Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel spoke at the CSIS South China Sea Conference on July 21, 2015.  He made news by declaring that the United States is not neutral in some issues pertaining to the South China Sea.

The money quote came in reply to a question from Wu Shicun, the PRC representative at the conference:

On the first issue of neutrality, I appreciate the opportunity to clear up what seems to be an almost ineradicable perception of the Chinese.  We are not neutral when it comes to adherence to international law.  We will come down forcefully on the side of the rules.

Cue the triumphant hooting from the China hawks, who were well represented at the conference and urging the United States to “draw a line in the sea”.  And squealing from the PRC that the United States had abandoned its “honest broker” stance, which dated back to the Potsdam Declaration and presented US military force in Asia as the only viable peacekeeping alternative to Japanese re-militarization.

Although the tottering “honest broker” zombie took another hit at the hands of Assistant Secretary Russel, it had been staggering to its grave ever since President Obama and Hillary Clinton opted for “PRC rollback” after the strategic drift and distraction of the George W. Bush years, and received its death blow as the US and Shinzo Abe repositioned Japan’s military away from self-defense and toward a power projection role in Asia as America’s ally.

The US FP commentariat is optimistic that the Philippine arbitration case against the Nine Dash Line will succeed, the PRC’s outsized claims in the SCS will be declared illegal, and the 200 nautical mile EEZs of the various claimants will govern who can fish and drill where.  Shedding the 9DL incubus is of particular importance to the Philippines, since exploitation of the Reed (Recto) Bank gas field inside the claimed Philippine EEZ (and inside the 9DL) is seen as a matter of near-existential economic and fiscal importance.

UNCLOS has no enforcement mechanism.  So if the PRC tries to obstruct Philippine operations at Reed Bank and the Philippines lacks the military muscle to protect its rigs and vessels, somebody’s got to step up.

That somebody, Russel indicated, is the United States.  China hawks hope this means something like interposing US naval vessels to block whatever ships the PRC sends to Reed Bank make trouble.

However, the US enthusiasm for playing enforcer on behalf of a treaty it didn’t even ratify (UNCLOS) for the sake of a second-tier ally (the Philippines) against Asia’s dominant power (PRC) probably has less to do with international law, justice, and fairness that it does with the US determination to maintain a major presence in the South China Sea in order to detect, track, neutralize, and, as needed, destroy the nascent local PRC strategic nuclear sub presence.

The PRC already operated a strategic nuclear submarine base near Qingdao at Jianggezhuang.  It built a bigger and better one — in that it would be able to handle newer, bigger, subs that presumably could eventually be armed with missiles capable of striking the US mainland from afar—on Hainan Island near Yulin.

The US has devoted considerable military and diplomatic effort to improving its capabilities to monitor current and potential submarine operations out of Yulin. For good reason.

The South China Sea is an interesting and problematic arena for anti-submarine operations because of its complex topography.  Therefore I must, in the most deferential manner, question Howard French’s recent statement in the Guardian that PRC island building at Fiery Cross Reef is scary “because of the depths of its surrounding waters, which afford Chinese submarines far greater stealth in evading acoustic and other forms of active tracking by the US military.”

If the Federation of American Scientists’ report is correct, the situation is pretty much the opposite:

Of course, if the water is so shallow the submarine can’t submerge fully it will limit operations, but deep water is – contrary to popular perception – not necessarily an advantage. Military submarines generally are not designed to dive deeper than 400-600 meters, so great ocean depth may be of little value. The U.S. navy has several decades of experience in trailing Soviet SSBNs in the open oceans; shallow waters are much more challenging. And the South China Sea is a busy area for U.S. attack submarines, which have unconstrained access to the waters off Hainan Island.

So there you have it, folks.  A dodgy neighborhood with lots of hidey-holes and shallow waters and thermal layers that complicate the sonar ping-ping and depth-charge bang-bang and also, potentially, offering “home court advantage” to the PRC as it develops island bases to enhance and extend its own search (and, in case of war, destroy) operations—intensive mapping and monitoring, maritime sweeps, surveillance flights, buoy drops, big, permanent, passive arrays, what have you—throughout the SCS against US attack submarines attempting to track down the PRC “boomers”.

So maybe the PRC—which presumably picked up a few tips from ex-Soviet submariners—decided to put its new base in Hainan for a good reason.

In the current atmosphere of antagonism, concern that PRC island-building activity will hobble US ASW measures becomes a critical geostrategic issue.

However, the “strategic anxiety” knife cuts both ways.

If, as I think is pretty clearly the case, the PRC sees the US interest in the SCS as not only mischievous and downright hostile to the PRC, but also a key element in its full-spectrum effort to neutralize the PRC’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, the PRC will happily accept heightened local tensions as a cost of its national security business.

In a case of exquisite and almost perfect symbolism, Assistant Secretary Russel misunderstood, either inadvertently or by design, the key question for the PRC in the South China Sea, at least from the military security point of view: would the US try to stop the PRC island buildout, an activity which bolsters the PRC’s ASW capability and which, it is absolutely clear — at least to people who listened to the question — the PRC has no intention of stopping?

Wu Shicun: As I know China won’t, you know, stop construction work in those island … reclaimend [sic]islands …What would be US actions if China won’t follow US requirement as you just mentioned to stop construction works…and does US State Department share the same status in this regard with the Pentagon?

Russel: You raise a very important second question.  Which is, what if China agreed that in the interests of regional stability and harmony it would enter into a reciprocal freeze, a moratorium where neither China nor Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, any claimant undertook large-scale construction, upgrades, or certainly militarization.  What would our reaction be, what would we do?

I can think of few other steps that China could take that would do more to create a conducive…an atmosphere in the United States conducive to progress in the US-China relationships.  I think the concerns generated by the tensions and the disputes and the behavior in the South China Sea have raised real concerns and real questions in the minds of so many American citizens.  These are questions that would be answered in a very reassuring and persuasive way if China in this sensitive area of the South China Sea exercised the forbearance, the generosity of spirit and the good strategic judgment, show restraint and created the space for and time both for a code of conduct that I think we all would like to see completed before the end of this year and a process that would lead to the end of the underlying disputes.

Consider Professor Wu’s question unanswered.  Or maybe not.

With the United States and its allies promising a military envelopment of the South China Sea, I don’t think the PRC is going to take Russel’s unctuous suggestion of a freeze seriously as a US negotiating point.  More likely, Russel’s dodging the island-building ultimatum question indicates to the PRC that, no, the United States is not currently prepared to wipe these islands off the map, yes, the PRC can keep building, and the military cat-and-mouse in the South China Sea will continue indefinitely.

In fact, a scenario that hasn’t received a lot of airing anywhere as far as I can tell is the possibility that the PRC, on the grounds of its national security interest, will withdraw from UNCLOS if the arbitration doesn’t go its way.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the withdrawal threat has been discretely brandished before the arbitrators, to encourage them to think twice about the consequences to the universality and validity of the UNCLOS regime itself if they are too eager to claim jurisdiction and get into China’s grill.

In that case, the US would be placed in the somewhat difficult position of excoriating the PRC for exercising a cherished US prerogative: opting out of inconvenient international obligations, not just UNCLOS, which it signed but never ratified, but also the International Criminal Court, which it signed, ratified, and then withdrew from under President G.W. Bush.

Based on precedent, the PRC might be loath to formally withdraw from the treaty and flirt with the international pariah status it occupied from 1949 until the 1970s; but I think it’s quite likely that, even if the PRC stays in UNCLOS, it will be increasingly inclined to honor the treaty’s obligations “in the breach” and assert the right to interpret its spirit as it sees fit.

Just like the US does.

Which means, perhaps, that the PRC will declare that Japan’s dramatic island building and EEZ grab at Okinotorishima is more of a guiding precedent for Chinese claims for Fiery Cross than whatever the handwringers at the UNCLOS arbitration panel seek to impose.

And if the United States proves especially sedulous in supporting the Philippines’ efforts to drill at Reed Bank without PRC buy-in and participation, expect the PRC island campaign—and the headaches for US anti-submarine-warfare strategy—to increase.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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