Deepwater oil rigs as strategic weapons
Wang Yilin, chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), reportedly told an audience at CNOOC's headquarters in Beijing in May that large-scale deepwater rigs are "our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon." (1) This writer is no sinologist and lacks the qualifications to parse these words for hidden meanings. At the same time, people are all too familiar with the sound of public figures misspeaking. Nonetheless, it appears prudent to assume that the man knew what he was saying and that we should accept his words at face value. If we do, we should be troubled.
Six concerns spring to mind. First, the statement appears to reflect the mercantilist thinking of Chinas ruling elite. Mercantilism, the trading philosophy that prevailed before open markets, saw wealth as limited and trade and national power as linked, such that it was not enough for one state to win commercially and therefore politically--the other state had to lose. Consequently, Chinas great corporations that have significant state involvement, such as CNOOC, should not be regarded as being the same as modern Western companies but as arms of a competitive state in which profit maximization sits uncomfortably alongside the need to further Chinese state policy, whatever that might happen to be at the time.
Second, the legal position is unclear. The CNOOC chairman is asserting something that does not exist, since there is nothing in the law of the sea that recognizes platforms or structures as sovereign territory, even though they are considered under the title--that is, ownership--of the states that put them there. In general, such platforms have much more salience in the political than in the legal realm, and this realm appears to be what China is attempting to expand. Chairman Wang's language suggests that China intends using CNOOC platforms slowly to wrest control of offshore areas by creating an ambiguous political-legal aura of authority and control. Possession is nine-tenths of the law in any language, and if China (as in the game of wei-ch'i, known more widely in the West under its Japanese name of go) can establish an advantageous position, then it will. (2)
Third, how does this view of oil rigs as strategic weapons and this peculiar interpretation of Chinas legal status coincide with its "Three Warfares" thinking? The U.S. Department of Defense in its 2011 annual report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, described this as a three-pronged offensive strategy based on
* Psychological warfare, which seeks to undermine an enemy's ability to conduct combat operations by deterring, shocking, and demoralizing enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations.
* Media warfare, aimed at influencing domestic and international public opinion to build support for Chinas military actions and to dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to Chinas interests.
* Legal warfare, which uses international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground or assert Chinese interests, employing both to hamstring an adversary's operational freedom and shape the operational space. Legal warfare is also...