Drone incident hints at new tension in South China Sea

By Zhao Minghao Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/26 11:38:39

Beijing and Washington have recently handled a maritime incident in a low-profile and proper way as the Chinese navy handed back an American underwater drone it had captured in the South China Sea. But worries over potential conflicts in the waters in 2017 remain. Given that the US under Donald Trump could ratchet up pressure on China with "freedom of navigation" in the region, feasible and assuring measures to manage and control disparities between China and the US appear to be necessary.

The drone, an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) able to carry sensors and weapons, is meant to help the US Navy enhance the awareness of the battleground. The Pentagon has iterated that they need to advance undersea warfare capabilities, which therefore leads Beijing to suspect the objectives of the device as more than "scientific research." Besides, the South China Sea has seen an increasing number of the elusive devices deployed by the US Navy. From time to time, Chinese fishermen have spotted such devices.

The US claimed the incident took place in the alleged "international waters," which ignores the international law - the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea provides no definition for such catchphrase. The US also doesn't seek approvals from littoral countries for its military activities conducted within their exclusive economic zone.

The US military has made frequent appearances in waters surrounding China via aircrafts and vessels for close-in reconnaissance and military surveys over the years. China and the US clashed several times over US survey ships, like Impeccable in 2009. The returned drone was released from the ship, Bowditch, which has served on US Navy's reconnaissance mission against China for years. The ship, with military symbol on its side, failed to give any warnings for its activities, making Beijing quite concerned over any devices it released in light of their potential threats to the safety of other vessels.

The close-in reconnaissance by the US military in the region has indeed posed threats to China's national security. The seized UUV was set for spying on reef construction near the Nansha Islands, as well as a possible probe into China's submarine route in the South China Sea. In a nutshell, Beijing lays a solid ground for any countermeasure against US military tactics that may harm China's security. In fact, the attitude of the Chinese navy was professional and responsible in the process of the necessary investigation before an immediate return.

Beijing has fully recognized the sensibility and risks emerged from the South China Sea disputes and insisted that the close-in reconnaissance by the US military as well as the alleged "freedom of navigation" can easily bring on sea and air accidents, increasing the possibilities of further armed conflicts between China and the US.

Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, said in a speech at the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute that the US is "ready to confront where they must" and declared some new deterrent forces, such as American F-22 jets to be deployed in the area for co-exercises with Australia in 2017.

Harris said that America's commitment to the Asia-Pacific region would continue after Trump's presidency takes effect on January 20. Trump's nod on this idea is still up in the air. The president-elect, with no political experience, has caused worries that he would be misled politically, especially by advice from hardline military commanders. On all accounts, armed conflicts between China and the US wouldn't favor Trump's commitment of "Make America great again." The retired generals nominated to Trump's cabinet, including James Mattis as defense secretary, should have well understood the cruel effects of wars on military forces.

On December 17, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Manila would "set aside the arbitral ruling" on the disputes over the South China Sea, a move seeking appeasement, not provocation, which brings in a promising reboot of the Sino-Philippines economics relationship.

The new US administration should see that China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific area as a relatively peaceful and stable region that expects no conflicts in the South China Sea. Washington should stand supportive of the situation where multilateral negotiations and relations are in a good shape.

The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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