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More US gunboat diplomacy would just make things worse

2022-07-11 17:05:25       source:NISCSS

July 5, 2022

A recent article in the US Naval Institute Proceedings recommends more US “naval statecraft” in the South China Sea. It has received considerable circulation and as such cries out for rebuttal.


Indeed, this militarist perspective is an excellent example of why diplomacy should be left to the diplomats. “Naval statecraft” is just another name for old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy, something the region does not need or want. The piece also gets its concepts and facts muddled and twisted.


The piece advocates a US counterinsurgency effort against China in the South China Sea. This tacitly admits that the US is the hegemon there and that China is undertaking an “insurgency” against it.


But just what “threat” to US national security is posed by China’s fishing fleet, maritime militia and Coast Guard?


China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is highly unlikely to do so in peacetime. The US conflates freedom of navigation for commercial vessels and for military vessels. It then raises the “freedom of navigation” canard when China tries to protect itself from US gunboat diplomacy and threats to its national security.


Moreover, as a non-party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the US is undermining the “rules-based order.” Further, it has no legitimacy or credibility interpreting key UNCLOS provisions regarding “freedom of navigation” to its advantage.


The Naval Institute piece cites the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident as a situation in which US “naval statecraft” should have been used. But the rights and wrongs of this issue are not clear-cut in favor of the Philippines, and the US was wise and fair not to intervene militarily.


Both China and the Philippines claim the legal rock and its 12-nautical-mile (nm) territorial sea. The legal standard for proof of sovereignty over such features is continuous, effective occupation, administration and control – and acquiescence to that by the other party. Neither claim meets this standard.


Thus the sovereignty of the rock and its territorial sea are disputed, and until agreed or adjudicated otherwise one claim is just as legally valid as the other.


The piece mentions that the rock is situated within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone. But that does not add to the merit of the Philippines’ claim. Indeed, there are many examples of one nation claiming a feature within another’s EEZ.


Moreover, the Philippines used a naval vessel during the dispute, thus threatening use of force – a possible violation of the UN Charter and UNCLOS. This also provided justification for China’s response, which was limited to civilian vessels.


The piece seems to suggest that the US should have deployed naval vessels to back up its ally the Philippines. This would have worsened the situation, as China would likely have responded with its own naval vessels.


Malaysia case


The piece also neglects important facts regarding the West Capella incident. On April 18, 2020, a Chinese survey ship accompanied by Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels approached a disputed area in Malaysia’s claimed EEZ where a drill ship – the West Capella – was operating under contract to Malaysia’s national oil company Petronas.  Malaysia’s response was muted.

Zubil Mat Som, the head of Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency, said: “We do not know [the survey ship’s] purpose but it is not carrying out any activities against the law.” Although China claimed the operations of its vessels were “normal,” the US alleged that the Chinese were intimidating the drill ship.


There had been a similar but much more dangerous incident in 2019 involving this Chinese survey skip operating in Vietnam’s claimed 200nm EEZ, and perhaps the US conflated the two activities. It is not clear how a survey ship – even one accompanied by Coast Guard vessels – is threatening to another ship.


However, if it was undertaking surveys in Malaysia’s claimed EEZ, it would have been violating UNCLOS. But Malaysia did not publicly protest. Perhaps the Chinese vessels were exercising their freedom of navigation – the same rationale that the US Navy uses for its intimidating maneuvers against China’s claims. 


But the US apparently saw this action as a Chinese test of its “position and credibility in Asia.” It also apparently considered it an opportunity to demonstrate its solidarity with the smaller Southeast Asian countries and possibly encourage them to stand up to China and thus irrevocably side with America. 


US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral John Aquilino declared: “The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.” American forces would “stand with regional friends and partners to resist coercion.”


The guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill, the guided-missile destroyer Barry and the amphibious assault ship USS America were deployed to “exercise” with an Australian frigate in the vicinity of the drill ship.


In case China and the region did not get the message, the littoral combat ship (LCS) USS Montgomery and cargo vessel USNS Cesar Chavez operated in the same area a few days later, followed by the LCS USS Gabrielle Giffords. This was the so-called “naval statecraft” that the Naval Institute piece recommends.


Muted response


But the situation did not play out the way the US had hoped. Malaysia has been reluctant to challenge China openly because of its weak maritime forces and its economic reliance on Beijing for investment and exports. Its past response to China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea has traditionally been muted and behind the scenes. Perhaps the US did not want to give Malaysia the opportunity to object to its military presence.


For whatever reason, it appears that the US warships were sent without invitation, consultation or notification, thus confusing Malaysia. Malaysia has excessive claims that run counter to UNCLOS, which the US has challenged in the past with gunboats – aka freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). It requires prior permission for foreign military activities in its EEZ.


Malaysian leaders knew that the US would not notify them that its warships were entering its EEZ because the US rejects that requirement. As the US warships steamed toward Malaysia’s EEZ, its decision-makers could not be sure whether the US was coming to their aid, or challenging their maritime claims as it had done previously.


Referring to this incident, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said: “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”


A fundamental assumption of the Naval Institute piece is that a greater US naval presence would be welcomed in the region. Given that claims by all littoral members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations except Singapore and Brunei have been targets of US Navy FONOPs, it is safe to say that they do not approve of this gunboat diplomacy – at least against themselves. They also fear that it will be destabilizing.


Even US stalwart Singapore has reservations. Its Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen has said, “Some of the [South China Sea] incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.” This criticism seemed directed at the US use of warships to assert its legal position.


Some Indonesian policymakers have long been suspicious of US intent and worry about the potential destabilizing effect of US-China competition. Former Indonesian defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has suggested that “if regional countries can manage the SCS on their own, there is no need to involve others.” Luhut Pandjaitan, then coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, once declared in a veiled criticism of both US and China that “we don’t like any power projection.”


Then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad also argued in 2018 that “big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents, and that will lead to tension.”


The last thing the region wants is more gunboat diplomacy. Diplomacy should be left to the diplomats. More militarism will only make the situation worse – for all concerned.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.