Mullen Should Hold Firm on Freedom of the Seas during China Talks

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen will be in the People’s Republic of China for much of the next week to engage in talks with his counterparts from the People’s Liberation Army. His visit comes amidst a thaw in U.S.–Chinese military-to-military relations, capped by the visit of General Chen Bingde, chief of the Chinese general staff.

The Chinese have long seen military-to-military contact as a U.S. “ask”—particularly since 1999, when Congress imposed legal restrictions on precisely what sort of information could be shared. Therefore, Admiral Mullen’s Chinese hosts will likely argue that the United States should make concessions to Chinese demands, essentially in exchange for its willingness to meet and in order to sustain the improving atmospherics.

China is likely to reiterate its position that the South China Sea is not a U.S. concern and there is no role for the United States. The Chinese view the U.S. offer to facilitate confidence-building measures—as well as the recent congressional resolution criticizing China’s actions in that region—as unwarranted meddling. Admiral Mullen is sure to hear an earful on this.

The Chinese are also likely to demand that, in light of improving military relations, the United States cease military activities, including reconnaissance, through waters and airspace that the Chinese claim as part of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Such a demand runs counter to basic American interests and against customary international law.

The Chinese loudly claim to respect freedom of navigation, but their definition is much different than America’s. The U.S position has been clear for decades: All states enjoy navigational rights and freedoms in EEZs that are “qualitatively and quantitatively” the same as those they enjoy on the high seas. The Chinese reject the international consensus on this issue and insist on the right to regulate foreign military activities beyond its 12-mile territorial limit.

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American reconnaissance activities in what China considers its “near seas” are of critical importance. An oft-quoted line from Sun-Tzu is that “all war is deception.” The only way to counter that deception is to know one’s opponent—which is something that requires a robust program of surveillance and monitoring. The Chinese certainly understand this: Chinese intelligence activities in the United States, including cyber activities, have hardly abated simply because of recent military improvements. The fact is that, however good U.S.–China relations are at any given time, American military forces must be prepared for every contingency. And if it ever comes to conflict, this means having as full an understanding as possible of China’s capabilities and the physical environment beyond its territorial limit.

Moreover, the act of intelligence-gathering itself is a form of deterrence. Only through the conduct of such activities can the U.S. military establish the necessary baseline of Chinese activity to know when they might be acting out of the ordinary. A regular program of surveillance also threatens efforts at deception and surprise, making any Chinese military option that much more risky.

The best demonstration of rights beyond China’s territorial waters is by exercising them. If the U.S. ever forfeits its right to conduct military activities throughout the South China Sea or anywhere else it is lawfully permitted, it will never gain it back.

Admiral Mullen should send a clear message to his Chinese counterparts that the United States welcomes improvements in military relations as it benefits both sides, but it will not seek them at the price of its own security.

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