America is a slowly boiling frog

Last year, in a post discussing the United States’ non-response to Chinese aggression in waters off Alaska and the South China Sea, I closed with the frustrated lament that “America is like the proverbial frog that does not realize it’s slowly being boiled to death.”

Two days ago, in an article in the Wall Street Journal about China’s recent deployment of weapons to occupied islands in the Spratlys, an unnamed US military official was quoted as follows:

It’s certainly part of what we have seen as the continuum of the progress of what the Chinese are doing there … This is a classic case of the frog slowly boiling.

You read it here first, folks.

frog

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A happy accident?

On December 10 an American B-52 bomber flew within 2 miles of Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, one of several features being expanded and developed by China to enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Apparently this was a mistake and the flight plan was not supposed to come within 12 miles of any China-occupied feature.

From the Wall Street Journal:

An American B-52 bomber on a routine mission over the South China Sea unintentionally flew within two nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, senior defense officials said, exacerbating a hotly divisive issue for Washington and Beijing.

Pentagon officials told The Wall Street Journal they are investigating why one of two B-52s on the mission last week flew closer than planned to Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, an area where China and its neighbors have competing territorial claims. A senior U.S. defense official said that bad weather had contributed to the pilot flying off course and into the area claimed by China.

Beijing filed a formal diplomatic complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which prompted the Pentagon to look into the matter.

The notion that a B-52, equipped with a full suite of navigation systems and piloted by experienced officers, could be knocked off-course by “bad weather” is highly dubious.  But the more interesting question is why the Pentagon would disavow something that is stated U.S. policy. Just two months ago Ash Carter said that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.” The U.S. does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over any feature in the Spratly Islands, and plans to conduct 2 freedom of navigation exercises in the region per quarter. Even if the flight was a mistake the Pentagon should have denied it; any expression of regret to Beijing for the incident helps to legitimize its claims in the area.

The details and paradoxes of the this story suggest that a bureaucratic turf war between the State Department and the military over U.S.-China relations is spilling into the open.

Another possibility is that the Pentagon is getting its talking points from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Wouldn’t want to upset the “delicate” and “complicated” relationship with Beijing, would we?

B-52 pilot.jpg

Sorry. We’re “lost.” Yeah, that’s it. “Lost.”

China in Alaska, part II: turning the other cheek

If foreign warships intruded into American territorial waters near a critical and undefended military base, you might expect that reasonable countermeasures be taken, like shadowing the vessels with military aircraft, dispatching some troops to shore up the garrison, and summoning the ambassador of the offending state to demand an explanation. But this is 21st century America, where NASA’s primary mission is offering therapy to the Muslim world and international LGBT rights are considered a national security priority.

Nothing frustrates this Administration more than the intrusion of great power politics on its post-modern foreign policy agenda. Recently this was on display by President Obama’s reaction to the Russian intervention in Syria (“This is not some superpower chessboard contest”). Last month it was visible in the confused response to the PLAN’s Alaskan pleasure cruise.

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China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

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Dong Feng’ing in the new year

China’s magic bullet – the supposed carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile – is all over the news…again. This time because CINCPAC Adm. Robert F. Willard commented that the weapon system had reached “initial operating capability,” giving the media yet another excuse to indulge in more orgasmic Sinophilia. Judging by the many gleeful proclamations of the impending death of the U.S. Navy, one gets the impression that certain elements in the media are looking forward to a Chinese-dominated world-order (at least until they get the memo on changes to intellectual property rights).

The last time this story was making the rounds, back in August, I posted that the threat of the DF-21D, though not insignificant, has been greatly exaggerated. Analyses that predicts the dislocation of power balances due to the introduction of a single weapon system is fundamentally flawed because it examines strategy solely from a technical perspective, neglecting technical, operational, and strategic considerations that dictate how the weapons are actually used.

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What are we going to do about those Dong Feng’ed missiles?

Incoming?

The latest opportunity for the media to engage in another shameless bout of Sinophilia concerns the rather esoteric topic of maneuverable ballistic re-entry vehicles. A recent Associated Press article loaded with triumphant language declares American supremacy on the high seas all but over, thanks to the latest Chinese magic bullet: the DF-21D.

Nothing projects U.S. global air and sea power more vividly than supercarriers. Bristling with fighter jets that can reach deep into even landlocked trouble zones, America’s virtually invincible carrier fleet has long enforced its dominance of the high seas.

China may soon put an end to that.

U.S. naval planners are scrambling to deal with what analysts say is a game-changing weapon being developed by China — an unprecedented carrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).

What makes the DF-21D unique is its payload: a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) equipped with a conventional warhead and either radar or infrared terminal homing. This would indeed pose a threat to the U.S. Navy because existing ship-borne defense systems are designed to protect against sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles; a MaRV would approach its target along a ballistic trajectory within a cone that is poorly covered by existing systems. However, before proclaiming the death of U.S. naval supremacy, a few points need to be raised.

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Repost: China and “Unrestricted Warfare”

As China’s power increases and the attention of the world’s strategic analysts shifts to Asia, it has become fashionable to attribute to the Chinese a level of conceptual power that they do not actually have. This often manifests itself as rhetoric proclaiming the Chinese to be infinitely superior and subtle strategists that put their clumsy and naive Western counterparts to shame. For example, and with only mild exaggeration: “China is planning global hegemony: they will soon invade Taiwan and proclaim the restored Middle Kingdom. And we Americans are too stupid to realize that this is happening under our noses. Unless we take action now, we are doomed!”

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