Dripping Water Breaks the Stone 水滴石穿: China’s Seizure of USNS Bowditch’s UUV
A few thoughts about what this incident might mean… and how it echoes the past.
1. China tests new Presidents.
As before, China is eager to test the new president-elect and begin communicating through provocative actions before he even takes office. George W. Bush was confronted with the EP-3 incident on Hainan island in April 2001 and Barack Obama faced the USNS Impeccable incident in March 2009. China relies on this method of inducing a tension-wrought incident to test the new president’s resolve and see to what extent he reacts against China when real action is required. Trump’s volatility and early willingness to challenge protocol in U.S-China-Taiwan relations make this testing more critical to the Chinese. They are feeling out this new arena in which a president will respond to global events by personally tweeting emotion-laden messages. Further, this incident is direct messaging to the President-elect that China does not take kindly to suggestions that the ‘One-China Policy’ may be negotiated on the bargaining table. Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia at CSIS, said that China would want Trump “to understand before he is sworn in that the United States can’t challenge China’s core interests with impunity.”
2. China is expanding its willingness to back up its sovereignty claims.
This bold seizure also indicates China’s presumption that it can increasingly back up its claims of authority in the South China Sea. The sheer distance of the USNS Bowditch from the Chinese mainland when its unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was seized (about 650 miles) indicates China’s increased confidence to assert claimed authority well beyond its shores. The jury is still out as to the true meaning of China’s so-called ‘nine-dashed line’: China has never clarified whether it only claims all territory within the line, claims the rights to govern foreign activity within the bounds of the line, asserts sovereignty over all resources within (as within an exclusive economic zone), or otherwise. Chinese actions help us to clarify the claims, in lieu of words. This seizure is an important indication that the extent of those claims (or the extent to which China is now willing to defend them) is expanding.
3. China continues to eagerly pursue unmanned vehicle technology.
Chinese interest in unmanned vehicles is extraordinary. They are actively recruiting and investing in development - an abundance of trade shows and cash prizes for development highlights this interest. They have begun offering their armed drone technology in a “concerted push into the international arms market”. The PLA has provided a surge in funding for university research teams to develop unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles. In particular, the PLA recognizes that it is far behind the US in terms of ASW technology, so it is a high-interest area for development. The U.S benefitted from extensive technical and TTP (tactics, techniques, and procedures) ASW development during the Cold War against a sophisticated underwater adversary, the USSR. China has not had that experience. And underwater development is much more difficult than standard military or other technical modernization due to extreme environmental challenges like salinity, temperature, pressure, and underwater topography. Even a vehicle as simple as the one seized yesterday still presents an appealing target for the Chinese Navy.
4. The U.S. continues to avoid escalation at all costs by allowing China to save face with flimsy excuses.
China’s actions in the South China Sea are largely driven by a desire to boost national pride and government legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party derives its right to rule from its ability to ensure domestic stability, economic growth, and the projection of a strong China internationally. Especially under President Xi Jinping, China uses demonstrations of military capability to increase international prestige and strengthen its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. As a result of this combination of motivations, it is difficult for China to de-escalate once it has taken action in any given confrontation. It would appear to be backing down - an undesirable effect, most importantly in the eyes of the Chinese public on whom the legitimacy of the government depends. Therefore, one of the toughest parts of managing confrontations with China is determining a way for China to “save face” while simultaneously de-escalating or retreating from their original position.
As Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said in reaction to this incident, “it is hard to see how China will justify [the seizure] legally.” Yet, if not justified legally, the only real option China had in the face of heavily diplomatic pressure was to return the UUV to the U.S. They could have chalked it up to local and undirected action on the part of the ship’s captain. This disownership is unbelievable due to what we now know about the direct orchestration of these actions by the PLA(N). Additionally, in declaring non-support for the ship captain’s actions, the Chinese government would be damaging their claimed position of authority in the South China Sea. Or, as China ultimately chose to do, they could declare that they have examined the vehicle and determined that its activity is indeed authorized. Their brazen seizure as the drone was being recovered by the USNS Bowditch de-legitimizes their narrative of having inspected the “unidentified equipment” for navigational safety before determining it was a U.S. drone. Further, they have no authority under international law to seize such property operating outside of Chinese waters. China is disinclined to extricate itself in a way that de-escalates the situation at its own expense - and in the absence of a credible way out, they resort to incredible excuses. And to avoid additional escalation, the U.S. accepts. Willfully outplayed and outsmarted, yet again.
5. Salami slicing continues to be a successful Chinese strategy to manipulate norms in the South China Sea.
China was betting that the U.S. would be unwilling to take the issue further than formal protests, and they were right. After all, the vehicle is worth only $150,000 and apparently contains only commercially-available technology. The gravity of this incident is diminished by the simplicity and low cost of the UUV taken - even accepting that China would have fully exploited the technologies found on the drone prior to returning it, there is little advantage to be lost with this particular piece of equipment. This point may have been a strategic calculation by President Xi as well - that taking a thinner ‘slice of salami’ makes it even less worthwhile for the U.S. to react dramatically and increase tensions further. M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at MIT and an expert on China’s territorial disputes, pointed out that China may have been aiming to create a smaller incident than what would have transpired had the safety of the ship been threatened. Less drama over Chinese transgressions is the goal; in fact, the Chinese Defense Ministry criticized the U.S. reaction for its “inappropriate” exaggeration of the dispute, admonishing the U.S. that its reaction was not conducive to problem-solving. U.S. inaction beyond simple protests is the ultimate success for a China that hopes to almost imperceptibly alter the norm in their favor with every incident. In this way, China continues to nudge the imaginary red line to keep it just beyond the current reality of their actions in the South China Sea.
Another slice of salami has been taken in the South China Sea and the question resurfaces: how much is too much? China continues to wait eagerly for the U.S. to answer.