Freedom of navigation ops: US exercising right or might?

Leslie Fong imagines an open letter a vexed Taiwanese fisherman's daughter might write to the Commander of the United States Pacific Command over the recent freedom of navigation exercise when the USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Beijing-occupied Fiery Cross Reef.

An e-mail that takes a dig at Uncle Sam for using freedom of navigation as a lame excuse to flex his muscles at China over its maritime claims in the South China Sea has somehow found its way into my mailbox.

Written by a certain Ms Oh Beigong from Taipei, it was addressed to Admiral Harry B. Harris, Commander of the United States Pacific Command, and copied to his bosses, US Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus and US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, as well as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Now, I would like to make it clear that I have not the faintest idea who Ms Oh is but I do think she has a sharp elbow. From the little that I know, what she has written is accurate but just so readers can judge for themselves, I reproduce here the e-mail in its entirety:

"Dear Admiral Harris,

I write to congratulate you for standing up for mariners the world over to assert the right to freedom of navigation in international waters. You showed much daring when on May 10, you sent the USS William P. Lawrence, an Arleigh Burke class missile destroyer, to within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, over which Beijing has long claimed sovereignty and which it has occupied for years.

Sure, some of my friends said the destroyer made just a single pass, which would qualify the sail-through as innocent passage under Article 18 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). In other words, they were telling me, the US had made a big deal out of it as there was no real risk of the Chinese responding and going ballistic, literally or metaphorically. They also said you didn't need guts, or even brains, to dispatch the destroyer as you were just carrying out the orders of your political masters!

That's quibbling. I think you deserve credit for risking the lives of your sailors as you couldn't know for sure the Chinese would steer clear of your destroyer. Remember the mid-air collision between one of your EP-3 spy planes and a Chinese J8 fighter on April 1, 2001? Nobody saw that coming and somebody did die - the Chinese pilot, Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei. The EP-3 was forced to land in Hainan and its 24 crew members detained and interrogated. Beijing, ruled by a more conciliatory Jiang Zemin then, set the 24 free eventually, compensated Wang's family and hailed him as a hero, a "Guardian of Territorial Space and Waters".

This time round, with a tougher Xi Jinping in charge and after so many provocations, no one could guarantee that the Chinese would not send a number of "fishing vessels" or even Coast Guard Cutters to sail right across the path of the USS William P. Lawrence and force a collision. Out of the question? Back in the 1980s, when the Cold War was still on, Soviet freighters did exactly that - they rammed American naval craft in the Mediterranean for encroaching on their waters. Chinese commentators have of late been talking publicly about emulating the Soviets. And hey, with all the nationalistic fervour whipped up on the mainland, the Chinese may need another hero!

Well, you got away again this time just as you did in January when the USS Curtis Wilbur skirted Triton in the Paracel group of islands claimed by Beijing and last October when the USS Larsen charged into contentious waters in the Spratlys. So, yes, you showed you had what it took to risk your men's lives without batting an eyelid. Bully for you!

But displaying testicular fortitude is one thing and pushing your luck too far is another. You have made whatever point you think you were making. But have the Chinese stopped building the airstrips and other structures on the disputed islands and reefs that the other claimants are said to be worried about?

Let me get serious. The US is playing with fire by repeatedly poking China in the eye. We in this region are going to be the collateral damage if this spins out of control. And why should we pay the price when the US does not really have right on its side? As a thinking man, did you not feel discomfort deep inside you when the US kept singling out the Chinese as the bad guys in the maritime disputes?

You must know better than most on this planet that the US has not been able to cite one instance when China actually denied anyone the freedom of navigation or point to any statement by Beijing threatening that right. Of course Washington will sidestep that - why let facts spoil a good excuse - and say instead that it cannot allow China's claim to waters bound by that famous or infamous nine-dash line that it has drawn in the South China Sea to go unchallenged.

Excuse me, but did you not know that it was the Republic of China government, now relocated to Taiwan, that first went to the United Nations in 1948 to lodge a claim using a map of the South China Sea showing 11 dashes? Yes, 11, not nine. Not one squeak about that in all this time, none from the US, Britain, Australia - till now.

You will say, no doubt, that the Chinese are going to militarise the airstrips and other facilities to project force, thus threatening all the countries in the region. Er, coming from a senior naval officer of a country that operates some 800 bases or military facilities in more than 60 countries around the world, several of them virtually at China's doorstep, that, sir, is a bit rich!

I may be just a fisherman's daughter from Kaohsiung but I have read enough to know that capability plus intention equals threat. Guess what? The US has 11 carrier battle groups circling the globe, each with enough firepower to send four-fifths of the world's countries back to the Stone Age, the largest and second-largest air force in the world (US Air Force and US Navy's Air Wing) and the openly declared intention of not allowing any other nation to challenge US power and supremacy. Talk about threats!

By the way, all the other claimants, except Brunei, are also building and expanding their presence in the disputed areas. In fact, Taiwan has troops stationed on Taiping Island, which is also claimed by the Philippines. But the US has looked the other way. I guess, to quote your former vice-president Al Gore, that is an inconvenient truth.

I know, I know, the US is not in the habit of admitting that it is or can be wrong. Thus not a word of apology for invading Iraq under the pretext of rooting out the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Nor did Washington ever concede that it wrongly accused the Soviet Union of using biological weapons on the Hmong people in Indochina in 1981 when the yellowish substance that fell on them from the sky was found by an international panel of scientists to be just the faeces of huge swarms of bees!

Bottom line? Might is right. The US is out to stymie the rise of China and prevent it from challenging American dominance, if not hegemony. We get that. So do us a favour, please stop talking about high principles and international law.

However, if you wish to regain at least a modicum of respect from clear-sighted people in this region, here is something you, in particular, can do. In the name of asserting freedom of navigation and upholding international law, send your destroyer or whatever to an atoll in the Philippine Sea which the Japanese call Okinotorishima (Okinotori Island) and claim as their territory.

The atoll measures no more than 9 sq m at low tide, which is probably smaller than your office in Honolulu, and lies more than 1,700km south of Tokyo. But it is less than 500km from Taiwan itself.

Under Unclos, an atoll is not an island and thus cannot be used as the basis to claim the usual 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or EEZ. But that has not stopped Tokyo from doing so, and it has proclaimed as its EEZ an area larger than the entire Japan. Taiwan is among the many that have refused to recognise this.

Last month, a Taiwanese fishing boat was seized by the Japanese Coast Guard for operating in the EEZ. It was set free only after the owners paid nearly US$55,000 (S$76,000) as a security bond. Fortunately, our government in Taipei took up the cudgels and said it would send naval vessels from now on to protect Taiwanese fishing boats.

So, please, dear admiral, send the William P. Lawrence there and have some of its crew go fishing near the atoll. All who look askance at your dubious freedom of navigation expeditions in the South China Sea thus far will applaud you.

Don't let the Chinese beat you to it!

  • The writer is a former editor of The Straits Times.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Freedom of navigation ops: US exercising right or might?'. Print Edition | Subscribe