ASEAN progress on maritime disputes – full steam ahead

It doesn’t look like it’s going China’s way.  

The UN has set up the arbitration court the Philippine government requested in January resolve the stand-off over the islands. During the recent ASEAN meeting Secretary-General Le Luong Minh was asked what would happen if China rejects negotiations with ASEAN on island disputes. 

“So we will strive to invite China to engage in this process and we hope to get a peaceful solution to the issue of the South China Sea,” he added.

China, meanwhile, accuses the Philippines of attempting to legalize its “occupation” of the Scarlborough Shoal. 

China’s attitude is that the “durable solution” the Philippines seeks is the same as a ruling on sovereignty.

by initiating the arbitration on the basis of its illegal occupation of China’s islands and reefs, the Philippines has distorted the basic facts underlying the disputes between China and the Philippines. In so doing, the Philippines attempts to deny China’s territorial sovereignty and clothes its illegal occupation of China’s islands and reefs with a cloak of “legality”. The Philippines’ attempt to seek a so-called “durable solution” such as this and the means it has employed to that end are absolutely unacceptable to China.

So last year, it was point to China. This year, ASEAN is aiming to find common ground on the issue ahead of planned discussions with Beijing later this year.

You would think that for all Beijing’s talk about soft-power someone there could step back from the issue and see how this looks to the non-Chinese claimants and by extension the world. But then maybe not. Because this may not be about China dealing with the outside world but China dealing with internal forces.

China’s aircraft carrier contradiction

Something to think about: If China is simultaneously moving ahead with new aircraft carriers AND anti-aircraft carrier missiles, there is an inherent contradiction. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the DF-21D carrier killer missiles make US aircraft carriers useless in the Pacific. Wouldn’t it follow that the US pursue similar technology to degrade the capability of future Chinese aircraft carriers? So, why would the PLA Navy pursue both? My first thought is lack of strategic foresight and fiefdoms within the PLA and PLA Navy. I.e. the guys working on the carrier killers, which would mark an evolution in sea warfare, can’t stop the guys who want more PLA Navy air craft carriers pursuing more aircraft carriers.
From the US side, it might be hard to imagine a world without aircraft carriers but that may be the way technology is headed. A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine pilotless drones. These days it barely makes sense to have billion dollar jet fighters controlled by humans making dicey landings on air craft carriers. I suppose the challenge in the US would be to get military planners to embrace this new world where carrier-killer missiles, and drone technology severely change the rules of engagement.

Bloomberg notes the drive for the US to examine a similar technology, if only to test its capabilities.

Key line:

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, warned in his January 2012 annual report that the Navy lacked a target needed to check its defenses against the DF-21D. The Navy had an “immediate need” for a test missile able to replicate the DF-21D’s trajectory, Gilmore said.

New Chinese aircraft carriers in the works

On the one hand you would think aircraft carriers would be helpful in China’s many island disputes.

And yet aircraft carriers are to project power usually at great distances.

So you have to wonder if China wants to do this, or is this a prestige decision. And are these aircraft carriers going to be seaborn equivalent of the investment-driven boondoggles on land.

Did China drive Japan’s ships away from Senkaku-Diaoyu?

If this account is true and Chinese ships drove Japanese ships away, it would mark a troubling development. It would be troubling because the ships’ visits would be less symbolic and more tactical. My sense is that this is the heroic Chinese telling of the event. The Japanese for their part have pledged to expel any Chinese who land on the island – and probably any Japanese who do too. The difference between the Chinese and Japanese in this case is that the Japanese have a free hand to enforce the no landing order against their own citizens as a matter of policy. Nationalists in Japan may grumble. But the risk of domestic blow back would be lower for the Japanese. The Chinese authorities are constrained not to do anything around the islands that can be construed as “weak” by its own people. So if Chinese nationalists somehow planted a flag there, the Chinese would reluctant to stop them. I don’t think this will happen. But it shows how combustible the environment is. The Chinese, because of their internal dynamics, are constrained to err on the side of strength in these matters.