Over a century ago the English poet John Masefield wrote that «I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by», but it is doubtful he would express such sentiments in this age, because he would probably find it difficult to avoid one of America’s dozen enormous Carrier Strike Groups or nine equally large Amphibious Ready Groups which roam and dominate the seas and the skies above them by flaunting US military power in all quarters of the globe.
Masefield would also find it difficult not to bump into leaking, creaking, fetid boats carrying desperate refugees from regions of terror over hostile seas to unwelcoming shores where government authorities treat them with contempt — if they get there.
On October 21, for example, Reuters reported that in the Mediterranean «the crew of a speedboat labelled Libyan Coast Guard attacked a migrant boat packed with some 150 migrants, beating them with sticks and causing many to fall into the water and at least four to drown, humanitarian group Sea-Watch said on Friday. Rescuers recovered three more dead bodies on a different rubber boat and picked up a total 3,300 survivors from 24 different boats during the day…» And this was but one day in the terror inflicted by the caring nations of the west on the countless refugees displaced by the US and US-NATO wars that reduced Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to ungovernable bedlam.
The Mediterranean is strewn with refugee boats picking their way through floating bodies and with vessels of the US 6th Fleet, which ignores the refugees but «conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations… in order to advance US national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa». As part of its Mission it sends ships to the Baltic Sea to demonstrate «our continued commitment to the collective security of NATO under Operation Atlantic Resolve».
The US Navy Times reported Admiral Mark Ferguson, commanding US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, as saying that «Russia is constructing ‘an arc of steel’ from the Arctic to the Baltic to Crimea in the Black Sea, putting in sophisticated capabilities that have all the markings of ‘a sea denial strategy aimed at NATO’».
It must have escaped the admiral’s attention that Russia has ports on the Baltic — unlike the United States — and has every right to operate there. St Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city (although a US admiral might not be aware of that) and a most important export hub. In many ways it equates to San Diego on the US west coast, which has major naval facilities as well as important commercial ones. But it seems that if Russia has a naval base in a port on the Baltic, it must be constructing «an arc of steel».
And then the admiral claimed that Russia has «talked of establishing permanent presence in the Mediterranean, and breaking out from [its] perceived military encirclement by NATO, economic sanctions and political isolation».
The United States, according to Admiral Ferguson, objects to Russia having a presence in the Mediterranean where the United States operates one of its enormous five regional fleets which together have 10 aircraft carriers, nine amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 62 destroyers, 17 frigates, 72 submarines, scores of support vessels and 3,700 aircraft.
In addition to confronting Russia, many of these warships and aircraft are directed against China in the South China Sea, where China, like Russia in the Baltic and Black Seas, has ports and commercial shipping routes that are essential for its global trade.
There has never been an incident in which Russia or China has interfered with a commercial vessel in the seas around their shores, or anywhere else. Not once has there been the slightest indication that either country would even contemplate obstruction of the passage of trade shipping in waters that are obviously of vital importance to them in terms of exporting and importing vast quantities of diverse commodities. It is in their best interests, regionally, domestically and commercially to ensure that the seas (and lands) around them should be peaceful and easy to transit.
Yet on 22 October, as Fox News reported, Washington sent yet another warship to conduct a «freedom of navigation» operation in the South China Sea. It quoted the Pentagon as saying that the military manoeuvre took place near the Paracel Islands where China and other regional countries have claims to sovereignty. According to the Pentagon it was intended to «demonstrate that coastal states may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea» that all states are eligible to exercise under international law.
The first point to make about this latest instalment of confrontational belligerence is that the United States should be cautious about quoting «international law». As I wrote a year ago, the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott H Swift, stated that «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».
The admiral’s reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) appeared welcome because it is a covenant intended to bring clarity to settlement of maritime disputes. But it is intriguing that the bellicose Admiral Swift even mentioned the UNCLOS agreement whose 167 signatories pledge to «settle, in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, all issues relating to the law of the sea», because the United States of America has not ratified the accord.
For the Pentagon’s Admiral Swift to criticize any country for allegedly failing to abide by the provisions of UNCLOS is hilarious in its absurdity.
The United States of America has no territorial rights, claims or associations in the South China Sea. Yet now it insists on poking its nose — and its electronic warfare aircraft and its submarines and its missile-armed ships, this time the destroyer USS Decatur — into a region that has nothing to do with it. Let it be emphasised that the United States of America has no entitlement, under international law, to interfere, intrude or meddle anywhere outside its own territorial limits unless, as in Europe, it has a subordinate military grouping — NATO, in that instance — that supports (albeit with increasing reluctance) its confrontational stance against Russia. In the South China Sea the only treaty that could be brought into play by Washington is that of 1951 with the Philippines which states that «Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes».
That loosely-worded pact might be enough for Washington to challenge China even more belligerently, given the power of the president to commit his country to war without consulting Congress — but the US has now to reckon with President Duterte of the Philippines who is not a Pentagon puppet like his predecessors. Indeed he dares to say that «Americans are loud, sometimes rowdy. Their larynx is not adjusted to civility». He has no intention of going to war for Washington, or of providing excuses for the Pentagon to continue its blatantly hostile operations to demonstrate «freedom of navigation».
President Duterte wants to maintain good relations with China, and has taken steps to do so. He does not want to break diplomatic ties with the US, but is, like Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, taking the position that countries around the South China Sea «should ensure peace and stability in the region, and avoid provocative acts that could create tension, worry and suspicion» — like sending warships in attempts to provoke China to react.
President Duterte had better watch his back, however, because if Hillary Clinton becomes president of the US, he will be a target for her wrath. She doesn’t like leaders of other countries who don’t agree with US policy and Mr Duterte would do well to bear in mind the fate of President Gaddafi of Libya. He didn’t toe the Washington line to the degree required, and his fate, as laughingly recounted by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was that «We came. We saw. He died».
Clinton will persist with the Obama «pivot to Asia» policy, which focuses on challenging China rather than improving diplomatic and trade ties with nations of the region, and she will also intensify the Washington’s equally counter-productive military manoeuvres against Russia in its malevolent attempts to achieve ‘regime change’ in Moscow.
Under a Clinton administration there will be no cessation of US havoc-wreaking wars around the world, and desperate refugees will die in their thousands, but Washington will continue to go down to the seas in confrontation. Until one day, when the Pentagon goes just too far…