Why Is Trouble Still Brewing In The South China Sea?

In another example of an American military leader tacitly acknowledging how the perception of American weakness is inviting foreign adventurism, the Chief of Naval Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet said this in recent weeks:

… the PLA [the Chinese “Peoples Liberation Army] has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea following with what can only be expected [to be] a seizure of the Senkakus or even a southern Ryukyu [islands] …

And earlier this week, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.N. and U.S. forces in South Korea, also questioned whether U.S. forces would be able to quickly counter a sudden large-scale offensive in the region, saying this before a Congressional hearing:

“I am concerned about the readiness of the follow-on forces in our theater … Given the indications and warnings and the nature of this theater and the threat that we face, I rely on rapid and ready forces to flow into the peninsula in crisis.”

And also from earlier this week, Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command, weighed in:

… the reality is, is that to get Marines around effectively, they require all types of lift.  They require the big amphibious ships, but they also require connectors (meaning landing craft and other amphibious vehicles).  The lift is the enabler that makes that happen, so we wouldn’t be able to [successfully carry out a contested amphibious assault without additional resources] …”

So, why so much concern over what may be brewing in a region surrounding an oceanic basin half a world away?  The answer can be summarized into three basic points of contention, illustrated by this first map of the area, below.  The three points of contention overlap, but can be thought of as first, the maritime claims, meaning the national claims to fishing rights for a body of water; second, the national claims over resources on or beneath the sea-bed, primarily petroleum and natural gas deposits, and; third, rights of navigation.  In today’s world, the claims to fishing rights and sea-bed rights are most often combined under the term Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which typically extends out to 200 nautical miles (nm) from a national coastline.  In this map, I have used the map scale to superimpose two red arrows that approximate the extent of the 200nm limit, and a red line across the arrow tips to approximate the outer terminus of the zone.

SouthChinaSea_MapAt this point it may be useful to note that the word “boundary” (as in international boundary) refers to a point behind which a nation has complete sovereignty, and such “coastal waters” boundaries extend out to three miles from a shoreline.  Points that go beyond the boundary are referred to as “limits” in order to avoid confusion.  The EEZ terminus is a zonal limit, as is the Territorial Sea (out to 12nm) and the Contiguous Zone (out to 24nm).  A nation may not restrict the international rights of navigation beyond it’s Territorial zone.  Also, a nation generally cannot exceed the other limits noted above except by treaty.

SouthChinaSea_MaritimeClaimsThe most important line on the second map (above) is the red line, as it encompasses the maritime and resource claims of the Peoples Republic of China (China, or PRC), and increasingly, claims to exclusive rights of navigation as well.  Most authorities (and reasonable people) would agree with the posture of the United States on these claims, which is that they are outrageously over-reaching, and a serious threat to peace in the region if and when they are enforced by the Chinese military.

And there have been numerous examples in recent months of such enforcement measures, from Chinese gunboats harassing fishing vessels from Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, to Chinese announcements that commercial airliner overflights would require advance permission, to intimidating behavior aimed at U.S. Navy vessels transiting the passage, to renewed territorial claims on islands claimed by Japan and other nations.  Considering that the South China Sea is the second most busy sea lane on the planet, China’s attempts at limiting the rights of navigation there are especially troubling.

All of this combined seems to strongly indicate that China is itching for an armed confrontation in the area.  However, their ambitions are not directed at the United States, but primarily toward Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.  In years past, these ambitions have been held in check by the determination of every American president since World War I to preserve, and enforce if necessary, international rights in this critical region.

So, forgive a little metaphor mixing when I ask, does President Obama “walk softly and carry a big stick”?  Or does he just “talk the talk”?  By now, I think Vladimir Putin has clearly figured out the answer to that question, as have the Iranian mullahs, and maybe the Chinese leadership as well.  And, if the Chinese do seize the Senkakus and/or the Ryukyus, and if they are allowed to get away with it, how long before they decide that the time is ripe for a takeover of Taiwan, and then a move on the Japanese home islands?