China attempts to halt US Navy ship in South China Sea

uss cowpens

According to the Washington Times, the PLA Navy tried to block the USS Cowpens, a guided missile ship, from proceeding through South China Sea on December 5. The story is here.

What is interesting is that the incident marks an escalation of China’s confrontational strategy in the seas surrounding its coast. That is significant because:

1) It shows that the “Salami-Slicing” strategy is more Western theory of China’s actions than China’s actual strategy. I.e. The incrementalism appears to be a plan in Western eyes. But in reality China’s PLA Navy is taking a much more rapid approach.

2) It suggests that policy is being led not by Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party, but by China’s military and Coast Guard itself – which has been the case in the East China Sea and South China Sea all along

3) If point number 2 is correct, it brings forward the timing of a potential clash between China and a foreign navy, including the US’s.

But having said that there are two notes of caution:

1) The incident is not the first time the US Navy and Chinese vessels have had stand-offs on the sea.

2) This story has added weight because of the Air Defense Identification Zone story in the East China Sea over the past few weeks. The world’s eyes are already fixed on this issue, so on the face of it, the near-miss may look more alarming than it is.

(Photo of USS Cowpens, Courtesy USNavy)

If you like what China has done in the East China Sea, just wait till they do the same in the South China Sea

The Bloomberg piece lays out the now-familiar “salami-slicing” strategy, compared to the game Go, to push out neighboring powers to establish a zone of influence in the East China Sea. Next up will be the South China Sea, according to Douglas Paal, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“China is playing the classic game of weiqi, wherein it slowly expands influence through steps that are not a threshold to violence and do not trigger a forcible response,” Paal said, referring to the strategic board game known as Go in English. “Next steps are likely in the South China Sea, but this will be delayed as China builds out its radar and intercept infrastructure.”

The nice thing is such a strategy achieves two goals simultaneously. It creates a zone of influence and also erodes a clear, rules-based order, sending up the mist of ambiguity the Chinese Communist Party likes to operate under. This is part of a macro trend across a number of realms as China’s power increases.