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Could a maritime conflict start a Sino-American war?

by Mark Valencia

Special To The Japan Times

On Aug. 26, I read a rather frightening op-ed in the Los Angeles Times coauthored by David Gompert — until recently the second-highest-ranking U.S. intelligence official in the Obama administration. What scared me was his sober assessment of the possibility that a conflict in the maritime arena could trigger a China-U.S. Armageddon — at least for Asia. This is not a new thought but heretofore had been the domain of fiction writers, wolf-criers and video-game makers.

There is now little doubt that China and the West are going to clash. They are already competing in both military and civilian ways and more fundamentally in values and the pursuit of political power. The as yet unanswered questions are will the conflicts become “physical,” and if so how and why?

China — according to Gompert — is particularly worried about a long war in which the technically superior U.S. forces would prevail. So their military is developing plans and tactics for early and swift strikes to take out U.S. carriers, air bases, and command and control networks, including satellites. Meanwhile, the U.S. military has come up with its “air-sea battle” plan “designed to cripple such forces — missile launchers, air and submarine bases, and command and control centers before they can be unleashed.”

Gompert argues that as a result “crisis instability” involving the two is increasing rapidly. Crisis instability occurs when “the price of failing to attack before the opponent does mean defeat. Each side knows the other is thinking the same way and so has all the more incentive to act preemptively if war seems imminent. Or probable. Or maybe just possible. Given the penalty for attacking second, such spiraling logic can turn confrontation into conflagration.”

This is where maritime issues come in. The U.S. “rebalance” toward Asia and China’s inexorable rise puts their naval and air forces in close proximity — especially at sea. Gompert identifies several flash points that could trigger war including use of force by China in its ongoing East China Sea confrontation with Japan. This could then draw in the U.S. as Japan’s ally — at least for a counter show of force — which has its own hair triggers. Coast guard vessels and aircraft from both sides have played cat and mouse there for months, ratcheting up the tension and increasing the possibility of a physical clash.

Another spark-filled scenario is the conflict between U.S. views and backup actions regarding “freedom of navigation” of its surveillance ships and aircraft in China’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and China’s views on the limits of this principle. On July 17, the Washington Times reported that in June Chinese vessels “harassed” the U.S. Navy ocean surveillance vessel Impeccable in what the U.S. Navy claims were “international waters” about 100 nautical miles from Hainan. But there has been no confirmation of the incident from either side and no further news.

The last time such an incident occurred was in March 2009. In that incident the U.S. sent a guided missile destroyer to escort the sub-hunting Impeccable. China could have responded in kind. At the time a Pentagon spokesperson explained that “Chinese ships and aircraft routinely steam or fly near U.S. Navy ships in this area. However these actions [regarding the Impeccable] were considerably more aggressive and unprofessional than we have seen, and greatly increased the risk of collision or miscalculation.”

This set the stage for a worst scenario of confrontation between warships and the incalculable consequences. U.S. officials, including presidential spokesperson Robert Gibbs, said publicly that the U.S. Navy will continue to operate in the South China Sea “and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around that.”

Cooler heads prevailed, however, beginning with U.S. President Barack Obama. He “stressed the importance of raising the level and frequency of the U.S.-China military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid future incidents.” And then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he did not think China was trying to prevent the U.S. Navy from operating in the South China Sea and that he hoped armed escorts would not be needed in the future.

The real issue here is China’s expanding blue-water navy capabilities and its new submarine base at Yulin. Obviously it wants to protect its “secrets” in the area including the activities and capabilities of its submarines and the morphology of the sea bottom. And just as intently, the U.S. wants to know as much as it can about China’s submarine capabilities and the area it may one day have to do battle in. Thus such incidents are likely to be repeated and become ever more dangerous.

Indeed, on Aug. 19 Guan Youfei, foreign affairs spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, complained about increased close-in surveillance by the U.S., explaining that “Any country would feel uneasy and threatened under such high-frequency reconnaissance.”

And on the same day after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, China’s Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanguan warned that “no one should underestimate our will and determination in defending our territory, sovereignty and maritime rights.” All can read between the line of both country’s rhetoric and hope that it is only rhetoric.

The critical questions are “if in a crisis, China’s military leaders advised its political leaders that U.S. forces were preparing for war and China’s only chance to avoid defeat was to strike first — would “Beijing” say “no”? And if senior U.S. military leaders advised the president that China was preparing for a pre-emptive strike would he or she risk the loss of key assets by waiting?

Needed now is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign EEZs and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines will provide indicators of friendly (and unfriendly) behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright.

Specific guidelines have been proposed by a group of international experts sponsored by Japan’s Ocean Policy Research Foundation. The most relevant of these voluntary guidelines would be the increasingly meaningful obligation to only use the ocean for peaceful purposes, and to refrain from the threat or use of force, as well as provocative acts such as collecting information to support the use of force against the coastal state, or interfering with naval electronic systems.

The U.S., however, has rejected any and all such guidelines — voluntary or not— as unacceptable. It may be time for Washington to reconsider its position.

Mark Valencia is Senior Visiting Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.

  • Steven R. Simon

    Simon says the US and Japan must create a unified naval command to deal with PROC maritime aggression and preplan measured forceful responses so that the Chinese public will always know that their communist government is the aggressor.