The National Interest recently posted a confused and confusing exchange of views on China’s intentions in the South China Sea. Gordon Chang, a well-known Asia policy pundit, argued in his initial analysis that China is “itching for a confrontation.” His analysis came to this conclusion because China publicly and strenuously criticized the January 17, 2018 innocent passage of the USS Hopper near Scarborough Shoal while the US remained silent. James Holmes of the US Naval War College responded to Chang’s analysis arguing that China does not really want confrontation in the South China Sea. Chang then continued the dialogue with a rejoinder to Holmes that quotes extensively from other ‘experts’ that both support and disagree with his thesis.
Holmes argued that “linguistic precision … constitutes a virtue of no small moment not just for commentators but for practitioners of statecraft.” I agree, but both Chang and Holmes’ analyses fail to employ such “linguistic precision.” I also agree with Holmes that “the give and take of debate yield better insights.” In this spirit I delineate the myths, misinformation and contradictions that make the Chang-Holmes exchange of views confused and confusing.
Holmes’ opinion is that Chang “takes his brief for Chinese belligerence just a trifle too far but that is a trifle that could beget errant strategy.” Indeed, it is a dangerous exaggeration. China has long expressed its objection to such US Navy probes as being provocative and dangerous. Doing so again — with bombast — is not new or out of the ordinary. Moreover, its reaction is no more aggressive or provocative than the US probes in what China perceives to be its strategic maritime “frontier.” It is the US that has changed its policy to now not commenting on specific probes and just issuing an annual summary.
Chang says we should think of Scarborough Shoal as “this century’s Sudetenland.” This was a part of then-Czechoslovakia that Hitler invaded using as an excuse the aggrieved German-speaking population there. But Scarborough Shoal has no oppressed irredentist-minded population to serve as an excuse for its incorporation into either China or the Philippines. Moreover, China has as valid or as weak a claim to sovereignty over it as the Philippines.
Scarborough Shoal is well within the 200 nautical mile (nm) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Chang cites this fact as evidence that China is “asserting squatters rights.” But the feature’s location in the Philippine EEZ has no bearing on sovereignty over it. There are many examples of countries claiming or having acknowledged sovereignty over territory within another nation’s EEZ. They are known as enclaves or semi-enclaves. Examples include the French territories of St. Pierre and Miquelon located 16 miles off Canada’s coast and surrounded on three sides by Canada’s EEZ, and England’s Channel Islands in France’s EEZ. Several of the Spratly rocks could become foreign-owned enclaves within the EEZs of Malaysia, the Philippines, or Vietnam. Holmes’s response repeats this myth of an enveloping EEZ affecting the sovereignty of a legal rock.
Chang also incorrectly states that the “July 2016 Hague decision applying the UN Convention of Law of the Sea holds that the shoal does not confer a twelve-nautical mile band of territorial water.” Holmes’ response also includes this item of misinformation. On the contrary, the Permanent Court of Arbitration found that Scarborough Shoal is a high tide feature — a rock that does generate a 12 nm territorial sea.
As evidence of China’s modus operandi, Chang quotes Yu Maochun’s example of China seizing the Paracels from South Vietnam by use of force after the US had pulled its forces out of South Vietnam.
Chang approvingly quotes Holmes in a personal communication as saying that “we’re always taking leaders to task for ‘self-defeating behavior’ and that the anonymous official quoted in press accounts as saying the Hopper passage was an ‘innocent passage’ is guilty of that behavior.” Holmes’ response to Chang elaborates this view:
“So if Hopper indeed executed an innocent passage past Scarborough Shoal, and if the Pentagon branded it as such, the operation conceded what it purported to dispute that China can command sovereignty over geographic features deep within a neighboring coastal state’s offshore exclusive economic zone.”
His analysis also characterizes the anonymous Pentagon spokesperson and the Pentagon — in Holmes’ words, “the Pentagon might be” — “befuddled.”
But the Hopper’s innocent passage within 12 nm of Scarborough Shoal does not mean the US has acknowledged Chinese sovereignty. The feature is also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan. By executing an innocent passage, the US recognized it is a feature entitled to sovereign ownership and that whoever is the sovereign is entitled to a 12 nm territorial sea in which innocent passage is the appropriate navigational regime for a foreign warship.
In his rejoinder to Holmes, Chang refers to Yu Maochun of the US Naval Academy who says that rather than “winning without fighting,” as Holmes suggests is China’s strategy, confrontation with the US is inevitable. Chang argues that China is an “opportunist” and concludes that “when Beijing thinks it can confront but also do so with force,” it will do so. He goes on to say that China wants more than just to provoke a confrontation — it also wants to “pull the trigger,” whatever that means.
As evidence of China’s modus operandi, Chang quotes Yu’s example of China seizing the Paracels from South Vietnam by use of force after the US had pulled its forces out of South Vietnam. But confronting Vietnam with force over the ownership of a few small islands that it believes it owns is a far cry from confronting the US militarily on a broad scale in the South China Sea.
Chang also refers to Yu’s argument that “peace in the South China Sea requires constant deterrence (of China) and that the US is the only state that can do this.” Perhaps so, but he follows this assertion immediately with a quote from another “expert,” Andrew Corr, that “neither China nor the US wants even a small war in the South China Sea.” This is contradictory and thus confusing.
Chang then warns that China’s “ambition is growing,” and that Beijing is now thinking beyond the “cow’s tongue” — its discredited historic claim to rocks, waters, and/or resources in most of the South China Sea. As an example, he cites the December 15, 2016 incident in which a Chinese warship removed from the water a US unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) in the Philippine-claimed EEZ. The UUV had been deployed by the Bowditch, a US Navy oceanographic surveillance ship. After several days of China-US verbal tit-for-tat, the Chinese warship returned the UUV.
China of course has a different view of this incident. China’s Defense Ministry said that its navy had taken an “unidentified object” (the UUV) out of the water “in order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels,” and that this is a duty of mariners. According to UNCLOS Article 94 (Duties of the Flag State), “every state shall take such measures for ships flying its flag as are necessary to ensure safety at sea.” After verifying that the device was an American UUV, China returned it. China’s perspective is that its removal of the drone from the water was not a “theft.” On the contrary, to China it was a professional contribution to the safety of navigation. Whether or not this was the real motive behind China’s action, the incident was hardly evidence of China “thinking beyond the cow’s tongue” or of its “growing ambition.”
Chang concludes by saying “China may not want confrontation. Yet whether China desires confrontation should no longer be at issue.” Huh? Chang and Holmes’ dialogue is riddled with myths, misinformation, and contradictions, and thus leaves the reader quite confused.