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Saturday, December 19, 2015


Somewhere beyond the sea

by Tom Sullivan

Somewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waiting for me
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailin'

- from "Beyond the Sea" by Bobby Darin

The Chinese continue their efforts to colonize the South China Sea. Dump sand and concrete atop reefs and atolls in and around the Spratly Islands and — voila! — the 12 miles around their man-made islands magically become sovereign Chinese territory. (Or do they?) Smack dab in the middle of sea lanes that according to reports carry "more than $5 trillion of world trade ships every year, a fifth of it heading to and from U.S. ports."

All of it effectively out of view of the eyes of the world, by the way.

In late October, the United States dispatched the USS Lassen to conduct a "freedom of navigation" cruise in the area to assert that the waters around the new islands are international waters. Foreign Policy reports:

Initially, officials insisted the Lassen carried out a freedom of navigation operation, which could mean the vessel operated sonar, had its helicopters take off from the deck, or lingered in the area. But other officials said they could not confirm it was a freedom of navigation mission and that the ship may have refrained from any helicopter flights or intelligence gathering — and instead simply sailed through without loitering or circumnavigating the area.

Further adding to the confusion, the P-8 surveillance plane accompanying the Lassen appears to have stayed outside the 12-mile range of the man-made island, a boundary that delimits territorial seas and airspace.

The administration’s mixed messaging has played out publicly in recent days on both sides of the Pacific. U.S. officials told Defense News over the weekend that the Lassen had merely made an “innocent passage” close to the artificial island at Subi Reef — a phrase with a specific meaning under maritime law that applies to sailing through other countries’ territorial waters. On Monday, officials repeated the same claim to U.S. Naval Institute News, saying the ship and an accompanying surveillance plane took steps that would signal acquiescence to Beijing’s claims.

Sen. John McCain wants the Pentagon to clarify "the legal intent behind this operation and any future operations of a similar nature." He wants the U.S. to send an unambiguous message.

Just days ago, BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes chartered a Cessna 206 out of the Philippine to have close-up look at China's new outposts. Five people and cameras crammed into a single-engine plane. Here is some of what happened:

Soon, in the distance, a huge yellow crescent appeared below us, the unmistakable shape of Mischief Reef (Meiji in Chinese). The pilots descended to 5,000ft. At 12 nautical miles the warnings began again.

"Foreign military aircraft in north-west of Meiji Reef, this is the Chinese Navy, you are threatening the security of our station!"

Calmly our captain responded: "Chinese Navy, this is Philippine civilian aircraft en route to Palawan, carrying civilian passengers. We are not a military aircraft, we are a civilian single-engine aircraft." It made no difference.

"Foreign military aircraft in north of Meiji Reef, this is the Chinese Navy!" On and on the warnings continued.

But this time our pilots held their nerve. At 12 miles we skirted the north of the huge new island. Below us we could see the lagoon teeming with ships, large and small. On the new land, cement plants and the foundations of new buildings.

Then, as we rounded a cloud, we got the first clear view of the new runway China is building here, just 140 nautical miles from the Philippine coast. I did a quick calculation. A Chinese fighter jet taking off from here could be over the Philippine coast in as little as eight or nine minutes.

Oddly, as the Cessna completed its run, another voice came over the radio, this time from a military aircraft. Just not China's:

"China navy, China navy," the voice said.

"We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — over."

The BBC said it recorded the audio from a RAAF AP-3C Orion aircraft on Nov. 25. It said the message was repeated several times but no response was heard from the Chinese.

Various sections of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are at the heart of this controversy. Not only territorial boundary matters, but environmental ones as well (UNCLOS articles 192 and 123). From a June 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

This island construction has so far created over eight million square metres of real estate in the open sea, outstripping other countries’ reclamation activities by far, and shows no sign of abating. Hundreds of millions of tons of sand and coral have been dredged from the seabed and dumped atop fragile coral reefs that are vital components of the maritime ecology. Marine experts expect that the work has already caused disastrous and essentially irreversible environmental impacts.

The newly created and enlarged islands will be infrastructure that facilitates China’s projection of force and assertion of control not just in the disputed Spratlys area but also over most of the South China Sea, deep into the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that by any reasonable interpretation of international laws on maritime delimitation would rightfully belong to other countries. Although conflicting claims have existed over the islands and these EEZs for decades, a precarious balance has endured until now partly because China’s nearest military infrastructure is hundreds of miles further to the north. Defence planners in other claimant countries now have to face a future without this protection by distance.

Another concern is whether China will to use the newly created or enlarged islands to attempt to make new maritime claims. First, China might well claim a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, or some sort of vague “military alert zone”, around each of Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, which would infringe on the international community’s the freedom of navigation and overflight that currently exists these areas. Second, China might assert territorial seas around other newly created or enlarged islands that are close to islands being garrisoned by other countries, which would bring it into direct conflicts with the other claimants. Third, the creation and enlarging of the islands may embolden China in its claim for EEZ for the entire Spratly archipelago, exacerbating the maritime disputes in the region.

By the UNCLOS treaty, artificial structures are entitled only to "safety zones" that "shall not exceed a distance of 500 metres around them." That is how it is supposed to work, anyway. China seems to be challenging that regime. U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Scott Swift warned this week of a possible arms race in the South China Sea:

"My concern is that after many decades of peace and prosperity, we may be seeing the leading edge of a return of "might makes it right" to the region," Swift said on Monday in a speech in Hawaii, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

"Claimants and non-claimants alike are transferring larger shares of national wealth to develop more capable naval forces beyond what is needed merely for self defense," Swift said.

It is the sort of thing that in the 20th century sometimes led to unpleasantness, I wrote back in June. And again at the end of October. Access to commodities and trade routes have provoked wars for centuries. Yet having staked out its claim in what it claims as its historic territory, the Middle Kingdom can be patient. As with commercial and political interests elsewhere, the game in the South China Sea is to step over accepted boundaries and dare anyone to push back. While we fix our gaze on ISIS, the GOP clown show, and the Bernie vs. Hillary contest, somewhere beyond the sea the future is waiting.

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