All at the Yellow Sea

There is trouble on the high seas. Few doubted China’s astonishing economic and geopolitical rise would fuel competition and rivalry with the United States and China’s Asian neighbors. Most observers, however, have been left guessing where the first serious points of conflict would emerge. We may have been given our answer this summer: in the disputed and crowded waters of the Asian Pacific, where overlapping claims of sovereignty and territorial rights among the United States, China and a handful of East Asian nations have spilled into confrontation and political brinkmanship this year.

The most recent, and worrisome, manifestation can be seen in revived tensions between historic rivals Beijing and Tokyo over the arrest of a Chinese captain by Japanese forces at sea. On September 7th, a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku islands, a chain in the East China Sea controlled by Japan and claimed by China. The crew of the Chinese ship was released shortly after their arrest but, to Beijing’s great ire, Tokyo extended the detention of the captain. In response, China canceled ministerial and provincial level contacts with Japan, and suspended planned talks on issues such as aviation and coal. China’s foreign ministry threatened “strong counter measures” and warned “Japan shall suffer all the consequences,” while anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment is being expressed on the streets of China’s cities.

China had been testing the maritime boundaries with Japan since the spring, sailing a flotilla of warships through the Miyako Strait in April, and “buzzing” Japanese Navy ships with helicopters. The latest incident has raised alarm bells in capitals across the region and beyond, not least because of the shared animus between the two Asian rivals. But while the Sino-Japanese dispute deserves the world’s attention, it mustn’t lose sight of the potentially more significant maritime feud emerging between the United States and China.

The Pacific was home to the first post-Cold War sparring match between China and the U.S., so it should perhaps be no surprise it is a maritime dispute that divides them now. In 1995, US President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits in response to a series of belligerent Chinese missile tests aimed at bullying Taiwan. From that point on, the Chinese military committed itself to an “access denial” strategy designed to deter the United States from intervening in any conflict in the Pacific, or disrupting the sea lanes that feed China’s economy with fossil fuels and commerce. Despite this, the ocean remained largely calm for the next several years as Washington turned its attention toward radical Islam and the Middle East, and China directed its focus inward, on economic growth.

The first sign of the friction to come emerged on March 24th, 2001. On that day, the USNS Bowditch, an unarmed US hydrographic survey vessel, was harassed by a Chinese frigate in the Yellow Sea. It was again confronted by Chinese ships in May 2001, September 2002, and May 2003, ostensibly because it was operating in China’s “Exclusive Economic Zone.”

Fast forward to October 26th, 2006, when a US naval convoy received an unexpected surprise. A stealthy Chinese Song-class attack submarine surfaced within striking range of the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. US military analysts called it a “wake up call.” In March 2009, the United States and China found themselves embroiled in another “incident,” when five Chinese vessels “shadowed” an unarmed US Navy ship, the Impeccable, conducting surveillance in the South China Sea. The Chinese ships closed within 25 feet before the Impeccable turned its water cannon on their crews. As the US ship tried to leave the scene, two Chinese trawlers blocked its path, nearly causing a collision, and one ship tried to snag the Impeccable’s sonar array with a grappling hook.

These dangerous incidents were not the work of rogue Chinese naval crews—they are the manifestation of an ongoing dispute between Washington and Beijing over the rights of US ships to conduct maritime activities in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Since the 17th century, countries have enjoyed unrestrained sovereignty over their territorial waters, which by today’s definition extend 12 nautical miles from their coastline. Until the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), anything beyond a country’s territorial water was considered the “high sea,” where everyone enjoyed unrestricted access. However, UNCLOS created a new category of water, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where states enjoy exclusive but limited economic rights over a zone extending 200 miles from their coast. However, the EEZ remains open to all countries for the purposes of “navigation and overflight… and other internationally lawful uses of the sea,” including laying pipelines and submarine cables.

Yet China has crafted domestic laws in contradiction of these principles and sought to restrict routine US activities, such as sonar mapping in its EEZ—activities China regularly conducts in the EEZ of neighbors such as Japan. Beijing has also argued that military activities are forbidden in the EEZ (they are not) and that that US survey ships are violating China’s economic rights by conducting “marine scientific research.”

In Beijing this June, Chinese officials explained their position to the author in the following terms: “Always looking into each others’ backyard is not good for trust and mutual understanding.” The lecture was ironic given Beijing regularly rebuffs US efforts at improving military co-operation and information-sharing. Indeed, while the political and economic relationship has matured over the past decade, defense ties remain remarkably stagnant. When US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed interest in visiting China in June, his request was denied by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which hasn’t hosted Mr Gates since 2007. The following month, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told reporters that there was “virtually no relationship between the Chinese military and the United States military.”

This situation was further complicated when a North Korean midget submarine sank a South Korean corvette on March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors. In the aftermath, Washington and Seoul announced a series of naval exercises to demonstrate resolve in the face of North Korean aggression while China refused to condemn the attack. It was initially reported, on June 1st, that those exercises would take place in the Yellow Sea, which separates China and South Korea, and would involve the USS George Washington, the most advanced aircraft carrier in the US Navy. However, as China repeatedly announced its “resolute opposition” to any carrier-led exercises in Yellow Sea, the military drills were repeatedly delayed. The George Washington had traversed the Yellow Sea as late as October 2009 with no protest from Beijing, but suddenly Communist Party of China mouthpieces were filled with op-eds from hawkish PLA generals warning Washington about drilling in the Yellow Sea.

Weeks passed and the standoff became a diplomatic game of chicken: would President Barack Obama send the George Washington into the Yellow Sea, or would he give Beijing a veto over US freedom of action in the Pacific?

First, Mr. Obama tried to split the difference, hosting exercises led by the George Washington in the less contentious Sea of Japan, off Korea’s eastern coast. However, the move was interpreted by allies and enemies alike as a cessation of American authority in Asia and an embarrassment to South Korea, which had gone on record insisting the George Washington would stand by its side in the Yellow Sea.

The message carried particular salience in the capitals of Southeast Asia, where tensions with China are fast on the rise. After years of an effective Chinese charm offensive, many East and Southeast Asian nations have become alienated by hardening Chinese territorial claims in the Pacific. The South China Sea, where island chains such as the Spratlys and Paracels are disputed by China and Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Phillipines and Taiwan, has become a particular flashpoint.

China has arrested hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen in recent years. It has elevated its claim in the South China Sea to a “core issue” on par with Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. Wary capitals in the region have been snapping up military hardware and drawing nearer to Washington. Even regional heavyweight Indonesia, which has stayed above the fray and does not claim any islands in the South China Sea, recently took up the defense of its ASEAN allies at the United Nations, stating China’s claim “clearly lacks international legal basis.” Secretary Hillary Clinton did the same on July 23rd at the ASEAN Regional Forum, insisting “freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea” were in America’s “national interest.” Beijing is still outraged that the U.S. has waded into the South China Sea imbroglio.

But Mrs Clinton’s stand risks being undermined by Mr Obama’s provocative weakness in the Yellow Sea. After weeks of coyness, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell announced in August that the George Washington would take part in scheduled military exercises in the Yellow Sea in the coming months. James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, told China it had no one to blame but itself: “China is suffering the indignity of exercises close to its shores, and though they are not directed at China, the exercises are a direct result of China’s support for North Korea and unwillingness to denounce their aggression.” However, the administration again changed course on August 20th, when a military spokesman announced the George Washington would not participate in September’s exercises, adding only that it “would operate in the waters off the Korean peninsula in future exercises.”

From the first sign of hesitation, Mr Obama signalled to China that US policy is subject to intimidation. Each subsequent reversal has only emboldened Beijing. Much of the political leadership of China still seems to prefer co-operation over confrontation with the United States, and ties between the two countries have grown remarkably broad if not particularly deep. But hardliners in the Communist Party, and particularly in the PLA, clearly resent America’s influence in Asia and are growing more assertive by the year in their attempts to roll that influence back. Damage has been done to US credibility by this whole episode, but the Obama administration must stand by its initial pledge to send the George Washington to the Yellow Sea. With tensions between Japan and China fast on the rise after the arrest of the Chinese trawler captain, there is no better time to send a message to America’s allies that US influence in Asia will not be compromised by China’s rise.