Initial Steps Towards a Right-Sized, Targeted Approach to Maritime Stability in the Western Pacific, Part 1
Posted by Bill R. French
The ongoing spat between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea highlights increasing maritime instability in the Western Pacific. While the standoff between the world’s second and third largest economies is troubling enough, the crisis is but the latest in a series of serious maritime disputes involving the Peoples Republic of China. Until this flare up, the epicenter of territorial and maritime disputes in East Asia had been concentrated in the South China Sea where, for example, a major standoff took place between Beijing and the Philippines in April-May of this year over the Scarborough Shoal.
While the severity of China’s behavior in these disputes has eased slightly compared to previous years, the intensity and frequency of dispute-driven tensions remains well above the relative calm seen in the previous 15 years or so. And although the disputes have not returned to the feverous peaks of the 1970s and 1980s which witnessed two limited naval wars between China and Vietnam (ending in China occupying features of the Parcel Islands), the future remains uncertain – especially as Chinese power grows.
Thinking Through a Way Forward: U.S. Interests and Objectives
Underlying American economic interests – and security commitments – gives the United States a strong stake in the stability of the Western Pacific. While the situation is not as dire as some have portrayed, American policymakers should be considering options to bolster stability and moderate the trajectory of maritime disputes in the region. This entails addressing instability in both the East and South China Seas. Unfortunately, though the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute and the Scarborough Shoal standoff have been widely discussed, few American commentators have proposed constructive ways forward. Even fewer have proposed ways forward that are readily available, near-term options -- what will therefore be the focus of the recommendations found below.
In actionable terms, bolstering stability and moderating the trajectory of these disputes would entail the following objectives:
- Further blunt Chinese assertiveness in pressing its claims;
- Better incentivize Beijing to diplomatically engage the relevant parties in the South China Sea and East China Sea to ease tensions and minimize the risk of future escalations;
- Reassure U.S. partners regularly locked in disputes with Beijing, especially the Philippines and Japan who are both U.S. treaty partners; and
- Take the necessary steps to reassure the Chinese that such measures are not intended to contain China.
The most vital – and most difficult – of these objectives is to incentivize China to relax its behavior and take diplomacy more seriously as a way ease - and eventually resolve -- its disputes. For example, while Beijing plays lip service to diplomatic solutions to maritime disputes, it has all but abandoned cooperation with efforts to establish a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. China seriously returning to these diplomatic efforts should be the primary midterm goal of any maritime stability strategy developed by the United States for the region.
U.S Options: A Targeted, Goldilocks Approach to Enhancing Current Policy
Of course, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to achieve these ends. A set of options will need to be jointly pursued. In developing options, it is important to avoid overreactios that would inflame Chinese insecurities about American power in the Pacific. Too strong of U.S. action risks a counterproductive outcome; too little risks failing to affect an outcome at all. In other words, Washington needs a 'right-sized' approach.
To accomplish these ends, the U.S. should take steps to enhance its current policy. That policy has been thin but clear: while the U.S. takes no positions on the claims themselves, maritime and territorial disputes in the Western Pacific should be resolved peacefully and through negotiated settlement. In the South China Sea, this policy includes other aspects, most notably that negotiations to resolve disputes should be multilateral and claims should be based on land features, not arbitrary maritime areas. While the American policy has been elaborated little more than this – making it fairly thin – the pivot to the Pacific has bolstered the policy by reinforcing American power and may have helped to moderate Chinese behavior, according to MIT professor Taylor Fravel.
The key challenge before policymakers now is to develop more targeted ways of applying American power to the disputes to achieve the ends like those outlined above. The following could form the basis of such a targeted, right-sized approach:
The more situational awareness the United States possesses, the more information it can share with its partners who find themselves embroiled in disputes with Beijing. And it times of crisis, a better informed actor is less likely to make mistakes that can lead to inadvertent escalation or conflict. This is especially the case in the Western Pacific, where the sheer size of an enormous maritime domain is itself an intelligence challenge.
Moreover, the complex nature of dispute-drive interactions with Beijing is inherently murky. In addition to the large and diverse Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China operates multiple maritime security agencies that take the lead in enforcing Beijing's claims. China also regularly uses civilian fisherman in connection to the disputes (Beijing recently threatened Tokyo with an armada of 1,000 fishing vessels, for instance, though this threat never materialized). Being able to distinguish Chinese threats from reality, gaining advanced warning of inbound vessels that may engage in provocative actions, and even being able to identify in advance what vessels from what agency that China is committing can all prove useful to the decision making of American partners.
The most readily available option to enhance U.S. maritime awareness the Western Pacific is through the deployment of unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. The USAF already operates an orbit of RQ-4 Global Hawks from of Anderson Air Force Base on Guam to conduct over flights around the Senkaky/Diogyu Islands. There have been conflicting reports that the Philippines have requested the US base unmanned ISR assets in its territory to help monitor the South China Sea. If such an option is diplomatically possible, it should be pursued with the deployment of additional drones, ideally RQ-4 Broad Aerial Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) variants scheduled achieve Initial Operating Capability in 2015. The deployment of Global Hawks to Darwin, Australia as part of the 2011 US-Australian rotational basing agreement should also be considered depending upon operational need, Australian sensitivities and the strength of the signal policymakers wish to send Beijing.
For context, such measures may merely be keeping pace with China’s own activities. These include a further increase in reconnaissance satellites to monitor the region on top of an already considerable space-based capability in this area, plans to station reconnaissance drones in at least 11 airfields along its Eastern coastline, and specific plans to use unmanned systems to feed intelligence directly to maritime law enforcement agencies typically involved in disputes.
Finally, it should also be noted that expanding American maritime surveillance would send a subtle but definite message about U.S. military capabilities in the region. In the unlikely event of conflict, maritime awareness will be vital to effective military operations, necessary for identifying, tracking and targeting enemy vessels at range. Thus, expanding U.S. ISR capabilities beyond current space-based systems and Global Hawks in Guam would meaningfully enhance American military muscle in the region while also complicating PLA planning – both powerful signals to Beijing.
Yet, this signal would be a ‘right-sized.’ The move does not actually involve deploying additional weapons – Global Hawks are unarmed – making such measures both less escalatory than most alternatives and demonstrative of calculated restraint
As mentioned above, one of the particular characteristics of Chinese assertiveness in maritime disputes is the use of non-PLAN vessels belonging to a number of law enforcement agencies, including the Coast Guard, Maritime Safety Administration, State Oceanic Administration and Fisheries Law Enforcement Command. Not only does this tactic allow Beijing to assert itself aggressively while minimizing the risk of military confrontation, but it also advances Beijing’s claims in a particular way. Patrolling areas claimed as territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zones with law enforcement vessels reinforces the claim that the waters in question are under Chinese sovereignty rather than, say, simple military control.
With this in mind, using the U.S. Coast Guard to regularly train alongside the maritime enforcement organizations of American partners, especially Japan and the Philippines, would be an appealing option. First and most obviously, any U.S. training alongside partners improves their ability to police their maritime areas of interest and help ensure their claims are not simply steamrolled by Beijing. Second, improved readiness of Philippine and Japanese Coast Guards – the Philippines in particular – decreases the likelihood of dangerous errors during crisis. Third, ideally, more capable Coast Guard forces reduce the need for less equipped states like the Philippines to use their Navies in disputes, as Manila did in its most recent spat over the Scarborough Shoal earlier this year. Because of its mission set as a law enforement agency, the Cost Guard is in a unique postition to fullfill these roles beyond already existing U.S. Navy engagement.
For these reasons, the United States should also consider assisting the development of a more robust Philippine Coast Guard through financing and donating vessels, as it has done for the Philippine Navy. This would help to keep the disputes limited to law enforcement agencies, lessoning the risks of escalation.
Critically, U.S. Coast Guard involvement signals both greater U.S. commitment and restraint. On the one hand, U.S. law enforcement engagement deepens American support of its partners, moving cooperation into a relevant realm thus far neglected. On the other hand, because this would be engagement by law enforcement and not the U.S. Navy, which is already thoroughly engaged, the move would be comparatively non-threatening.
It would be wrong to suggest that U.S. Coast Guard engagement and an expanded maritime surveillance system would not invite Chinese response. If China perceives itself threatened by the United States, it will respond accordingly. While the United States routinely expresses that U.S. actions are intended to ensure American economic interests and the attendant interests of stability and access, Chinese officials – especially those within the PLA – perceive this as rhetorical cover for what may be in fact an American-led containment strategy against Beijing. This is one facet of the larger problem of the Sino-U.S. strategic distrust.
Therefore, even the relatively modest actions like those outlined above must be accompanied by initiatives that demonstrate to the Chinese that American motivations are not threatening. Idealy, these initiatives should also build cooperation. This not only can disarm Chinese hawks, but empower moderates within the Chinese foreign policy community.
In this case, the United States is slowing moving the right direction. In his recent trip to China, for example, Secretary Panetta invited China to participate in the next RIMPAC military exercise. Located off the coast of Hawaii, RIMPAC is the largest multilateral naval exercise in the world and has attracted criticism by Beijing as being directed against China. Both factors make it a sensible candidate for trust-building through cooperation.
But more endeavors are needed, particularly those with more specific, targeted relevance to maritime and territorial disputes.
One candidate would be to conduct joint PLAN – U.S. Navy counter piracy operations in the Strait of Malacca. The United States and China have already successfully completed multiple counter piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. Building on this cooperation and bringing it closer to the geopgrahical areas of mistrust between Beijing and Washington could pay dividends.
In this regard, The Strait of Malacca is ideal for three reasons. First, it is within the Western Pacific, the area where distrust and hotspots in the U.S. – China relationship are most prevalent. Second, counter piracy operations are a type of interaction with which the PLAN and U.S. Navy already have experience. Third, because such a large portion of East Asia’s trade and petrol imports depend upon a stable and freely accessible Malacca Strait, U.S.-Chinese cooperation here would serve a very real common interest. Moreover, such cooperation would also communicate to Beijing that Washington’s controlling interests in the region are really access and stability, not the containment of Chinese power, and that the United States is content to share power with China to ensure those interests.In a follow up post, I'll present other initial steps the United States can take and review how the recommendations fit together to achieve desired ends.