A new chal­lenge from China at sea

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

China’s ha­rass­ment of the civil­ian crewed U.S. Navy sur­vey ship Im­pec­ca­ble op­er­at­ing in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters ap­prox­i­mately 70 miles south of Hainan Is­land was un­pro­voked and a fla­grant vi­o­la­tion of rec­og­nized Law of the Sea reg­u­la­tions. Their ha­rass­ment of a sur­vey ship op­er­at­ing in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters within China’s claimed Exclusive Eco­nomic Zone (EEZ) is a di­rect chal­lenge to the “free­dom of seas” con­cept.

There may have been an­other re­cent in­ci­dent in­volv­ing an un­armed U.S. Navy sur­vey ship. A Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party news­pa­per re­cently re­ported on a sim­i­larly se­ri­ous in­ci­dent in­volv­ing the un­armed USNS Bowditch sur­vey ship in Septem­ber 2008, op­er­at­ing in in­ter­na­tional wa­ter in the Yel­low Sea area. This ar­ti­cle cites the “Gazette of Marine Ad­min­is­tra­tive Law En­force­ment” pub­lished by China’s State Oceanic Ad­min­is­tra­tion said U.S. sur­vey ships in Chi­nese wa­ters may be sunk! The ar­ti­cle went on to de­scribe the ag­gres­sive ac­tions of Chi­nese air­craft and war­ships against the Bowditch. It con­cluded by stat­ing that if a U.S. sur­vey ship en­ters China’s sea again, China will sink it! Such provoca­tive state­ments can­not be ig­nored or go un­chal­lenged.

China has re­acted so strongly to the USNS Im­pec­ca­ble sur­vey op­er­a­tions be­cause it was within about 70 nau­ti­cal miles of Hainan Is­land, where China now bases its new nu­clear bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines as well as at­tack sub­marines in un­der­ground sub­ma­rine pens. Our op­er­a­tions there were not provoca­tive and were within ac­cepted norms.

It is es­sen­tial that we con­tinue th­ese hy­dro­graphic op­er­a­tions so that we bet­ter un­der­stand the mar­itime en­vi­ron­ment as it is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent for Anti-Sub­ma­rine War­fare (ASW) op­er­a­tions, given that sub­marines are get­ting qui­eter. Sub­marines op­er­at­ing from Hainan Is­land will have an ad­vanced ca­pa­bil­ity to in­ter­dict the crit­i­cal sea lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the Straits of Malacca to our key al­lies in the re­gion, in­clud­ing Ja­pan, South Korea, Tai­wan and the Philip­pines.

While China is a sig­na­tory to the Law of Sea Treaty (LOST), it has cho­sen to in­ter­pret the treaty in a sus­pect way and has made claims for it­self that for­bid mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion by for­eign navies in its de­clared Exclusive Eco­nomic Zone. Of course, the United States and many other mar­itime na­tions do not ac­cept such dec­la­ra­tions by China.

It should be noted that th­ese il­le­gal dec­la­ra­tions helped con­vince Pres­i­dent Rea­gan to refuse to sign the “Law of the Sea Treaty.” The United States con­tends that the right of its ships and air­craft to tran­sit through or op­er­ate in the EEZs is the same as their rights on the high seas, in­clud­ing sur­vey­ing and in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion.

In his re­cent ar­ti­cle “Con­flict Preven­tion and Con­fi­dence Build­ing Mea­sures be­tween Ja­pan and China,” re­tired Ja­panese Vice Adm. Ota Fu­mio notes how China has demon­strated a pat­tern of mar­itime ex­pan­sion since 1974. When the United States ter­mi­nated its base ar­range­ment with the Philip­pines in 1991, China in 1992 passed a law uni­lat­er­ally (and il­le­gally) declar­ing sovereignty over var­i­ous dis­puted is­lands in the South China Sea in­clud­ing the Paracels, Spratlys, Tai­wan — and Senkaku, which be­longs to Ja­pan. In 1994, China built a fa­cil­ity on the Philip­pines Mis­chief Reef. In 1996, China “il­le­gally” laid claims to the en­tire South China Sea.

It should be noted that China has fre­quently con­ducted ocean sur­veil­lance and sur­vey op­er­a­tions in the Ja­panese EEZ be­yond the East China Sea. In 2001, the gov­ern­ments of Ja­pan and China reached an agree­ment that China would no­tify Ja­pan when Chi­nese sur­vey ships were to con­duct op­er­a­tions in the Ja­panese EEZ. The im­pli­ca­tion is that Ja­pan would sim­i­larly no­tify China. How­ever, even with this agree­ment there have been nu­mer­ous vi­o­la­tions by Chi­nese sur­veil­lance ships in Ja­pan’s EEZ. In 2004, there were 18 such vi­o­la­tions.

A prior no­ti­fi­ca­tion re­quire­ment is a di­rect in­fringe­ment on the es­tab­lished prin­ci­ple of “free­dom of tran­sit” in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters in­clud­ing the EEZ. In our In­ci­dents at Sea agree­ment with the Soviet Navy we never in­cluded a prior no­ti­fi­ca­tion clause for op­er­a­tions in de­clared EEZ. There were no sanc­tu­ar­ies other than rec­og­nized ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters.

If we with­draw and cease our le­git­i­mate sur­vey op­er­a­tions in th­ese im­por­tant ar­eas of con­cern, it will be a clear sig­nal that the South China Sea will be­come a safe haven for Chi­nese nu­clear bal­lis­tic sub­marines tar­get­ing the United States and Ja­pan.

The U.S. Navy did not and does not al­low Rus­sia’s north­ern wa­ters to be a safe zone for Soviet/Rus­sian nu­clear bal­lis­tic mis­siles aimed at Amer­ica. There­fore, there is no le­git­i­mate rea­son we should let the South China Sea be­come a “safe haven” for China to launch bal­lis­tic mis­siles at the United States or our al­lies.

The United States as it should has protested this re­cent Chi­nese provo­ca­tion. How­ever, if we think avoid­ing fu­ture con­fronta­tions will cause prob­lems to go away, we are mak­ing a se­ri­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tion. Make no mis­take, our friends, al­lies and po­ten­tial en­e­mies through­out the world are watch­ing how the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­sponds to this provo­ca­tion. Mr. Pres­i­dent, as Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den pre­dicted, you are be­ing tested.

James Lyons, U.S. Navy re­tired ad­mi­ral, was com­man­der in chief of the U.S. Pa­cific Fleet, se­nior U.S. mil­i­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the United Na­tions, and deputy chief of naval op­er­a­tions, where he was prin­ci­pal ad­viser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff mat­ters.

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