Uncharted Waters: The Sobering Implications of the Chinese UUV Seizure
China’s recent seizure of a US unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) as the USNS Bowditch was attempting to retrieve it has been roundly condemned by the US government and legal experts as a violation of US sovereignty and freedom of navigation. But in a move that portends ominously for future Sino-US mil-mil encounters in the air and at sea, the Chinese government, state media, and popular PLA commentators have sought not only to legitimate the seizure but portray it as a commendable action worthy of repetition under similar circumstances in the future, and even tout it as a standard operating procedure.
First, the official response. The statement issued by the PRC Ministry of Defense spokesperson was noteworthy in two respects: first, that it made the spurious claim that the PLA Navy seized an “unidentified device” out of respect for navigational safety; and second, that the statement complained about the US military’s close-in reconnaissance of China (implying that the UUV was conducting said reconnaissance), demanding that the reconnaissance activities stop and vowing to “take necessary measures in response.”
Although the first claim is a complete fabrication—the USNS Bowditch was in sight of and radioed the Chinese ship—state media and PLA commentators commonly repeated it. Senior Captain Cao Weidong of the PLA Naval Research Institute (NRI) claimed that the PLAN’s identification and verification to prove the UUV “didn’t have any explosives and wouldn’t harm any personnel” showed China’s “responsible attitude to navigational safety.” Senior Captain Fan Jinfa (an associate professor at the PLA National Defense University’s Information Operations and Command Training Teaching and Research Department, and previous commander of the PLAN South Sea Fleet destroyers Guangzhou and Lanzhou) accused the US Navy of “unprofessional behavior” for “losing” the UUV, saying that it could have struck the bow or damaged the aft propeller of a ship traveling at high speed.
Some commentators went even further, claiming that China’s behavior explicitly upheld international law while US behavior violated it. Liu Haiyang, a research fellow at Nanjing University’s Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies (CICSCSS), argued that the seizure showed China “bearing its responsibility to carry out its duties” according to UNCLOS, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and other international treaties. Both a quasi-authoritative commentary in the People’s Daily Overseas Edition and Teng Jianqun of the MFA-affiliated China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) claimed that China had unspecified “jurisdiction” over the relevant body of water, a ludicrous claim given that the site of the incident falls outside even China’s baseless and illegal Nine-Dash Line.
Conversely, Senior Colonel Chen Hu, Editor-In-Chief of Xinhua’s World Military Affairs magazine, called the US’ claims to international law regarding the incident “shameless” expressions of “hegemonic” and “colonialist” behavior. Yu Zhirong, a researcher at the China Ocean Development Research Center (co-sponsored by the State Oceanic Administration and Ministry of Education) and whose career in the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ended as deputy fleet commander of the CMS East Sea Fleet, argued that the US exploited the term “international waters” to “violate others rights,” and that the term is a “false proposition” and “fundamentally has no basis” because UNCLOS only uses the term “high seas” (despite the common sense understanding that they are synonyms).
Echoing the second part of China’s official response, Chinese commentary overwhelmingly made the case that the seizure was implicitly legitimate due to the perceived threats US UUVs and survey vessels (or according to Zhu Feng, director of CICSCSS, “spy ships”) like the USNS Bowditch pose to China’s maritime security. PLA commentators argued that US UUV measurements with regard to “marine geology, marine hydrography, and the acoustic operational environment” threaten the security of PLAN submarines and surface ships, and was in essence, “preparing the battlefield”and making the undersea domain “transparent”for a future conflict.
Senior Captain Fan gave the most detailed explanation, saying that:
• The US could exploit measurements of marine geological features such as seabed topography to conceal submarines or magnetic forces to conduct anti-submarine warfare;
• that measurements of marine hydrography (temperature, salinity, depth, and ocean currents) influenced the “operational effectiveness of sonar,” “submarine dives and depth control,” and whether submarines could accurately determine their position using their own inertial navigation system while concealed;
• and that UUV measurements of the acoustic operational environment greatly enabled the US in “submarine search/anti-submarine warfare, covert navigation of submarines, torpedo guidance, mine laying, mine clearance, underwater acoustic reconnaissance, underwater acoustic communication, and underwater acoustic navigation.”
This last point was echoed by retired RADM Yin Zhuo, director of the PLA Navy’s Cyber Security and Informatization Expert Consulting Committee, who said that the data collected by UUVs could be used to identify Chinese submarines by their “acoustic fingerprint.” Of course, no PLA commentator has acknowledged that seizing the UUV could help the PLAN develop similar technology for use against the US.
Most ominously for the future of Sino-US mil-mil encounters and the future viability of agreements like CUES, the MOU on the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, and the MOU’s Air-to-Air annex, Chinese commentary not only legitimated China’s behavior but held it up as a sterling example to be imitated in the future. Official Chinese sources use the same language to describe China’s behavior in both air and maritime encounters: Chinese ships and aircraft “track and monitor” [跟踪监视], “identify and verify” [识别查证], and then “warn and drive away” [警告驱离] foreign targets that China perceives to be violating its sovereignty or rights.
Chinese commentators used the same language in comparing this incident with previous ones. Yu Zhirong recounted receiving orders as captain of a CMS ship to drive away the USNS Bowditch from the Yellow Sea in March 2000 (the USNS Bowditch suffered a similar incident in September 2002 when CMS ships also attempted to drive away the Bowditch, and Chinese fishing ships—or more likely, Chinese maritime militia—snagged the Bowditch’s towed-sonar array). When asked what countermeasures China should implement, RADM (ret.) Yin responded by saying that if tracking and warning were insufficient, then additional “measures taken in self-defense” would be needed, concluding, “The USNS Impeccable incident is our response.” (thus implicitly acknowledging the role of the Chinese maritime militia in China’s overall strategy to counter US ships and aircraft) Later, Yin even explicitly acknowledged that China had seized the UUV in part to exploit the data therein:
“We don’t verify what kind of object it is, but what has been recorded on it. Then we decrypt it. And then when you deploy these things in the future, we will track it and salvage it. And then we will verify what you have been up to. If it’s recorded something else, we’ll see. We’ll find out how big of a threat it is, what kind of secrets have been stolen.”
All of this suggests that China’s response in each incident is part of a repeated pattern based on conscious, premeditated decisions by senior civilian and military leaders, and not the result of rogue local PLA units. Indeed, Senior Captain Cao explicitly said that the UUV incident “lays down relevant operating standards for the occurrence of similar events in the future,” and that he hoped that the above response cycle (track and monitor, identify and verify, warn and drive away) would become “preconditions” for resolving this kind of problem in the future.This should deeply trouble the US, especially given Senior Captain Cao’s role as a thought leader, and the NRI’s institutional role, within the PLAN. It also calls into question whether the US’ attempts to reduce the escalatory tension associated with these incidents (CUES, the 2014 MOU) ever had any viability or future.
Addendum: Perhaps surprisingly, President-elect Trump was not a major theme in Chinese coverage of the incident. PLAAF propagandist MG Qiao Liang called the seizure a “signal” sent in response to Trump’s phone call with Tsai Ying-wen; the Global Times made fun of Trump’s “unpresidented” tweet; and on Trump’s response, the People’s Daily Overseas Edition commented that it was “hard to figure out [Trump’s] true psychology.” But overall it was hardly mentioned.