The sprawling Russian defense apparatus has some of the world’s biggest braggarts. You don’t need to look very hard to find examples in the Russian defense ministry or the military-industrial complex stating the impossible. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, for example, said that by 2013 “production capacity [at Russian shipyards] will allow us to build six submarines and an aircraft carrier every year.” Serious Western analysts of Russian military procurement reacted with derision. Not only does the Russian Federation currently not have any shipyards large enough to build a carrier, they noted, the shipyard that built earlier Soviet carriers is in the Ukraine, and the Russian navy doesn’t even have a finalized design that would allow construction of a carrier to begin. Rogozin’s statement was so self-evidently fraudulent that he was forced to retract it.
The Russians have an extensive and well-documented history of making incredibly bold and aggressive statements only to quietly retract those statements (with much less fanfare) a few days later.
The latest tempest in a teapot got started on 27 July when VADM Victor Chirkov, the commander in chief of the Russian navy, made the following remarks in an interview with RIA Novosti:
For government officials and regional analysts following the security dialogues in Phnom Penh last week (9–13 July) there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to the key elements of their Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. The bad news was that the ASEAN foreign ministers could not agree on the wording of the South China Sea section of a joint communiqué.
Good News: ASEAN Agrees on a Code of Conduct
In 2002, ASEAN and China failed to reach an agreement on a COC in the South China Sea. As a compromise they signed off on a nonbinding political statement that took the form of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The signatories agreed to work toward the eventual adoption of a COC.
Implementation of the DOC languished for nine years until China, in an about face, resumed discussions with ASEAN and agreed on guidelines to implement the DOC. China’s change of mind was in reaction to pressure from the international community, led by the United States, criticizing China’s assertive actions against the Philippines and Vietnam. The agreement on the DOC guidelines prompted ASEAN to move on to the next phase—drafting a COC for the South China Sea.
ASEAN has not yet released the official text of its COC. But a detailed outline provided to the author shows it to contain three parts. The first is a preamble listing agreements between ASEAN and China obligating them to settle their disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, including the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
We might rephrase Theodore Roosevelt’s famous saying about “big stick” diplomacy thusly: Speak softly and carry a small stick, and you will go far—provided you have a big stick handy. That maxim has yielded good results for China in Southeast Asia. It could do so for the United States as well—if it manages its alliances and partnerships well and arranges its forces to match purpose with power.
Overpowering military might opens up new strategic vistas for the strong, letting them get their way while looking inoffensive if not magnanimous to foreign eyes. China has brandished a small stick in recent months, using unarmed ships from nonmilitary government agencies like China Marine Surveillance as its political implement of choice in the Scarborough Shoal imbroglio with the Philippines, and in its war of words with Vietnam over oil and gas exploration rights within Vietnam’s offshore exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. The EEZ is a 200 nautical mile belt (more in some cases) adjoining a coastal state’s shores. The coastal state holds exclusive rights to natural resources in those waters and the seabed underneath. Control of resources is critical to economic development—hence the passions expanses like the resource-rich South China Sea rouse.
Gunboat diplomacy without the gunboats sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Here’s how small-stick diplomacy works. A country whose armed forces decisively outmatch a competitor’s can afford not to openly display those forces in international controversies. It can make the weak an offer they can’t refuse, and they have little recourse. It can hope to win without fighting—and get its way without even looking like an aggressor before the court of world opinion. Why unlimber the big stick when virtual coercion or deterrence promises the same results?
By Lt. Cmdr. Jeff W. Benson, USN
The father of modern China, Deng Xiaoping, highlighted the South China Sea as part of China’s territory “since ancient times.” For more than 20 years China has avoided armed conflict in the South China Sea, but it is undeniable that things are heating up again in the region
View South China Sea Conflict in a larger map
China set a precedent for armed conflict in the South China Sea during two encounters with Vietnamese forces, in 1974 and 1988. In both incidents, China used force to stake its claim to territory far beyond its shores. As tensions increase in the region, it’s worth examining those incidents to understand the historical context of conflict in the region.
Over the past two years there have been several events relating to territorial and maritime rights in the South China Sea: scientists planting a Chinese flag on the seabed floor by a submersible vessel, fishing disagreements between China and Vietnam, and the current China and Philippine dispute over Scarborough Shoal, less than 200 nautical miles from Manila. The recent conflict began in April over a fishing disagreement between China and the Philippines causing diplomatic tensions over territorial rights and resulting in more than 15 ships near Scarborough Shoal. Collectively, these incidents indicate the complexity of the Asia-Pacific region, which is now a focal point of the new national security strategy.