Escalation At Sea

In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, crewmember on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea, March 8, 2009. AP Photo/U.S. Navy

This story was written by Michael Auslin.

The Chinese Navy is already upping the ante from its harassment of two U.S. naval vessels in international waters last week. How the Obama administration responds will determine whether America maintains its naval superiority in Asia and upholds recognized standards of maritime behavior.

In the more aggressive encounter of two encounters, five Chinese ships, an intelligence ship, a maritime fisheries patrol vessel, an oceanographic administration patrol vessel, and two fishing trawlers, surrounded the USNS Impeccable, drawing as close as 25 feet, stopping directly in front of the vessel, and strewing wood in its path. The Impeccable's sister ship, the Victorious, had a high-beam searchlight trained on its bridge and was repeatedly buzzed by Chinese reconnaissance aircraft.

The State Department has filed a formal protest with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and Director of National Intelligence (and retired Admiral) Dennis Blair said that the Chinese are becoming more "militarily aggressive, forward-pushing" than in recent years. Now the Chinese are demanding that America cease all surveillance missions in international waters off their coasts. In response, the Navy has assigned a destroyer to watch over the American ships.

This is not an isolated incident, but an on-going Chinese campaign to pressure the U.S. Navy. It is, therefore, a potentially crucial indicator of the credibility of America's maritime position in Asia. Before future incidents occur, possibly leading to miscalculation and a direct collision, there are a number of lessons to be learned from China's recent provocation:

1) The Chinese do not consider the United States a maritime ally. While the debate about China's real intentions will continue, it is clear that friendly nations do not act as the Chinese did last week. With the largest Asian fleet, greater operational confidence, and a global presence, the Chinese Navy is flexing its muscles and sending signals that it seeks to be a dominant power in the South and East China Seas, if not the western Pacific. Its activities in waters around the Chinese mainland are but a part of its comprehensive naval expansion throughout Asia. As they become more capable, Chinese maritime forces are increasingly belligerent towards American vessels.

2) The Chinese Navy, with or without central government connivance, is carefully probing how far it can push the U.S. Navy, through a slowly unfolding, controlled sequence of provocations. In October 2006, a Chinese Song-class attack submarine stalked the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier and surfaced within torpedo firing range. In early November 2007, China refused to let two U.S. minesweepers shelter in Hong Kong during a storm -- an unusual broach of maritime tradition. Later that month, the Chinese suddenly denied porting rights in Hong Kong to the Kitty Hawk strike group, likewise giving no reason and causing thousands of U.S. Navy dependents who'd traveled to Hong Kong to miss Thanksgiving with their loved ones. In last week's confrontation, the Chinese physically blocked the Impeccable from leaving the area after it radioed that it was requesting a safe path to navigate. The Chinese are charting American reactions in an escalating series of provocations.

3) The Chinese are worried about America's anti-submarine warfare capabilities. It was no accident that the Chinese targeted the Impeccable, which is a civilian-staffed oceanic surveillance ship. It can map the ocean floor as well as track submarines, and it was towing sonar scanning equipment behind it, which the Chinese attempted to entangle in hooks and pieces of wood. Moreover, it was operating off Hainan Island, where the Chinese have built a large, protected submarine base. China's maritime strength is heavily dependent on its growing submarine fleet--currently at 65 boats, and including diesel-electric and nuclear-powered attack submarines and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs. If the United States and its allies in the region are able to track, and bottle up, Chinese subs inside the South and East China Seas, that dramatically reduces China's naval effectiveness and presence. Thus, the Chinese chose the Impeccable and its sister ship, the Victorious, to harass.

4) The Chinese actions are resulting in a spiral of escalation that could lead to open confrontation. The Impeccable was operating alone, is an unarmed vessel, and is staffed mainly by civilian contractors. The only defense the ship had against the Chinese was its fire hoses, which it turned on the Chinese ships, to no avail. Now, the Navy has assigned a guided missile destroyer to watch over the ship. However, this type of ratcheting-up effect is worrisome, since any future confrontations will come between heavily-armed ships, possibly increasing the chances of miscalculation.

5) China will use interpretations of international law to back up its attempts to achieve maritime dominance. The Chinese Embassy in Washington claimed that the Impeccable's activities were illegal since the ship was within China's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as established by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Washington clearly recognizes only the traditional 12-mile limit of territorial waters, but the Chinese claim that spying activities such as the those in which the Impeccable was allegedly engaged are violations of the U.N. convention.

With no resolution in sight, and with the U.S. likely to continue its various operations in Asian waters, the likelihood of future confrontations is high, unless the two sides agree at a minimum to "rules of the road," as the Soviet and the American navies did during the Cold War. Washington must be on its guard, however, not to cede any right of free passage through international waters simply to seal an agreement reducing bad behavior on the part of the Chinese.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
By Michael Auslin
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard
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