US Navy ‘Expelled’ by China?

 

USS Barry (left) and USS Bunker Hill (right) underway in the South China Sea, April 18. Both vessels conducted FONOPS this week. (USN)

This past week, the US conducted two “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS) in the South China Sea (SCS). US and Chinese rhetoric following these events was pretty much standard fare: measured on the US side, hyperbolic on Beijing’s.

In the first instance, Beijing claims to have “expelled” the USS Barry from Chinese territorial waters. From the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) version of Tokyo Rose:

The provocative actions of the United States seriously violated relevant international law norms, seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, artificially increased regional security risks, and were prone to cause unexpected incidents.

Translating from the original Propagandese, “expelling” is what happens when a US ship sails along its planned route, which in this case went both into and out of the vicinity of the Paracel Islands (or what China calls Xisha, now under its very own Chinese administrative district as part of Beijing’s ongoing SCS lawfare campaign). Presumably, the Barry would not have been “expelled” had it sailed in circles forever within the archipelago but, of course, it had other places to be.

The more insidious rhetoric–and a primary reason FONOPS exist–is the liberal PLA use of the words “provocative,” “international law norms,” and “sovereignty”:

  1. Provocative? US FONOPS have existed for four decades: universal, worldwide, country-agnostic. We challenge every country’s excessive claims. The only thing that has changed is the now-massive scope, scale, and audacity of Beijing’s maritime claims, especially in the SCS.
  2. International law under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is actually quite clear and important when it describes how a nation may claim territorial waters. Were the Paracel Islands to constitute an independent, archipelagic country, it would actually merit such a claim. Instead, it is an archipelago claimed and occupied by a continental state, China. Because China is not an archipelagic state, even if its claim was formally recognized, the waters around the Paracels would still not merit a territorial sea.
  3. Sovereignty is a term China uses liberally to describe anything it wants to own or exclusively control.

This is important because it demonstrates one way in which Beijing attempts to expand and consolidate its territory simply by making and repeatedly asserting excessive claims. The longer and more stridently it asserts these claims, it calculates, the more it will encourage the rest of the world to acquiesce.

China’s illegal straight baselines in the Paracel Islands

In the case of the Paracels, China has unilaterally established “straight baselines” around the outermost islands of the entire archipelago, and says, “This is all ours–you need our permission to enter.” The USS Barry‘s FONOP challenged that claim by crossing those baselines and carrying on normal naval operations, because China’s straight-baseline claim cannot be allowed to stand simply because China says so. Were we to stop doing this, we would de facto cede the argument and establish a new norm: whatever China wants badly enough, China can have.

The USS Bunker Hill then challenged a second excessive claim by sailing within 12 nautical miles (nm) of a Chinese-occupied and -claimed feature in the Spratly archipelago further south. In this case, China has not (yet) attempted to draw straight baselines around the Spratlys, because in doing so it would immediately look impotent, unless it also occupied all of the features, which would require actually expelling the Vietnamese, Philippine, Malaysian, and Taiwanese forces which currently occupy many of those features (yes, we FONOP those too, but nobody really notices). Expelling them is China’s eventual goal, of course. After all, China asserts sovereignty over the entire SCS within its “Nine-Dashed Line.” Since it’s not ready yet for that step, however, China contents itself with aggressively building up its military presence, bullying its competitors, waging a vocal lawfare campaign, and of course vociferously protesting every passing FONOP.

Example of an innocent passage, Jan 2016

The Bunker Hill’s Spratly FONOP was classified as “innocent passage,” which means that we recognize that a particular feature would merit a 12nm territorial sea for someone, though in the case of the SCS’s many claimants we don’t take a position as to which country’s sea we’re recognizing. Instead, we simply assert the right of ships to pass “innocently”–in a straight line without conducting any naval maneuvers–by sailing inside that 12nm limit.

Again, this is something we’ve done worldwide against every country’s excessive claims (yes, even those of our friends and allies) for four decades, but in China’s evolving lawfare campaign, it is important to them that we are the “provocateurs.”

Mischief Reef FONOP, May 2017

Though not exercised this past week, the US also frequently challenges claims in which China has artificially built-up a feature that does not merit a territorial sea, and then claims that the resulting construction changes its nature. For example, Mischief Reef was once an ordinary low-tide elevation (meaning it was submerged at high tide). Then China built an island on top of it, complete now with its very own port and airfield. UNCLOS does not allow a country to artificially change a feature’s status, however, so when we conduct FONOPS within 12nm of Mischief Reef, we make sure we always conduct some kind of naval maneuver (i.e., not innocent passage), so as to make clear that we do not recognize any territorial sea.

Here’s the bottom line: US FONOPS will continue, both in the SCS and around the world. They must. There is no other country with such a program, and the day we stop is the day Beijing will be able to claim victory for its audacious assertions of SCS sovereignty. That is the day that, for all intents and purposes, the SCS–through which a third of global shipping transits–would effectively become a Chinese Communist Party-owned lake.

Note: The astute reader may be aware that UNCLOS was never ratified by the US Senate. Thus we are left with a perverse circumstance in which the US systematically observes and asserts UNCLOS without having ratified it, while China has ratified but systematically violates it.

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  1. Al French of Damascus Moderator
    Al French of Damascus
    @AlFrench

    Informative post on an important subject. Thanks.

    • #1
  2. Bob Armstrong Thatcher
    Bob Armstrong
    @BobArmstrong

    I can neither confirm nor deny reports of being augmented to the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) in the fall of 1988 when she conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations in the western Sea of Japan along the Soviet coastline. I can neither confirm nor deny these FONOPS scrupulously observed a three mile territorial limit while rejecting the Soviet claims of sovereignty out to twelve nautical miles under the un-ratified UNCLOS. I refer interested parties to executive order 5928 issued in late December of the same year which extended the claimed territorial waters of the United States from 3 to twelve.

    If in fact such FONOPS were carried out by the Bunker Hill 32 years ago, it would be fitting that she is steaming freely still today against the protestations of another totalitarian communist regime. But you would have to ask someone else about them.

    • #2
  3. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Maybe we ought to build an artificial island in international waters off the coast of China, then populate it with nuclear-tipped Tomahawks.  Oh wait, we have these things called Trident submarines . . .

     

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Stad (View Comment):

    Maybe we ought to build an artificial island in international waters off the coast of China, then populate it with nuclear-tipped Tomahawks. Oh wait, we have these things called Trident submarines . . .

     

    Amen

    • #4
  5. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea? 

    • #5
  6. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    Global Thermonuclear War.

    • #6
  7. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    Global Thermonuclear War.

    No question.

    However, they have too much to lose, so I can’t see them taking such an action.  A more likely scenario would be one of their phony islands launching a single weapon into a single US warship which sails into their “territorial” waters around said island . . .

    • #7
  8. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Again, I hate having to edit a post to make Youtube work. 

    Would be nice to see that fixed

     

     

    someday

    • #9
  10. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    Global Thermonuclear War.

    How about a nice game of chess?

    • #10
  11. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    Barfly (View Comment):
    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea? 

    I suspect things will continue to evolve more slowly. China will simply keep raising the hyperbole over FONOPS, plus the occasional unsafe and unprofessional behavior that brings about near-collisions, which they will claim were our fault. In the meantime, it will continue to be bolder in its assertions that it is the arbiter of all SCS activities. 

    Case in point and part of a new PRC initiative to police the SCS called Blue Sea 2020: arresting “illegal” fishermen. Y’know, to protect the environment, or something.

    • #11
  12. MichaelKennedy Inactive
    MichaelKennedy
    @MichaelKennedy

    This is why I think the era of the CVN costing $1.5 bullion is over.  We need subs, including diesel, and what used to be called “Jeep Carriers.”  The small carriers are perfect for the use of UAVs.

    http://abriefhistory.org/?p=1786

    and

    http://abriefhistory.org/?p=286

    Those post were 10 and 12 years ago.  Obama intervened but I hope not too destructively.

    • #12
  13. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    The danger is not deliberate acts. It’s someone with an itchy trigger finger who over interprets their orders. Or, a demonstration of force gone awry. And that holds true for both sides.

    China has more to gain by peacefully pursuing its strategic aims. You don’t generally prevail by attacking your most valuable customer.

     

    • #13
  14. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Jailer (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):
    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    I suspect things will continue to evolve more slowly. China will simply keep raising the hyperbole over FONOPS, plus the occasional unsafe and unprofessional behavior that brings about near-collisions, which they will claim were our fault. In the meantime, it will continue to be bolder in its assertions that it is the arbiter of all SCS activities.

    Case in point and part of a new PRC initiative to police the SCS called Blue Sea 2020: arresting “illegal” fishermen. Y’know, to protect the environment, or something.

    You’re probably right that their position will evolve gradually for a while longer. But the first dynamic hostile act is a natural line that can’t be ignored or taken back. It is not a winning strategy to employ violence gradually – it needs to be done fast and quickly. They won’t start with one or two missiles.

    • #14
  15. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    Global Thermonuclear War.

    How about a nice game of chess?

    I forgot GTW was a board game!  Some of the other officers on my boat played it.  I never did, but I enjoyed watching them play.  The fun was guessing who would start dropping nukes first.

    • #15
  16. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Stad (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    Global Thermonuclear War.

    How about a nice game of chess?

    I forgot GTW was a board game! Some of the other officers on my boat played it. I never did, but I enjoyed watching them play. The fun was guessing who would start dropping nukes first.

    I think he’s referring to the movie, War Games. 

    • #16
  17. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Now that Jailer has caught the interest of most of the salty and waterlogged Ricochetti, I get to ask a question I’ve been researching recently. (Ricochet was made for lazy commenters like me. If I had to write this up in a post it’d take me an hour, then I’d have to sift out the knowledgeable voices. But all that work’s been done.)

    What do you think will unfold if or when (and I think “when” is becoming more likely) China sinks a dozen shore-to-sea missiles into a task force doing FONOPS in the South China Sea?

    Global Thermonuclear War.

    How about a nice game of chess?

    I forgot GTW was a board game! Some of the other officers on my boat played it. I never did, but I enjoyed watching them play. The fun was guessing who would start dropping nukes first.

    I think he’s referring to the movie, War Games.

    Not really.  I was just responding to the question  of what would happen if China launched a bunch of missiles at our ships.

    And the board game is just called Nuclear War.

    • #17
  18. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I think he’s referring to the movie, War Games. 

    Pretty sure War Games was tic-tac-toe, not chess.

    Anyway, I don’t think we’re yet at that point. China has shown no particular interest in nuclear brinksmanship, or even direct conflict with the U.S. for that matter. The trick with China is that they wage a quite different kind of war. Please indulge me whilst I quote myself from November, when I argued that we are already at war with China. We just don’t know it.

    Yet while the U.S. appears to have stumbled to this point by accident, the Peoples Republic of China has done so from quite the opposite direction by design, and indeed with malice aforethought. Beijing has deeply internalized Sun Tzu’s maxim that winning victories without fighting is the supreme achievement of the military commander. While the U.S. and its allies and partners struggle to come up with terms to describe both these tactics and our own response, the PRC is clearly busy prosecuting a comprehensive campaign to replace the U.S. as the preeminent world power and expel us from its growing sphere of influence. In so doing, it has discovered a bevy of weapons at its disposal. These include everything from building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea; to defending and expanding maritime claims through the use of maritime militia forces; to subjugating foreign governments through predatory economic programs; to continuous international information, influence and cyber-hacking operations. Indeed, this short list barely starts to describe the weapons in China’s arsenal.

    • #18