The news broke this morning that a Chinese navy warship maneuvered close to a U.S. auxiliary vessel on 15 December when it was recovering underwater drones off Subic Bay, and stole one of the drones.
The ship in question is USNS Bowditch (T-AGS 62), an oceanographic research vessel operated for the U.S. Navy by the Military Sealift Command. Bowditch routinely deploys and handles unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) used for oceanographic research. Bowditch’s UUVs collect and report observations on temperature, salinity, and pressure in the underwater environment, because collecting such data enables us to better model and predict the performance of sonar in various ocean environments.
In the latest encounter in international waters in the South China Sea region, the USNS Bowditch was sailing about 100 miles off the port at Subic Bay when the incident occurred, according to the official.
Bowditch had stopped in the water to pick up two underwater drones. At that point a Chinese naval ship that had been shadowing the Bowditch put a small boat into the water. That small boat came up alongside and the Chinese crew took one of the drones.
The US got no answer from the Chinese on the radio when it said the drone was American property, the official said.
As they turned away, the Chinese did come up on the radio and indicated they were returning to their own operations.
[Update, as this goes to post: the USNI News post has the text of the Pentagon’s announcement now as well. – J.E.]
Although it’s unclear what the motivation was for the Chinese, the seizing of the drone comes on the heels of other provocative incidents that have happened since President-elect Donald Trump received a congratulatory call with Taiwan’s President, a violation of the US’s agreement with China’s “One China policy”. China publicly voiced their disapproval of that incident and contacted the White House at the time.
Well, sure. But what if we weren’t four years old? What if we looked beyond what our most-despised Bad Person last did, and into some actual history of maritime interactions in the area in question – the South China Sea?
Chinese claims and previous aggressive moves
We’d find out first of all that Bowditch’s operating area almost certainly crossed China’s notorious “Nine-Dash Line”: the line Beijing has drawn to claim that most of the South China Sea (SCS) falls within Chinese territorial waters.
U.S. officials have not said exactly where off Subic Bay the research ship was operating. But it would have been somewhere in the shaded crescent 100 miles west of Subic Bay (see maps). The Chinese claims map shows how much of that area lies inside the maritime area claimed by Beijing.
The claimed area is not recognized internationally, because it’s a (wildly) excessive claim with no justification. The vast majority of the SCS is actually international waters, although the various EEZs of the littoral nations give them claim to economic development (but not control of navigation. See the blue dashed lines outlining the recognized EEZs).
But this is the maritime area where China has long pursued claims to reefs and shoals, and – in the last years of Obama’s tenure – has been building them into artificial islands and installing weaponry on them.
China has previously confronted ships of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC), in this area and others. In fact, Bowditch herself was confronted by China in 2001 up in the Yellow Sea, between Northern China and the Korean Peninsula, when Bowditch was performing oceanographic research in international waters, but in China’s (excessively) claimed EEZ.
Bowditch is unarmed, and had to flee from that 2001 encounter with the Chinese navy. But George W. Bush sent her back to complete her mission with an armed escort.
In 2009 (see link above), China maneuvered aggressively against another MSC ship, USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS 23), in the South China Sea. This occurred within weeks of Obama’s first inauguration, and was widely thought to be a maritime probe of his reaction, similar to the 2001 challenge to George W. Bush.
Although Obama sent Impeccable back out with an armed escort, over time his weak, vacillating posture became clearer to Beijing. It was in his second term that the Chinese began to take material, indeed egregious, advantage of his geopolitical passivity.
Ramped up Chinese aggression under Obama
After declaring a new Air Defense Information Zone (ADIZ) off eastern China, in November 2013 (and demanding that commercial aircraft honor it), the Chinese in December 2013 mounted a dangerous, unprofessional confrontation with a U.S. cruiser, USS Cowpens (CG-63), in international waters in the South China Sea.
A few weeks later, in January 2014, Beijing announced a new policy of requiring fishing ships operating in the SCS to obtain permits from China. China has no authority to do this, except in her own EEZ (see claims map for the depiction of it off southern China). But it would take effective pushback from a world power of comparable size and strength to make China give up this policy, and so far that has not even been attempted.
The U.S. under Obama has merely lodged ineffectual diplomatic objections, and mounted what Obama’s been inaccurately calling “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) in the SCS. The problem with Obama’s FONOPs is that they actually serve to effectively affirm China’s unrecognized claims, by navigating in these waters – following certain rules and profile limitations – as if China did own them.
It would be possible to navigate with a profile that made clear we do not recognize China’s claims. But Obama hasn’t done that.
Vietnam has had some maritime confrontations with China, seeking to establish Vietnamese independence of Beijing’s unauthorized demands. But in terms of actual pushback from the United States, as opposed to a few moves for show, China has had nothing to daunt her purpose.
So her purpose hasn’t been daunted. China began making small improvements to a couple of disputed reefs in the SCS some two decades ago, but until the second half of Obama’s tenure had moved very slowly and done very little. In the last three years, China’s improvement program on the disputed reefs has taken off rapidly. (See WSJ link above.)
(It is of particular interest to note that Beijing’s record of material actions, starting with the ADIZ off eastern China, began at the end of November 2013, immediately after the first “Joint Plan of Action” with Iran was committed to by Obama and the other members of the P5+1. It was crystal clear at that point that Obama was willing accept any faithlessness, any flaws in the “deal,” and any level of public contempt from Iran in order to get something he could call a formal agreement. The Chinese took his measure fully then, and assumed accurately that he would do nothing about a campaign by Beijing to seize and militarize the South China Sea.)
Drones are a legitimate security concern
All that said, we must also take note of the particular sensitivity China has shown to surveillance and research in the international waters off her coast. China isn’t the only Asian nation with this sensitivity either: India has shown it too.
In fact, specialists have been writing with concern in the last decade about the emergence of drone surveillance and its implications along Asia’s crowded, claim-infested coasts, which make for a geopolitical environment somewhat different from that of the United States and our neighbors. Even a non-aggressive China would have legitimate concerns, as India and other nations like Japan and Indonesia do.
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 Taiwan.
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?