Absolutely A Risk Of War? Meh.

Apparently, China is building a man-made island in the South China Sea, which is an engineering feat of some significance.

Who “owns” a man made (as opposed to God made, I presume) island?  If it’s within 200 miles of the constructing country’s coastline, it’s a territory of the constructing country.

But apparently this island is 600 miles from China’s coastline.  They can build it if they want, but it doesn’t become Chinese territory that far out.


So the US is in the right as far as international law is concerned, and China can’t warn people away from the island they are building because it’s all international water and air space.  But then there’s a hitch: if the surrounding waters and air space are claimed and the claim is respected for a time, then the island would become legit Chinese territory.

Adverse possession, doncha know.

So, to prevent this from happening the US periodically engages in “freedom of navigation” operations, just to show that we don’t recognize any territorial, air space or restricted waters claims and in fact object.  There’s an acronym, because the US Navy loves acronyms:  “FON OPS”.

On the other hand, we don’t have to be obnoxious and overbearing about it:

China’s alarming creation of entirely new territory in the South China Sea is one part of a broader military push that some fear is intended to challenge U.S. dominance in the region.

We don’t know why the US should be entitled to be “dominant”, such that any “challenge” to our “dominance” is an affront entitling us to a round of sabre rattling.  Ugh.  But see here:

“China is a rising power. We’re a status quo power. We’re the big dog on the block … They want more influence,” he said. “Are we going to move a little bit? Are they going to push? How is that dance going to work out? This is a significant issue for the next President of the United States.”

War is “not in their interests, (and) it’s not in our interests,” Morell acknowledged.

“But absolutely, it’s a risk,” he said.

We don’t care for all the “power” talk, as if what matters who is the “Alpha Male“.  We think war talk is silly, but irresponsible at the same time.  We think we have little right to complain about China having a base outside China when we have bases all over the world, many of which appear to have no purpose other than as symbols of our “dominance”.  And while we’re on that subject, we would prefer to be regarded as just and decent rather than “dominant” and “the big dog on the block”.

And we wonder about CNN’s ethics, or even their awareness of ethics, when they publish an uncritical puff piece that actually openly touts their too close relationship with their subject:

A CNN team was given exclusive access to join in the surveillance flights over the contested waters, which the Pentagon allowed for the first time in order to raise awareness about the challenge posed by the islands and the growing U.S. response.

We know how cool it is to get rides in P-8’s, or F-18’s, but the prospect of such a thrill shouldn’t turn a reporter into a mouthpiece.  There’s a good argument to be made that this is really not a terribly important development, that if China wants to build islands hundreds of miles from their mainland:  a) there are precious few opportunities to do that, which makes this island more or less a one-off; and b) even if they could cobb together more than one or two, what’s the big deal?

But those arguments and others weren’t made because CNN explicitly agreed to toady.  It should be embarrassing for them, but apparently they’re shameless.

Ugh again.



Filed under Media incompetence/bias

6 responses to “Absolutely A Risk Of War? Meh.

  1. Zarepheth

    China is attempting to claim some of the Philippine Islands as their own territory. The Philippines has no effective military to fend off China. As you noted, a nation’s economic waters extend 200 miles from the shore of their territory. I suspect China does not care about the “islands” for their land, but rather for the hundreds of square miles of ocean that would fall into their hands once the Islands are recognized as part of their nation. Depending upon their location, these artificial islands may shrink the economic waters of other nations, as well as increasing the waters over which China has exclusive economic control.

    Economic Waters = waters over which economic activity, such as fishing, oil wells, and so forth are under a nation’s control. However, anyone can travel through these waters without restriction. The U.S. generally recognizes economic waters to a distance of 200 miles from a nation’s shores, subject to competing claims by neighboring nations and whatever agreements have set boundaries between those nations.

    Territorial Waters = waters considered part of a nation’s sovereign territory, basically as though it were land. Entering, travelling through, or using those waters requires permission from the owning nation. The U.S. generally recognizes territorial waters to a distance of 12 miles from a nation’s shores, subject to any international agreements that may have set other boundaries.


    • Z! Interesting perspective.

      Throw this into the mix, though, and you might be especially perplexed by it: you often read that open and protected sea lanes are vital to the “world economy”, and indeed that is true. It has become especially true in the last 40 years due to the advent of “containerization“, which began in the 20’s but really took hold after WWII.

      Containerization and the low cost of shipping consumer goods is a very under-appreciated factor in the rise of cheap labor markets like China. But of course the cost of transport could rise considerably if more has to be spent to “keep shipping lanes open and protected”, which is one of the primary missions of the US Navy. It may be one of the primary missions of navies generally; but then again you wonder if a country that begins to regard itself as an exploited labor country – like China might be – might come to see its bread being better buttered by (lots of b’s there!) higher protection costs to keep sea lanes open.

      I’m not suggesting any of this is all right, or not all right. I can foresee a situation where China or some other country might wish to claim some “choke point” patch of ocean – or, through the construction of an island perhaps actually create a choke point – so that it can impose fees or tariffs for transiting. This might be a significant impingement on the “freedom of navigation” we have come to rely upon so much, but of course it’s not without precedent – you have to pay Egypt to use the Suez Canal, of course.

      So maybe that’s what China is up to here. I don’t know that it would be an entirely bad thing. But I’m willing to consider arguments both ways.


      • This is the first I’ve seen a maritime choke point scheme ascribed to China. It’s an interesting idea, and there are a number of precedents for it in the global South (Egypt with the Suez, Iran with the Straits of Hormuz), but for China specifically I doubt it because there seems to be a very strong consensus among China observers, both in China and abroad, that the Chinese government’s overarching goals are to maintain vigorous international trade and secure natural resources through soft colonialism. A maritime toll collection regime would be incoherent with this strategy. I can imagine a future Chinese regime running some kind of maritime toll collection or piracy regime, but it sounds like it would require a real about-face from the current trade-and-development-at-all-costs policy.

        It’s worth mentioning that there seems to be very little official Western propaganda directed at Beijing, even accounting for this current maritime spat, and very limited conspiracy theorizing about Western attitudes towards China. This is in stark contrast to the venom directed at Putin, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, etc. The consensus about the objectives of China’s economic policy is exceptionally strong and credible. The points of contention are mostly over whether China is succeeding and unstoppable or desperately trying to hold everything together. It’s a question of implementation, not of goals, about whether China ascendant is actually happening or whether there’s too much dysfunction, misallocation, corruption, incompetence, and imminent social unrest to keep the project from going off the rails. And there have been some nightmarish policy failures in China, ones that have infuriated their victims.

        China is a rising power in the region, but it’s no turnkey empire. It’s too troubled for that. My sense is that China’s regional power will largely be a function of the relative power of the United States, i.e., the US military, because the US diplomatic corps is a politicized embarrassment. The militaries of China’s southern and eastern neighbors have atrophied under the US umbrella, and the neighbors are at a natural disadvantage because they’re less populous.

        The corruption and incompetence of the US military should be encouraging to Chinese expansionists, then. Reports of this stuff are often swept under the rug by the US press because they harsh the “support our troops” mellow, but some of it is crazy. We have unairworthy aircraft like the Osprey still in service because their manufacturers (and manufacturers’ employees) have political clout. The Osprey just killed another two Marines on Oahu the other day in an apparent engine failure. I heard news reporters describing the event as a “hard landing,” but there was video of the aircraft suddenly plummeting and then a fireball erupting from behind the trees. It was a fucking plane crash. We’re in bad shape if we can’t come out and say that, as a nation, we’d rather kill our own servicemen in training accidents than scrap a literally deadly subsidy dumpster. Then there’s the Fat Leonard scandal, which is like something out of Austin Powers: roly-poly Malaysian defense contractor gives US admirals free vacations and hookers, and in exchange they throw the contract bidding process and give him all the business servicing their ships.

        These are the outcomes we get when civvies are too eager to express their love for the troops as an ideal to pay attention to how the military is actually run and call bullshit on uniformed idiots and crooks. There’s some classic audio on YouTube of JFK chewing out a general for allowing the purchase of a $5,000 bed on an Army account and letting a grunt under his command (“that silly bastard”) to be photographed next to it. JFK keeps demanding that the bed be sent straight back to the showroom and offering to send the soldiers involved to Alaska. The general starts telling the president, “Well, sir, uh, that was, uh, obviously a–” and gets cut off: “Well, that was obviously a fuck-up.” As I see it, this is a much better stance than the almost cowering deference of Clinton and Bush II, lifelong civilians who apparently felt bad about having evaded the draft in Vietnam. It’s probably no coincidence that Kennedy was a vet. This sort of shit goes on in the military. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more of it as the US military increasingly turns into a segregated caste walled off from the broad civilian world.

        Anyway, none of these scandals would be particularly out of character for the modern Chinese military, I imagine. The old Maoist austerity is gone with the wind. The difference is that China is flexing on these offshore islands with a supply line of a few hundred miles from its mainland, while the US is forced to rely on supply lines of six thousand miles. Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska are closer, but they’re ultimately only useful as resupply bases. China would need truly epic military corruption and incompetence to erase this advantage.

        Nice thoughts for Memorial Day, I guess.


  2. The moral bankruptcy of the official position taken by the US Air Force and CNN over these islands is baldfaced. What blew me away about the coverage was that the reporter called China’s land grab “unprecedented.” This is bullshit. Nobody who has heard of the US’s military history in the Philippines would believe that for a second. If the United States gets a pass for the military occupation of one of the five nations claiming these islands and waters and the mass torture of its citizenry, surely China should demand a pass for merely occupying these islands and building a few square miles of earthworks around their edges. The claim that the Chinese garrisoning is “unprecedented” is even more ridiculous in the historical contexts of Imperial Japan’s seizure of lands as far afield as Indonesia, the Opium Wars, and China’s official exploration of lands as far afield as East Africa (and the West Coast of the Americas, if one believes the most ambitious claims).

    The only really debatable thing about the sheer bullshit of CNN’s analysis of China’s naval expansionism here is whether anyone at CNN knows that it’s bullshit and can give a halfway educated reason why. Plenty of thoughtful observers are of a mind that Don Lemon and Wolf Blitzer, for example, aren’t just morally bankrupt but intellectually bankrupt as well, and that the network as a whole suffers from a profound ignorance and failure of self-awareness.

    The Chinese Navy is staking a bold claim, but not nearly as bold a claim as the United States has historically staked in the same region. US aerial saber-rattling in this case isn’t entirely dissimilar from hypothetical Chinese overflights of the outer Aleutian Islands, which are, after all, farther from Anchorage, let alone the Lower 48, than these islands that China is garrisoning are from the Chinese mainland. It’s blatant that Washington and its East Asian allies don’t want CNOOC hoovering up the offshore oil and gas surrounding these islands. If these deposits are America’s business, it’s equally China’s business to set up its own overseas maritime zone in the outer Aleutians because Yum Much Fishes. A strong national interest case can be made for both scenarios. And it must not escape Chinese officials that the country lecturing them about their military occupation of these islands owns Guam.

    This occupation is a rather crass move on China’s part, but given the circumstances its Navy looks pretty responsible. Having a military radio standoff in heavily trafficked international airspace is reckless, but by CNN’s own account the Chinese reassured the rattled crew of a nearby Delta flight that they had no intention of interfering with civilian aircraft. You have to figure that the Delta crew thought they might be the next Korean Air 007. I found it disgusting that CNN seemed to be insinuating that this land grab is a threat to civil aviation when the Chinese authorities immediately replied to the Delta crew that their pissing match was strictly military-to-military.

    The United States could do without a war in the region. The question is whether the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Brunei agree.


    • Andrew, hi.

      First, you might be interested in my reply to Z’s comment. It’s something to think about, anyway.

      I’m completely with you on the double standard, and I say this as a US Navy veteran. There are probably many reasons why it’s not objectionable that we keep bases in countries all over the world – most of the places want our bases and when they indicate otherwise we mostly leave, as we did in the Philippines – but that we do so is a fact to be reckoned with both by us and by others.

      Digression: it’s not the air force that operates P-8’s, it’s the Navy. The P-8 Poseidon is a sub-hunting fixed wing aircraft resembling a civilian airliner. It replaced the P-3 Orion, which was one of the few remaining turbo-prop airplanes operating in the US military.

      Nevertheless, and as I think I just did in response to Z, you could make a good argument that the tradition of wide open sea lanes is little more than an international law mechanism permitting the United States (primarily) to exploit cheap labor in other countries. When labor asserts itself in any country, it’s no big deal to shift to some other country whose leaders are willing to have their own people exploited. You get a race to the bottom on wages for people who actually do the heavy work. The fact that China has been the exploitee for a long time simply means that the distance from the US is insignificant. Any country in the world that is willing to subjugate its own people to the men running the “world economy” can become a manufacturing powerhouse supplying trinkets and whatnot to the United States of America.

      As I’m implying, there’s arguably a good deal of social pathology at work in all this. But to tell the truth I’m really not sure whether finding some other way to more equitably distribute the burden, if indeed this kind of sea lane encroachment would be such a way, is a solution. It may be that as with almost everything else, if people are going to seek power and wealth without caring about who they have to step on to do it, and if we’re going to have limitless tolerance for such behavior, as we have had with our own banking system to cite just one example, we’re doomed no matter how we tinker with things otherwise.

      I always did get alarmed at the thought – a thought that was just as much part of the Navy’s blueprint when I was on active duty as it is today – that an organization with so much raw firepower asserts so much dominion over the world’s oceans with no more justification than that it’s in our interests. So what if it is? Do we have no obligation to be fair to others, so that if an opportunity exists to exploit them we just shamelessly do so – because we can, because we have them outgunned? It’s a pretty ugly mindset. We’re probably never quite as bad as that mindset implies we would be, but too often we come close. Thus it’s a mindset that desperately needs some scrutiny. What a failed opportunity by CNN, then.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Zarepheth

    I recall a discussion in a NROTC class about why our nation kept sending warships into the Gulf of Sidra, across the “line of death” imposed by the then current Libyan ruler, because we only recognized territorial waters out to 12 miles from the shore. The Libyan government was attempting to control the entire gulf, though the majority of its waters were further from the shore than 12 miles. By continuing to send vessels into the portion we claimed were “international”, and successfully defending them, we were preventing the Libyan territorial claim from becoming a new de-facto boundary. If no one challenged the claim, eventually the international community would accept it.

    Now, the entirety of the gulf is within the economic waters of Libya, so the Libyan nation could demand tolls or prohibit other nations from fishing in the gulf, but could not prohibit non-economic uses, such as ordinary transit, recreational swimming, diving, and sight-seeing (unless such interfered with fishing or mining).


    Note: just because the U.S. recognizes these borders, does not mean the rest of the international community recognizes the same borders – though most nations allied with us (and many that are not) usually recognize the same borders we do.


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