How Will China Respond In the South China Sea? Ask the Soviet Union

Think one word: Ramming.

The “sail by” of USS Lassen within the 12 nautical mile claim line of the new Chinese facilities on Subi reef in the South China Sea occurred without major incident last week. Despite some fiery Chinese rhetoric, war has not broken out and that is a profoundly good thing. Actually, nothing much has changed at all, so it seems. The tense stalemate persists as before. China will continue to build up its new “bases” in and among the Spratly islets. The U.S. will continue to patrol regularly and exercise with its alliance partners. Perhaps, as Xi Jinping said not so long ago, the Pacific Ocean really is big enough to accommodate the interests of both China and the U.S.?

There has been plenty of grousing in the last few months on the right and within U.S. national security circles about how excessive “kibitzing” and hand-wringing preceded the Lassen’s recent patrol. “Too little, too late” will be the inevitable critique of the Obama Administration. But perhaps the Administration that gave U.S. foreign policy the underappreciated legacy of “Don’t do stupid stuff” – an approach much criticized in the Syrian context – could be forgiven for exercising due caution when it comes to escalating a conflict with another nuclear power in that power’s backyard. Perhaps Obama’s national security advisors understand that what might begin as cutters “blasting away” with water cannons could rapidly transition to anti-ship cruise missiles sinking warships, to missile and air attacks on bases, and even to a nuclear exchange targeting cities. That escalation chain could take hours not days and would certainly constitute “stupid stuff” if such a military conflict was fought over “rocks and reefs.”

Provided both powers act with restraint, as they did last week, the unhappy scenario painted above remains an exceedingly low probability – as it should be. But where will the standoff go from here as both sides are very likely to seek to demonstrate resolve by “upping the ante”?  That is a regrettable, but likely prospect. As it turns out, Chinese naval analysts have been studying the nature of U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FoN) patrols and may have concluded that “撞击” [ramming] might be the next logical step. A leading Chinese naval analyst, Captain Li Jie, highlighted that tactic in a quotation excerpted in one of the July 2015 issues (B) of 现代舰船 [Modern Ships]. Another article in a spring 2015 edition of that same magazine (4A) spelled out the strategy in much more detail and it is this latter article that is the major subject of this edition of Dragon Eye.

That article is a detailed study of a 1988 late Cold War standoff: “黑海撞船考” [Investigation of the Black Sea Ship Collision] and begins with the provocative epigraph:  “不要侵犯苏联边界, 我被授权实施打击” [Do not violate the state borders of the Soviet Union, I am authorized to strike], as the warning offered by the Soviet commanding officer to his American counterpart at the time. In examining this episode, Chinese strategists again seem to be looking to Soviet military strategy and practices as a possible approach to confronting American power. I have written before on this forum about the Chinese Navy’s fascination with the Soviet Navy.

The analysis begins with the interesting observation that the U.S. FoN program is not all that old. According to the Chinese analysis, the program initiated in 1979 was a direct response to the international Law of the Sea negotiations process. The purpose, as summarized in the Chinese article, was to ensure that coastal states did not attempt to engage in further restrictions of movement upon the high seas.  It is observed in the article that dangerous incidents continued between the U.S. Navy and the Soviet Navy despite the fact that an Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) protocol had been agreed between Washington and Moscow back in the early 1970s.

According to this account, U.S. FoN patrols into the Black Sea during 1986 caused the Kremlin to increase its air and naval forces in that area in order to counter the U.S. Navy. It was at that time that the Soviet Naval Chief, Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, apparently proposed that the Soviet Navy should confront the U.S. Navy ships employing the tactic of ramming.

A few details of the incident highlighted in the Chinese analysis are worth noting. First, it is related that the Soviet ship was significantly smaller. The Soviet Navy frigate Bezavetny is said to have had only 1/3 the tonnage of the USS Yorktown (CG-48), a cruiser.  Importantly, “两舰都没有人员伤亡” [neither ship suffered any casualties to their personnel], while both ships did sustain some minor damage. Crews on both sides are credited by the Chinese analyst with “较高的技巧” [a high level of skill].

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