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‘China’s Assertiveness At Sea’ Revisited – OpEd

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A recent piece by the US government- supported Radio Free Asia cries out for critique. The reported analysis misses the forest for the trees and buys into the US attempt to paint China as a bully to deflect from its own aggressive behavior.

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The piece piece claims that China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is driven by its conflicting claims to rocks and ocean space/resources with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia—not its strategic struggle with the US.  But the driving factor is in fact the latter. Moreover this is a behind the scenes contest of strategies rather than a superficial action-reaction dynamic. 

Indeed, while China’s assertive actions against them are of utmost importance to its rival claimants, these disputes are but a sideshow driven by its strategic struggle with the US.

For China, in addition to its vital trade routes, the South China Sea provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its retaliatory strike nuclear submarines based in Yulin on Hainan.  These submarines are its insurance against a first strike — something the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed. The U.S. wants to deny China this ‘sanctuary’.  It uses ISR probes to detect and determine the capabilities of China’s submarines, as well as to track and if necessary target them.  It is also mapping the potential ‘battle field’. 

China’s response has been to develop on some of the South China Sea features it occupies the capability to detect, jam and ,if necessary, otherwise neutralize US ISR in time of conflict. For China these installations are key to its existential security. Indeed, these installations supplemented by a combination of satellites, airborne early warning aircraft and unmanned aerial aircraft (UAVs)   “create a naval bastion for its sea-based nuclear deterrent”.

But currently China cannot match the U.S.’s huge and bewildering network of ISR planes, surface vessels, submarines, satellites and drones– many with specialized functions like the sub hunter Impeccable that in China’s view violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The U.S. has by far the world’s largest and most capable force of signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft. Moreover, most of the US Navy’s top-of –the-line combatants like the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers –as well as its submarines –are equipped to carry out SIGINT missions.

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The U.S.’s number and array of drones, particularly their range, weaponry and sensors dwarf that of China. Moreover, US and allied satellite ISR capacity greatly exceeds that of China. 

US ISR assets collect communications between the China’s command-and – control centers and radar and weapons systems including surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and fighter aircraft. Other US ISR probes collect ‘actionable’ intelligence for expeditionary and irregular warfare. 

 Indeed, a leaked US Navy-National Security Agency report revealed that the U.S. has “the ability to locate and collect transmissions to or from Chinese submarines and to correlate them to specific vessels _ _.”  The report also revealed that some ISR missions purposely ‘tickle’ targeted militaries to react, thus creating communications that can be intercepted.

Some of these activities are not passive intelligence collection commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by many states –including China. Rather they are intrusive, provocative and controversial practices that may be considered non-peaceful and even a threat to use force.

There have already been many incidents between the U.S. and China involving ISR aircraft like the EP-3 and the Poseiden 8A and the US Navy ISR ships like the Impeccable, and the Bowditch. These may have resulted from such purposeful ‘tickling’ of China’s coastal defenses, interference with its shore to ship and submarine communications, tracking its nuclear submarines for potential targeting, or in China’s view, violating or abusing the consent regime for maritime scientific research in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The US’s rapidly increasing use of spy planes including UAVs such as the  Global Hawk, and spy ships including unmanned surface vessels (USVs) –and now unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs)– for ISR  is  outstripping relevant laws and regulations. Indeed, many new platforms like its Littoral Combat Ships seem designed and destined to operate clandestinely in foreign EEZs, archipelagic waters and even territorial seas.  They may be violating UNCLOS which prohibits using scientific equipment to collect information in EEZs without authorization. The U.S. may disagree but it has not ratified this “constitution for the oceans” and thus has little legitimacy or credibility to unilaterally interpret particular provisions of this package deal to its advantage.

The U.S. even uses ‘false flag’ civilian aircraft identification codes of other nations to disguise its ISR probes of China’s defenses. This is very risky and a violation of ‘international practice’. It has also hired private contractors to conduct close in reconnaissance on China further clouding the legal picture.

At the cutting edge, UUVs– both autonomous and remotely operated– are changing the very nature of maritime security operations. The U.S. has the capability to launch UUVs from torpedo tubes to generate comprehensive underwater maritime domain awareness. Many can be weaponized and some can even launch aerial drones. ‘Gliders’ with their silent self-propulsion are ideal for ISR missions.  They can also be deployed by submarines to detect and locate a passing ship without the vessel realizing it is being tracked.  But under UNCLOS, submarines in the territorial sea must surface and show their flag. This is not being done.

Tempting fate, the U.S. has markedly stepped up the frequency of its aerial and underwater probes. It now undertakes an average of four missions a day—about 1500 a year-over the South China Sea. Moreover some are coming ever closer to China’s coast—one came as close as 25 nautical miles.

The US has a decided advantage in the contest for ISR supremacy half way around the world in China’s front yard –the South China Sea. China is trying to catch up and in particular to neutralize US ISR supremacy there. This is the driving force behind its so called assertiveness. It also is the driving factor in the US campaign to paint China as an assertive bully using the small Southeast Asian claimants as pawns.

The conclusion that the PRC ” is the source of destabilization and the US presence has been by and large a stabilizing one” is unwarranted. Many Southeast Asian countries do not see it this way. Andrew Chubb and Radio Free Asia need to be more objective, balanced and penetrating in their analysis and reporting.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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