- - Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Aside from failing to provide any meaningful support to curb North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear weapons programs, China continues with its bullying and aggressive tactics to advance its totalitarian control of both the South and East China Seas. China’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea clash with those of Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — but only China is trying to impose control on the whole region.

China unilaterally has reclaimed over 3,000 acres of land from submerged rocks and shoal water in this international waterway. They have built three airfields of approximately 10,000 feet in length and have fortified their man-made islands with anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems. These man-made islands have, in fact, become stationary “aircraft carriers” with hangers for up to 26 fighter attack aircraft, posing a direct threat to smaller islands held by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and threatening the larger Philippine island of Palawan.

To show our displeasure, President Trump has conducted several “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations to challenge China’s illegal actions, some of which have passed within 12 nautical miles of their man-made islands. Twelve nautical miles marks the territorial limits of a sovereign nation’s coastline or legitimate territory but the U.S. position is that it does not apply to man-made islands.

To make this point clear to China as well as to our allies, in March of 2017, the USS John S. McCain sailed within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. China claimed that the McCain’s route “severely undermines China’s sovereignty and security.” This is pure nonsense and has no basis in international law.

In reference to these internationally recognized freedom of navigation operations, China’s President Xi Jinping stated in marking the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army that he has vowed to “defeat all invasions.” Freedom of navigation operations clearly are not “invasions.” In July 2017, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane operating in internationally recognized airspace was forced to take evasive action after an unsafe close intercept by two Chinese J-10 fighter jets.

The U.S. Navy has established a pattern on freedom of navigation operations to challenge China’s claims to these illegal islands. For example, the USS Lassen in October 2015 conducted a transit within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef. This was the first instance when the U.S. breached the 12 nautical miles limit since China began its massive dredging operations to turn these underwater reefs and shoals into artificial island in 2014. The U. S. position has always been that “we will fly, sail and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows.” The U.S. Navy deliberately chose to send the destroyer Lassen near Subi Reef for that reason.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated that its activity in the South China Sea didn’t affect freedom of navigation by sea or air, but said it held “undisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and its nearby waters.” That view is far from being universally accepted. China and the Philippines have been locked in a standoff over Scarborough Shoal since 2012. Both countries claim sovereignty over the rich fishing grounds along with Taiwan.

When Chinese maritime surveillance ships prevented the Philippines from investigating Chinese illegal fishing, the Philippine government filed a legal case in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The Chinese were furious and refused to take part in the proceedings. The court ruled that China’s “nine-dash line” had no legal basis; therefore, China’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea were baseless.

Consequently, there has continued to be a series of provocative actions by China designed to interfere with the accepted international maritime law of the sea. In December 2016, Chinese surveillance vessels seized a U.S. Navy drone in international waters only 50 nautical miles north of Subic Bay in the Philippines, in clear sight of the unarmed USNS research ship Bowditch, ignoring all radio communication to leave it alone. Chinese fighter jets also continue to harass our unarmed surveillance aircraft in internationally recognized air space, making it a matter of time before there is an incident.

What’s clear in all of its provocative actions is that China has accepted the risk of escalation more than the U.S. because China uses confrontation as a means to alter the status quo in its favor. In his January 24 article in The National Interest, Gordon Chang makes the case that China wants more than just to provoke a confrontation in the South China Sea, it actually wants to pull the trigger. We must keep in mind that China may want to win without fighting, but it cannot win without a confrontation.

One other fact we must keep in mind when we plan our operations according to Maochun Yu of the United States Naval Academy, history has proven time and again, that when China feels that a confrontation will not have desirable consequence, China will not want the confrontation. This is key.

So when we plan single ship FON operations, we must pre-position forces to be able to quickly change on the on-scene dynamics. The same principle applies to when we are conducting legitimate reconnaissance and surveillance single-plane operations. Our single ship or aircraft must be backed up by a pre-positioned credible force to prevent a successful Chinese confrontation. This is what I used to do when we conducted similar operations against the Soviet Union. In the end, the Soviets thought I was trying to provoke them into a confrontation.

James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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