ABC News (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation) reports that the United States has sent a carrier battle group from the US 3rd Fleet into the South China Seas. The article quotes Captain Doug Verissimo, captain of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as saying ““It shows resolve, and gives decision space to our leaders.”” Decision space, in military parlance, means something like a range of options at the decision maker’s disposal. For each option there is, also, a range of possible consequences.
In the case of diplomacy there are always two decision makers; in this case they are Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.
Captain Verissimo went on to explain to ABC News that ““When they put a carrier strike group somewhere it helps to show that the United States is interested … [and] … We don’t have a lot of these, so when you put one in a certain area it has some influence … [and, further] … Of course it also gives our diplomats time and space to negotiate and make decisions, ultimately to try and prevent any type of armed conflict.”” Projecting power, displaying, for the whole world, one’s interest and capacity to influence events in a region is one of the ways that navies allow nations to enhance their diplomacy.
ABC News says “No-one on board will say it so bluntly, but the ship is sailing through the South China Sea to send a deliberate message: these waters aren’t China’s alone … [and Captain Verissimo explained that] … “As you change maps it creates new frictions and new issues” … [of course] … He doesn’t mention it by name, but the only nation trying to change the map out here is China, which has drawn a so-called “Nine Dash Line” around waters it claims as its own … [but] … The strike group’s commander, Rear Admiral John Fuller, won’t reveal where he’s planning on sailing during this mission but it’s clear he’s not charting his course using China’s map.“
It appears that one important purpose of this ‘Freedom of Navigation Operation’ (FONOP) is to reassure the Philippines that the United States is firm in its resolve to stand by its South East Asian allies. But there are bigger issues at stake than just the rights of Philippines fisherfolk to work their traditional fishing grounds. The South China Seas contain some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and control of the those waters creates an effective capacity to blockade both Japan and Taiwan – especially to deny them and South Korea access to Middle Eastern oil. As another article explains, the United States’ diplomatic position is “The U.S. continues to maintain that it does not take any position on which country should exercise sovereignty over any given disputed feature, be it in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, or elsewhere. These operations are merely an attempt to assert rights permitted to warships of any country under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States treats as of customary international law even as it hasn’t ratified the Convention.” Giving in to China on the issue of the right of innocent passage (§17 ff) is an important principle in international maritime law and all nations, including Canada, have an interest in ensuring that China and everyone else, including the USA, follows the rules.
It is not clear if this is Donald Trump “speaking” or Rex Tillerson and/or James Mattis or just Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command and, therefore, something of a proconsul in his own right. Commanders of major commands in the US military have considerable diplomatic as well as military latitude and have their own political and strategic advisors. Anyway, the FONOPs go back years, well into the Obama administration so this operation is not new except that sending a carrier battle group does seem to be a bit of an escalation.
The best ways for Canada to help ameliorate the global strategic situation is not by using its military, it would be to push oil pipelines, carrying crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan, through to tidewater in British Columbia, despite the strong objections of environmentalists and First Nations, and to build at least one large LNG port on the Pacific coast. If plentiful oil and gas could flow across the Pacific to Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan then the South China Seas would lose some of their potential strategic value to China. This is a politically difficult option but it would be of significant value to “the West,” including Australia, Japan, Singapore and India, and to the cause of global peace and security.
For now, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand should not require America to do all the heavy lifting alone. There might be considerable value, on many different fronts, in sending a Canadian warship to help with the FONOPs in 2018 and 2019, either as part of a US FONOP or unilaterally or as part of a CANZUK operation. China should know that it is not just America that supports e.g. Malaysia, the Philippines and Viet Nam.
America is showing resolve; Canada should do the same.