More U.S. Mil-To-Mil Contact With China Urged; Future PACOM Chief Cites Maritime Incidents, Legal Disputes
By Wendell Minnick
By Wendell Minnick
SINGAPORE — In March, Chinese naval and maritime patrol vessels shadowed and harassed the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. In May, Chinese fishing boats harassed the USNS Victorious in the Yellow Sea.
China accused both ships of carrying out spy missions in its Exclusive Economic Zones.
U.S. Navy Adm. Robert Willard, who commands the U.S. Pacific Fleet and is expected to replace Adm. Timothy Keating as the next head of the Pacific Command (PACOM), said the episodes illustrate the challenges that exist between China and the United States “in respective interpretations of international law.”
Both nations have a responsibility “to confront these and attempt to find a resolution,” Willard said at the 7th International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC) here on May 13. “These challenges will be met between the two nations hopefully [via] our military-to-military dialogue, which has very recently recommenced.”
Willard said the two nations have many common interests, including maritime security. He said he hoped the two would increase military-to-military engagement.
By comparison, Chinese Rear Adm. Wang Xian Jing was reticent. The deputy commander of China’s largest naval base, Lushun, gave a more awkward speech, “China’s Harmonious Ocean.”
Conference organizers complained that Wang refused to provide a biography or a photograph for the conference, and refused to submit the text of his speech for distribution to conference attendees.
China sent no ships to this year’s IMDEX, which took place in conjunction with IMSC. China had sent a frigate during the 2007 show.
During a question-and-answer session, Wang said the Yellow Sea incident “has nothing to do with the PLA Navy,” and said nothing of the South China Sea action.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as sovereign territory and reserves the right to challenge any foreign naval warship.
Wang defended China’s naval modernization buildup, saying ballistic missile submarines are “for guarding our maritime interests and sovereignty.”
Asked about a Chinese aircraft carrier program, Wang said, “If in the future, we have an aircraft carrier, it is only for safeguarding our own maritime interests. What I can say is our government and military is starting on this [aircraft carrier].”
Willard expressed support for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite U.S. congressional refusal to ratify it. Unlike China and Singapore, the U.S. has never ratified the United Nations agreement.
The Law of the Sea
“We believe that UNCLOS enables this necessary freedom of action, and while ratification continues to be debated in my country, every U.S. administration since Ronald Reagan was president has instructed the United States Navy to be bound by the convention’s legal framework,” he said.
UNCLOS governs Exclusive Economic Zones, ocean boundaries, marine environments and scientific research, and outlines rules for mineral resource exploitation.
Singapore’s second minister for defense, Ng Eng Hen, emphasized international cooperation for maritime security in his keynote address. He said UNCLOS had contributed substantially to maritime peace and cooperative action.
The agreement established “legal foundations for the rule of law at sea, balancing the legitimate interests, sovereign rights and moral duties of both maritime users as well as coastal states,” Ng said. “Broad multilateral groupings, functional operational groupings, and strong bilateral relations are all important components of a robust maritime security framework.”
Willard said all navies have an obligation to keep sea lanes safe from piracy and “from being misused for other nefarious purposes,” such as illegal trafficking of contraband, narcotics, human smuggling, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and the “infectious spread of violent extremism.”
He also warned nations against exerting control over sea lanes to disrupt shipping and to dictate whose commerce is permitted to flow and whose is not.
”Why devote my fleet resources to maritime security? As history repeatedly reminds us, peace does not preserve itself, nor does security on the maritime domain,” Willard said.
Willard recalled an experience while serving on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk as battle group commander. While passing through the Philippines from the South China Sea, the Kitty Hawk came across a merchant ship abandoned and drifting.
“We learned that it has been pirated, its valuable liquid cargo offloaded at an unknown location. And its crew presumably killed,” he said. “My country expects its Navy to protect its maritime commerce and that of its partners.”