Four aspects of the USS Cowpens incident in South China Sea

by Chris Zappone

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1) Timing and pattern. It occurred while US Vice President Joe Biden was on a state visit to China, with reports from one media source suggesting he delayed meeting with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao once he was informed of the incident. Biden “abruptly disappeared into a side room with only his security detail shortly before he was about to shake hands with Li for the cameras outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse…It has not been confirmed whether Biden’s unexpected detour was related to the South China Sea encounter, though Duowei suggests that there must have been a serious reason for Biden to make his host and Chinese counterpart wait for him.” 

The timing issue echoes a similar pattern of embarrassments orchestrated by China’s military…

In January 2011, when then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Beijing for talks, China surprised the world (and certainly Gates) by testing its stealth fighter jet, the J-20. The test of the plane “overshadowed” the visit, according to the NYTimes, and had the effect of “apparently catching China’s civilian leadership off guard.”

Cast your mind back to the January 11, 2007 when China destroyed the defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, sending shockwaves through the international space community. The satellite’s destruction, which cast a layer of damaging debris into the earth’s orbit, came just months before a UN Institute for Disarmament Research held a symposium in Geneva on space security – an event attended by and funded in part by China.

As one US diplomat said, in discussing the satellite’s destruction: “The contradiction between China’s statements and actions in this area raise questions about the credibility of China’s declaratory policies and commitments in other areas of national security affairs.”  That contradiction hasn’t changed.

But surprise has emerged as a consistent pattern: The PLA Navy has also closely followed and then surprised the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier group in the Pacific in 2006.

By the way, these diplomatic and military jolts are what came to mind when Ed Snowden appeared in Hong Kong while Xi Jinping was meeting with Obama in California.

Nonetheless, the Cowpens is the second such US-China ship run-in that has received a lot of attention. There was another in 2009 with the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. In both cases, reports stated China harassed US ships. But take a breath here: that’s both the reported cases. A US Navy person suggested such encounters are not uncommon and so it would be unwise to “overhype” the Cowpens run-in. In any case, the Cowpens run-in is one of the most significant confrontations between the US and China in years.

2) Effect on US-Japan relations: No matter the timing, the Cowpens incident goes against notion that China is trying to split the US and Japan alliance. If China wanted to do this – as some like Eurasia’s Ian Bremmer suggests  – why tangle with the Americans at sea at the same time as disputes with Japan fester? Doesn’t that galvanize the US and Japan to work more closely with each other?

3) Strategy in South China Sea: If confrontations with the US reinforce the Japan-US alliance, you have to ask how effective the escalation is for China’s presumed goal of turning up the heat on neighboring powers through constant but gradual pressure. This deliberate strategy which applies pressure up to – but never over the point of crisis – has been described as a “Salami-slicing” strategy by Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal. The strategy is so called because of the “the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli (reason for war), but which add up over time to a major strategic change.” Yet getting in front of a the USS Cowpens may undermine China’s prospects by putting a test of Chinese resolve on the line. If the ultimate goal is to push all other nations out of the East China Sea and South China sea, indirect pressure building would be more effective, rather than targeting the incumbent power. As in all of these matters at sea, unless unedited video footage of the full event is released, it will be hard to know the specifics.

4) PLA Navy control: The other implication around the Cowpens incident is that there are still rogue elements operating in the PLA Navy. Despite Xi’s appointments of generals and frequent meetings with the military, there is no guarantee Xi’s command of the military extends to the ship that tried to stop the Cowpens. China’s military and civilian government suffer from dysfunction. Both are immense organizations. Dysfunctional organizations are rarely reformed and made effective quickly, certainly not in the time since Xi asuumed control of the top military decision-making body, the Chinese Military Council. The media has tended to describe Xi’s assumption of power as a waving of a magic wand, bringing the military under his sway. In reality, he must struggle to bring forces within the military to heel. That means the captain of the Chinese ship may have been acting on his own authority. As David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analysis told the Washington Post about the Cowpens incident: “My gut would suggest to me that this dangerous and uncalled-for activity was a local initiative by the local Chinese commanders.”

Conclusion: Obviously points 1 and 4 can’t both be correct. If there was a conscious decision to cause a flap at seas, it would preclude a captain acting alone. Another possibility is that the PLA Navy was on high alert because Biden was in the country. In any case, the list lays out some of the contradictions the event brings to mind.

Photo: Yes, it is that famous pattern.