Published daily by the Lowy Institute

US-China at sea incidents are likely the new normal

There has been yet another spate of US-China incidents involving US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes.

USS Ronald Reagan transits the South China Sea. (Photo: US Navy)
USS Ronald Reagan transits the South China Sea. (Photo: US Navy)
Published 20 Jun 2017 

There has been yet another spate of US-China incidents involving US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in and over China’s bordering seas. In February, there was a close encounter between a US Navy P-3 Orion aircraft and a Chinese surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea. On 17 May, a US surveillance plane was intercepted by two Chinese fighter jets over the Yellow Sea. On 24 May, two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a US P-3 surveillance plane over the South China Sea. According to the Pentagon all these intercepts were 'unsafe and unprofessional'. China rejected the US allegations, saying that its jets acted in a 'professional and safe manner'. These sorts of incidents will likely become the ’new normal’ for US-China military interactions in China’s near seas; the inner portions of the Yellow, East and South China Seas. That is because they are the surface expression of the deeper US-China strategic struggle for dominance of the region in which both are trying to gain an ISR advantage.

The US military pivot to Asia and China’s naval expansion and modernisation have brought the two face to face in China’s near seas. The US believes China is developing an 'anti-access/area denial' strategy that is designed to control China’s near seas and prevent access to them by the US in the event of a conflict, say between China and Taiwan. This strategy requires Chinese dominance of command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). The US response is the Joint Concept Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (formerly called the Air-Sea Battle Concept) which depends on crippling China’s C4 ISR. This means that C4 ISR is the ‘tip of the spear’ for both sides, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on, and under China’s near seas.

China has built a new base for both conventional and nuclear submarines at Yulin on Hainan. Some say China’s desire to protect its second strike capability in a nuclear exchange is what has turned the South China Sea into a cockpit of US-China rivalry. China wants to protect its 'secrets' in the area, including the activities and capabilities of its submarines and the morphology of the sea bottom where they could hide. And just as intently, the US wants to know as much as it can about China’s submarine capabilities and the area in which it may one day have to do battle. This exacerbates the ISR contest.

China and the US have agreed on communication protocols for unplanned encounters at sea. But most encounters between US ISR vessels and aircraft and China’s warships and planes are not unplanned, unintentional, or even unexpected. While the new agreements may make the encounters safer, they will not make them any friendlier or less frequent. Indeed, if the US persists in provocative actions despite China’s repeated requests to cease and desist, it must expect to be challenged.

The US argues that these ISR missions are protected by the ‘freedom of navigation’. Even if this is so, these incidents are not about legal right and wrong. The two are engaged in a sparring match with feints, jabs and defensive moves as the two militaries and their intelligence communities size each other up by probing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This sparring in itself is unlikely to trigger a real fight with military punches and counter punches. Nevertheless, it is preliminary to conflict and thus bodes ill for the relationship.

What’s needed is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign ‘near seas’ and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines would provide indicators of friendly and unfriendly behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright.  However, wanting to maintain its clear technological advantage, the US has rejected any and all such guidelines - voluntary or not - as unacceptable. 

Thus this ‘stable unstable’ situation is likely to continue as the new normal. When and if China’s ISR capabilities reach technologic and geographic parity with those of the US, the two may see fit to negotiate such guidelines. In the meantime, such incidents will probably become more frequent and dangerous.

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