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This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Skivvies and Soundwaves

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

Sometimes the greatest crises start in the silliest ways.

Earlier this week, in what on the surface sounds like a navalized version of the Keystone Kops, Chinese fishing boats and coastal patrol boats surrounded and harassed an unarmed American ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, waving large Chinese flags and taunting the crew while generally making life uncomfortable for the much larger ship. When Chinese seamen tried to snag the long sonar cables that Impeccable was towing, the American crew turned high pressure fire hoses on the Chinese… who promptly stripped to their underwear and continued taunting until the American ship departed the area.

It all sounds very juvenile, a slightly higher stakes game of penis waving on the high seas. In reality, it was the largest incident in a week-long series of events that portend major problems for US-PRC relations as Chinese Premier Hu Jintao prepares for his initial meeting with President Obama in two weeks.

USNS Impeccable is, without question, an interesting ship. Operated by the US Military Sealift Command, Impeccable is an “ocean surveillance” ship, whose stated mission is oceanographic research and investigation. It is, of course, in actuality a major intelligence platform, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) system tasked to gather intelligence on and keep track of enemy submarine forces. Impeccable carries the most sophisticated and sensitive sonar arrays in the American inventory, capable of locating and tracking submarines at ranges of hundreds of miles under the right circumstances and also making recordings which can be enhanced and downloaded to the fleet and by which our submarines and surface combatants can positively identify enemy subs. Given that Impeccable was operating in international waters off of China’s new submarine base at Hainan Island, its mission was clearly tracking the new generation of Chinese subs stationed there.

To understand the Chinese sensitivity to spying on its submarines it is necessary to look back at the 1995-’96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The Chinese, in the run-ups to the 1996 Taiwanese elections, decided to flex their muscles to dissuade Taiwanese voters for voting for a pro-independence government by conducting a series of “missile tests” that overflew Taiwan and several live fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to the Chinese provocations, President Clinton ordered Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) into the area, with USS Nimitz transiting the Strait in December of 1995 and then again in March 1996 with the USS Kitty Hawk battlegroup. The Chinese got the message—if American CBGs could operate in the Strait, they could destroy China’s economic and military heart, which exists along the Chinese Pacific Coast. This changed China’s entire military development program, causing them to see the Taiwan Strait as the key to their national sovereignty. As it is realistically very difficult to challenge America’s CBGs from the surface or air, China turned to the third attack venue—undersea—to stop America from threatening the Chinese littoral again.

China has spent extraordinary amounts of money over the past decade in developing its attack submarine forces in the hope that swarms of Chinese subs could make entering the restricted waters of the Taiwan Strait too risky for the American carriers, standing them off to the fuel limits of their embarked air wings and thus greatly complicating American participation in any future PRC-Taiwan crisis. The quality of the newer Chinese nuclear subs, however, is extremely questionable—the Chinese are not, to be polite, particularly good at naval development and have suffered many problems in their undersea programs. Their boats are quite noisy, the kiss of death for a sub, and their seaworthiness has not been demonstrated to be adequate for extended operations on a regular schedule. There is a school of thought, however, that suggests the newer Chinese boats coming on line have been relieved of those problems, hence the extreme interest of the United States in learning all that we can about them. Are the boats capable? The Chinese certainly want us to believe so whether they are or not, and they certainly don’t want us to learn enough to make a decision either way.

Enter Impeccable, Chinese sailors in the skivvies, and two incidents earlier in the week in which Chinese military aircraft buzzed American ships and in which a Chinese destroyer cut in front of the bow of a US ship and you have the beginnings of a Chinese power play.

China has long maintained that its economic and security interests are not limited to the twelve mile international waters boundary acknowledged by all nations and they have attempted to exercise that claim on many occasions, the most famous of which was when a Chinese J-8 fighter rammed and forced down a US Navy EP3 surveillance aircraft at… wait for it… Hainan Island in April of 2001, causing a several week long crisis that saw the Chinese first downing the aircraft and then engaging in that most Chinese action, disassembling it to steal its technology.

The Chinese were trying to do something very similar with Impeccable when they got doused with the fire hoses—they were using their boat hooks to try and snag and steal the sonar towed array cables being pulled by the ship while at the same time trying to exercise their claim on waters far beyond those they are entitled to.

Given the timing, with the first meeting between Hu and Obama on the near horizon, it is easy to imagine what the Chinese are up to. With America in financial crisis and with its military distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China is trying to upset the balance of power quickly before America under Obama can regain its footing. It’s hard to blame them—they are in no position to directly challenge an America that can respond at full strength, so why not challenge America while it is still weakened from the misadventures of the previous Admin and under financial pressure that China can make worse? In some ways this is very much like the Soviet provocations that accompanied the beginning of the Kennedy Administration; the question now is whether or not Obama will respond from strength, sending Impeccable and its sister ships back to the waters off of Hainan with a military escort or whether he is too constrained by China’s economic position to do so.

Undoubtedly Hu will come to the meeting with demands that the United States back off in the East Pacific, Yellow and South China Seas or else China will have to consider economic actions detrimental to the United States. The gravity of those threats will be easily determined—if they are made publicly or are allowed to leak very quickly, then China will be placing its prestige and power on the line by directly challenging America, signaling that they think they have a seriously strong hand. If they are made quietly and without fanfare, then they are merely a test of America’s resolve. China has traditionally been hesitant to engage in open confrontation, preferring the subtle maneuver to the exercise of main force. This will be an interesting exercise in power for both sides. Expect to see China take steps on the economic front in the coming ten days, perhaps a Chinese professor giving a “major interview” questioning the continued wisdom of helping the US economy or perhaps a signal from China’s Central Bank that it is considering dumping US Treasuries, to ratchet up the pressure on Obama.

We all know the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times. It will be a major test of Obama’s capacity to lead in seeing if he can make China’s life equally interesting.

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2 Responses to “Skivvies and Soundwaves”

  1. Chancellor said

    I’m hoping for open confrontation, though I doubt China’s that stupid right now. Let’s talk about their options:

    Option 1 – Continue, as you noted, with another step up in the military escalation on the water. I readily admit I’m not a big fan of President Obama, but at some point, he’ll simply send a carrier group, and that will end that.

    Option 2 – Continue fanning fires on the ground. Here’s where the Chinese can cause the most damage to us, but I think they realize it could blow up in their faces…literally. Sure, they can support Sudan and other areas of Africa further. Even worse, they could decide to further arm the Taliban. The former could be uncomfortable. The latter, downright painful. But, sooner or later, the Chinese will learn the same lessons we did – arming the Taliban is like killing the rats in your garden with a cobra. Yeah, he’ll kill most or all of the rats, but there’s gonna come that really bad time when he bites you, too.

    Option 3 – As you noted, play the economic card. That’s a sum loss for the Chinese, and would end up in a catastrophe that would, IMO, take them down faster than us. The scenario seems pretty straightforward – the Chinese start to dump T-bills, the dollar tanks, stock market drops even more significantly, consumption drops worldwide. The Chinese are an export driven economy, so their growth dives even further than it does already. And the hidden bite in the shorts in that scenario is that if the dollar tanks, so does the Yuan, which is most closely pegged to the dollar. And oil prices increase – demand would go down, but their ability to pay would go down further.

    In 10-20 years, when China is 70-80% energy independent, and the Yuan is a currency that can measure up to the dollar, pound, euro, and yen…then this is a realistic and nightmarish scenario. I doubt we’ll have our economic house in order by then, sad to say. I just hope it’s closer to 20 years so I can be comfortably retired in Costa Rica….

    All in all, I think they’re going to continue the incremental game. Maybe increase the increments a little bit, but not too much.

    And, so, how do you spell “reset” in Mandarin? 😉

  2. Bob Kohm said

    I think that the problem is that the Chinese have proven to be somewhat unpredictable over the years and that they can play the game with us that Reagan played with the Soviets– “Can we really be sure that they’re going to act in what we think is a rational way?”. The threat of dumping Treasuries may hold more danger than them actually doing it– if they can further spook the world market on US securities without actually divesting, then they can ride the crash down and back up ten years from now while doubling down on devalued Treasuries during the crash.

    I’m not sure that CBGs are a great option for Obama given the Chinese sub threat.

    it’s interesting you mentioned a Chinese dalliance with the Talibs. Have you read Alex Berenson’s Ghost War? Interesting novel that features a confrontation between Chinese civvie trawlers and a Navy ship very much like what we saw earlier this week while focusing on a Chinese covert effort to train up and arm the Taliban. It’s either a very prescient novel or just an author getting insanely lucky, but either way it makes for an interesting read.

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