Throughout the Christmas-New Year break, The Interpreter will be featuring some of its best pieces from 2015. More to come between now and January 4 when The Interpreter will be back for 2016.
South China Sea: Does Xi have a grand strategy?, by Linda Jakobson, 13 January.
I do want to emphasise, however, that the word 'chaos' or 'chaotic' does not appear anywhere in the report. I do not view Chinese maritime security decision-making as chaotic.
This brings me to an observation made by Michael McDevitt. On the basis of Xi's willingness to make politically 'courageous' moves in his anti-corruption campaign, McDevitt questions my argument that Xi and other top leaders find it difficult to publicly disagree with officials or entities that announce or execute counterproductive stances associated with 'safeguarding China's sovereignty'. This is an important and possibly a valid point, which I have contemplated while watching one senior official after another being investigated. Nevertheless, on the basis of discussions this past September and November in Beijing about the anti-corruption drive, I came to the conclusion that there are different dynamics at play. The 'rights consciousness' movement (which Xi himself has spurred on) is so strong that it does at least to a degree deter Xi from going against the tide on matters involving sovereignty. Obviously, time will tell if I am mistaken.
Finally, I do not claim that China's maritime actors can behave in any way they choose. Xi's guidelines box them in. As I have written in The Australian, it is entirely possible that Xi approves of most (or all) of the actions taken in China's name. My point is that Xi is not deciding on myriad actions; numerous maritime actors are.
The growing militarisation of the South China Sea, by Bonnie S. Glaser, 29 July.
According to Admiral Harris, the US has not yet seen China place anti-ship cruise missiles or supporting gear on the islands, but such capabilities could be deployed in the near future along with surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the harbour at Fiery Cross Reef is better suited to submarine basing than the shallow waters at Hainan Island where the PLAN's fleet is currently based. Within a few kilometres from shore, the waters quickly drop to a depth of 2000 metres.
If a military conflict were to break out, the land features as well as the ships and aircraft operating from them would be vulnerable to attack, but in peacetime and in a crisis, they will provide China with the capability to hold US forces at risk at a farther distance than it can at present. This could have implications for a US effort to come to Taiwan's defence. A US carrier battle group sailing from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean that was coming to Taiwan's aid would have to pass through the South China Sea. In addition, in wartime, the need to attack these sites and the aircraft and ships deploying from them would divert US assets from performing other missions.
In the event that China decides to dislodge other claimants from their outposts, the PLA will have greater capability to do so. Helicopters, amphibious landing craft and mobile artillery batteries could be used to conduct assaults on nearby land features. Alternatively, China could opt to put pressure on rival claimants to abandon some of their outposts. For example, it could attempt to disrupt resupply operations to isolated features that lack self-defence capability, such as Second Thomas Shoal, where a contingent of Filipino marines is stationed on a decaying World War II military ship. In early 2014, Chinese coast guard ships twice tried to block civilian Filipino vessels from resupplying the marines deployed on the Shoal.
USS Lassen and 'innocent passage': The devil in the details, by Euan Graham, 9 November.
Sand Cay is occupied by Vietnam, but too far away from Subi to be relevant. Sandy Cay, as a feature above high water located approximately 9nm from Subi, meets the requirement of proximity and potentially qualifies for a territorial sea. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that Subi is an LTE subordinate to Sandy Cay, would innocent passage apply? I'm not a lawyer, but that assumption appears problematic based on the authors' own contention that 'it is control of the feature that confers security rights', including innocent passage. As an unoccupied feature it is not clear that Sandy Cay is under the effective control of any state, nor would this be affected by the artificial structures China has erected upon Subi Reef, since it is not the originating feature. Therefore, it is questionable whether innocent passage would apply to Sandy Cay or a subordinate LTE.
One unintended and, in the circumstances, ironic consequence could be to stimulate competition between China and other claimants in order to gain effective control over Sandy Cay, if it's identified as the key to legal title over Subi (though its ability to generate a territorial sea would have to be independently determined).
A surprising omission by Dutton and Glaser is Thitu island, relevant because of its proximity to Subi and Sandy Cay. Thitu, one of the larger features occupied by the Philippines, appears to be fractionally beyond 12nm from Subi Reef. If the Lassen passed between Thitu and Subi (where we know it came within 6 miles), a more straightforward rationale for adopting innocent passage would have been with reference to Thitu island, since it is occupied anddefinitely entitledto a 12nm territorial sea. Instead, the focus has shifted to Sandy Cay, with the worrying implication that the Philippines and China may now feel pressure to demonstrate physical control, with all that entails.
Australia's air force in the South China Sea: Flying quietly and carrying a medium-sized stick, by Nick Bisley, 16 December.
The fact that Australia has undertaken a FONOP of this kind should not come as a surprise. It is in keeping with the tone and tenor of comments made by senior Australian officials and politicians over the past year in relation to China's actions. This in turn has been informed by the Abbott Government's focus on speaking clearly and plainly about Australia's strategic intent in Asia. Unusually, senior public servants have been a part of this, with DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese and Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson emphasising the extent to which China's behaviour in the South China Sea was destabilising. The outgoing head of the Prime Minister's Department, Michael Thawley, said Australia was in a long term struggle for influence in the region. Shortly after coming to office, Prime Minister Turnbull said China was 'pushing the envelope' in the South China Sea and that Australia needed to stand up for a rules-based international order. Put in that context, a considered but quiet FONOP seems to be precisely in keeping the ideas informing Australian policy.
One of the key reasons for not making the exercise public is to lower the diplomatic and political cost of the action. Now that it is the public domain, we will see how China responds. While this is difficult to predict, China did not make too much of the USS Lassen transit. But there is a distinct possibility that China might decide to use this incident as an excuse to push Australia. Over the past eight years or so, China has made a habit of seizing on events to test new Australian governments. It did so with Rudd in 2009 following a range of events including the 2009 Defence White Paper. It did so again with Julia Gillard in 2011 with the announcement of the US Marine Corps rotation through Darwin, and it did so with new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2013 following her response to announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
This may be just the pretext Xi Jinping's China needs to test Malcolm Turnbull's new team. If so, it may test the PM's belief that there is no better time to be an Australian.