South China Sea

The Americans dislike the way the South China Sea is currently being carved up, with so much to China’s unilateral benefit. They dispute the argument that the Chinese are doing no more in the western Pacific today than America, armed with the Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s, spent the last century doing in the rest of the world. Yet the Americans, the only other force with the military power to keep the sea-lanes secure and the international rules obeyed and adhered to, do little more than splutter their outrage. Not one country that claims territory in the sea has received anything more than lip-service support from Washington.

The White House does not want to alienate the Chinese any more than is necessary. But three episodes of head butting between the two superpowers show what kind of mishaps, misunderstandings, and misreadings could bring them into serious trouble. All three episodes involved U.S. efforts to gather intelligence about various aspects of the Chinese military. And the Americans insist that all three occurred in international waters or airspace, making them entirely legal. China disagrees.

The first incident occurred on April Fools’ Day 2001, and it took place in the air, four miles above the sea, seventy miles south of Hainan Island. To both sides, the location is important. The Americans insisted they were over international waters and in international airspace, and were an appropriate distance both from the Chinese mainland and Hainan and from the bases on the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands. The Chinese accept this, and agree that the plane was where the Americans say it was. But they don’t agree that the water or airspace is international. They believe this area is the sovereign airspace of China, and that permission was needed for any military operations to take place inside it. And the slow, lumbering, propeller-driven signals-intelligence-gathering EP-3 aircraft that the U.S. Navy sent out that day from a base on Okinawa had manifestly not asked for permission. As a matter of policy, the Americans never seek permission to operate in the area. Hence the problem.

The aircraft was tracking slowly back home, having been in the air for some six hours. It was on autopilot, flying straight and level. The twenty technicians abaft were performing their routine tasks, listening to Chinese transmissions from down below. No one on the flight deck was especially surprised when two sleek Chinese navy fighter interceptors suddenly appeared alongside. This had happened before; the Chinese pilots had been quite friendly, acting almost as escorts, making sure the Americans didn’t stray off course. On one previous encounter, one of the pilots, a lieutenant commander named Wang Wei, had held up a greeting card, and came close enough for the Americans to be able to read his e-mail address through the cockpit.

On this April occasion Wang was back, and as before he made foolhardy attempts to approach the Americans’ aircraft—twice successfully and then, on a third try, coming up from beneath. Fatally, metal struck metal.

The top of his craft smashed into the underside of the American EP-3, damaging both planes and rendering them simultaneously well-nigh unflyable. The cockpit of Wang’s interceptor was crushed, and though he ejected, his parachute didn’t deploy properly and, as his broken jet spiraled down to crash into the sea, he hurtled to his death. His body was never found.

Lieutenant Shane Osborn, the American pilot, and the twenty-three crew with him (three were women) were rather more fortunate. Their plane had lost a propeller, there was a hole in the fuselage that caused it to lose pressure, its radar dome was broken off, part of the left wing was damaged, and its radio antenna wires were wrapped tightly around the tail, but as the aircraft screamed downward, losing three full miles of altitude, Osborn managed to wrestle it back under control, leveled out, slowed, and ordered everyone to prepare to bail out. But then he realized just how close he was to Hainan, and to the very air base from which Wang and his colleague must have departed. He decided to risk landing there, though no one at the base would answer his distress calls or give permission.

Nonetheless, he managed to get his plane and crew safely to the ground, albeit at a secret and seldom-visited Chinese air base. Once he managed to stop, the plane was immediately surrounded by dozens of heavily armed Chinese troops. They battered frantically on the sides of the fuselage while the crew inside did their best to destroy as much sensitive material as possible, and to wreck all their radios and radar. Once the Chinese jimmied open the end doors, the crew members were arrested, interrogated, and held for ten days—until the United States signed an apology and an admission of guilt and paid a $34,000 accommodation bill. Only then were the men and women released and flown by chartered passenger plane to Guam, and then by the U.S. Air Force to Hawaii. The Chinese held on to the EP-3, disassembled it, stripped it of any remaining secret apparatus, and finally returned it in pieces—minus its flight recorders. It came ignominiously back to America in wooden boxes, aboard a Russian cargo plane.

Lieutenant Osborn retired, and in due course became a politician, ending up as Nebraska’s state treasurer. Commander Wang’s widow received a personal letter of condolence from President George W. Bush. The incident, alarming to all, could have been very much worse. For the Americans, the event marked this particular corner of the Pacific as a place where their warplanes, on whatever kind of mission, should henceforward be exceptionally wary, a place in which to take the greatest of care.

Yet the flights went on, the sea patrols continued, most of them uninterrupted. And eight years later a similar event occurred, in a similar place, though this time it was on the sea.

It involved another American intelligence-gathering vehicle, working in almost exactly the same spot on the sea as the EP-3 had been operating above it: seventy miles southeast of Hainan Island. It was Thursday, March 5, 2009, and the curiously shaped ship USNS Impeccable, slow, unarmed, but new and highly sophisticated, was steadily towing a mile-long submarine-detecting aerial through the seas. Impeccable looks like an ungainly box of gray steel, built to be stable in the fiercest of seas, and her principal job is finding and tracking submarines and their weapons. Since she was, on this occasion, just a few hours’ sailing from China’s nuclear submarine base on Hainan, her purpose that spring was clear. The Chinese were in the process of testing their own brand-new nuclear-powered attack submarine, the type 093 Shang-class boat. Impeccable, civilian-manned and operated by a clandestine division of the giant Maersk container shipping line, was on station to find out about it.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese were less than amused when they discovered what was going on. A high-speed frigate suddenly appeared ahead, passing unannounced, and within yards of the American ship’s bow. From the north, a small Chinese aircraft flew across and, at an altitude of little more than five hundred feet, began flying back and forth above the ship. A radio message was then broadcast to the Americans: leave the area immediately or suffer the consequences. Impeccable ignored it, continued with her mission, playing out her aerials and listening for the signatures of any submerged Chinese boats.

Two days later, matters got nastier and more risible. Five hitherto unseen Chinese vessels, three of them armed, the others rusting trawlers, came alongside and began harassing the Impeccable. The Chinese sailors aboard used grappling hooks to try to snag the Impeccable’s 155-ton towed array and dropped balks of timber into the sea directly beneath the American’s bows, forcing this most clumsy of ships to try to swerve and compelling her to dodge and then come to an emergency stop when one of the trawlers, not at all worried about being hit herself, sliced in front.

Being unarmed, the Impeccable had as her only available response her fire hoses, which the crew turned on full force whenever a Chinese ship came too close. But it was a hot day, and flat calm, and the Chinese men simply stripped to their undershorts and pranced around on deck, luxuriating in the streams of cool water.

By now the American captain was boxed in and stopped, essentially imprisoned. He radioed Hawaii for instructions. Should he destroy all his sophisticated equipment, burn all the records of intercepts, smash his hard drives? Hawaii said no—just leave. Ask permission to go. So the Impeccable, tail between her legs, asked the Chinese to back away and give her clear passage, and within moments, she was lumbering squarely off in an easterly direction. In an hour’s time, she was just a smudge of smoke on the eastern horizon, the Chinese ships exulting in having tweaked the American eagle’s tail feathers. It was left to the politicians in Washington to do the complaining, and to the diplomats to undertake the explaining.

But the lines had been drawn: the international waters that once had been, now no longer were. The Americans were going to have to get used to the new reality that the Chinese were not truly recognizing these as international waters. Washington could complain all it wanted, but this was not the South China Sea anymore; rather, it was China’s Sea, in the south. The White House swiftly rejected the impertinence, and followed up by ordering the navy to send out a sentry vessel, a powerful destroyer, to stand for a while alongside the Impeccable and her sister ships whenever they operated in this sensitive area of the ocean. The escorts remained on ordering the navy to send out a sentry vessel, a powerful destroyer, to stand for a while alongside the Impeccable and her sister ships whenever they operated in this sensitive area of the ocean. The escorts remained on station for some months, until the situation appeared to have calmed itself. Eventually they were brought home, and the Impeccable has worked unbothered ever since.

A third incident, which took place in this general area of the South China Sea, would reveal another aspect of the story: the extraordinary sensitivity that China is currently displaying, with regard not just to the use of her littoral waters, but also to the release of any information about the growth of her fast-emerging blue-water navy. Anyone paying too much attention to that particular phenomenon, to just how China might be expanding her navy, is these days told with abundant clarity that their interest is most unwelcome.

When word came that China’s first-ever aircraft carrier, the newly named fifty-three-thousand-ton Liaoning, was about to set sail on her first deployment, the highly nimble guided-missile destroyer USS Cowpens jumped at the chance to follow her.

The Liaoning had had a tortured and celebrated past. She was originally built for the Soviet navy, then transferred to Ukraine, but was never finished or taken to sea. China then bought her, though under cover of refashioning her into a casino, to be moored in the docks at the gamblers’ paradise of Macau. She was towed almost the entire way, and briefly broke free of her tow in a storm off Greece.

However, once safely in Chinese waters, and to the surprise of no one in U.S. Naval Intelligence, she was not taken to Macau, but sailed instead up to the North Pacific port of Dalian. She would spend years in dry dock there, being fitted out, given powerful engines, kitted out with weapons and electronics and, then, in good time, with the squadrons of aircraft that are essential to a carrier’s function. She was named Liaoning for the province in which she was completed, and was commissioned and handed over to what is formally called the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012, twenty-seven years after her keel was first laid down.

Now, on November 26, 2013, she left the Pacific port of Qingdao fully laden with aircraft and escorted by two destroyers and two missile frigates, heading south. She would be part of China’s first-ever carrier strike group, an essential component of naval power projection. Three days later, USS Cowpens slipped quietly out of Yokosuka and hurried to lock radar with and then tag well behind the Chinese strike group. They passed in convoy through the Strait of Taiwan, sailing out of the East China Sea and into the much more contentious waters of the South China Sea. Here the Cowpens came smack up against exactly the same kind of Chinese hostility that the EP-3 and the Impeccable had encountered before.

At first all was polite. On December 5, one of the two Chinese frigates broke away from the strike group and approached the American vessel, evidently trying to keep Cowpens well away from the Liaoning, which, with her massively tilted bow rendering her immediately recognizable, was sailing serenely along the horizon. Then the Chinese came on the radio: would the American ship, now well within the twenty-five-mile “inner defense layer” of the carrier strike group, kindly move away and let the PLA Navy conduct the “scientific research, tests and military drills” she had come to these waters to do?

The Cowpens’s captain, following his orders, replied with studied courtesy, that no, he certainly would not move away. These were international waters, open to all, and the Cowpens had innocent purposes only; he had every right to stay put. The Chinese frigate moved off, and yet, as she did so, a huge amphibious dock ship that had been standing by suddenly gunned its motors and sped directly into the path of Cowpens, which was forced to throw all her engines into full reverse and swerve to port in order to avoid what could have been a disastrous collision.

The two ships’ commanders then spoke to one another and agreed that good seamanship was desirable, and the affair was not repeated. Whether Cowpens gathered any useful information about Liaoning on her first outing is not known; all that is certain is that the question “Whose seas are these?”—the like of which had not been known until the Pinatubo eruption twenty years before—had caused alarm bells to ring again, as they have been ringing ever since.


And still the contagion spreads, and becomes ever broader. In recent years, China’s dominance of the South China Sea has been followed by attempts to impose similar hegemonic control over the East China Sea. A long-standing claim made by the Chinese to the disputed Diaoyu Islands, an uninhabited cluster northeast of Taiwan that the Japanese have long called the Senkaku Islands, was suddenly backed up in 2013 when the Beijing government declared the airspace overhead a restricted area, and demanded that all aircraft, civilian and military, report and seek permission before entering it.

A stunned Washington saw this as quite preposterous, said it would ignore it, and promptly flew a pair of huge, highly visible, and deliberately chosen B-52 strategic bombers from a base in Guam into and out of the area, refusing to tell anyone in advance, not filing flight plans, and not registering radio frequencies. There was no reaction, though China drily said it had “observed the violation.” Japanese Airlines initially said its passengers jets would obey the new rules, but backed down once the Americans showed their resolve. Korea said it would defy the ruling, though Taiwan said it would agree. And then the world piled on: Australia and Germany were the first to call in their Chinese ambassadors and complain, and in time the steady roar of opposition made the Chinese look foolish and petulant. But their rule remains in place, if honored more in the breach. An eventual armed incident, warned the German foreign ministry, was only made more probable by decisions such as this.


Meanwhile, the Chinese navy in particular keeps on getting larger and larger, its area of operations wider and wider; and from a Western perspective, its territorial claims ever more egregious. The concern spawned by this increase in China’s military ability has led to what is claimed to be a profoundly changed new American policy toward the Pacific region, one that has been, or is in the process of being, put in place.

America is presently tightening her focus on the Pacific, with a policy that enjoys two names, neither of them especially inspiring: there is the pivot, and there is the rebalance. Moreover, the proposed style of military response enjoys two names as well: From when it was first formulated in 2009 until its rebranding at the end of 2014, it was known as the Air-Sea Battle concept. But since a lengthy policy memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was circulated on January 8, 2015, it has become known as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. This last came with a supposedly helpful explanation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, telling users of the idea’s official pronunciation: it is to be referred to in conversation as the JAM-Gee-Cee.

Whatever the semantics, all that the name suggests is that America’s military has, since 2009, demanded the authority and the budget to do things differently in this very different new world. According to this memo, it plans to tilt its strategic attention away from Europe, away from worrying about Ukraine and the Baltic, away from the intractable tar baby problems of the Middle East. It plans instead to gaze toward the formidable and ever-gathering challenge of China and the swiftly evolving realities of the new Pacific. The Atlantic and the Mediterranean present no more than a thankless quagmire; the Pacific presents challenges to be overcome in order to offer America and China a high-speed excursion into a brighter future.

But what does China want, and what is it planning? Thus far, efforts to come up with coherent answers to either of these two basic questions have met with only limited success.

Two names, however, keep surfacing. On the Chinese side, there is the late Admiral Liu Huaqing, the revered architect of the country’s long-term naval strategy, the Chinese equivalent of Alfred Mahan or of Teddy Roosevelt. The plan China appears to be undertaking today was essentially laid down and promoted by the admiral and his political superior Deng Xiaoping, in 1985. At the time, both men were well on in years: the admiral was seventy, the Chinese leader eighty-one. They were old friends, die-hard Communist revolutionaries, Long March veterans, and as it happens, true visionaries, men whose thinking has had a major impact on the warp-speed development of China in recent decades.


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