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Pivot to the Hague
U.S. Not Neutral on Adjudication of S. China Sea Claims

In a move likely to draw cheers from Manila, the U.S. has firmly stated its support for international adjudication of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines has long advocated for such adjudication, arguing that China’s size and power would make any “bilateral negotiations” (China’s preferred option) a fait accompli. So in the fight over the fight over Asia’s coastal waters, the Philippines has just gained “Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia”, Daniel Russel, as an ally, according to the Diplomat:

The United States has repeatedly said that while it takes no position on competing sovereignty claims over disputed land features in the South China Sea, it does want these maritime claims to be advanced in accordance with international law and without the use of coercion. […]

…in response to a question by a Chinese participant on perceived U.S. ‘neutrality’ in the South China Sea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel firmly clarified at a think tank conference in Washington, D.C. that this neutrality only extended to the competing claims, rather than the way in which the disputes were resolved.

“We are not neutral when it comes to adhering to international law. We will come down forcefully when it comes to following the rules,” Russel said during a keynote speech delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. […]

“It’s really not about the rocks and the shoals. It’s about rules. It’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in,” he said.

China knows perfectly well it’s acting illegally and any decision is virtually certain to rule against its expansionist ambitions (a quick glance at a map including the Scarborough Shoal will show why Manila thinks it would win its day in court). That’s why, although it is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which explicitly outlaws China’s actions, Beijing has said it will not recognize the legitimacy of any decision the court makes. It has refused even to show up for the hearings.

The U.S. has every reason to hope for a legal resolution. With tensions in the region already red hot due to a war of words between Japan and China, international arbitration is clearly an attractive option. But even with the U.S. pushing for it and Manila pressing its case, Beijing is not likely to succumb to the pressure to respect any law it doesn’t like. The differences of opinion between China and its neighbors about territorial matters are irreconcilable and international law has never shown itself to be particularly useful at stopping geopolitical problems from snowballing.

We’re reminded of the great quote from E.H. Carr, reflecting on the failure of the League of Nations to stop history from repeating itself in Europe. He observed that “the metaphysicians of Geneva found it difficult to believe that an accumulation of ingenious texts prohibiting war was not a barrier against war itself.” Any attempt to manage tensions in the region is unlikely to hinge on The Hague.

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  • rheddles

    Beijing is not likely to succumb to the pressure to respect any law it doesn’t like.

    That’s exactly the point. They will be exposed to all for what they are. For the last 3 decades they have kept their head down and escaped poverty making enemies of no one. Now they think they are big and rich and can push the little guys around. And they can also look at the demographic trends and see that they won’t be substantially richer or bigger in the medium future possibly the contrary. So now that the cards are on the table, we can get together with the little guys and try to put something together that avoids the errors of Nato. That’s what addresses the problem. The international law charade is merely a means to make them tip their hand. And it seems to be working. Now if we would just start building 3 Virginias a year.

    • f1b0nacc1

      How about starting with something simpler, like hardening our networks and enforcing some real network security?
      As for naval moves, I would suggest that rather than Virginia’s (which while superb vessels, are still expensive and limited in terms of counter commerce operations) we start building some sensibly sized surface ships useful for commerce raiding, etc.

      • rheddles

        If we fight China, our most likely foe, it will be a naval war as was WWII. We sure as hell aren’t going to invade China,but we can isolate it by cutting off maritime commerce. Submarines do that best. The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRSM) can be put in the 12 Vertical Launch System (VLS) in addition to four 21″ torpedo tubes with 38 torpedoes. That’s 50 shots. They can do a lot of commerce damage. Surface ships are just targets until you’ve killed all the enemy’s subs.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Subs WERE best at anti-commerce operations in WWII (actually mines were, but that is a different discussion), but the weapons used by subs today are far, far too expensive to be cost effective in a modern war. The LRASM isn’t even in service yet (it might be by, say 2018 though I wouldn’t bet heavily on that….), and is likely to cost far too much to be practical against merchant vessels. The same goes for existing torpedoes, which are typically designed these days for use against warships, not merchant vessels. A cheap frigate, on the other hand (something like the MEKO III or any number of other European designs) would do the job nicely, and a simple 76 mm gun is very, very cheap to use.
          As for subs as the dominant weapon for the future, that remains to be seen. Surface ships can carry far more effective sensors, useful weapons, and aircraft to hunt subs (which are deeply vulnerable once spotted), and are faster to boot. Perhaps subs will be effective, but there is little practical evidence to indicate this at this time. WWII showed that they were quite effective when used in large numbers, but those numbers no longer exist, and there are no navies on earthy that have any realistic chance of deploying such numbers in the future. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss subs as deeply frightening weapons of war, but given an enemy with enough sensors and determination to use them (China has both), I doubt you are going to be able to ’empty the seas’ with them either.

          • rheddles

            I’d still rather be underwater when the shooting starts. Subs did empty the seas in WWII and I’d still put my money on them instead of carriers or LCS. Or maybe you think the Zumwalt will clear the seas.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The seas are very big places, and unlikely to be ‘cleared’ by anything above or below the surface. In WWII, subs sunk a lot of merchant tonnage, but when the defender (i.e. the guy with the merchant ships) started using convoys and effective tactics, the subs rapidly became less useful. Take a look at the U-boat war in the Atlantic post-1943, and you see this dynamic play itself out quite well. The U-boats, which were deadly against unescorted (or inadequately escorted) convoys, rapidly went from hunters to hunted when the Allies closed the GIUK air gap and started adding effective sonar and weapons (the Hedgehog, for example) to their escorts. The US feasted upon Japanese shipping largely because the Japanese had very poor sensors, assigned their worst personnel to escort duty (it was considered unworthy of a warrior), and never made a serious effort to build and deploy adequate numbers of escorts or form effective convoys. Under such circumstances, it isn’t a big surprise that subs were quite effective in the Pacific, but their relative ineffectiveness in the Atlantic is the big story.
            As for where I would rather be when the shooting starts? I have spent time in subs and on the surface, and I have little doubt that I would prefer to be on the surface…though the fact that I am claustrophobic might have more than a little to do with that! (grin) Seriously though, subs are helpless if spotted, where at least surface ships have some ability to defend themselves, and that makes a big difference. There is no doubt that subs are a serious threat, but they are hardly a silver bullet, and are unlikely to be decisive.
            As for what I would prefer. The LCS is a waste of money (worse than that, but you get the idea) and while the Zumwalt and its ilk are useful for power project and carrier defense, they aren’t designed for anti-commerce applications. If you want to blockade China (an excellent strategy) you are going to have to have a lot of small ships with cheap, effective anti-shipping weapons…something like a smallish frigate or corvette. The Israeli Saar V might be a good model of this sort of thing, though it has short ‘legs’, and thus wouldn’t be ideal. one of the MEKO III frigate designs, even a few of the more innovative French designs that have come out recently might be worth a look. Subs cost too much, and their weapons are limited, while the big surface combatants don’t have the numbers to cover the vast ocean expanses.
            There is no perfect answer, wish there were…

          • rheddles

            Agree with your last for sure. I suspect or difference is one of emphasis and not direction. Ultimately you have to play the game to find out which is the better team. This is one game I won’t mind being rained out.

          • f1b0nacc1

            And on that we are in absolute agreement. Who was it who said ‘the only thing sadder than a battle lost is a battle won’? Even the most total sweeping victory in the kind of war we are discussing would be a horrible thing…let us hope that we never see it happen

  • Blackbeard

    Fight China? What country are you thinking might fight China? Certainly not the America of today which is busy cutting its military and can’t even bring itself to fight Bashar Assad.

    Those days are gone and China knows it.

    • rheddles

      Actually those days are numbered and it’s 474. Then there’ll be some changes made.

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