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The South China Sea: Lessons From ‘Thirteen Days’

The movie Thirteen Days may offer elements which could factor into easing tensions between the United States (US) and China in the South China Sea (SCS). More importantly, if history is to be any guide, remembering the lessons of past events might also prove useful. After all, it is always history that has been integral in the formation of valuable theories and concepts. Thirteen Days, directed by Ronald Donaldson and starring Kevin Costner, is about the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis standoff of October 1962 between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The movie basically highlights three important decision-making situations that led to the escalation, de-escalation, and conclusion of the Crisis. First, upon knowing through imagery intelligence (IMINT) taken by a US government spy (U-2) plane that the Soviets were secretly assembling medium (SS-4 Sandal) and intermediate-range (R-14 Chusovaya) nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba, US President John F. Kennedy (JFK) disagreed with the unanimous advise of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Executive Committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council to strike and invade, believing that such action might only lead the Soviets to invade Berlin – an action-reaction scenario. It also seemed to JFK that the generals were very hawkish in wanting to draw the first blood against the Soviets.

Second, in the course of the Crisis, the alert readiness of the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) was lifted to DEFCON 2 (a step short of maximum readiness for imminent war) and a nuclear weapon (Bluegill Triple Prime) was tested without the President’s authorization, leading to the further escalation of tensions.

And third, the resolve of JFK to stick to non-acts of war means when he sent his brother (Bobby Kennedy) as a “backchanneller” to negotiate with the Soviets, which led to the agreement that the latter would dismantle their missiles in Cuba in exchange for the US vowing to never invade Cuba and the withdrawal of its medium-range (PGM-19 Jupiter) ballistic missiles based in Turkey.

A New Cold War or a Third World War?

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, China’s rapid rise paved the way for it to be seen as the new revisionist power that would rival the supremacy of the US and challenge its established world order. Like the Soviet Union, China has a formidable deterrent and retaliatory capability. In fact, just recently, China has successfully tested its fourth hypersonic gliding vehicle (HGV/WU-14) which could carry nuclear warheads and fly at Mach 10 capable of penetrating all functioning US missile defense systems.

On the other hand, it is common knowledge that the US still possesses the most advanced strategic weapons and delivery systems in the world. But unlike US-Soviet relations, the Chinese and US economies are highly interdependent and China is also more active in underwriting international institutions and multilateral initiatives. Furthermore, China no longer seeks to export communism. But even so, two things have not vanished: nationalism and geopolitics. Like the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, US and China, in previous weeks, have figured in heated rhetoric and accused each other of stoking tensions and instability in the SCS.

As the US contends that China’s land reclamation activities or “great wall of sand” in the SCS have already led to the construction of airstrips and other potential military facilities, and could be a prelude for a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), China, on the other hand, maintains that its activities are legal, fair, reasonable, and are for civil purposes. China also believes that the US should stay out, as it is not a claimant-country or a direct party in the SCS. It could be remembered that last May, the Pentagon, in a bid to assert freedom of navigation, announced that it is mulling to expand military patrols in the SCS, including the 12-nautical mile (22 kilometer) radius of reefs that China is building on. After which, in what seemed to be a follow-up move to assert freedom of overflight, a US spy plane (P8-A Poseidon), showed (through a CNN Effect) how it was challenged for several times by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Tensions continued to swell as one of China’s leading state-owned newspapers went on to say that “if the United States’ bottom line is that China should stop its land reclamation activities, then war is inevitable” and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcing that “no one has the right to instruct China on what to do.” Then, in what appears to be an act of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is (of scaling up efforts to develop maritime capability and safeguard national interests), China in its latest Defense White Paper, stated that the PLA would begin to adapt an “active defense” policy and shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to “offshore waters defense and open seas protection.” This announcement, incidentally, came on the heels of the US announcement to deploy its “super carrier” the USS Ronald Reagan to the West Pacific.

The US, for its part, has already made its stance abundantly clear: “The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.” What was once a maritime spat between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, has now become a great power tiff between the US and China. This just shows that things could escalate and become big – and even bigger, if not handled properly and professionally. It is these sorts of situations of where two powers refuse to cow and blink before the other, assert and counter-assert, posture and counter-posture, and view each other’s acts as offensive, that a confrontation – arising from miscalculation – is not remote from happening.

More tensions and strategic mistrust involving US intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and Chinese naval and air assets might also arise as the two countries vow to step up measures to protect their interests in the SCS: in 2001, a US signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft (EP-3) collided with a PLAN fighter jet (J-8II) in China’s Hainan province, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot; in the following years, the USNS Impeccable (2009), and the USNS Cowpens (2013) had confrontations and close encounters with Chinese frigates and military vessels in the SCS; and in 2014, a Chinese PLA Air Force (PLAAF) jet (SU-27) and a US Navy electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) aircraft (P-8 Poseidon) had a dangerously close encounter in waters around the SCS.

Smart History

Presently, Sino-US military (mil-to-mil) relations have two sour points or clash of interests: first are the unplanned encounters at sea and in the air; and second is the issue of freedom of navigation vis-à-vis land reclamation in the SCS. China and the US could address the first one by fully observing the US-China Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, which was agreed in November last year. As for the more complex second one, diverging notions on “international waters and airspace” and “military activities” could further be threshed out by – initially – avoiding ‘confidence-destroying’ measures.

Moreover, of greater import are the notable lessons that could be drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis: first, an action by one (including rhetoric and posturing) would only draw a reaction from the other (action-reaction continuum); second, the person who calls the shots (JFK) and the type of persons who want to call the shots (the Joint Chiefs/groupthink) greatly matter in making plans of action; and third, the resolve and the leadership of both camps to defuse tensions and engage in mutual accommodation (face-saving solutions) upon realizing that the lethality of each other’s weapons would only doom them to a ‘positive-sum destruction.’

All these, in varying degrees, served as factors that forced the establishments of both camps to make policy shifts and rethink their militaristic approaches. As a result, a nuclear hotline or “red telephone,” which allowed for the direct communication between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, was created. In the following years, a détente was eventually declared, leading to the signing of historic arms control treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1972, and the start of the negotiations for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1982.

These just show that the two superpowers began, even if not fully, to trust each other more, which made the rest of the four-decade Cold War rivalry – relatively – less tense. The possibility of having been able to pull off such confidence-and-trust-building measures back then, should add benefit to the doubt, that at present, a similar feat or model of success is also feasible between the United States and China, to say nothing of each other, as foremost economic partners.

A paraphrased portion of Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev’s letter to President Kennedy on October 26, 1962, which has some analogous application today, reads: “If there is no intention to tighten the knot of war and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”