United Daily News Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 2, 2015
Executive Summary: The US Navy's Arleigh Burke Class Aegis destroyer Lassen recently sailed through the South China Sea, past Subi Reef and Meichi ("Mischief") Reef. The People's Liberation Army Navy sent the Lanzhou missile destroyer and Taizhou frigate to track the Lassen the entire way. The two sides gave advance notice and insisted they were keeping the peace. But this brief confrontation, this historical moment, conveyed a surreal feeling.
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The US Navy's Arleigh Burke Class Aegis destroyer Lassen recently sailed through the South China Sea, past Subi Reef and Meichi ("Mischief") Reef. The People's Liberation Army Navy sent the Lanzhou missile destroyer and Taizhou frigate to track the Lassen the entire way. The two sides gave advance notice and insisted they were keeping the peace. But this brief confrontation, this historical moment, conveyed a surreal feeling.
The United States' action was a provocation. But its action were measured, and part of a larger plan. US reconnaissance planes provided air cover. An aircraft carrier in nearby waters was assigned a twofold mission. One. Monitoring and recording. Two. Emergency readiness. US warships patrolled the waters around the Philippines and Vietnam as well. This was intended to demonstrate that their "defense of Freedom of Navigation" in the South China Sea was non-discriminatory. These prevented the Peoples Liberation Army from acting rashly.
PRC and US warships faced off in the South China Sea, raising eyebrows the world over. Planes and ships came and went. But more worthy of attention was the two sides' decision-making posture. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded that the Department of Defense make a show of force in the South China Sea, to "defend Freedom of Navigation". But the White House sat on the request for some time. Defense department officials began to feel anxious. They repeatedly released photos of Mainland land reclamation efforts on South China Sea islands and reefs. They sought to shape public opinion. The Obama administration waited until the Obama-Xi summit was over to approve action. It ordered the DOD not to allow conflict with the other side to erupt. Obama has clearly sought a balance between diplomatic and military options.
The response from Mainland China was the same. Statements were issued primarily by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs rather than military officers. The Ministry urged the US to think twice, and avoid rash action. It summoned US Ambassador Max Baucus in protest. The Mainland media interviewed the PRC Ambassador to the US, who criticized US authorities. The timing of US saber rattling coincided with the CCP's Fifth Plenary Session. The Plenary Session may reassign high-level PLA personnel to avoid further complications. The Beijing authorities have deliberately downplayed hardline rhetoric. They have temporarily muzzled the media. News reports merely quote official statements.
Statements by the United States have been deliberately low profile as well, to avoid provoking Mainland China. The White House has instructed DoD officials not to issue press releases or make public comments. When Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter responded to questions the next day at a Senate Military Commission hearing, he was hesitant and uncertain. He said merely that whatever people were reading in the newspapers was accurate.
Furthermore, military officials from both sides immediately began dialogue. PLA Navy Commander Wu Shengli video conferenced with US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson on October 29. US Pacific Fleet Commander Harry Harris announced that he would visit Mainland China that day. US Pacific Fleet Commander Richardson and Harris are the commanders who ordered US warships to enter the South China Sea. The officer directly in charge of the Lassen also plans to visit Mainland China in the coming weeks. This shows that both sides want to continue communicating, and do not want to touch off a powder keg.
The two sides' stances over South China Sea sovereignty are diametrically opposed. The Mainland claims historical sovereignty over the South China Sea. It says that its island and reef land reclamation is for peaceful purposes. The United States claims that the artificial islands and reefs are for military use and impede freedom of navigation. But in view of the bigger picture, neither side is willing to allow the South China Sea issue undermine bilateral relations. Changes to the current situation can be viewed from two perspectives. One. Objectively, the PLA Navy is not as powerful as the US Navy. It is probably not even as powerful as the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. Preparing a military to fight a war is not an overnight process. It requires strategic patience, and even more, financial resources. Mainland economic growth has slowed. The defense budget has grown year after year. But it has limits. Its defense technology still lags behind that of other nations. Unfortunately this is an objective reality.
Two. Subjectively, PLA military fighting strength is inadequate. It must accept the olive branch offered by the United States. The two sides continue to communicate, while suppressing bellicose rhetoric at home, thereby avoiding problems for policy makers. But communications are communication. The Mainland will not compromise on matters of principle. It will stress that the United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute, and has no excuse to meddle in regional affairs. After all, the South China Sea is on China's doorstep. As the PRC Foreign Ministry suggested: "If other parties repeatedly raise tensions in the region, the Mainland may well accelerate relevant construction."
Recent US action was meant to show Washington's allies in the Asian-Pacific region that its security assurances remain in effect. This helps Vietnam and the Philippines, who need US military protection. It also encourages Japan and Australia to engage in joint military action. Japan and Australia have also issued statements reaffirming freedom of navigation. But given political sensitivities, neither has committed to joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea.
Taiping Island is recognized as Republic of China territory under international law. Of that there is no doubt. The problem is that our sovereignty over South China Sea islands and reefs overlaps with claims by five other governments. All of them are busy with island and reef land reclamation. The United States says this forces it to take military action. Such action however, accelerates Mainland military deployment. This has reduced the disputants' fuzzy sovereignty over these waters. The South China Sea situation is changing. This presents an unavoidable challenge to whoever becomes ROC president next year.