Multi-national Rim of the Pacific training exercise is both providing the world with a glimpse into some of its most current naval technologies and raising the prospect of evovling international cooperation.
Senior Pentagon and Navy officials regard ongoing disputes with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea as part of a larger, complex relationship between the two countries involving competition and military tensions alongside cooperation, military-to-military exercises, port visits and mutual efforts to fight international maritime piracy.
During RIMPAC 2016, the Chinese brought a destroyer and a hospital ship, according to a report in Stars and Stripes.
Nonetheless, continued Chinese provocations in the South China Sea increase the risk of disrupting the balance of the U.S.-China relationship away from a broader context of collabporation and pushing it more substantially toward an intensifying military rivalry. Furthermore, upcoming China-Philippines arbitration is expected to bear prominently upon dynamics in the region. The two-countries are locked in a territorial dispute.
While the ongoing problems do not appear likely to result in military confrontation, the U.S.-China relationship seems to fall along two distinct, yet interwoven fault lines; one trajectory seems to be leading toward growing disagreements over actions in the South China Sea, and yet this stands in a delicate or precarious balance with fast-growing good-will, port-visits and military exercises between the two countries.
Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, seems to indicate that both trajectories could potentially co-exist while, at the same time, expressing strong opposition to China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea.
In public remarks months ago, Harris seemed to both address the seriousness of tensions and disagreements over issues in the South China Sea and also indicate areas of U.S.-Chinese partnership. There seems to be a clear hope among U.S. military leaders that South China Sea issues can be resolved without confrontation. A peaceful resolution of some kind could mean that the problems with China in the area do not necessarily have to greatly alter, disrupt or erase the larger calculus of the U.S.-China relationship -- which includes growing cooperation.
“While we certainly disagree on some topics – the most public being China’s claims in the South China Sea and our activities there – there are many areas where we have common ground,” Harris said during remarks earlier this year at Stanford Center Peking University, Beijing.
Harris seemed to suggest the prospect or hope that South China Sea issues could either be resolved, ameliorated or lessened as other areas of mutual cooperation grow. He cited Chinese President Xi and President Obama’s recent pledge to verify the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This is naturally of particular relevance in light of North Korea’s consistent provocationa and claim to have tested a Hydrogen bomb.
Harris also cited the historic 2014 Chinese participation in the Rim of the Pacific military training exercise. He added that Chinese Navy ships previously made a port visit to Mayport, Fla., - home of the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet and a Chinese Hospital Ship visited a U.S. Navy port in San Diego.
Harris also cited a USS Stethem visit to Shanghai and more than 30 military exchanges between Chinese and US officers and generals.
South China Sea Territorial Disputes – China’s Man-Made Island Building
These instances of growing U.S.-China partnership provide a nuanced or complicated context in which South China Sea disagreements are taking place.
Clearly, while areas of evolving cooperation with the Chinese military are an important priority for the Pentagon, they do not preclude the importance of conducting Naval patrols within the 12-mile territorial boundary of waters the Pentagon believes are erroneously claimed by China.
Several months ago, a U.S. Navy destroyer again sailed within 12 miles of island territory claimed by China in the South China Sea in a clear effort to refute sovereignty claims made by China and assert what the Pentagon calls “Freedom of Navigation” exercises.
The exercise, conducted by the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, took place in the vicinity of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands as a way to challenge excessive maritime claims, a Pentagon statement said.
While the Pentagon does not officially take a position regarding the many territorial claims in the contested island areas of the South China Sea, senior Department of Defense officials do not recognize island territories expanded by man-made or artificial structures to represent legitimate or legal territorial expansion.
“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas. The excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told Scout Warrior in a statement.
Rich in natural resources and located in a strategically significant portion of the Pacific Ocean, island territories in the vicinity are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and others.
All of these countries have outpost in the region, however senior Pentagon officials have taken issue with the massive extend of Chinese artificial-island building or “reclamation.” In fact, Pentagon officials have said the Chinese are building airstrips for military operations and placing weapons on the island such as artillery systems.
The U.S. opposition to some territorial claims is purely aimed at opposing artificial island building, as Pentagon statements emphasize that the U.S. does not take a position regarding naturally-land features in the South China Sea.
Over the last several years, China has re-claimed more than 2,000 acres of territory in the region. Navy P-8 surveillance planes have captured video footage of China’s land-reclamation activities in the area.
In recent months, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has repeatedly said the U.S. would not be deterred by illegal Chinese territorial claims. The USS Curtis Wilbur’s transit is a clear demonstration of this position.
“The United States does take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries, and that all maritime claims must comply with international law,” Urban added.
U.N. Law of the Sea Convention
The U.S. position is grounded in several key provisions of the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, which specifies that man-made or artificial structures do not define or “constitute” legitimate island territory. The Law of the Sea also specifies that sovereign territory of a given country extend 12 miles off the coastline.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a “naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide.” Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says “artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas.”
“No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law. This operation demonstrates, as President Obama and Secretary Carter have stated, the United States will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe,” Urban said.
According to a report in the Associated Press, Chinese Defense Ministry called the U.S. Navy passage “unprofessional and irresponsible.”
In the past, senior leaders from China’s People’s Liberation Army have asserted that the South China Sea “belongs to China,” echoing an often-mentioned mentioned Chinese territorial claim – called the nine-dash-line dating back many years – indicates that the South China Sea in its entirety is Chinese territory.
China appears to claim most, if not all of the South China Sea through its so-called nine-dash line, which vaguely asserts control, access and sovereignty over 1.4 million square miles of islands, Pentagon officials said.
Although U.S. officials say China has not clearly articulated what it means, the nine-dash line can be traced back to China’s ruling party from 1928 to 1949 – the Koumintang. The Koumintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949 when the Communist Party of China took over following civil war in the country, however the concept of the nine-dash line has endured.
Naturally, U.S. senior officials and U.S. allies in the region do not recognize this Chinese claim either.
The U.N. treaty also specifies that up to 200 miles off the coast of a country is consider part of an economic exclusive zone, or EEZ. This means the host country has exclusive first rights to resources and any economic related activities.
This means countries cannot, for instance, fish in the waters of an EEZ or set up an oil-drilling effort without securing the permission of the host country. However, activities within an EEZ that do not relate to economic issues are allowed as part of the freedoms associated with the high seas, Pentagon officials explained.
U.S.-China Military Rivalry
Alongside these developments, there is an unmistakable context of increased competition between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. China is massively increasing the size and scope of its military build-up, exploration of next-generation technologies and particular investment in Navy platforms.
In fact, a Congressional report in 2014 found that, based on its current pace of development, the Chinese Navy may outnumber the size of the U.S. fleet by the mid-2020s. As a part of this effort, China is now known to be building its own indigenous aircraft carriers. While analysts recognize that the U.S. technological superiority does exist at the moment, the gap or margin of distance with China is rapidly changing.
China has plans to grow its navy to 351 ships by 2020, the Congressional report said. The U.S. shipbuilding plan calls for a 306-ship fleet, however most observers believe the U.S. Navy will likely maintain a technological superiority when it comes to weapons, missiles, radar and various ship defensive systems. At the same time, this margin of superiority is likley to keep decreasing at an alarming rate given the pace of Chinese military modernization.
The Congressional report, called the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, catalogues China’s rapid increase in defense spending and cites that China spent $132 billion on defense in 2014.
China is also building a new class of destroyers called LUYANG IIIs armed with long-range anti-ship missiles. Part of this naval modernization effort includes ongoing construction of new amphibious assault ships called, YUZHAO LPDs able to carry 800 troops, four helicopters and 20 armored vehicles. This ships will be complemented by a new class of cruisers as well, also equipped with land-attack missile and potentially able to fire lasers and rail-guns in the future.
China is also building fast-moving HOBEI-class guided missile patrol boats and light frigates armed with naval guns, torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.
Also, of concern to Pentagon analysts is the Chinese move to build more nuclear capable submarines. Chinese SSBNs (nuclear-armed submarines) are now able to patrol with nuclear-armed JL-2 missiles able to strike targets more than 4,500 nautical miles, an ability which puts them in range to potentially strike some parts of the United States.