Debate over China Takes a Dangerous Turn
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Mark J. Valencia

Debate over China Takes a Dangerous Turn

Oct. 10, 2018  |     |  1 comments

The National Interest claims to contribute “a vital stimulus towards fashioning a new foreign policy consensus based on civil and enlightened contention.” But the personal attacks by Gordon Chang on Lyle Goldstein posted in the National Interest are beneath the customary standards of professional academic discourse. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. More experienced academics may shrug them off as peculiar to Chang. But they are dangerous and set a poor example for those just entering the field.

Chang’s initial diatribe against Lyle Goldstein and his article contains several inappropriate innuendos. The “teaser” for Chang’s polemic is “Lyle Goldstein does not advocate Beijing taking Taiwan over, but the policies that he promotes would lead to that result.” In Chang’s vitriolic response to Goldstein’s rejoinder, he alleges that Goldstein “endorses pro-Beijing arguments that have now been discredited.” According to Chang: “Maybe Goldstein wishes to accede to Chinese demands and therefore end up at Beijing’s mercy.” Chang’s bizarre concluding statement in his response to Goldstein’s rejoinders is: “Wars start because aggressors read articles like Lyle Goldstein’s and think they can take what they want.” This nasty innuendo implies that Goldstein’s article could lead to the initiation of war. Similar insinuations of ‘being soft on communism’ resulted in innocent people being harassed and “blacklisted” during the McCarthy era. Is this Chang’s intention? He underscores that Goldstein is a professor at the US Naval War College, as if such a person in his position should be more hawkish on China. In criticizing Chang’s responses, I suppose I expose myself to similar innuendos from Chang. So be it. Someone has to stand up for civility in academic discourse.

Chang’s responses are also substantively facile, hyperbolic and replete with inaccuracies On March 8, 2009, according to the Pentagon, “five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable in an apparent co-ordinated effort to harass the US navy ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters” in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Regarding the Impeccable incident, Chang asserts that China’s attempt “to sever the towed sonar array in the South China Sea was an act of war.” That is an extreme interpretation of what happened and its implications. This incident was a result of different interpretations of relevant UNCLOS provisions.

China is among more than 160 nations that have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) including all the maritime powers save for the US. Indeed, the US is among a small minority that has not ratified it, although it maintains that most of it is binding customary law. However, customary law is constantly evolving based on state practice, as are the meanings of specific terms used but are undefined in UNCLOS.

The Convention was a package deal with many “bargains” between the maritime powers and the developing countries including extensive navigational rights for maritime powers in exchange for the deep seabed mining provisions. After representing the interests of maritime power in the negotiations that resulted in these grand bargains, the US chose not to ratify the Convention. As a non-party, it has little credibility picking and choosing those provisions and interpretations favorable to it.

In a June 2013 incident also involving the Impeccable, a Chinese vessel warned the Impeccable that “it was operating illegally and that China had not granted permission for it to be there.” This gives a clue as to the differing positions that underlie these incidents. As then CINCPAC Commander Admiral Locklear said: “The US position is that those activities are less constrained that what the Chinese believe,” and “the US and China disagree on UN definitions of controlled waters.”

There are several problems with Chang’s apparent position on the incidents. First of all, there is no such thing in UNCLOS as “international waters.” “International waters” is a term used by the US Navy to indicate areas where it thinks it has unconstrained navigational freedom. The term is imprecise and confusing and its use should be discontinued. The incidents occurred in China’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

I and many others disagree with Chang that Chinese “expansionism” is “the most important geopolitical issue facing the world.” I would suggest that the threat of nuclear war, climate change and a sharply deteriorating US-Russia relationship give it stiff competition.

The legal underpinnings of the US position which Chang apparently supports are tenuous. The mission of the Impeccable was to use both passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to enable detection and tracking of undersea threats enemy submarines, mines and torpedoes. China maintains that what the US has been doing in its EEZ is marine scientific research and UNCLOS requires its consent to undertake it. However, the US distinguishes between marine scientific research, which requires consent, and hydrographic and military surveys, that the US maintains do not require consent.


But critics of the US position point out that collection of data that is specifically for a military purpose may also shed light on resources in the area, over which China has sovereignty per the Convention. Moreover, the Convention says that “the deployment and use of any type of scientific research equipment in any area of the marine environment shall be subject to the same conditions for the conduct of marine scientific research in any such area.” This means that in a foreign EEZ it must have the consent of the coastal state. That would seem to tip this argument in favor of China. Regarding the “harassment” of the Impeccable, China would presumably argue that its vessels were not “harassing” it but only trying to persuade it to cease violating what China says is both international law and its law.


According to Chang, China’s December 2016 “seizure of a US Navy drone” in the Philippines’ EEZ was also an act of war. The US military said the Bowditch a US Navy survey ship that launched the underwater drone was carrying out scientific research in “international waters” (actually the Philippines claimed EEZ).


China’s Defense Ministry explained that the Chinese navy had taken an “unidentified object” (the underwater drone) out of the water “in order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels”. Arguably this is a duty of mariners. China criticized US hyping of the incident as “theft.”


China also argued that the activities of drones are a legal “grey area” in which the law is unclear. Relevant legal questions are whether the “sovereign immunity” clause extends to drones launched from state vessels; and did the Bowditch, by deploying the drones in the vicinity of another vessel, violate the duty to exercise “due regard” for the rights of other states, in this case the duty not to present a hazard to navigation?


Chang goes on to allege that “China’s repeated violation of Japanese airspace over and waters surrounding the Senkakus” is “belligerent.” As Chang himself acknowledges, China (and Taiwan) claim the Senkakus as its (their) Diaoyutais and therefore the airspace over and waters around them are disputed. In China’s view, it is Japan that is being belligerent in purchasing them from their private owners and sending Self-Defense Forces to defend them.


More importantly, it would appear that Chang does not fully understand the significance of what is transpiring. He asserts that Beijing is undertaking an “all-out assault on legal norms.” The differences are more profound than this facile and hyperbolic assessment. The US wants to strengthen the existing status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron. But China believes it is being constrained by the existing “international order” whose origins have their roots in the colonial era and its “century of humiliation.” China wants respect for its enhanced status and its “core interests” and therefore wants to bend the system to its benefit just as the US did during its rise, and still does when it is in its interest to do so. Indeed, under the Trump administration such norms of the “international order” are being frequently violated by the US.

More worrying, Chang approvingly quotes retired US naval intelligence officer James Fannel that “direct and unambiguous military deterrence by the US” can keep the peace. Perhaps it can temporarily but without addressing the fundamental differences, it would more likely lead to violent conflict and even war.


I and many others disagree with Chang that Chinese “expansionism” is “the most important geopolitical issue facing the world.” I would suggest that the threat of nuclear war, climate change and a sharply deteriorating US-Russia relationship give it stiff competition.


Chang appears to be willing to risk the lives of millions of people by having the US President “publicly declare the US will consider an attack against Taiwan an attack on itself.” His view is “black or white.” Either the US confronts China militarily or it does not and if it does not it makes “conflict extremely likely.” Apparently, Chang does not believe in diplomacy or compromise which is a reasonable alternative to a war neither party can “win”.


Hopefully our government is wise enough not to listen to or agree with Chang’s emotional extremism. Apparently, many analysts in the field do not.

1 Comments To This Article

  • onibaba

    on Oct 11, 2018 at 02:21 PM - Reply


    Thank you Sir for addressing Gordon Chang's belligerent and highly misinformed response to one of the few scholarly and sober articles I've seen come out of this country that addresses the South China Sea. When we look at the intersection of trade and militarization, Washington's polemic on the South China Sea has only intensified that nexus. If one considers that the Obama-Clinton Asia Pacific Rebalance was little more than a China-containment strategy based on highly nuanced historical inaccuracies, the Trump administration simply throws all caution to the wind. Additionally, the bigger picture that needs to be addressed is that it is not China that has caused the decline of U.S. economic influence, it is the unsustainable pre-crisis economic policy that led to the 2008 financial crash. Nearly a decade of containment and China-blame will not sustainably fix the failed pre-crisis economic order, but by working within the frame of Dodd-Franks Wall Street Reform and collaborating with China and the EU on a sustainable economic order, now that would be a good use of U.S. vision, credibility, and leadership.

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