Choke Points are Flash Points

By Edward Lundquist

The world is closely watching several contentious flash points that have potential to ignite.

 
The behavior and rhetoric of China and Russia regarding vital shipping lanes in international waters have been alarming. Disputed sovereignty claims and efforts to enforce them have the maritime world on edge. China’s nine-dash line claims about owning the entire East and South China Sea have created a dilemma for themselves and the other nations in the region.
 
The Philippines v. China case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague commenced on Jan. 22, 2013, when the Philippines served China with a notification and statement of claim “with respect to the dispute with China over the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.” 
When the International Court ruled in favor of the Philippines, that China had no historical claim to disputed islands, China doubled down, and said they would not relinquish their self-anointed sovereignty, and have stated that anyone who sails or flies there in attempt to assert freedom of navigation would be a provocation and worthy of a strong (read that to mean military) response.
 
Nevertheless, China has still been invited to participate in RIMPAC 2016.  And Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Richardson has taken a proactive approach of going to China to visit his counterpart and to tour the Peoples Liberation Army-Navy naval academy and other facilities.  It may not be extending the olive branch, but Richardson is making a positive and first step.  China could seize the opportunity and halt construction for the time being.  
 
But, according to Xinhua News Agency, Adm. Wu Shengli, head of the PLA-N, said China won’t stop construction.  “The Nansha Islands [Spratly] are China’s inherent territory, and our necessary construction on the islands is reasonable, justified and lawful.”
 
Putin has employed subterfuge mixed with brinksmanship to execute some dramatic moves that makes him even more popular at home, and undermines the West and make the high ground occupied by America, NATO and the EU appear unstable.  He has sought to fracture the solidarity of the west—Brexit, and an unstable Turkey, weakens that solidarity—and those nations sitting along the fault line are puzzled as to who they should trust, or at least turn to for leadership.
 
What does it mean for the maritime world?
Back to Asia, there is a lot at stake surrounding a small island.  A huge volume of world trade passes through the South China Sea and East China Sea.  Control of those seas effectively can serve to control commerce.  Unlike a land border, a chunk of land at sea comes with a bonus—a 200-mile EEZ that extends around it on all sides.  There are significant resources involved, from fish to oil and gas.  True, the EEZ’s can be hemmed in by other EEZ and territorial areas, but China has been more than liberal in claiming their share of an adjacent EEZ.  Claiming the entire sea not only strengthens them, but denies those benefits to other nations.
 
China has published special supplements in the Washington Post and other media to claim their peaceful and benevolent use of those claimed islands. Why, they argue, would anyone not want the advantages of China’s benign and munificent leadership of this territory, with such benefits as research opportunities, navigational aids, and search and rescue capabilities of value to all?  And, besides all that, the faux journalistic accounts continue, the International court has no jurisdiction.
 
China and the Philippines are both signatories to the UNCLOS treaty, which establishes the mechanisms to adjudicate such disputes.  But stating that the arbitration is not legitimate places China is a difficult position of being unable to use such judicial remedies in the future. For China, adherence to international law is selective, based on self-interests.
 
From a naval point of view, the South China Sea nations and their navies are sailing on a difficult course.  They want to avoid further antagonizing China and its economic might.  But they look to the U.S. to stand with them as China flexes its muscles.  The Philippines and Vietnam, for example, have drawn themselves closer to the U.S., and American ships, aircraft and ground forces have conducted more and bigger exercises to build capability and create interoperability to Asian partners.  These exercises, the largest of which is the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises in and around Hawaii and the U.S. California coast, also create solidarity, and send a message that “we stand together.”  In fact, China has been invited to participate in RIMPAC.  “We issued the invitations, and we have not taken the step of disinviting them,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in April.
 
China participated in RIMPAC 2014 with four ships, but also stationed a spy ship nearby to collect intelligence, something it claimed was “within its rights.”  And that’s a true statement, although America could have rightly taken it as an afront.  It is participating again this year, one of 28 nations contributing warships to the exercise.
 
In the case of China, it is trying to assert the kind of power it now believes it is due because of its economic might.  Russia has stepped up patrol and flights in a way that recalls the Cold War.  Putin has talked about using tactical nuclear weapons, and has claimed that NATO’s defensive systems to protect against Iranian ballistic missiles aimed at Europe pose an existential threat to Russia.  The difference is that Russia’s economy today cannot support the kind of military might that Putin aspires to, and claims he has.  For Russia, with depressed petroleum export prices that the economy depends on, and significant sanctions in place resulting from the illegal annexation of Crimea, it may be acting out as a distraction for the people at home, or make geopolitical statements without the ability to back them up.
 
China chose not to participate in the arbitration, which made sure they did not have a voice in the proceedings.  In order to make a good show of ignoring the ruling, China has said the U.S. is behind the “farce.”
 
“The award is null and void and has no binding force,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
 
And that is true.  There is no way to enforce the ruling.
 
However, the U.S. has maintained that it takes no position in the territorial disputes surrounding the islands and features in the South and East China Seas.
 
“We don’t recognize anyone’s sovereignty claim in the Spratly Islands, or more broadly, in almost any of the South China Sea islands in dispute,” said Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, director for operations for the U.S. Pacific Command.  “And we believe that there must be a negotiated agreement to the sovereignty in relationship with each of these features, be they low tide elevations, high tide elevations, or islands.  And we don’t believe that the Chinese reclamation efforts, or their subsequent militarization of these facilities, contributes to a negotiated solution, and, as such, we have diplomatically lodged our disagreement, and we’ve diplomatically discussed our disagreements with the Chinese.”
 
Montgomery said the East China Sea presents an equally challenging problem with sovereignty disagreements. “The significant difference with the East China Sea is that the U.S. treaty partner is a significantly more capable air-maritime force in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense force. And I think that has a stabilizing effect there. But that does not mean that all risk is removed from the East China Sea.” 
 
Also alarming is China’s militarization of its newly claimed islands, a charge that China has also dismissed.  “China’s deployment of national defense facilities on its own territory is reasonable and justified,” said spokesman Hong Lei.  “It has nothing to do with the so-called militarization.”
 
Russian Recklessness
Throughout history, adversaries have created pretexts to escalate conflicts.  We may be witnessing this today with Russian ships and aircraft conducting provocative and unprofessional maneuvers with its ships and aircraft.
 
If the U.S. takes the bait and reacts, it can be portrayed as “starting it.”  If it doesn’t do something, it can be portrayed as weak. One such recent provocation involved a Russian frigate that was purposefully interfering with a U.S. carrier strike group while conducting combat operations against ISIS. The Russians showed video that appears to show their frigate steering directly for the starboard quarter of USS Gravely, but in the narrative state that the U.S. ship is cutting directly in front of them in a “dangerous and unprofessional manner.”
 
The Russian frigate was flying the international signal claiming to being restricted in her ability to maneuver, and directing other ships to remain clear, but would then freely maneuver herself in a way that seemingly demonstrated no restriction.
 
A Russian news service, Sputnik, quoting the Russian Defense Ministry, said, “U.S. destroyer Gravely made a close encounter with a Russian warship in the eastern Mediterranean on June 17 at a distance of 60-70 meters [197-229 feet] on the port side and crossed the Yaroslav Mudry’s course along the bow at a dangerous distance of 180 meters [590 feet],” the ministry said.
 
Watching the YouTube video posted by Russia, it appears that the Russian Frigate is turning into the starboard quarter of the U.S. combatant, making it appear as if the Gravely was cutting across the bow of the Russian ship when in fact the Russian ship was headed into the American ship.
 
Putin wants more such confrontations. When his commanders in the Baltic Fleet refused to operate in an unsafe and un-seamanlike manner to antagonize NATO units, he fired all of them in a Stalin-esque purge.
 
The Moscow Times reported that the Russian Defense Ministry announced it was purging the entire senior and mid-level command of the Baltic Fleet for dereliction of duty and corruption.  The June 29 report said the Baltic Fleet leadership showed “serious shortcomings in the organization of combat training, daily activities of their forces, failure to take all necessary measures to improve personnel accommodations, and distorted reports on the real state of affairs [in the fleet].”  There were also reports of a cover-up involving a collision of a Russian submarine with a Polish patrol boat, the Russian report said.  
 
Western reports said Putin fired the commanders because they wouldn’t confront NATO ships at sea.  The Daily Mail in the U.K. reported, “Up to 50 officers of the fleet were fired alongside Vice Admiral Viktor Kravchuk and his chief of staff Rear Admiral Sergei Popov after they reportedly refused to follow orders to confront Western ships.”
 
The Baltic is of vital importance to the Baltic Sea nations and Europe.  Half of Finland’s international trade is with her Baltic Sea neighbors.  The Swedish port of Gothenburg, at the entrance to the Baltic, is the commercial transportation hub not only for Sweden, but for all of Scandinavia.  72 percent of all goods coming or going to Sweden pass through a Swedish port, and 40 percent of Russia’s trade passes through the Baltic Sea.  There are also numerous pipelines and cables.  
 
Navy officials have noted an increased level of Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Sea. “We’ve had the Russian Kilos transit through, that’s been very public,” said Adm. Mark Ferguson in January, and who recently completed his tour of duty in June in command of Allied Joint Force Command Naples and U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.  “And they have stated their goal of putting six in the Black Sea. We think those boats will operate in the Med, and so we see their activity increasing here.”
 
“They’re racing against time, because of the impact of sanctions, of the diplomatic and economic isolation, and their own demographic issues and economic issues,” Ferguson said.  “It’s very clear that they view NATO and the European Union as an existential threat to them. They look to the West and they see unity, they see liberal democracies, they see the rule of law and constitutional government and they see this value system that is perceived as an existential threat to their government.”
 
“From time to time, U.S. vessels enter the Black Sea,” said Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kelin as reported in the state-run RIA Novosti.  “Obviously, we do not appreciate it and, undoubtedly, this will lead to retaliatory measures,” 
 
The Black Sea is not a Russian lake.  Other nations have coastlines along the sea, and the Black Sea has a significant area that is international waters.  “In those areas which are international in the Black Sea, everybody should have an opportunity to conduct commerce over water or to be able to safeguard their critical infrastructure, whether that be oil-gas pipelines, or communication connectivity under the Black Sea,” said Vice Adm. James Foggo, Commander of Striking Forces NATO and the U.S. Sixth Fleet.  “So it’s a very important region for a number of different countries.”
 
Foggo said naval presence in the Black Sea is important.  “We operate the standing NATO maritime groups periodically in the Black Sea with our partners from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Ukraine, and Georgia.  The nation of Turkey has been absolutely critical in maintaining lines of communication in and out of the Black Sea as one of the primary [nations] responsible for the Montreux Convention which controls access and size of ships, tonnage of ships as they move in and out of the Bosporus.  And I think they’re doing a superb job of that.  And that is critical to sea lines of communication.  It is a choke point, and it should remain open so that commerce and also naval vessels can get in and out to maintain security.”
 
While we may continue to see strident and even outrageous statements by both Russia and China in the months ahead, let’s hope the actions are less strident.
 
 
Chiefs of U.S. and Chinese Navies Agree on Need for Cooperation
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson met with People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) Commander Adm. Wu Shengli during professional and social events held July 18 at navy headquarters in Beijing. 
 
The goal of the engagement was to improve mutual understanding and encourage professional interaction between the two navies.
 
“I appreciate the opportunity to visit China and to meet with Adm. Wu in person-there is no substitute for these types of face-to-face meetings,” said Richardson. “My goal is to forge a relationship built on frankness and cooperation. Given the responsibilities that our navies have, we must work together and speak candidly-when we agree as well as when we have differing opinions.”
 
“I am very happy to receive you here today,” said Wu. “We attach great importance to your visit. Your visit to China, at our invitation, shows how both sides put great priority on maritime issues.”
 
The two leaders had frank and substantive conversations on the importance of operating safely, in accordance with international law; future opportunities for the two navies to engage; and the South China Sea.
 
The visit, which has been in works for months, was Richardson’s first visit to China as the chief of naval operations and his first in-person meeting with Wu. Over the last year, the two admirals have held three discussions via video teleconference.
 
CNO also traveled to Qingdao, home of the Chinese North Sea Fleet, where he is scheduled to visit the Chinese Navy’s submarine academy and tour the aircraft carrier Liaoning (CV-16).
 
 
(As published in the September 2016 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News)
Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 28,  Sep 2016

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