Troubles in the South China Sea

South China Sea trouble

Chinese attack plane only 40 feet below a U.S. surveillance plane; photo courtesy of U.S. Navy/U.S. Department of Defense

Troubles in the South China Sea
| published August 23, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has been busy lately with foreign policy emergencies and oversees tensions—far more than the White House was expecting to face at the halfway point of a second term.

Among other issues, there is more violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, with a death toll now exceeding 2000, many of them civilians; rising tensions and increasing violence in what has become an all-out civil war in eastern Ukraine, with the very real possibility that Russian troops may be entering the fray even now; the widening terror now being wrought by ISIS across much of the Middle East, and an admission by U.S. officials that the threat posed by ISIS is much worse than it appeared only months ago; and continuing sectarian violence in Iraq, as Sunnis and Shiites vie for control of a rapidly fragmenting nation.

Add to that the President’s intention to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan within 15 months, and a determination that more boots not be added to the quagmire in Baghdad (there are almost 1000 U.S. soldiers there now, up from zero earlier this year). Congress worries about “mission creep” in both locations as the war on terror looks to be entering a dangerous new chapter or re-escalation and heavy firepower cost.

Now, the White House and the Pentagon have a new problem, growing more acute with each passing week: rising tensions in the South China Sea.

In what has become the fourth incident in less than four months, a Chinese jet fighter harassed a U.S. surveillance plane which was flying in international waters off the coast of China. The Pentagon characterized the incident as “a dangerous intercept.” The Chinese fighter apparently flew with an unsafe distance of the larger, slower P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane. The Chinese fighter jet came to within 30 feet of the American plane at one point, and in total engaged the U.S. plane with four extremely close fly-bys. The Chinese pilot performed barrel rolls, and flew closely above the American plane’s cockpit—so close that the U.S. pilots were able to clearly see that the Chinese jet was heavily laden with armaments.

The close engagements occurred about 135 miles east of Hainan Island, and about 210 miles north of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Ben Rhodes, the President’s deputy national security advisor, told reporters on Martha’s Vineyard this week that the encounter was “a deeply troubling provocation.” Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, called the incident “unsafe and unprofessional.” The U.S. has lodged complaints several times in recent months; similar incidents and close encounters were reported in March, April and May. Some of the encounters have been captured on video equipment on board the U.S. planes, including the incident on August 19. Downward-looking photos taken from the U.S. plane show the Chinese fighter approximately 40 feet below the Poseidon, and in the image the helmeted-face of the Chinese pilot can be clearly seen looking up at his American counterpart (see image above).

Some flight analysts and aviators have described the actions of the Chinese pilot as “top gun” style antics. But the Pentagon is not amused. Kirby said that the most recent incident was demonstrably inconsistent with international law, and highly dangerous to pilots in the air.

The larger concern by some military analysts, the Pentagon brass, and the White House: one of these provocative encounters could start a war in a corridor of ocean already bristling with tension.

China has been engaged in a long effort to more broadly assert its control over the sea lanes and the waters of the South China Sea. And recent skirmishes and dustups between its smaller neighbors to the south, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, have raised concerns that the next war could be sparked in those pastel blue and green waters where at least three different countries make claims of sovereignty over dozens of islands, shoals and atolls.

At issue for several years are the territorial claims of China over islands generally recognized by international authorities as belonging to other countries, specifically the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by the Philippines and lie within waters just off the western reach of Palawan, one the Philippines’ larger island groups; and the Paracel Islands, a tiny cluster of reefs and atolls near Vietnam. Since the late 1940s, China has claimed ownership of the islands despite agreement by neutral and non-aligned parties that the islands belong to the smaller of China’s neighbors. But the issue has become troublesome of late as China, spreading its military and technological reach, commenced construction projects in dozens of locations, building radar stations, radio relay stations, high tech surveillance facilities, landing strips, helicopter pads, lighthouses and even manned military outposts.

The governments of both the Philippines and Vietnam have lodged formal complaints among a variety of international bodies, but little has been done to stop China from its campaign of construction on the islands. Riots even broke out earlier this year in Vietnam—sparked, in small part, by anti-Chinese sentiments and the revelation that China had essentially annexed the Paracels for military purposes. The Philippines has taken the dramatic step of posting specially trained Marines and Commandos on deliberately grounded ships in the shallow waters around the Spratlys. The Filipino Marines are heavily armed, but are limited in their mission to merely casting an eye on the surrounding Chinese activities. In short, they spend their days watching Chinese military ships circle them—aware that the Chinese are looking back at them.

For the most part, the United States has done very little except make verbal statements showing their allegiance and solidarity with the Philippines—a key U.S. ally in the Pacific. But China’s increasingly aggressive engagements in the Spratlys have raised concerns that an actual shooting war might break out.

The question becomes: what, if anything, could the United States do if violence breaks out between troops of the Philippines and Chinese soldiers or marines? Many analysts of U.S. military policy say that Obama would be hard-pressed to sell direct intervention to the American people, or to Congress—though clearly U.S. assistance and support could be injected into the situation through the use of intelligence, satellite imagery, drones—armed or otherwise—and direct military advice. The United States has held joint exercises with Philippine forces, and those maneuvers include practice assaults on beaches and islands, as well as aerial operations. Still, it is unlikely that the U.S. would be drawn into a conflict in the South China Sea over territorial disputes regarding the Spratlys or the Paracels. Further complicating matters: the Philippines and Vietnam are not the only other countries with an ax to grind in the area; Brunei and Malaysia also lay claim to some of the islands and shoals.

In the meantime, the Pentagon says that the August incident is the fourth such close encounter between U.S. pilots and Chinese aviators in as many months. Some foreign policy experts suggest that the aggressive actions by China may be way for Beijing to flex its muscle and assert its longstanding belief that it has preeminence in the South China Sea. China may also be staking its claim to the economic importance of shipping lanes—especially those which connect the growing markets found in Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.

China’s assertion that it has sovereignty in the area dates back to a concept called The Nine Dashed Line, maps drawn after the end of World War II, and in 1946 and 1947 by the new government in Beijing. The Philippines have made complaints of recent bullying widely known in international forums and venues, but China has largely ignored the concerns. When the subject was raised at a recent ASEAN conference, China vetoed further discussion.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Looming War at Sea?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 11, 2014.

One Crisis at a Time; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 17, 2014.