Asia Defense

China’s Drone Grab and the Dangers of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’

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Asia Defense

China’s Drone Grab and the Dangers of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’

A closer look at a recent military flashpoint between China and the United States.

China’s Drone Grab and the Dangers of ‘Strategic Ambiguity’
Credit: US Navy Photo

Last week the USNS Bowditch, an unarmed U.S. Pathfinder-class survey ship manned by a civilian crew, was shadowed by a PLA Navy (PLAN) Dalang-III-class salvage and rescue vessel as it operated 50 nautical miles (nm) northwest of the Philippines’ Subic Bay. As the Bowditch maneuvered to recover an unclassified “ocean glider” Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) gathering hydrographic data, a smaller ship was launched by the PLAN vessel to capture the UUV. Just 500 meters away, the Bowditch established radio contact but the Chinese vessel left the area with a simple reply: “We are returning to normal operations.”

The Pentagon has since called on China to return the drone “immediately” and “comply with all of its obligations under international law.” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said of the drone: “It’s ours, it was clearly marked, we want it back, and we don’t want this to happen again.” As Micah Zenko has noted, the Pentagon’s policy is to treat threats to unmanned systems the same as it does threats to piloted systems and it described the drone as a “sovereign immune vessel.”

A Chinese military spokesman confirmed the drone will be returned in an “appropriate manner” and the incident will be “resolved successfully,” though not before chastising the U.S. for “hyping up” the issue. The response from China’s hawkish commentariat was more concerning, if not surprising.

  • “China is a dragon, America is an eagle, Britain is a lion. When the dragon wakes up, the others are all snacks.”—Professor Jin Canrong of Renmin University
  • “China is very sensitive about [UUVs] because they can track our nuclear ballistic missile submarines fleet. If one from the Bowditch can be detected and even snatched by a Chinese naval ship, it shows it’s getting too close to the sensitive water areas.”—Major General Xu Guangyu
  • “On the South China Sea issue, we took in humiliations with a humble view in past years. I think this era has finished.”—Wu Shicun, director of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Several things make this incident unique but it’s far from the first time the PLAN has harassed U.S. surveillance vessels. It’s not even their first confrontation with the Bowditch. In March 2001, a PLAN frigate passed within 100 yards of the U.S. vessel, aiming its fire control radar at the Bowditch among other “aggressive and provocative actions.” The U.S. was forced to dispatch an armed escort for protection.

In September 2002, Chinese coastal patrol aircraft “buzzed” the Bowditch, demanding it leave China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and cease “illegal” activities. The following year, Chinese fishing vessels were instructed to bump the survey vessel, damaging the Bowditch in one confrontation.

Similar harassment tactics were employed against the U.S. survey ships Impeccable and Victorious in 2009, and against the USS Cowpens in 2013. American surveillance aircraft have not been spared, either. Recent years have witnessed a series of “unsafe encounters,” including a 2015 incident in which a PLA Air Force fighter crossed within 20 feet of a U.S. P-8 patrol aircraft.

Several things make this episode unique, however. First, it involved a PLA Navy ship. Chinese harassment activities are more often undertaken by civilian law enforcement ships, fishermen, and other “maritime militia” vessels. The latter have bumped, and drawn the water cannons, of U.S. navy ships before. They’ve even tried to snag U.S. sonar arrays with grappling hooks. As far as I know, they’ve never moved to steal a drone.

What really sets this incident apart, however, is its location. Unlike most prior episodes, this was not within China’s 200 nm EEZ, where Beijing claims the right to deny the U.S. military freedom of navigation. The U.S. and a majority of global capitals reject this as a fundamental misreading of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law.

What’s more remarkable, if reporting is accurate the incident took place 300 nm from China’s “artificial islands” in the Spratlys, 90 nm from Scarborough Shoal (which China seized from the Philippines in 2012) and, most important, outside China’s nebulous nine-dash line claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. That line, long regarded by Western legal scholars as inconsistent with international law, was more formally invalidated by an UNCLOS Arbital Tribunal in July of this year.

Beijing has yet to offer a reasonable justification for the PLAN’s action beyond claiming the UUV was posing “navigation and personnel safety issues for ships in the area.” Even if this claim were believable, the PLAN blatantly refused to return the drone after establishing radio contact. Ashley Townsend of Australia’s Lowy Institute was not overstating matters when he called the move “unprecedented” and “one of the most brazen actions that the PLA Navy has taken against the U.S. Navy for a very long time.”

China’s Defense Ministry has since criticized U.S. surveillance activities in waters “facing” China. “It’s natural for us to take possession of and research for a bit these types of things that America sends to our doorstep,” noted firebrand nationalist (retd) Admiral Yang Yi. Where, exactly, does China’s “doorstep” begin and end? What waters qualify as “facing” China?

Some regional experts have argued that China’s embrace of “strategic ambiguity” has contributed to regional stability. They rightly note the absence of hard and clearly-defined claims can provide China’s leadership some wiggle room and the flexibility to de-escalate crisis situations when they’re inclined.

The benefits, of course, are dependent on Chinese intentions. More important, strategic ambiguity can quickly and unpredictably transform from something constructive to something dangerous, and the threshold is rarely clear or well-defined. Worse still, the downside risks are quite high, and include substantially raising the risks of miscalculation and escalation. This episode joins a growing body of evidence suggesting that threshold has been crossed.

China has overreached in the past. The inclusion of unacceptable restrictions in the Air Defense Identification Zone it abruptly established over the East China Sea in 2013 was swiftly repudiated by a U.S. B-2. It was a clear signal a line had been crossed. The conduct of the PLAN and the location of the incident merit a response at least as swift and clear.