American Confrontation in China’s Sea

The Pacific International Maritime Conference is held every two years in Australia and is sponsored by the Royal Australian Navy. The latest gathering took place in Sydney from 6-8 October and focused “exclusively on naval defence and maritime security issues and equipment procurement.” According to the US Naval Institute  it “brings together Navy chiefs from over 50 nations, as well as government and industry delegations from across the world.”

It was a hand-shaking, old-boy network jamboree at which two nations with major interest in the Pacific region were not represented.  No admirals or industry delegations from China or Russia were welcomed to the Conference, at which the keynote speaker was the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott H Swift, whose impressive chest candy includes medals for humanitarian service and pistol shooting.

After Admiral Swift took command in May 2015 he went on a seven-hour flight over the South China Sea in a P-8A Poseidon intelligence-gathering aircraft.  A few weeks before his excursion the US Navy had hosted CNN television reporters on a similar flight, after which its ‘Chief National Security Correspondent’ reported that “inside, the jet is home to an array of advanced intelligence-gathering equipment.  I have the feeling of entering a CIA listening station in the sky. It’s no accident that the first P-8s — only 18 months old — were deployed to Asia. The P-8 is one expression of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and its principle mission here is keeping a watchful eye on China.”  His drum-beating patriotic piece was titled



The media gave wide cover to the CNN flight and to that of Admiral Swift, and China’s observation was that “for a long time, US military ships and aircraft have carried out frequent, widespread, close-in surveillance of China, seriously harming bilateral mutual trust and China’s security interests which could easily cause an accident at sea or in the air.”

Now it seems that ‘accidents’ are going to be more likely, because Admiral Swift, as reported by Australia’s News Corporation (owned by US but originally Australian citizen Mr Rupert Murdoch;  he changed nationality to avoid paying taxes in the country of his birth) was forceful to the point of being confrontational in his keynote presentation to the Pacific Conference.  The report in Murdoch’s newspaper was headlined



and continued that “speaking to a high-powered audience that included senior navy officers from more than a dozen countries at the Pacific 2015 Expo in Sydney, Admiral Swift warned that “friction points” at sea and the “might makes right” approach of some countries (China) could lead to all out conflict in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.”

The admiral was reported by Reuters as stating that “some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters.”

The admiral’s reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) appeared welcome because it is a well-crafted covenant intended to bring clarity and even-handedness to settlement of maritime disputes. It is a good example of the way in which international law can be employed, but it is intriguing that the bellicose Admiral Swift even mentioned the UNCLOS agreement because although its 167 signatories pledge to “settle, in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, all issues relating to the law of the sea” the United States of America has not signed the accord.

For Admiral Swift to criticize any country for allegedly failing to abide by the provisions of UNCLOS is hilarious in its absurdity.

As put succinctly in a paper published by the University of California, “the treaty remains an essential instrument of international law, particularly for resolving international maritime disputes. America’s abstention . . .  since as the preeminent naval power in the world it should hold a leading role in shaping the law of the sea. Instead, other nations are playing a larger role.”

Of course “other nations” are playing a larger role.  They are increasingly amazed at the belligerent presumption of the president of the United States that in some fashion the actions of the United States are above international law.  The ultimate credo of the United States of America, as reiterated by its president, is that “the United States is and will remain the one indispensable nation in the world,” but the rest of the world does not see it that way.

There is no such thing as an “indispensable” nation,  and for any nation’s leader to presume to make such an imperial pronouncement is a signal of xenophobic arrogance.

The posture of the United States in the South China Sea is directly and deliberately confrontational to China and consistent with Obama’s proclamation of global indispensability — but as pointed out by the Center for a New American Security his arguments are “robbed of moral authority” when “the US refuses to support UNCLOS, the most comprehensive mechanism for multilateral resolution of maritime disputes.”  The main reason that Washington’s rabidly nationalistic politicians refuse to permit signature to a most important international agreement is that the United States might then be compelled by international law to abide by decisions made by independent tribunals.  This is anathema to those who actually govern the US, as is the fact that signing UNCLOS would entail adherence to regulation of commercial mining activities in the seabed beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any one country. Third party arbitration is not acceptable to the indispensable nation.

On 8 October a Washington Post headline informed the world that



According to the Post “Pentagon officials” said that the US “could soon send a Navy ship steaming by a chain of man-made islands that China has built in the South China Sea,” which, the Post explained, could have the effect of “potentially exacerbating tensions in an area in which Beijing is expanding its presence.”

On October 13 US defence secretary Ash Carter was reported by CNBC as saying “Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception” — omitting to say that it is only Washington’s opinion that waters surrounding some Chinese-settled islets are not Chinese.

Following his remarks the usual anonymous official (on Carter’s staff) was quoted as saying that “doing the 12 nautical mile challenge is one among a variety of options that we’re considering,” which is deliberately confrontational.

If the challenge is offered, and the US Navy deliberately provokes China by sending warships into waters claimed by China, there will reaction by Beijing.  It is difficult to see how President Xi Jinping could ignore a calculated and insulting military intrusion into what his country considers to be its sovereign waters.

It would be too much to hope that the Pentagon and State Department might bear in mind that on 28 May 2014 President Obama said “We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by our United States Senate,”  because the Pentagon, with the noisy backing of the State Department and the approval of the United States Senate, appears determined on confrontation with China — just as they are with Russia over its attacks on terrorist groups in Syria who seek, along with the United States, to overthrow the Syrian government — which would result in establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic regime in that unfortunate country.

There are many in Washington who are determinedly hostile to China and Russia.  They consider it essential that the indispensable nation should be able to dictate to others.

It will be interesting to see who backs down in the US-fabricated confrontation in the South China Sea.  If it is the US — by refraining from sending warships and spy planes into Chinese waters and airspace — then we all can breath a sigh of relief and offer thanks that common sense has won.

But if Washington drives Beijing into a situation of embarrassment, there will be calculated reaction, because China will never accept humiliation.   Why should it?  And why should Russia, either?


A shorter version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on October 14.

More articles by:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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