This image of the Chinese J-11B fighter was taken from a US P-8A Poseidon aircraft over the South China Sea on Aug. 19. (US Defense Department)
TAIPEI — When a Chinese J-11 fighter intercepted and flew within 20 feet of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon on Aug. 19 off the Hainan Island coast, it set off debate in the US about whether the forward-deployed US military can continue to conduct the types of operations that strategic necessity requires.
US analysts indicate that what China really objects to is America’s place in Asia. Put in these terms, China’s demand that the US cease close-in surveillance operations poses a stark choice: Pursue a cordial and more equal relationship with China vs. maintaining America’s dominant position in Asia. What China is telegraphing to the United States is that it cannot have it both ways. This gets to the heart of American primacy and its role in the world.
“Chinese leaders are seeking to expand their influence over their periphery by building up, establishing new terms of reference for what is allowed and normal, tranquilizing neighbors into accepting growing Chinese hegemony, and supplanting US power,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security.
US spy boats and aircraft have long been a source of intrigue and crisis in American military history and many have resulted in embarrassment or the deaths of US military personnel.
North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, the Soviet shootdown of a CIA U-2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers in 1960, and the 2001 Hainan Island incident involving a US Navy EP-3 aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter, all serve as notice of the dangers of snooping too close.
The US is not the only country having problems with spy planes. On Aug. 25, the Taiwan Air Force scrambled fighters to intercept two Chinese Y-8 surveillance aircraft flying within its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. The incident has raised questions in Taipei about whether the episode was a prelude to China’s plans to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
Retired US Navy Adm. Walter Doran, former Pacific Fleet commander, is concerned about China’s establishment of an ADIZ in the South China Sea. “I don’t see how we could even acknowledge it — but time will tell.”
China placed an ADIZ in the East China Sea in November and began aggressively challenging military aircraft flying in the area. This assertive approach by China to intercept and sometimes harass aircraft, particularly Japanese, within the East China Sea conflicts with international norms on acceptable actions within an ADIZ, said retired US Marine Lt. Gen. Wallace “Chip” Gregson, former assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs under President Barack Obama.
“The rules China declared for the East China Sea ADIZ, accompanied by an explicit threat of being met with ‘emergency defensive measures’, are not [normal]. Air defense identification zones cannot be allowed to effectively assert sovereignty over international space or other nations’ territories.”
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China has signed and the US has not, is another problem. Under UNCLOS, signatories can establish an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) within 200 nautical miles of the coastline to safeguard maritime economic interests, such as fishing. However, China considers its EEZ as territorial waters where foreign military missions are prohibited.
Though not a signatory, the US accepts the economic no-trespassing sign, but argues that military vessels, including aircraft, are permissible under the UNCLOS “innocent passage” provision and defined by the US as international airspace.
There is a strong sense that the US has abused the definition of “innocent passage” under UNCLOS, said Wang Dong, director, School of International Studies, Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies, Peking University.
“US spy planes are not doing sightseeing or picnicking; rather, they’re engaged in intensive, intrusive military intelligence gathering on a massive scale and sustained manner, which not only severely threatens China’s national security, but also violates China’s law.”
Wang said the US would not allow these types of operations along its mainland coastline.
“UNCLOS does not give a country the right to engage in ‘hostile’ actions in others’ EEZs. The US position that what they’re doing is ‘perfectly legitimate’ is viewed as highly hypocritical, since the US military perhaps remains the only military superpower that has the capability to conduct such intrusive intelligence-gathering operations in a sustained manner.”
In contrast, Vietnam and the Philippines argue that China overprotects its EEZ and ignores their EEZs in the South China Sea. Both countries have been confronted by Chinese naval, maritime security and commercial challenges to their EEZs over the past several years, including the placement of an oil rig within Vietnam’s EEZ in May. Doran said this is one area that might erupt into a flashpoint that “careens out of control.”
Robert Haddick, author of the book, “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific,” said the US should not back down from Chinese challenges, given the stakes involved.
“China has two goals: to reduce and eventually eliminate US surveillance of its military forces, and second, establish through persistent effort recognition by the rest of the world that its maritime territorial claims are legally legitimate. At the end of these roads, China would like to see the end of US military operations near its maritime territory claims.”
China’s strategy is to increase the risk to US forces when they operate in these areas, Haddick said.
For this reason, he said, it is highly unlikely that the low-echelon Chinese commanders and personnel conducting the actions are “rogues” acting outside the bounds.
If true, then the US must face the reality that China does not appreciate US attempts to foster good military relations.
While long a proponent of military-to-military relationships, Doran said, “they have to be based on a certain reciprocity and good will.”
The inclusion of the Chinese Navy in the recent Rim of the Pacific Exercise was a good faith effort by the US Navy in this area, he said.
“However, I am starting to wonder whether there is sufficient return on our investment with the Chinese at this time,” Doran said.
Cronin agrees. “Yes, China will keep testing and pushing back on our presence and especially on our practice of preserving global freedom of navigation and transparency in the sea, air, cyber and space global commons,” he said.
“No, the US will not relent, but one wonders whether Washington will remain steadfast and not allow our security and our interpretation of international law to grow into disuse out of fear of upsetting the Chinese.”
And upset they are.
“Unless the US changes its hegemonic mentality and change its hypocritical, self-righteous way of looking at its intrusive intelligence-gathering operations, I don’t see how this will end peacefully without triggering a crisis at some point,” Wang said. ■