A new challenge from China at sea
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.