly not be a repeat factor, some new factors will show up unexpectedly. There will also be new technologies that no one should talk about that will change the odds greatly in favor or one force or the other. There will also be new technologies that on one should talk about that one force or the other thinks will be “war winning” but once put in to operational use will be a complete dud.
Here are some things that have a high probability of being true in a 3rd Battle of the Atlantic if it happens in 2016 or 2026 or 2056.
– You do not have enough escorts. Those escorts you do have do not have enough ASW or AAW weapons.
– Those ASW and AAW weapons you are going to war with, in addition to not being adequate in number, there is a very good chance that one bit of that kit does not work and cannot kill anything. Hopefully you have a backup for the pointy end of the kill chain. If not, you are going to have a bad first year.
– Higher HQ is asking for too much information from deployed forces, and as a result, deployed forces are talking too much. As a result, the enemy has a better idea of your location than you think, and may have cracked your code.
– Your allied forces that on paper look good? Many of them aren’t what your N2/3 think. Some of them won’t even deploy. Some of those that do won’t engage the enemy to an effective degree.
– The threat from the air will be easier to counter than the threat under the water, though in the early stages, the threat from the air may be a larger concern than you planned.
– This is a game where “body counts” actually matter. If something is being sunk faster than it can be replaced, you need to change what you are doing.
– It will be seductive to think attacking bases will be a shortcut. It will help, but will not be a magic bullet.
– Finally, the war will go on much longer than you think. Though you may think that it is industrial capacity that is going to be your greatest challenge, it may actually be your ability to find competently trained personnel fast enough.
War, if it came, would be very much a come as you are event. We do not have a huge mothball fleet to reactivate. We do not have a huge Naval Reserve to recall. We do not have a diverse industrial capacity to quickly build up, nor, unlike the period right prior to WWII, do we have a few years headstart in new construction.
So, think about it. The geography is the same, technology and enemy different, but the mission is the same; a sustained, opposed crossing of the Atlantic.
This week, international news media has highlighted the transit of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer near one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. The media has been rife with speculation that this close encounter between the U.S. Navy and China was meant to provoke the Chinese military, and that it could represent a new level of cold-war style standoffs between the two countries. With respect to this event and recent others like it in the South and East China Seas, the United States has long maintained that it notifies China and the rest of the world in advance about maritime patrols like this, and that the U.S. Navy is violating no international laws or United Nations-recognized maritime boundaries.
Whether you’ve been following the events in the South China Sea over the last few decades (and the last few years in particular), or living under a rock, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the world’s two superpowers are going to have disagreements from time to time on things like foreign policy and sovereignty issues in this region. Offshore foreign naval activity, political castigation and tit-for-tat attempts to influence public opinion were hallmarks of the cold war, and that practice has not changed much in the current climate between the United States and China, just as it hasn’t between the United States and Russia.
The “status quo” surveillance and interception activity between China and the United States is not new. More recently, in April 2001, a U.S. Navy P-3E turboprop aircraft collided with a Chinese Air Force J-8 in the South China Sea, in what was later to be known as the “Hainan Island Incident”. In March 2009, there were repeated contacts between the USNS Impeccable and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea. In 2013, China unilaterally imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, requiring all foreign civilian and military aircraft to identify themselves with Chinese authorities in advance despite not flying over the mainland or traditional Chinese airspace. The United States military promptly ignored this and intentionally flew military aircraft through the new ADIZ to demonstrate that it was not bound by unilateral airspace restrictions over international waters.
In 2014, China attended the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise for the first time, and sent an additional uninvited surveillance ship to spy on the exercise. The U.S. Navy has been flying maritime surveillance patrols over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea for some time now, and even occasionally invites news media to tag along on patrols. Just last month, China sailed a naval flotilla into the Bering Sea off the U.S. state of Alaska during a visit by President Barack Obama. A few weeks later, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of a man-made Chinese island at Subi Reef in the South China Sea.
Nothing about any of these instances is particularly unusual or surprising given the long history of mutual surveillance between superpowers, which is almost always conducted in a professional and predictable manner. However, in all of these instances, the tit-for-tat relationship between Chinese and U.S. military surveillance activity has been great headline news for media outlets, and it has encouraged fear, paranoia and speculation. While some consider the recent events in the South China Sea and China’s more aggressive naval activity to be an escalating conflagration, most have questioned whether the last few years have represented anything more than the status quo that has existed between world superpowers for the last seven decades.
At the moment, the answer lies somewhere in between business as usual and escalation. While maritime surveillance and aerial observation flights by all sides are normal and to be expected, there have been some developments over the last few years that have indicated an increased focus in the Asia-Pacific region and a flirtation with escalating tension in the region. It goes without saying that tensions in the South China Sea have been building for some time now between China and its neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which claim the Spratly Islands. The United States does not claim the islands or reefs in this disputed area, but it has a shared interest in ensuring that the region remains open to free vessel transit and that it is not dominated by one regional power given that the multiple overlapping claims by neighboring countries could lead to a war.
In addition to being in the middle of international shipping routes, the South China Sea has significant natural resources, including fisheries and oil/natural gas deposits. Most of the natural islands in the region, including the Spratly Islands, are far from the southern part of mainland China and lie closer to the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. However, over the last few years, China has aggressively increased its activity in the region in an apparent attempt to lay claim to these resources. The Chinese PLAN, Coast Guard and civilian fishing fleet have been involved in regular standoffs and minor skirmishes with regional neighbors. The Chinese government has begun to occupy previously uninhabited reefs in the region and has essentially terraformed them into artificial islands capable of sustaining military airstrips and bases, claiming that these man-made islands are sovereign Chinese territory with the territorial water and natural resource rights that accompany sovereign land.
Partially in response to China’s military buildup and expansion in the region, the United States has refocused more recently in the Asia-Pacific region than it has in the last two decades. An example of this is improved interoperability and increased training with regional allies, most notably the Philippines and Australia. Another example is a more aggressive policy of challenging Chinese actions with reactions, as evidenced by this week’s visit of a Chinese-occupied reef in the South China Sea by the USS Lassen. China, quick to capitalize on an opportunity to criticize the United States, has decried the American destroyer’s presence in the South China Sea as a provocation and an illegal violation of China’s territorial integrity, but the reality is that the USS Lassen was not much closer to China’s man-made island than the Chinese flotilla was to the coast of Alaska a month ago.
The recent visits by the PLAN to the Alaska coast and the USS Lassen to Subi Reef are nothing more than an ongoing part of the status quo. Despite media sensationalism, both visits were conducted in professional manners and neither represented a sincere threat or surprise. The threat of escalation lies not in periodic, predictable tit-for-tat surveillance and public relations victories. Escalation in this context is more worrisome in the aggressive territorial expansion of a regional superpower that seems to be capable of creating man-made islands out of uninhabited rocks that are thousands of kilometers off shore. In so doing, China is literally pioneering a new form of military and colonial expansion in that it is creating land out of the ocean – land that did not previously exist, and is then using this land to lay claim to the area’s natural resources and sovereignty.
If the United Nations or any major sovereign power recognizes China’s sovereignty over these man-made islands in even the slightest shape or form, escalation is a likely scenario. It is in the United States’ best interest to continue to challenge the territorial boundaries of these artificial islands precisely to avoid establishing a precedent or emboldening China or anyone else in the world to do this again.
Aviation Week. “Why Did China Participate in RIMPAC With One Ship And Spy On It With Another?” Accessed on October 27, 2015.
CNN.”China, Philippines locked in naval standoff.” Accessed on October 27, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/11/world/asia/philippines-china-naval-standoff/
CNN. “U.S. warship sails close to Chinese artificial island in South China Sea.” Accessed on October 27, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/26/politics/south-china-sea-islands-u-s-destroyer/
Reuters. “Angry China shadows U.S. warship near man-made islands.” Accessed on October 27, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/27/us-southchinasea-usa-idUSKCN0SK2AC20151027
The Washington Post. “See China’s rapid island-building strategy in action.” Accessed on October 27, 2015.
It is obvious that whatever the United States does, the more bellicose elements within China will never be happy until the US has removed itself from Asia. Yet, at the same time, we must recognize that this is just a vocal portion of the Party and there exists a large community that does not want to seek conflict with the United States. Yet, if the US takes action against Chinese claims alone, this will strengthen the more bellicose wing and they will use the accusation that the US is “militarizing” the South China Sea to go forward with their own militarization, making the entire area more dangerous and threatening peaceful maritime trade. This is not to say that the US should not conduct freedom of navigation exercises and submit to Chinese claims, but should do so with more tact and understanding of the politics within China and the Southeast Asian region.
The Spratly Islands within the South China Sea are claimed by six different governments, not only the Chinese government in Beijing, but also by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Out of these, all but Brunei hold some territorial features in the South China Sea, with China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all claiming features that do not qualify for territorial waters under international law. Within China, it was seen as a break from traditional US China-bashing when Defense Secretary Carter stated at this year’s Shangri-La dialogue “There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants [Emphasis Added]” because, from their perspective, the US typically only calls out China for its actions while the other countries get a pass. When the US conducts its freedom of navigation operations around the Spratly Islands in the near future, they should also sail within 12 nautical miles of the other claimants’ underwater features as well, and publish their actions accordingly. While this will still be seen negatively by the Chinese, especially the more aggressive faction, the inclusion of other countries will dilute the perspective that the US is only targeting China among the more moderate factions. In addition, by being more public about other freedom of navigation operations the US Navy conducts, such as those against other countries in the region like India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam which all claim excessive territorial and inland waters,  the US can show that it treats China no differently than any other country which flouts international law.
By being less openly confrontational and not singling out only China, we reduce strategic risk while still enforcing international law without sacrificing ideals. The two loudest of the other claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, are unlikely to react to US freedom of navigation operations in a manner that will affect relations, the Philippines because it relies heavily on US military support, both in the South China Sea and in their south against Islamist insurgents, and Vietnam because they are working to balance China by coming closer to the US as evidenced by their support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Malaysia has typically tried to stay relatively neutral in the dispute publicly, and therefore the US should not expect a strong reaction. Thus, the US can still challenge China without risking other relationships, but still limit the accusations that come out of China.
Throughout history, war between a rising power and an established power typically happen when both sides view it as either not possible or inevitable. When both sides are aware of the risk and constantly work to reduce tension, the threat of war is reduced.
 Chubb, Andrew. “The South China Sea: Defining the Status Quo,” The Diplomat. 11 June, 2015. [http://thediplomat.com/2015/06/the-south-china-sea-defining-the-status-quo]
 Carter, Ash. 30 May, 2015. “The United States and Challenges of Asia-Pacific Security.” [http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2015-862b/plenary1-976e/carter-7fa0]
 DoD Annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Reports. [http://policy.defense.gov/OUSDPOffices/FON.aspx]
The scale and pace of China’s construction of and on artificial islands in the South China Sea over the past year has been remarkable. In the Paracel Islands, the work of Chinese dredgers has doubled the area of land on Duncan Island, and China has completely rebuilt and extended the runway on Woody Island. In the Spratly Islands, China has built up nearly 3,000 acres of land on seven reefs and has constructed a new 3,300m runway, multi-storey buildings, ship docks, radar towers, and a harbor that can accommodate the Chinese Navy’s largest combat ships. Other claimants to the Spratlys have built on their respective occupied features before, but as a new Department of Defense report indicates, China has created 17 times more land in the past 20 months than that of all the other claimants combined over the past 40 years. Why is China so eager to develop these maritime features now, when the disputes around them have existed for decades? And why is it so deeply concerning to the United States?
I suggest that the construction of and on artificial islands in the South China Sea is one way China is challenging the existing U.S.-led regional order and attempting to shape the rules and norms in its favor. As it is, China’s claims are not recognized by international law, and the legal freedom of the U.S. military to operate in what China considers to be its backyard is constraining China’s power ambitions in the region. With the growing power of the People’s Liberation Army and the maritime law enforcement agencies, China finally feels confident enough to challenge these circumstances. China’s artificial island-building campaign is intended to force acceptance of its territorial claims in the South China Sea and provide logistical support for its increasing maritime operations in the region. These efforts safeguard what China calls its maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and are critical to the continued domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party, so they cannot and will not be easily abandoned.
China’s Alternative Vision for the Region
This tension can be seen within the broader context of a conflict of interests between a rising power and the dominant power. Indeed, China has a vision for the region to look differently from the current order the U.S. has been upholding since the end of the Second World War. And as China’s capabilities improve, so do its ambitions to shape that order to its liking. The U.S.-led maritime order is based on ensuring both commercial and military freedom of navigation, freedom on which U.S. interests depend. Freedom of navigation is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has acceded to but has not ratified, due in part to concerns over the seabed mining regulations.
China has ratified the convention but is unhappy with several aspects of UNCLOS, like its denial of maritime claims based on historic rights without a formal historic title by Treaty or Act. China is also unhappy that UNCLOS allows any country to carry out military activities within the 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another country. China ‘interprets’ UNCLOS to apply only to commercial activity, so it attempts to inhibit foreign military activity within its EEZ, activity that may be irritating and even threatening, but is legal by current international law. The regional order China seeks to shape instead would restore China to its former position of regional primacy, whereby its relative size and power allow it to dictate the rules of the region without restrictions on or interference with its ambitions. Getting the other regional actors to accept China’s claims, whether by legal or coercive means, is part of China’s attempt to impose this alternative order.
Seeing the Vision Through
The legitimacy of the Communist Party depends in part on its ability to ensure the territorial integrity of what China believes to be its sovereign land and waters, including its claims in the South China Sea. Sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the nation are part of China’s stated “core interests”, matters of the absolute utmost importance to the Chinese leadership. Failing to secure China’s core interests would be political suicide for the Party, as the Party has linked its right to rule with its ability to protect for the people these interests. Furthermore, the nationalism created by the Chinese leadership’s emphasis of national rejuvenation and the so-called China Dream fuels an expectation that the Party will be a strong representative of a China on the rise and not compromise China’s core interests.
Demonstrating Administrative Control
China is rapidly enhancing features (not technically performing land reclamation, as China claims and the media parrots) because it bolsters the claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands that China is trying to get others to accept. China does not officially acknowledge that its claims need supporting evidence to back them up; it declares that the entirety of the Spratlys is its own sovereign territory. However, Chinese actions suggest that the leadership recognizes, at least privately, that a more substantial presence on the reefs could help it secure recognition of the legitimacy of its claims by other parties. The Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in the Eastern Greenland case in 1933 that a claim to sovereignty based on continued display of authority rather than by Treaty or Act requires “the intention and will to act as sovereign and some actual exercise or display of such authority”. Demonstrating administrative control in 2015 will not provide evidence of the same during the Xia Dynasty, by which China makes its historic claims in the Spratlys. However, it can strengthen China’s position in a political resolution of the disputes, which may be the only option because historic claims are rendered illegitimate by UNCLOS and international law can only resolve competing claims based on the law.
Hopes for Territorial Sea and EEZ Claims
China also hopes its enhancement of the features will improve its case in claiming the corresponding maritime zones – territorial sea, contiguous zone, and even exclusive economic zone. These zones would allow China to enhance its sea control and access to resources in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for China, this could only happen extra-legally because UNCLOS considers eligibility for maritime zones based on the naturally-formed state of the features. By these classifications, most of the features are ineligible for any maritime zones at all, much less a full 200nm EEZ. And turning them into artificial islands does not grant them further maritime entitlements.
Most Chinese-occupied features are considered “low-tide elevations” by UNCLOS because, before they were artificially enhanced, they were submerged at high tide. “Low-tide elevations” are not entitled to any maritime zones when they are outside an existing territorial sea (especially not when they are nearly 600 miles from China’s territorial seas, as the Spratly features are).
Three of the Chinese-occupied Spratly features are considered “rocks” because they are permanently above water but unable to sustain human or economic life on their own. “Rocks” are entitled to a 12nm territorial sea and contiguous zone, but not an exclusive economic zone. China’s construction on these features to allow them to accommodate inhabitants does not change the rocks’ inability to sustain life naturally.
China feels deeply constrained by UNCLOS, in part because UNCLOS cannot be interpreted to entitle China to the maritime zones it desires. Its assertiveness in the South China can be seen as the use of power politics to achieve its goals where international law is unfavorable to China’s vision for its future.
Support for Increased Civilian and Paramilitary Operations
China needs logistical support for its fishing fleets, oil and gas exploration vessels, and maritime law enforcement vessels in the South China Sea. The increasing scope and frequency of maritime law enforcement patrols in disputed waters requires refueling stations and safe harbors farther south than the naval base on Hainan Island can provide. Not only do these patrols assert China’s rights over its claimed territory, but they are also part of a broader initiative to expand the scope of China’s maritime operations to increase China’s sea power. The 2015 Defense White Paper on Military Strategy, the first of its kind, directs the People’s Liberation Army to safeguard China’s expanding overseas interests and to defend its maritime territorial claims. China’s military and paramilitary forces are being used as an effective tool in coercing China’s neighbors to acquiesce to its ambitions for greater sea control.
China’s Challenge to the Existing Order
There is a struggle for power and influence playing out in the South China Sea. The United States continues to enforce the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and seeks to maintain the regional maritime order on which its interests rely. China is working to reshape that regional order by consolidating its territorial interests and expanding its power projection capabilities. China’s construction of artificial islands is an attempt to consolidate its claims to the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, as well as an indication of its intention to use the reefs to support future military and paramilitary activity in the South China Sea. The sheer pace of the efforts and the increasing power projection capabilities to defend such efforts makes this past year’s events of particular concern for the United States. China is challenging the prevailing regional order whereby the equality of international law trumps exploitation of relative power, and the result is acute tensions between the rising and the existing regional power.
By Mark Tempest
Stowaways, poaching, piracy, smuggling, and murder – the global commons of the open ocean is as wild of a place as it is vast.
Using as a baseline his series on lawlessness on the high seas in the New York Times, The Outlaw Ocean, our guest for the full hour to discuss the anarchy of crime and violence on the high seas in the 21st Century will be Ian Ubina.
Ian is a reporter for The New York Times, based in the paper’s Washington bureau. He has degrees in history from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and his writings, which range from domestic and foreign policy to commentary on everyday life, have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Harper’s, and elsewhere.