China Wants Confrontation in the South China Sea
Yet Hopper would have never made the transit if Manila were in sole control of the shoal. The motivating factor, of course, was China. “China’s goal in the South China Sea appears to be a gradual extension of its sovereignty to a maritime space the size of India,” Anders Corr, editor of the just-released Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea, told the National Interest.
In view of this expansive vision, an “innocent passage” is a counterproductive response.
“In our department in Newport, we’re always taking leaders to task for ‘self-defeating behavior,’” James Holmes of the Naval War College e-mailed me on Monday, commenting for himself and not on behalf of the U.S. government. “The anonymous official quoted in press accounts as saying the Hopper passage was an ‘innocent passage’ is guilty of that behavior.”
“Innocent passage is something ships do when passing within 12 nautical miles of sovereign territory,” Holmes, co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, points out. “So if we’re depicting the Hopper passage by Scarborough Shoal as an innocent passage, we are conceding precisely what a freedom-of-navigation operation is supposed to dispute: that China is the lawful sovereign over Scarborough and that it’s entitled to a 12-mile territorial sea around the shoal.”
Scarborough is well within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, and China is essentially asserting squatter’s rights. Moreover, Philippines vs. China, the July 2016 Hague decision applying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, holds that the shoal does not confer a twelve-nautical-mile band of territorial water. “Our passes by Scarborough must show that they are not innocent in legal terms,” Holmes notes. “We must get our language straight, stay on message, and remind everyone regularly that the Hague tribunal smacked down China’s unlawful claims with extreme prejudice back in 2016. That’s how we avoid defeating ourselves.”
American officials, for years, have been characterizing freedom of navigation exercises around Chinese-held features as “innocent passages,” hoping not to rile Beijing. That strategy, unfortunately, has produced the opposite result.
The Trump administration, however, is changing four decades of America’s soft approach to China. That “pivot” is evident in the National Security Strategy, unveiled in December, and the National Defense Strategy, a summary of which was released Friday. China in these landmark policy statements is essentially characterized as an adversary.
Yet historic changes in policy take years to implement. “My belief is that we still have a long way to go to undo the pernicious impact of the policy of appeasement,” James Fanell, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer with the Pacific Fleet, told the National Interest in strong, but nonetheless accurate, terms. “We have several generations of government workers who have been trained to be more attuned to ‘not provoking’ or ‘not offending’ the Chinese than in openly challenging their expansionist activities. This is despite two new policy documents, the NSS and NDS, that clearly intend to challenge Beijing’s outrageous expansionism.”
American policymakers are struggling to come to terms with Beijing’s open hostility to the United States. Obviously, Chinese officials could have ignored the Hopper’s passage, but their choosing to make an issue of it suggests they are determined to pick a fight.
Image: An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool/File Photo