The term ‘incidents at sea’ encompasses a wide range of maritime activities and situations. It can include maritime encounters that are either deliberate or inadvertent and involve any combination of ships, submarines and aircraft from military, auxiliary and civil organisations of different countries – in this case, major powers of Indo-Pacific Asia.
As the 2001 EP-3 crisis illustrated, some of the most troubling maritime incidents can have an aerial dimension. Close encounters between military and coastal auxiliary aircraft are on the increase, particularly over the waters surrounding Japan. For instance, in March 2011, Japanese F-15J fighters intercepted Chinese Y-8 surveillance planes about 30 nautical miles from the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, reportedly the closest distance Chinese military aircraft have been detected to that disputed site.
Another dangerous activity involves close air surveillance, or ‘buzzing’ of ships, by opposing aircraft which make low passes or hover in close proximity. Close air surveillance of this kind serves a number of purposes: it may be carried out to intimidate, test resolve and reactions, assert territorial boundaries or disrupt the activities of the target vessel, be they intelligence collection, seabed exploration or military exercises. Another, more tangible purpose is for collecting photographic and other intelligence.
Chinese aircraft have repeatedly engaged in such buzzing behaviour towards Japan in the past 18 months. In April 2010, Japanese destroyers shadowed an unusually large Chinese naval task group of 10 vessels that was conducting prolonged exercises in international waters between the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island, in Japan’s southernmost prefecture. In response, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) helicopter buzzed the Japanese destroyer Asayuki, approaching as close as 90 metres horizontally and 50 metres vertically, circling twice before returning to its host ship.
This occurrence, which sparked diplomatic protests from Japan, followed a similar encounter almost two weeks earlier, when a helicopter from the same task group buzzed the Japanese destroyer Suzunami. More events of this nature have occurred since: in March 2011, a helicopter from China’s State Oceanic Administration reportedly buzzed the Japanese destroyer Samidare at a range of 70 metres, near an East China Sea gas field where both nations claim exploration rights.
Another maritime activity that may lead to incidents at sea involves ‘shouldering’: dangerous or aggressive manoeuvring by one or more vessels in close proximity to those of another country. This kind of action is especially risky when opposing ships have no option but to take evasive action to avoid imminent collisions, as occurred during the Impeccable incident in March 2009.
Chinese vessels appear to be becoming increasingly assertive in their patrols, and in some instances have demonstrated a willingness to take risks by shadowing and shouldering US and Japanese vessels.
In June 2009, for example, a Chinese submarine followed the US destroyer John S. McCain in the East Sea, apparently colliding with and damaging its towed array sonar instrumentation. More recently, as described earlier, a collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese coastguard vessel, and the subsequent arrest by Japanese authorities of the Chinese captain, led to a major diplomatic dispute.
In addition to these, there are other, less common ways in which harassment can take place at sea. These include: accidental or reckless firing during military exercises; simulated attacks on ships or aircraft; electronic jamming of communication equipment; illuminating opposing ships, especially bridges, using powerful searchlights (known as ‘dazzling’); and firing ?ares. While there are few recorded instances of such behaviour since the end of the Cold War, such incidents often arose between US and Soviet naval forces, and could emerge again if mistrust and competition intensify in Indo-Pacific Asia.
Asia’sincreasingly contested maritime environment is a symptom of the region’s long-term power shift, and connects with several related trends: military modernisation; assertive nationalism; and greater emphasis on territorial claims for a mix of political, economic and strategic reasons. These are all important drivers of incidents at sea in Asia, beyond the proximate causes – which might range from miscommunication to the over- zealousness of individuals.
The transformation of Asia’s power distribution has been most pronounced in the economic realm. Yet rapid economic growth, with sustained investment in science and technology, has also given Beijing the means to transform its military in ways that help it secure its strategic interests by offsetting US naval advantages.
China’s strategic outlook and culture have traditionally been continental, its leaders largely preoccupied with threats to the nation’s land frontiers. But today China sees its maritime security environment as the more threatening. From the East Asian seas to the Western Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, Chinese leaders face a maritime environment with a wide range of military challenges and vulnerabilities, including territorial disputes and sovereignty issue as well as genuine concerns about the security of seaborn energy supplies and trade. Chinese maritime interests can be conceived as a hierarchy of priorities extending outward from the Chinese mainland. They relate closely to Beijing’s wider strategic interests and goals, beginning with national development, internal stability and the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
Accordingly, the most fundamental task for the PLA-N is quite simply to defend China and its coastal economic heartland. At the same time Beijing continues to define ‘reunification’ with Taiwan as a core – and defensive – strategic objective. The PLA-N is also increasing its capabilities to advance Chinese interests – potentially coercively – in territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with multiple Southeast Asian countries in the East Sea, as will be examined presently.
Finally, the preservation of China’s economic wellbeing depends in large part on uninhibited energy and other trade ?ows, the vast bulk of which will continue to move by sea regardless of plans for overland infrastructure such as pipelines. About 80 percent of China’s oil imports cross the Indian Ocean. This is a zone where the United States continues to exercise a decisive naval advantage, while a rising India, too, has serious interdiction and blockading capability. Even though China’s short-term anxieties about maritime security are heavily concentrated on the Western Pacific, and specifically the South China, East China and Yellow seas, its long-run naval focus will have to encompass the Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs), a view which has started to be articulated in Chinese strategic commentary.
Given the strategic rationale in China for a strong navy, the PLA-N has benefited from a sustained program of naval development over the past 15 to 20 years, and has accumulated a range of modern surface and sub-surface combatants armed with torpedoes, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles. Today, China fields the largest naval force in Asia, with over 70 surface combatants, more than 60 submarines, and roughly 85 missile-armed fast ‘patrol’ craft.39 These have been woven into a ‘layered defence’ strategy, with a proactive ‘anti-access’ or ‘area-denial’ element at its heart. This approach seeks to raise the costs and risks to American and Japanese forces operating in the vicinity of China’s coastline or of Taiwan.
While anti-access/area-denial strategies are strategically defensive and relatively cost-effective, especially when compared with the costs of more ambitious sea- control strategies, they are operationally offensive. That is, they rely on naval forces, particularly submarines, prosecuting barrier operations far from China’s coast – for example, beyond Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and as far out as the outer edge of what China terms the ‘first island chain’. Given this, and because tracking and targeting moving ships is very difficult, anti-access strategies also depend on a high level of situational awareness and on integrated surveillance capabilities, comprised of over-the-horizon radar, low-level satellites and, most importantly for the present analysis, ships and aircraft on expansive patrols.
The operational imperative of anti-access, in other words, necessitates the presence of Chinese air and naval forces in areas that overlap with the activities of US and Japanese naval forces. This greatly increases the range of circumstances for maritime brinkmanship and incidents at sea. The surfacing of a Chinese submarine within torpedo range of a US aircraft carrier near Okinawa in 2006 – described by a US naval commander as having potential to trigger an ‘unforeseen incident’ – attests to this risk.
In addition, the evolving imperatives of China’s nuclear posture – involving a quest for a survivable second-strike capability against the United States – means that Beijing is seeking to minimise US tracking of its growing ?eet of nuclear- armed submarines. This may further help explain Beijing’s extreme sensitivity to US intelligence-gathering at sea, and would lend an additional strategic logic to China’s efforts to push US surveillance far from its coastline and perhaps eventually out of the East Sea. The Impeccable, after all, is reported to have been monitoring submarine activity in the vicinity of China’s base on Hainan Island.
For US and Japanese military planners, a somewhat reciprocal logic to China’s anti-access strategy is at work. In response to the growth of Chinese military power, Tokyo and Washington are implementing countermoves aimed at limiting their own vulnerability to Chinese denial strategies. These could, however, add inadvertently to the possibility of incidents at sea.
Despite constraints on its defence spending, Japan is responding to China’s rising power and continued North Korean provocation by foreshadowing substantial increases to its formidable maritime capabilities, including increasing its submarine ?eet from 18 to 24 as well as acquiring fifth-generation F-35 fighter aircraft and new ship-borne anti-submarine warfare helicopters – all of which could be integrated into an anti-access strategy suited to Japan’s geography.
In the past year, as well as reaffirming the primacy of the US alliance to Japan’s defence, Tokyo has mooted placing troops and possibly anti-air and anti-ship missiles on its southernmost islands. Like China, Japan’s development of a ‘dynamic defence capability’, as it is referred to in Japan’s 2010 Defense Policy Guidelines, will require more outgoing and extensive patterns of maritime patrol – for training, surveillance and deterrence.
In sum, Japanese and Chinese naval forces are likely to find themselves operating increasingly in the same contested stretches of water, with each side looking for ways to offset the other’s improving capabilities. This, too, does not bode well for a reduction in the number or seriousness of incidents at sea.
The United States has actively responded to the growth of Chinese power. A sustained build-up of air and naval assets in Guam attests to a determination in Washington to retain military superiority in East Asia – even if that means an expanded range of circumstances under which US and Chinese forces might encounter each other dangerously at sea. Through military and diplomatic moves in 2010 – from pointed political statements to combined exercises with allies and the conspicuous surfacing of three of its most potent submarines – the United States underscored a determination to retain its mantle as guarantor of regional
security in East Asia.
This broad role includes alliance and extended deterrence commitments to Japan and South Korea as well as support for a peaceful status quo across the Taiwan Strait and the provision of modern defensive arms to Taiwan. Washington is tightening its alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia and has begun cultivating strategic partnerships. The most important of these is with India, whose own apprehensions and ambitions appear to have made it cautiously receptive to the idea of complicating Chinese strategic calculations, especially in the Indian
Ocean but potentially in Southeast Asia as well.
Significantly, the United States sees an essential part of its Asian and global strategic role as upholding freedom of navigation – which would permit military intelligence-gathering activities – in the East Sea and China’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Washington can thus be expected to continue surveillance operations such as those of the Impeccable. And China, in turn, will continue to object to those activities and at times seek to physically disrupt them. Beijing’s objections are couched in its interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which it defines military surveillance as being outside the boundaries of legitimate freedom of navigation and over?ight within its EEZ.
The difference of views on this issue will continue to be a critical factor behind possible maritime confrontations. China, along with a handful of other countries – including India – interprets UNCLOS as not permitting military surveillance within the EEZ. The United States, along with most other countries, holds the opposite view. Washington’s case is hampered by its failure so far to ratify UNCLOS.
Ultimately, Washington is responding to Chinese naval power by reviewing its entire warfighting strategy in the Western Pacific: developing the so-called ‘AirSea Battle’ concept, outlined in two high-profile reports by a US think tank in 2010.
Through the systematic enhancement of US maritime and related command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, this proposed strategy aims to overcome the most potent aspects of Chinese anti-access strategies. In theory, this proposed strategy would allow the United States to project and sustain force along China’s maritime periphery and thus continue to exercise regional dominance, deterring Beijing and reassuring allies.
For now, AirSea Battle is a concept. If it is eventually translated into a military force-structure and strategy, there could be accompanying risks that it will add to maritime tensions in the region, at least in the short term. That is because, given its emphasis on disabling China’s C4ISR and strike capabilities at the outset of a con?ict, it will, much like Chinese and Japanese anti-access strategies, necessitate greater situational awareness and more intrusive forms of surveillance. This could lead to more frequent interaction between US and Chinese naval forces in and around the first island chain, and thus a greater array of circumstances in which accidents – or deliberate incidents at sea – might occur.
In recent years, India has moved to identify Chinese power as the principal reason
for its defence modernisation. New Delhi is making maritime acquisitions specifically based on its concerns about China’s expanding strategic weight and reach. Much of India’s ambitious naval modernisation program has been based on a strategy of securing New Delhi’s place as the principal maritime power in the Indian Ocean.
Apart from the United States, China is the only other conceivable long-run contender for this role, and Indian defence planners look with concern upon Chinese activities in strengthening its security relationship with Pakistan and supporting port developments in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and elsewhere that might be shifted to supporting a Chinese military presence in the future. New Delhi’s acquisition of advanced warships, nuclear-powered and potentially nuclear-armed submarines, and long-range surveillance aircraft appear explicitly designed to address future PLA-N capabilities.
Assuming that Beijing eventually expands its maritime security interests and presence in the Indian Ocean, there are obvious future possibilities for encounters and incidents at sea between Chinese and Indian forces. But several other paths to possible Sino-Indian maritime tensions warrant examination.
China is beginning to move beyond its apparent indifference about India as a security competitor, in large part because of the growing US-India strategic partnership, which involves close military to military ties between the two democracies, notably in advanced maritime exercises. The security dimension to India’s ‘Look East’ policy of engagement with East Asian countries is expanding: for instance, India has held naval exercises with Singapore in the East Sea. Moreover, India’s growing economic and energy links with East Asia give it a stake in that region’s maritime security.
Finally, New Delhi’s quest for a nuclear-armed submarine capability to deter Beijing could require it eventually to operate such vessels in waters within relatively short distance of China, unless the range of Indian submarine-launched missiles can be increased beyond what is currently estimated to be less than 1,000 km.52 This in turn could require Indian surveying of unfamiliar waters in China’s nautical backyard.
Rory Medcalf, Raoul Heinrichs, Justin Jones