Tuesday, November 03, 2015

What Next in South China Sea?

For the past six months countries around the South China Sea littoral have been waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.

After all, Washington had been promising to challenge China’s new artificial islands since May when it first tested the waters with air and sea naval patrols that skirted the claimed territorial waters around them.

Now that the shoe has finally dropped with the recent voyage of the U.S.S Lassen through the Spratly Islands, briefly dipping inside the supposed 12-mile territorial limit of Subi Reef, one of three in the Spratly chain that China as turned into artificial islands.

Beijing summoned the American Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, to the foreign ministry to receive an official protest that the United States had violated its territorial waters. They complained that the voyage was a “deliberate provocation.”

Of course, nobody expected that the Chinese navy would actually open fire on the unescorted American destroyer, even though it was closely shadowed by a Chinese frigate and smaller patrol boat.

It is plausible that in this past six-month waiting period which Washington used to consult with allies and other friendly countries in Southeast Asia about the coming “FON” Freedom of Navigation mission, it had worked out a deal.

The Chinese may have said something like “we’ll let you make your point this once with only pro-forma protests, but don’t make a habit out of it.” The trouble is that Washington wants to make a habit of it.

Said Sen. Cory Gardner, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee after the first FO mission, “This cannot be a one-off; it must be regular.” The Wall Street Journal chimed in with an editorial blast: “one mission isn’t enough.”

Then again, how much of that is smoke and mirrors, as the U.S. Navy says in the future that it is too busy with other missions to spend much time sailing around the Spratly Islands.

At the moment, the region is waiting for the next shoe to drop, active intervention by China. Repeated in-your-face missions by the U.S. Navy might force China to do something besides make verbal protests.

China’s army of extreme nationalistic netizens and retired military officer pundits are already berating the Chinese leadership for cravingly capitulating to the Americans. “China only flaps its lips,” was one typical comment reported on Weibo.

Beijing may be more inclined to follow these challenges if the United States enlists allies into making regular joint patrols of the Spratly island region. The Philippines would be eager to join such patrol, though it lacks the assets, or to make bases available to other countries.

No other country in Southeast Asia so eagerly supported Washington’s actions in the South China Sea than the Philippines. Manila has been very aggressive since it was humiliated in 2012 the Chinese when seized Scarborough Shoal.

It was the only country in Southeast Asia that actually congratulated the Japanese government for passing the controversial security legislation allowing it to cooperate more closely with allies and partners and undertake foreign missions.

The new security laws would probably make it legally possible for Japanese naval craft to join in joint patrols, but Tokyo does not appear overly eager to take its part. Its reaction to the voyage of the Lassen was surprisingly muted.

The initial response by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged restraint and said he would not comment on “each” American patrol. Deep in Central Asia, where he was visiting Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed support for the operation.

“In order to protect a free, open and peaceful sea, we will cooperate with the international community, including the United States, our ally,” he said. However, he did not promise anything more than verbal support.

The Japanese government only recently went through a wrenching period in passing the unpopular security law and obviously is not eager commit itself to foreign adventures so soon. Shigeru Ishiba a former defense minister and hawk said the recent legislation “had nothing to do with the South China Sea.”

Also Japanese military assets are stretched then just patrolling the East China Sea, where China disputes ownership of the Senkaku islands.

Australia issued a strong statement in support of the patrol, but Canberra may be less eager to take part in new ones under the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who is less hawkish than his predecessor.

Visiting Washington, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo urged restraint by all parties. No statements on the patrols came from Vietnam or Malaysia, both of whom have territorial claims and other beefs with China in the South China Sea.

China watchers are busy parsing the language that is coming out of Beijing to anticipate its next moves should the PON patrols be repeated, especially with other partners. Does it matter, for example, that Beijing described the American action as a “threat’ to its sovereignty and not a “violation.”?

The Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party, has called for “anti-harrassing” operations, which could include having their naval vessels’  radar lock on the American chips, something usually seen as an aggressive action. Or, the Chinese could fly aircraft directly over the American ships.

Beijing could also announce that it is establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Spratly’s, similar to the one it established two years ago in the East China Sea. It would cover civilian air traffic on a line between Manila and Singapore and Jakarta.