Underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio’s team was exploring the wreckage of a 13th-century Chinese junk off the coast of the Philippines when it made an unwelcome discovery about China’s maritime muscle in the 21st century.As a twin-prop plane swooped overhead, a Chinese marine-surveillance vessel approached the team’s Philippines-registered ship and began broadcasting instructions in English over a loudspeaker.“They said this area belonged to the People’s Republic of China, and they told us to scram,” recalls one of the people on board last year. “It was pretty scary.”
Vice President Biden, beginning a visit to east Asia this week, will be walking a tightrope as he attempts to put a damper on tension that exploded between China and its neighbors over China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone. On one level, this kind of harrassment is intellectual: “We want to find more evidence that can prove Chinese people went there and lived there, historical evidence that can help prove China is the sovereign owner of the South China Sea,” the head of the Chinese government’s underwater archaeology unit told the WSJ. Unfriendly archeologists may presumably not come to the same conclusions.But on another level, this is the latest incremental step taken by Beijing to chip away at US political and military influence in China’s near-abroad. A strategy emerges: by taking small actions—setting up an ADIZ that includes disputed territory, harassing foreign vessels and planes that enter China-claimed space, poking the neighbors in the eye with provocative surveillance expeditions and training exercises—China is able to fly below the US radar, simultaneously annoying and estranging Washington and its allies, and making small incremental demonstrations of increasing Chinese regional power. It tests the Obama administration’s commitment to the “pivot” and to its Asian allies. Following PLA General Zhang Zhaozhong’s lead, you can call it a “cabbage strategy“: “assert a territorial claim and gradually surround the area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to a rival. The strategy relies on a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground.”The US, after perhaps giving China a small win last week by recommending to US airlines that their planes obey China’s new rules, today sent its latest message: a squadron of advanced P-8 Poseidon aircraft, dubbed “submarine hunters.” Six aircraft will be stationed at Okinawa and will patrol nearby waters. China’s reaction should be instructive.