Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dredging Up Ancient Claims

We flew over waters in the South China Sea that international law says are international waters but which China says is there territory because they considered it their own for many centuries when the Middle Kingdom was all that mattered on Earth.

China did not like our Freedom of Navigation flight by a P-8 naval recon plane:

"This is the Chinese navy ... This is the Chinese navy ... Please go away ... to avoid misunderstanding," a voice in English crackled through the radio of the aircraft in which CNN was present.

It will get really interesting when we sail warships close to China's islands through these waters. We could sail right up to the edge of their recently built artificial islands without violating territorial waters under international law.

But the Chinese don't see it that way. They reacted to our PACOM commander, Admiral Harris, who told Senators in a committee hearing that we should conduct freedom of navigation missions with ships and planes near China's islands:

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China was "extremely concerned" about the comments and China opposed "any country challenging China's sovereignty and security in the name of protecting freedom of navigation".

"We demand that the relevant country speak and act cautiously, earnestly respect China's sovereignty and security interests, and not take any risky or provocative acts," Hong said at a daily news briefing.

Fortunately for China's expansive claims, the pivot to Asia is for show only, apparently (and to futilely pivot away from the Middle East, of course):

“The administration has continued to restrict our Navy ships from operating within 12 nautical miles of China’s reclaimed islands,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said in opening remarks criticizing the failure to guarantee safe passage for international commercial ships in Asia.

“This is a dangerous mistake that grants de facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereignty claims,” he said.

I wondered how close we were getting. Not close enough, it seems.

Because of military weakness, China hasn't been able to enforce their traditional view of territory (what I say is mine is mine and yours is negotiable) for a long time. Now they believe they can and we shall see how far they push these claims if we push back--as we must.

The Chinese are willing to be reckless.

But if we don't push back, Sansha becomes a reality.

China will probably invite our president to visit their "city of Sansha"--perhaps to receive the Confucius Peace Prize (the Khadaffi human rights prize is, of course, out of reach now)--and the president will accept.

UPDATE: And the Philippines is dredging up a not-so-ancient alliance:

In a flash of anticolonialist fervor nearly a quarter-century ago, lawmakers in the Philippines expelled the United States from an enormous naval base here, then the largest overseas outpost of the American military. Promising to break free from the “shackles of dictatorship,” they declared that foreign troops would never return.

But with China forcefully pressing its claim to a vast expanse of sea west of here, the Philippines is now debating whether to welcome the United States Navy back to the deepwater docks, airstrips and craggy shores of Subic Bay[.]

We left because we were told to leave. Experience teaches that China isn't as cooperative when they sink their teeth into a piece of territory (even if they have to build it to be big enough to get a good grip).

UPDATE: China is running interference in defense of their claims:

“The department is reviewing a report from U.S. [Pacific Command] regarding a Sept. 15 intercept of a U.S. RC-135 by two JH-7 aircraft from the People’s Republic of China,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told USNI News on Tuesday.
“One of the maneuvers conducted by a PRC aircraft during the intercept was perceived as unsafe by the RC-135 aircrew. At this point there is no indication that there was a ‘near collision’.”

USNI News understands one of the Xian JH-7 Flounder fighters crossed about 500 feet in front of the nose of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft.

And a reminder about the artificial islands that I've noted before--the islands don't create Chinese territorial waters, so we would not actually be entering Chinese territorial waters by going close to them.

Remember, we take no position on who owns islands--real or artificial. We insist that disputes be settled peacefully, however. Especially against our allies, of course.

We also insist that any sovereignty does not extend beyond 12 miles and that the South China Sea is international water. The existence of an exclusive economic zone does not allow China to assert territorial water claims within the EEZ and deny access to our military planes and aircraft.

So that's where we stand. China says the sea is basically their territory and we stand behind international law that says no it isn't.

UPDATE: China continues to build like they plan to stay:

Aerial and satellite photos indicate that Chinese military construction efforts on Woody Island (one of the disputed Paracel Islands) are largely complete. The garrison consists of a battalion of naval infantry (not quite marines but close) and a 2,300 meter long air strip. This is long enough to support warplanes and commercial transports as large as Boeing 737s (which China has a lot of). A school building was completed in 2013 for the 40 children of officials and their families stationed there. There is an artificial harbor that can handle ships of up to 5,000 ton displacement.

Stay. And more to the point, keep others out of what under international law are international waters.