Bad tidings of sea and air space challenges

Bad tidings of sea and air space challenges

Colombian warship on patrol.
Colombian warship on patrol.

“History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.” — Ronald Reagan

It made the most news when China did it a few days ago.  But it’s been building for a while, and it’s not just off China.  As the holidays settle in on us, probes of other nations’ sea and air space are in the air.  Is war coming tomorrow?  No.  But whether it comes after tomorrow will depend on more than gestures from that shapeless blob of geopolitical potential that we may now, in a post-superpower world, call the “status quo powers.”  It will depend on the outcomes the status quo powers can secure.

The China Challenge

Most readers will have heard of the challenge from China, which recently declared a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering most of the East China Sea, and overlapping with the zones of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  An ADIZ defines air space in which a nation will require aircraft to identify themselves, and may intercept and escort them with military fighters.  The U.S., along with a number of other nations, has a delineated ADIZ around our borders.  Our fighters react regularly, for example, to the approaches of Russian strategic bombers, whose flights have been gaining frequency since Putin announced a resumption of strategic patrol activity in late 2007.

Overlapping ADIZes in the East China Sea
Overlapping ADIZes in the East China Sea

One of the beauties, if you will, of an ADIZ as a tool of international assertiveness is that it has no defined status in international law.  Nations can mount ADIZ duels without violating the multilateral treaties or agreements to which they are signatories.   There was nothing wrong with any of the East Asian nations declaring an ADIZ, nor is there anything inherently amiss in China announcing one delineated by a particular set of coordinates.  The challenge in this case lies in the extensive overlap of the Chinese-declared ADIZ with the other ADIZes, especially Japan’s.

The central territorial issue is, of course, the Senkaku Islands which lie at the southern edge of the overlapping Japanese and Chinese ADIZes, and which are disputed between Beijing and Tokyo.  The U.S. explicitly backs Japan in this dispute, holding that our mutual defense treaty with Japan covers the Senkakus.  In the last few years, China has been increasingly aggressive around the Senkakus with ships and aircraft.

But with an ADIZ duel, which doesn’t involve literal violation of borders, the import of precedent setting is less direct.  China would like to assert a principle of usage, one that would effectively acknowledge her right to be informed of and intercept what’s going on well outside of her territorial air space – as the U.S., Canada, and Russia do in the Arctic.  Enforcement of an ADIZ boils down to what you have the material power and tacit agreement from others to get away with.

There’s a sense in which objective observers would recognize why China wants to do this.  But besides the problem of geography in her maritime hinterland – it abuts the interest-zones of other nations on every axis – there is the problem that no one trusts China, and everyone in her neighborhood sees her as an aggressor, trying to assert power over too much territory: trying to control too many resources, and exercise a hegemonic veto over the common tradeways.

If I were negotiating with China, I would acknowledge that she shouldn’t – all things being equal – be hemmed in or held hostage by the archipelagoes and peninsulas ringing her maritime borders.  Coming from an American perspective, in particular, I would be sympathetic to a Chinese security principle that she should have unfettered access to the sea, and that all her sea and air space boundaries should be negotiated without extortion by her less geographically limited neighbors.

But that’s not the same as saying that China should be free to occupy everyone else’s claimed territorial space or contiguous-zone area, in the interest of securing her own access.

What can keep these simmering points of confrontation damped down is the prevalence of a “peace” backed by a superpower.  With such a peace is in force, the perceived price of challenging it is high.  But the points of confrontation never really go away.  One merely makes it a principle that in conditions of peace, enforced by negation, the conflicts will eventually be settled through mutual agreement.

The oldest line of East-West confrontation

Another example of longstanding is the widely disputed honeycomb of Aegean borders between Greece and Turkey.  And it, too, is starting to boil harder in recent months.  Both nations are NATO allies, and have been since 1952.  But it is a measure of the latent intractability of ancient border disputes that the Turkish invasion of Cyprus was mounted in 1974, when Greece and Turkey had been NATO allies for more than two decades.  Since the height of the Cold War, the geopolitical idea of NATO has held Greece and Turkey together on the same side.  But there are older geopolitical influences driving them apart, and those influences go back as far as recorded history.

Google map; author annotation
Google map; author annotation

(It is to be remembered that the invasion of Cyprus occurred in July 1974, following a coup in Cyprus ordered by the military junta that ruled Greece at the time.  The strength of U.S. leadership in NATO and the region was at a low ebb, with President Richard Nixon paralyzed by the Watergate scandal and only weeks from resigning his office.  An avalanche of unfavorable developments around the world from 1973 to 1980 demonstrated, quite on cue, how dependent the global status quo was on a judicious use of American power.  A key difference today is that the anti-status-quo forces are less unified than they were when there was a Soviet Union.  That prolongs the undefended overtime for peace, but it also makes the challenges to the status quo more diverse and less predictable.)

It made far less news in the United States than China’s announcement, but earlier this month, on the 12th, Greeks were startled by a Turkish frigate which challenged Greek territorial-seas claims by transiting between the islands of Euboea and Skyros, less than 100 (statute) miles northeast of Athens.  Turkish and Greek aircraft and ships have performed something of a regular pas de deux along their disputed boundary claims throughout recent decades, but an approach so close to Greece’s national capital, and her major military facilities in the same area, is quite rare.

The frigate’s voyage came in the wake of a renewed stream of protestations from the Erdogan government against the Republic of Cyprus.  Recent statements are by no means the first; Erdogan insisted in February, for example, that there is no such nation as Cyprus:

“[S]outh Cyprus is not a state, it’s an administration. There is no such thing as Cyprus as a country. There is the Greek Administration of South Cyprus and there is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the north of the green line,” Erdoğan said.

But it made headlines in Greece when Erdogan repeated his assertion on 10 November, just ahead of a fresh UN push to achieve a settlement of the Cyprus dispute – and then followed the assertion up with the unusually provocative transit by the Turkish warship.

The colonial era strikes back

NATO ally Spain is also getting in on the maritime provocation action.  On 18 November, Spain sent a survey ship into UK territorial waters off Gibraltar, where the ship for hours refused orders from the Royal Navy’s HMS Sabre to depart the area.  On Friday the 22nd, moreover, Spanish officials stopped a British diplomatic courier at the border crossing between Spain and Gibraltar, and violated the 1961 Vienna Convention by seizing and opening his diplomatic pouch.

The dispute over Gibraltar between Spain and the UK has been low-level and diplomatic in recent decades, especially since the votes of Gibraltarians in 1967 and 2002 to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Spain still claims Gibraltar (which the British captured in 1704), and Madrid’s policy is to reacquire the territory by peaceful means.  But the flurry of recent violations, which have resulted in the Brits summoning the Spanish ambassador to lodge complaints three times in the past month, represents a remarkable surge.Western Sahara

Across the Strait of Gibraltar, the long-simmering territorial dispute between Algeria and Morocco is flaring up (resulting in the unusual, if brief, recall of the Moroccan ambassador to Algiers in October).  The source of tension is the status of “Western Sahara,” occupied by (U.S.-backed) Morocco since 1975.  Algeria backs the Polisario – “Popular Front” – nationalist movement opposing Morocco for control of the Western Sahara.  Adding freight to the conflict today is Morocco’s effort to explore for oil and gas off the Western Saharan coast.  Unsurprisingly, the Polisario has extensive connections with al Qaeda and other Salafi terror groups in the region (see earlier reporting here).

Across the Atlantic, Argentina has upped the ante on the dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands.  On America’s Thanksgiving Day, the Argentine congress passed a new law that would imprison for 15 years any oil executive or other responsible employee whose company drilled for oil off the Falklands, as well as imposing a fine equivalent to 100 million British pounds.

Further north, Colombia on 27 November recalled her ambassador from Nicaragua over a territorial seas dispute between the two nations.  The dispute was exacerbated in September when visiting Russian warships were featured in a TV news spot about Nicaragua’s claims, and a Russian officer asserted that Moscow would support Nicaragua.  Nicaragua was emboldened to offer maritime “blocks” in the disputed areas for oil and gas exploration, a move Colombia has countered by keeping warships on patrol in the weeks since.

Unfortunately, territorial disputes are pervasive in Latin America, and they’ve been mostly heating up over the last year or so.  Are the trends uniformly bad on a global scale?  Pretty much.  Geopolitical developments have continued to be unfavorable in recent weeks, like the sputtering, under intense Russian pressure, of Ukraine’s bid to form political ties with the EU.  We are not quite at the point where old, post-Cold War-style responses from the status quo powers will be utterly ineffective.  But we are awfully close.

Plus ça change

The immediate challenge of U.S. Air Force B-52s to the Chinese-declared ADIZ was the right move, as is Japan’s reported decision not to acknowledge the ADIZ with her commercial airliners.  That said, it is highly regrettable that conditions emboldened China to make this gamble, and that Beijing now has cause for resentment.  China’s record of asserting an assumed authority over the South China Sea indicates that she will not subside quietly – nor will we stay ahead of her by sitting still.  Lesser powers in the region won’t have the capacity Japan has to defy shows of force from China, and the U.S. would be very foolish to involve ourselves with on-scene displays of military might and solidarity in each and every little case that arises.

It would have been far better to maintain – while adapting – the U.S.-backed peace.  Nothing can stay the same forever, nor should we want it to.  But there are positive ways for change to come about, and negative ones.  The unreliability of our strategic purpose, even with the “pivot” of our policy toward the Far East, has already driven Japan to seek a first-ever defense cooperation agreement with Russia.  Japan’s Shinzo Abe has been visiting China’s neighbors talking security cooperation, a development that need not be ominous, but that requires a clear delineation of U.S. policy and principles if it is not to alarm and polarize the region.

We are where we are.  We need not look for circumstances to change for the better in the coming months.  At each step of the way, there will be a reality to deal with; in a functional sense, the life of men is not composed of a meaningless void, sandwiched by excellent conditions at one end, and completely appalling, untenable conditions on the other.  The slowly-decaying meat of the sandwich is where most men have always lived.

The slide toward the conditions for war – when some governments will think the price of aggression is cheap – will take time.  It will wend its way through geopolitical realities that could, each one, be ameliorable, even if they aren’t footholds for a concept of the perfect.  The decisive factor at each and every point will be the will, purpose, and means put together by the status quo powers.  Is America one of those powers today?  The reason we are where we are is that no one knows the answer to that question.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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