More Than Meets the Eye in the South China Sea

6 MINS READDec 20, 2016 | 03:21 GMT
More Than Meets the Eye in the South China Sea
Chinese strategic maneuvers in the South China Sea do not revolve around naval exercises by its warships, like these near the Paracel Islands. Thwarting U.S. surveillance remains high on the list of Beijing's priorities.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

China and the United States are finalizing details for the return, perhaps as early as Tuesday, of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) picked up Dec. 15 by a Chinese naval ship in the South China Sea. The diplomatic conclusion to the incident may end the uproar it has caused but will do little to resolve the larger long-standing differences between Washington and Beijing.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, the USNS Bowditch was 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay, well within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, and was in the process of retrieving the UUV, a Slocum G2 Glider. Notably, the Bowditch was outside China's nine-dash line, an intentionally ambiguous mark on the map that has delineated China's maritime claims in the waters for more than half a century. The Bowditch was within 450 meters (500 yards) of the UUV when a boat dispatched by the Nanjiu 510, a People's Liberation Army Navy submarine rescue and salvage ship that had been shadowing the Bowditch, took possession of the glider. The Bowditch radioed the Nanjiu, which acknowledged transmission but ignored the message.

The Bowditch, a non-commissioned ship owned by the U.S. Navy, is operated by its Military Sealift Command as a hybrid military and civilian vessel. It is crewed primarily by civilian contractors and conducts maritime surveys that provide data valuable for both civilian research and military applications. The glider it was retrieving is a model commercially available from Teledyne Systems that was programmed and operated via satellite by the Naval Oceanographic Office in Mississippi. The gliders are given a preprogrammed set of instructions and conduct their missions by using dead reckoning underwater, with course adjustments made by periodically surfacing to check GPS coordinates.

After the Chinese vessel had plucked the glider from the water, the Pentagon asserted that the UUV was "a sovereign immune vessel of the United States" and demanded its return. This was a bit of a stretch of definitions: The legal status of unmanned vehicles remains in flux. But basic maritime salvage practice and law render the Chinese ship's action questionable at best. Beijing's later justification for retrieving (not "stealing" or "seizing") the glider was that it posed a potential "danger to the safe navigation of passing ships." This, too, was a stretch, given the proximity of the Bowditch and the clear understanding by the Chinese of what the U.S. ship was doing.

Because the incident took place within its EEZ, the Philippines was placed in an odd position. While Manila recognized that the U.S. underwater survey activity may have been legal, it also asserted that it had been unaware of the Bowditch's use of UUVs. Manila chided the United States, saying it should consider other countries' interests and security when carrying out such activities. In addition, Manila criticized China for seizing the glider and raising tensions. The incident does not appear to have changed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's stance on easing relations with China or inviting Chinese investment and dual use of disputed areas of the South China Sea. Nor did it dissuade Duterte from calling for a reassessment of defense agreements with the United States after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. But the incident has polarized the Philippine government's competing political and security factions, which disagree about the proper way to balance the country's relationships with the United States and China.

There is no shortage of differences between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea. China has long accused the United States of violating Chinese sovereignty with maritime surveillance (complaints that, at times, have centered on the Bowditch itself), though in most cases, that monitoring has occurred within China's 200-nautical-mile EEZ or near one of China's artificial islands in the sea. The United States, which has interpreted international maritime law in a way that justifies its surveillance activity within EEZs, asserts its right to conduct those operations. But when tensions rise after an incident involving China, Washington often temporarily reduces its activity, modifies its methods or at least reduces public statements about actions before quietly resuming or even increasing surveillance. The underlying differences between the interpretation of law and common practice are unlikely to be resolved soon, as each side has strategic reasons for their own interpretations.

This incident is unlike most others between the United States and China because of where it occurred — outside China's claimed waters. China, which could not use sovereignty as its justification, turned instead to maritime safety. Nevertheless, in the wake of the event, reports in the Chinese media have recounted accusations of past U.S. violations of Chinese waters, including ones featuring the Bowditch. Clearly, the official justification — a floating object that may accidentally be hit — is only a small part of the Chinese message. Beijing continues to assert that the United States should slow or cease its surveillance operations in the South China Sea, even in waters that China does not claim directly. China considers the sea as strategically important as the United States does the Caribbean Sea.

In addition to its territorial concerns, the incident may also reflect China's unease with the pace and scope of U.S. anti-submarine capabilities and activities. While the Bowditch was not officially on a mission to counter Chinese submarine activity, the data it collected is used to aid U.S. anti-submarine efforts. The Dec. 15 incident took place not far from the Manila Trench, one of the deepest spots in the South China Sea. Reports suggest that China's nuclear missile submarines may have started patrols in South China Sea this year, and any activity by the United States to detect or monitor its submarines would pose a potential strategic threat to China's broader nuclear strategy.

The role of nuclear missile submarines in China's arsenal is to assure it has second-strike capability, thus deterring a first strike against it by the United States or any other nuclear-armed rival. For the same reason that China has raised significant concerns with the likely deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, it resists U.S. anti-submarine activities — both could degrade the effectiveness of its nuclear arsenal.

As China continues to emerge as a global power, it is asserting its own sphere of influence, and by default is pushing against the United States at sea (and at times against Russia on land). As China moves beyond the boundaries of its traditional space, it encroaches on the status quo powers of Russia and the United States, altering their longstanding parity balance. For China, this requires a careful mix of diplomacy and economic relations, and the concurrent development of both a modern conventional military capability and a more mature nuclear weapons program.

In a post-Cold War world, it may sound anachronistic to discuss nuclear war strategies, but with India and Pakistan both post-Cold War additions to the nuclear club and North Korea knocking on the clubhouse door, the case for strong deterrence remains a concrete reality, particularly in Asia.

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