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The Fog of War over the South China Sea

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Image: Photo of Secretary of Defense McNamara at a press conference taken by Marion S. Trikosko, 1965. From the Library of Congress.

At a maritime conference in Sydney held on Tuesday, U.S. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, in an apparent reference to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, commented:

“Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters.”

Earlier, at a gathering of Asia-Pacific defense officials in Hawaii last week, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, reiterated Beijing’s hope for mutual cooperation in the South China Sea, telling his counterpart, U.S. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command:

“(We) hope the U.S. side can pay great attention to China’s concerns, earnestly respect our core interests, avoid words and actions that harm bilateral ties, and reduce activities which cause misunderstandings or misjudgments.”

The pair of comments follow a series of dangerous maneuvers both in the air and on the sea in recent months, including last year’s barrel roll by a Chinese warplane over a U.S. Navy patrol jet.  Adding to Beijing’s concern, a top U.S. commander suggested last month that U.S. ships and aircraft should patrol close to artificial islands which China has built in the South China Sea.  And last week, one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced aircraft carriers docked in Japan, as part of a deployment to strengthen defense ties between Japan and the U.S.

Concern over potential misunderstandings and a possible escalation of tensions over territorial claims have led both nations to set up a military hotline along with rules of airborne engagement, which were announced last week.

Some analysts have downplayed the fears, however, arguing miscalculation concerns over incidents in the maritime realm are exaggerated and can artificially increase tensions, raise threat perceptions, and justify arms build-ups.  Last month’s attack by Thai coast guard vessels on Vietnamese fishing boats certainly had the potential to escalate, yet was handled diplomatically.  While threats may indeed be exaggerated for a domestic audience for political gains, the potential for escalation is real should diplomacy fail.  Many geopolitical analysts and diplomats failed to predict the nationalist outburst and rioting in Vietnam that followed the movement of a Chinese offshore oil drilling rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in May of last year.  Rioters attacked Chinese and other Asian factories in an industrial zone outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Chinese workers were attacked and at least two were killed at a Taiwanese steel plant in central Vietnam, and some 3,000 Chinese workers were hastily evacuated from Vietnam.

Despite a long history over rules of engagement and efforts at diplomacy, miscalculations have occurred in the past –  the Gulf of Tonkin incident leading to greater American involvement in the Vietnam War is still being debated to this day.  In his book In Retrospect, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, describes how the U.S. destroyer Maddox “was attacked by torpedoes and automatic weapons fire” in international waters.  While U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declined to retaliate, he did send a second destroyer, the C. Turner Joy, to the region.  Just two days later, low clouds and thunderstorms added to the confusion over whether the Maddox and Turner Joy were under another attack, both ships reporting “more than twenty torpedo attacks, sighting of torpedo wakes, enemy cockpit lights, searchlight illumination, automatic weapons fire and radar and sonar contacts”.  A patrol commander aboard the Maddox later that day communicated to Washington:

Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful.  Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports.  No actual sightings by Maddox.  Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.

Despite the message and amongst the confusion, President Johnson authorized that day the launch of naval aircraft, which flew 64 sorties against the Vietnamese patrol boat bases and a supporting oil complex, and submitted a resolution to Congress requesting their support for U.S. combat operations in Southeast Asia.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave Johnson great leeway in exacerbating America’s involvement in Vietnam and led to the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. military forces after their failure to defeat the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.

One would think with the advanced technologies and greater communication available to today’s diplomats, the same set of events has little chance of happening.  Yet surely that was the same consensus held back then, and despite the plethora of information available today, how one interprets the actions and intent of the enemy will always be subject to debate.  The fog of war has not gone away.  




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666