KANEOHE – Hawaii
On Dec. 7, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen announced the first rotational deployment of a Poseidon 8 airplane to Singapore. The jet is the U.S. Navy’s next-generation long-range maritime patrol, anti-submarine, anti-shipping, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset.
Some argue that this does not signify anything new and should be seen in the broader perspective of the evolution of defense ties between Singapore and the United States. The “deniers” also claim it is not “directed at China.”
I certainly agree that this rotational deployment should be viewed in a broader context. But I and most likely China’s military leadership have a rather different view of that context. Indeed, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson said, “We are paying close attention to how the relevant situation develops.” A Foreign Ministry spokesperson was more blunt, criticizing the move as “aimed at militarizing the region.”
The first forward deployment of the Poseidon was in November 2013 to Okinawa. It was pre-planned as part of the U.S. regional re-balance to Asia. But it was not lost on China that it occurred days after China’s establishment of the East China Sea Defense Identification Zone. Poseidons also fly out of the Philippines. Japan and the Philippines are U.S. defense treaty allies and use of their territory to launch intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes against China are part and parcel of those arrangements and are seen as such by China. But in a new gambit that must have raised eyebrows in China, in September 2014 it was leaked in Washington that Malaysia had offered the use of the island of Labuan for refueling them. Now they will use Singapore as well, albeit also on a rotational basis.
The forward deployment of the Poseidon 8 brings the U.S. face to face with China’s naval expansion. Indeed, the two have converging strategic trajectories. China is developing what the U.S. calls an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy that is designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access to them by the U.S. in the event of a conflict. The U.S. response is the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which is intended to cripple China’s command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). Thus C4 ISR is the “tip of the spear” for both sides, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas. Indeed, this is where their national security interests collide. Singapore is now part of the U.S. military challenge to China — whether it admits it or not. Certainly China perceives its actions as such and in the event of conflict there may well be consequences.
On Aug. 19, 2014, a Chinese fighter jet came within 10 meters of a U.S. P-8 about 220 km east of Hainan Island. The jet flew past the P-8’s nose and did a barrel roll. The U.S. protested to China regarding the aggressive pattern of behavior by that particular Chinese fighter group. China retorted that the U.S. claims were “totally groundless,” and that the incident’s root cause was provocative U.S. ISR operations against China. Nevertheless the U.S. said it would continue to operate in “international airspace and waters.”
Some also argue that Singapore’s interest is in ensuring the right of freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea. This is predictable, but it is a red herring. China has never threatened such commercial freedoms that would hurt Singapore and is very unlikely to do so during peacetime. What it does object to by word and deed is the U.S. conflation of intelligence gathering and other military activities with commercial freedom of navigation and the possible violation of the EEZ marine scientific research consent regime and China’s obligations to protect the environment there.
Singapore and Malaysia have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the U.S. claims to uphold it. That raises several questions concerning the obligation in UNCLOS to give “due regard” to the rights and duties of the coastal state in its EEZ.
Given the strategic context of A2/AD vs. JAM-GC and the critical role of C4 ISR, are some of the U.S. ISR activities conducted in or above China’s EEZ inconsistent with the peaceful purposes clause of the convention? Particularly relevant in this context are active signals intelligence activities conducted from such aircraft, some of which are deliberately provocative and intended to generate responses that can be monitored for offensive purposes in time of war. Other such activities enable the user to locate, identify and track (and thus target) potential enemy assets. Still other activities may include interference with onshore and at sea communication and computer systems.
These relatively new intrusive and provocative techniques were not considered when the treaty was negotiated 35 years ago. Furthermore, the meanings of these UNCLOS terms have evolved with technological advances and state practice. Are such modern high-tech activities an abuse of “freedom of navigation and over-flight”?
To aid its missions, the Poseidon 8 is able to drop and monitor sonobuoys. Does doing so come under the provisions of UNCLOS Article 258, which stipulates that “the deployment and use of any type of scientific research equipment in the marine environment is subject to the same conditions as those prescribed for marine scientific research?” That is, is doing so subject to the consent of the coastal state? Different interpretations of key UNCLOS provisions will continue to haunt China’s near shore and produce incidents.
Do Singapore authorities really know exactly what the Poseidon flights are doing during missions originating from its territory, and why? Given the risk to the U.S. and Singapore-China relationships, are such activities or facilitating them absolutely necessary from an intelligence-gathering standpoint?
In sum, such U.S. Poseidon flights directed at China are likely to be viewed by the target as unfriendly or even hostile acts. Singapore and any other non-treaty enablers of the U.S. anti-China strategy like Malaysia may want to address these questions before stepping off what may be a legal and political cliff.
Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He was a senior fellow with the East-West Center for 26 years where he originated, developed and managed international, interdisciplinary projects on maritime policy and international relations in Asia. He is currently an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.