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South China Sea on a Boil
China Seizes US Drone In South China Sea

Long-simmering tensions over the South China Sea reached a boiling point on Friday with the report that China had seized a U.S. military drone. Reuters:

A Chinese warship has seized an underwater drone deployed by a U.S. oceanographic vessel in the South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest and a demand for its return, U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday.

The incident, the first of its kind in recent memory, took place on Dec. 15 about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay off the Philippines just as the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was about to retrieve the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), officials said.

“The UUV was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was U.S. property,” the official said.

China’s move is a provocative power play that is sure to reverberate across a nervous Asia. Some experts suggest that the seizure is a reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwan’s President, and his questioning of the One China policy. The move could also be an effort to score points in the waning days of the Obama Administration, before a less pliant Trump Administration takes office. Most likely, China’s action is an attempt to kill two birds with one stone: it will play as a PR victory for Chinese nationalists at home, especially if Obama does not respond forcefully, and it is an early opportunity to test Trump’s own reaction to such a forceful gesture.

Regardless of how Obama or Trump respond, Beijing’s latest escalation offers another reminder of how rapidly tensions are rising in the South China Sea. Between China’s ongoing militarization of its artificial islands, parallel buildup by nervous neighbors like Vietnam, and a Jacksonian China hawk set to take office in the White House, temperatures are unlikely to cool any time soon. Expect the South China Sea to emerge as a crucial flashpoint as Beijing and Washington seek to test each other’s resolve in the years to come.

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  • Disappeared4x

    My bet is on China’s appetite for lame ducks.

    • Disappeared4x

      Just read this granular analysis by retired USN JE Dyer, who always explains the military issues well, with good maps, not excerpted here is her point that China got aggressive in the South China Sea just after Obama44’s Iran deal:

      “…It was not Donald Trump, but Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, who in April 2016 sent China the message she was probably acting on this week, when her navy stole the UUV from Bowditch:

      On April 15, American defence secretary Ashton Carter announced that the US is on the verge of deploying “new undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads that can, importantly, operate in shallow water where manned submersibles cannot”. He chose his visit to the US aircraft carrier Stennis, sailing in the South China Sea, to make the announcement, thus sending a clear message to China. (H/t: UAV Expert News)

      SCMP author Mark Valencia went on to clarify not only why UUVs would be of concern to local nations, but why the type of drone Bowditch probably deployed would excite special interest.

      [N]ow there is a new array of drones.

      The Seaglider is just one example. It is a small, energy-efficient unmanned underwater vessel that uses a new form of propulsion
      that changes the vehicle’s buoyancy and allows it to ascend and descend as a means of moving forward. These vessels have extremely low energy demands which enable both endurance and stealth due to the absence of noise-producing engines. This makes them ideal for surveillance missions.

      These advances will generate legal and political problems. International law, including the UN convention, prohibits overflight of foreign 12-nautical-mile territorial seas without permission. And in a foreign territorial sea, submarines – manned or unmanned – must surface and show their flag. In the 200-nautical-mile EEZ, the foreign user cannot conduct scientific research without permission.

      If you were China, you could easily take Ashton Carter’s April 2016 announcement as meaning that U.S. UUVs in the South China Sea might at any time be operating in the shallow water of anyone’s territorial seas. Regardless of where Bowditch is, her drone could be quite a distance away.

      In light of the entire history of Obama’s interactions with China in the SCS, it is more reasonable to conclude that by seizing the
      Bowditch’s UUV, China was responding to the Obama administration’s combination of sidelong provocation and headlong passivity, than to imagine that the stolen drone was mainly about Donald Trump taking a phone call from the president of

      Let’s get real here, after all. Which one is China most likely to feel safe stealing a drone from in broad daylight? Barack Obama, or
      Donald Trump?”

  • Frank Natoli

    Fly an entire squadron of F-18s low over the disputed islands, take nice pictures, and distribute them on the Internet.

    • f1b0nacc1

      And when the Chinese shoot down one of the planes, what do you do next? How much of a shooting war are you really interested in getting involved in?

      Though the Chinese will be smarter than that….they will begin by ‘painting’ one of the planes with radar, then (if we continue) shooting one down, perhaps with a few MiGs for top-cover. Unless you really want a war, we had best be cautious.

      • This is why it’s a lot easier to maintain hard power than it is to rebuild it. Maintenance requires small, low-risk acts. Rebuilding requires acts that carry substantial risk. But once you’ve started to let power erode, the erosion is self-reinforcing, unless you choose to take the risk to rebuild.

        Obama never seemed to understand this or, if he did, he never seemed to care.

        So now, because he was negligent about maintenance, the task of rebuilding falls to… Trump! But I’m sure he’ll carefully calibrate the set of provocations that are necessary to restore our hard-power credibility.

        Obama probably thought that he could look like the nice guy and leave the hard work to Hillary. In the immortal words of Rick Perry, “oops”.

        • f1b0nacc1

          As I would expect from you, a solid and well-reasoned analysis. I couldn’t agree with you more…

      • CapitalHawk

        I don’t want a war. China doesn’t want a war either. That said, this was an act of piracy in international waters. I’m not being hyperbolic. It was, literally, piracy. The historical punishment for piracy is death.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I absolutely agree that this was an act of piracy in international waters, but at the end of the day, the Chinese do NOT agree that these are international waters, and as a result of this they do not believe that this is piracy. Whether they are right or wrong (they are wrong), they have ‘the facts on the ground’ (those artificial islands, heavily armed and continuously being expanded/reinforced) to back them up. Whether you or I like this (and again, I stress that I agree with you and I am quite sure that neither of us are pleased with this situation) or not, we are where we are, and we had best understand this.

          If we fly armed fighter aircraft over territory the Chinese claim is theirs, we are inviting them to shoot them down. This can be done in stages (first time we do it, they turn on their scanning radars, second time, their tracking radars, third time fire missiles…), or it can be done all at once. It can happen deliberately or it can be a single act by a panicked base commander. It can even be ‘portrayed as an accident’, but be done with malice of forethought. The Chinese are in deadly earnest about this, and unless we can convince them that we are as well (and sadly, we are not….lets be blunt, we are not going to go to war over freedom of navigation, at least not under Obama, and likely not under Trump), the chance of our gestures having any sort of impact upon their policies are nil.

          If we ARE going to do something about this situation, we had best find some ways that force the Chinese into a situation where they are going to have to be the ones making futile protests in venues where we hold the high cards. One possible approach to this is with Taiwan, which is one reason that I find Trump’s recent overture so refreshing. Other methods might be ‘revisiting’ the NPT with regard to countries facing immediate nuclear threats by neighboring states. This would include South Korea and Japan, would pose a very, very serious problem for the Chinese. Other options would include open arms sales of far more sophisticated hardware to Taiwan, and a general revisiting of the ‘One China’ policy that the US has accepted for decades. Those will have a far, far greater impact upon China than toothless gestures that allow them (the Chinese) to control escalation at their will.

          One point however. Of all of the disgrace practices engaged in by this failed administration, the most pathetic has been their tendency to talk loudly and carry a little stick. If we are going to take action, we have to mean it, and be ready to accept the price that it will entail. It will not be easy nor without cost, but the end results will be worth those costs.

          • CapitalHawk

            We generally agree on all points. I like and agree with your thinking regarding how to react to the Chinese. It is very Putin. Rather than do a face to face in one area, you pressure them in another.

          • f1b0nacc1

            This is the only alternative. The Chinese could probably be dislodged from their islands, but the costs (even if we limit our calculations to just killed/destroyed military assets) would be astronomical, and would be horrifically dangerous in terms of potential escalation. Lets also remember that this is a nuclear power, so the risk of escalation is non-trivial. We shouldn’t have permitted it to get this far, but that is the consequence of electing twits like Obama, and it is too late to do much about that.

            Now the only choice is to find an asymmetric approach to the problem, one that has its own costs, but which allows us to play on terms of our choosing, not theirs.

  • Fat_Man

    “50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay”

    Wow, that is nowhere near any of the disputed islands, not by a couple of hundred miles. It is very close to the Philippines. It is a very aggressive move. One might even say provocitive. Except that the only thing they can provoke Obama to is a strongly worded letter.

  • Joseph Dadi

    I heard the drone device remained powered on and recording the whole time. The US now has high resolution video of ultra classified equipment, personnel, and procedures from the Chinese sub recovery spy ship. The drone was transmitting via satellite the whole time. Wow!

  • FriendlyGoat

    If I was the Obama team, I would be calling up the Trump team and asking “What, if anything, do you want done on this in the next 30 days?” There is no other action which would serve either Obama personally or the USA in general.

    • JR

      Trump pleaded with black community to give him a change. He did more to reach out than any Republican candidate before him. He got higher % of their vote than Romney. And as any politician knows, to have an energized base is essential. So why shouldn’t Trump be thanking people who chose to give him victory by not voting? Not voting is a choice.
      You are just bitter that you had a horrible candidate that couldn’t connect with people.
      But agree with you that it’s time that loser gave up the wheel. I mean, how long must we suffer under this nincompoop? January 21st can’t come soon enough.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I was commenting on the fact that Trump is soon to have much more to worry about than snarking around on victory tours.
        There really is no reason for Obama to do anything further with China. There is every normal reason for this to be dumped onto the new president’s lap.

        • JR

          At least you are not denying Trump’s genius outreach to black voters. It’s time you guys stop taking these votes for granted. Trump effect, baby!!!
          Like I said, i agree completely with your sentiment that the empty suit we have now should transfer power to normal people ASAP. Alas, it will not happen until Inauguration. We must grit our teeth and wait. The pain will be over soon, I promise.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The African Americans did not flip the election. The white evangelical Christian church flipped the election.

          • JR

            Success has a thousand fathers, failure is always an orphan.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Your electoral success has only one father, the white evangelical Christian church. That is the single constituency you absolutely, positively could not have won without.

          • JR

            I hope President Trump does right by these voters.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Not a chance in thunder. Most of them are in flyover country. The people who are going to benefit most from this are the people who have always been flying over.

          • JR

            I fully expect President Trump to increase both the median income (average person) as well as my income. I think this President will be good for me as well. I don’t see things in such stark zero-sum terms. Pie does grow over time. We are not living in caves anymore.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Everything poured into high-end tax cuts will be removed from government spending in all kinds of ways. This will become apparent in successive rounds of budget cutting AFTER the tax cuts are put in place. Over a period of years we will notice that the former government spending actually did “trickle down” and concentrated accumulations at the top do not.

          • JR

            Median income would either rise or it wouldn’t. Until then, we are arguing at who is better at predicting the future, You refuse to take bets, so I see no point in me telling you that you are wrong. But you. Wrong, that is. Watch and marvel at what the free market will accomplish. Trump just needs to not step on his own dlck and let the magic of free market capitalism do its magic.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The tail of the Trump legacy is going to be very long We are talking years to decades. It is not possible to drastically cut the taxation of excess income and wealth, kill collective bargaining, cut government programs and public employment of all kinds, increase the degree to which corporations can prey upon people with deregulation of their business practices via agencies and courts, leave large numbers exposed to health bankruptcy, work toward deficit reduction (a GOP goal not going away)—–AND——have the fortunes of the lower half of the country actually improve—-especially in most of the rural areas. Yes, you may see a SHORT term pop in some numbers (such as the stock market at the moment), and it will be followed by many kinds of “austerity” stretching out a long time in the lower classes.

          • JR

            So you want the opportunity to blame Republicans for things that happen decades after original decisions? Sure. I mean, I certainly won’t take you seriously, but some idiots might. Worth a shot…

          • FriendlyGoat

            Of course. We do not just live in the short term. Long-term power shifts do matter.

          • JR

            You can blame long-term shifts on anything you want. For example, you choose to blame them on tax cuts. That’s your particular religion. But just because you strongly believe in your delusions, doesn’t make them true, know what I mean? There must be a falsifiable hypothesis, because once you start dealing with non-falsifiable hypothesis you might as well call it a day. Example: you still blaming Reagan more than 30 years after he was first elected.

          • JR

            also, if you think THIS is snarky, wait until President Trump starts using those new executive powers that Obama bestowed on himself. That will be way more fun than this.

  • Jim__L

    This probably won’t resonate with the American public a much as, say, a seizure of American military personnel gathering the same utility of information, might have had in previous years.

    I’m curious whether this increased leeway before national outrage has to be taken into account will change how far military commanders can push before they have to worry about major diplomatic issues.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Lets be fairly clear about this. The UUV that was picked up is more along the lines of an underwater weather monitor than anything else. There is nothing particularly sensitive about it, and while the technology is very useful, the Chinese gain very little by snatching it. This was done to demonstrate Chinese resolve to ‘protect’ (i.e. enforce) their claims to the SCS, something that we have allowed to happen without any real objection over the last 8 years. The fact that they did so now, instead of in 30 days, when a new president might feel compelled to respond, is indicative of their desire to send a message, not start a war. Our response, which does not need to be symmetrical, should be calibrated accordingly.

    Also, for once I must agree with the Goat….Obama should be asking Trump what he wishes to happen next, then (try) to accommodate him. I have no belief that is what will happen, but it would be an excellent idea. Sadly, Barry O is far more likely to do nothing, and blame the GOP for it.

  • It would be really interesting if it turned out to be a clever Trojan Horse in disguise. But knowing Obama…probably not. XD

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