Chinese Domination of the South China Sea: An American Response
By Grant Newsham
The author is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine Officer. He is also a former US diplomat and was an executive at a major Western financial institution’s Japan office for a number of years.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment during his confirmation hearing in January that the United States would deny the Peoples Republic of China access to its man-made island bases in the South China Sea (SCS) caused a predictable furor.
China constructed the artificial islands in international waters beginning in earnest in 2014, at great financial and environmental cost, in order to effectively take control of this commercially vital global commons that more than twice the size of the Mediterranean Sea. During this period, the PRC constructed seven artificial islands, three with major military airfields and all with significant naval facilities. And this despite PRC’s leader, Xi Jinping assuring President Obama at the White House in 2015 that these islands would not be militarized.
The US and global response? Furrowed brows and timid acquiescence. For those familiar with the history of the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, it looked uncomfortably like a reprise of Europe’s leaders allowing Hitler’s acquisition of the Sudetenland in 1938. Now, somewhat late in the game but perhaps not too late, the Trump Administration is clearly declaring its rejection of China’s new SCS “status quo”.
However, few people seriously think the US is going to blockade the islands. This is a poor option anyway.
China’s military is not going to be rolled back and abandon the islands. It can’t. Beijing’s leadership has proven it is no better at running an economy than anyone else in human history, no matter what its official statistics may say nor what the Davos economic elite crowd might think. That only leaves “restoring China’s grandeur” to justify Chinese Communist Party rule. Backing down in the face of US pressure would be humiliating and would possibly threaten regime survival.
Even if the U.S. has few decent options for direct military pressure on existing Chinese-held island bases, Tillerson’s comments and subsequent statements by Trump Administration officials suggested an abrupt change in longstanding US policy towards China. This stiffer approach towards the PRC has mostly been borne out over the last nine months, despite occasionally veering off course (usually after influential Elder Statesman and longtime “Friend of China” Henry Kissinger has gotten to Mr. Trump).
It appears the US will, at least for the next few years, put an end to longstanding accommodationist (some would say, appeasement) policy under which the norm was ‘de-escalation’ whenever China did something provocative. This is a long-overdue policy reversal, and one made barely in time to be strategically relevant.
While the US and other affected nations more or less stood by, the People’s Republic of China has come close to establishing de facto control of the South China Sea and greatly expanded its position inside the entire so-called 1st Island Chain. This chain consists of a string of islands and archipelagos stretching from Japan down through the Ryukyus and Taiwan, and onwards to the Philippines and Indonesia before ending up at the Straits of Malacca.
Since the Communist Party took control of mainland China in 1949, one of its greatest strategic frustrations has been its “containment” by this 1st Island Chain that blocks easy access to the Pacific Ocean. But in the past decade, China has made remarkable strides in improving its offensive military and para-military capabilities. These strides include the development of a robust “Blue Water” Navy, acquisition of state-of-the-art military weapons and technology, re-organizing it forces into significantly more effective deployable combat units–and the construction of the artificial islands.
With its heavily armed and fortified islands, to include military airfields, sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-shipping missiles, and forward staging areas for its Marine amphibious assault forces, China’s military can make an opponent’s operations inside the chain extremely difficult. This will become even more the case as the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities continues to fortify its facilities there.
The PRC also already throws its weight around against other regional nations’ economic interests in the South China Sea. China’s predatory fishing fleet – backed up by armed ‘maritime militia’ and Coast Guard ships, and with the PLA Navy often lurking in the background, constantly intrudes in other countries’ territorial waters and has been known to make Vietnamese and other nations’ fishing boats ‘disappear.’
Additionally, the PRC has threatened and interfered with Vietnamese oil exploration in the PRVN’s territorial waters – to include reportedly threatening war several months ago if Vietnam went ahead with a particular exploration program. And in a well-publicized incident in 2014, the PRC floated an oil-drilling platform (HYSY-981) from Hainan island down to well-within Vietnamese waters. Chinese Coast Guard ships protected the rig with back up by the PLA Navy the Chinese Air Force providing air cover. The drilling rig eventually pulled out, but the point had been made: ‘The South China Sea is PRC territory and it will operate wherever it wishes. Other nations operate in the SCS only at Chinese sufferance.’
However, China’s leaders might ask themselves, ‘now what…?’
China’s strength inside the 1st Island Chain may not be the strategic advantage it seems, now that the United States appears willing to defend its interests.
Regional geography is an unchanging variable, and in this case is does not work in China’s favor. In the SCS, it leaves open the possibility that if push comes to shove, the US and its partners could hem Chinese forces inside the 1st Island Chain. With existing military capabilities, the US and its partners could, if necessary, make life exceedingly difficult for Chinese forces operating inside the chain.
The geography makes the 1st Island Chain effectively a barrier. There are relatively few ‘access (or exit) points’ through the chain, which stretches all the way from Japan in the north down past Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, and over to the Straits of Malacca in the south.
Access points can be easily defended against an adversary seeking to transit such channels. All these points can be covered and blocked using a combination of land and sea-based anti-ship missiles and long-range precision artillery, sea mines (‘dumb’ mines will do nicely, and ‘smart’ ones do even better), anti-aircraft systems, anti-submarine weapons, and similar, readily available systems.
Most of these weapons can reach well inside the 1st Island Chain. Japan has already started installing such a defensive network in its Ryukyu Islands as a belated but still potentially effective response to China’s territorial assertiveness. And China would do well to remember Vietnam’s ability to ‘reach in’ from the west and cover a sizeable chunk of the South China Sea.
In a confrontation, the aforementioned ‘asymmetrical’ weapons could be devastating in their own right. But it is also important for China to take into account the other considerable resources of the US and other nations in the form of naval combatant ships, submarines, airpower, Marines, and surveillance resources that can be used to block the 1st Island Chain.
With a newfound US backbone, particularly if solidly linked operationally and politically with Japan and its considerable military resources, other regional nations might feel more confident about asserting their own interests. Given American softness towards Chinese aggression in recent years, it is not surprising most Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to side too overtly with the United States against the PRC.
Much of the intellectual work for an efficient strategic defense centered on defending from the 1st Island Chain and making use of economic pressure has already been done by retired US Marine Colonel, T.X. Hammes, who developed the ‘Offshore Control’ concept. This concept is a useful initial blueprint the Trump Administration will do well to consider, if it hasn’t already.
Perhaps the biggest resistance to Colonel Hammes’ concept is from US Navy and Air Force officers who envision themselves gallantly sailing and flying into the teeth of Chinese defenses – since that’s what the US military always does. Sometimes a little patience, sitting back, and letting the enemy come to you (into the teeth of your defense) is a better approach.
President Xi and his immediate predecessors perhaps didn’t think through the geography angle as much as they might have. And China tipped its hand too soon in 2009 when it ended its so-called charm offensive, which was indeed deceiving (“lulling to sleep”) regional nations (and even many Americans) about its “peaceful rise”, and started throwing its weight around.
Nowadays, almost nobody in Asia who isn’t on the Beijing payroll, or hopes to be, sees China as benign. The more prevalent view is one of an acquisitive bully—an expansionist, coercive, hyper-nationalistic, and militarily powerful bully.
Scratch the surface even in Malaysia and the Philippines, which seem to be heavily tilting towards Beijing of late, and there is plenty of resentment toward the People’s Republic of China. And President Xi managed to do the near impossible: he forced Japan to take its defense more seriously — something successive American administrations failed to achieve.
The Chinese thinking appeared to be that after absorbing everything inside the 1st island chain and intimidating Japan, the 2d Island Chain would be next, as China moved from strength to strength – with nobody able or willing to resist. The 2nd Island Chain consists of a line of islands farther to the east of the 1st Island Chain and stretching from Japan to Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas and southwards through Palau and down to New Guinea.
Beijing perhaps had reason to believe the US “wouldn’t do anything”. U.S. behavior after the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012 between Philippine and Chinese vessels bore that out. Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. brokered an agreement between China and the Philippines to avoid hostilities. China immediately broke the agreement – keeping its ships on station while the Philippine Navy went home – and seized the shoal. Despite appeals by the President of the Philippines, one of America’s five Asia-Pacific treaty allies, President Obama refused to take action. China saw it could steal territory from American allies and not pay a price.
All this occurred while the island building effort was in full swing. Add to that mix the United States’ scant support for the Philippines (the Filipinos might say ‘abandonment’) after the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea in 2016, and the view of both the communist rulers in Beijing – and the leaders of Asia-Pacific countries reliant on the U.S. or thinking about siding with the Americans – was entirely predictable.
However, China’s scheme for unabated territorial acquisition was ultimately dependent on American acquiescence. Donald Trump’s election threw a wrench into the works. He proved much less predictable and malleable than his predecessors.
As welcome as a change in US policy towards China might be, dealing with China’s attempts to dominate East Asia will not be not be easy nor risk-free, unless one wishes to cede everything inside the 1st Island Chain as Europe’s leaders did with the Sudetenland in 1938.
For the timid and uninitiated, it might get frightening as Chinese invective kicks in – threatening war and economic catastrophe. China’s diplomats and military officials will rage, as will its ubiquitous propaganda organs which are well entrenched in every major capital in the world. And China’s “United Front” organizations will take to the streets in tightly organized and orchestrated outrage. Then there will be the inevitable physical confrontation involving the U.S. or one of its regional friends comes along: perhaps a Chinese fishing boat or coast guard ship ramming a vessel, or a PLA aircraft buzzing a U.S. or partner aircraft, causing it to lose control and crash. Or perhaps an over-zealous navy officer or pilot locking on a ship or aircraft with a fire control radar that will lead to a kinetic, deadly response. Or, perhaps, a PLA pre-emptive strike to (in well-used Chinese parlance) teach the barbarians a hard lesson.
The Trump Administration may be faced sooner rather than later with a choice between forcibly resisting PRC aggression in the South China Sea region or simply ‘giving in.’ One location to keep an eye on is the Scarborough Shoal – grabbed by the PRC back in 2012 – and the the US response to a future Chinese effort to ‘fill’ the shoal and build a military base on it. This particular ‘island’ would nicely complete the eastern point of a ‘triangle’ of man-made islands – and substantially strengthen the PRC’s existing military coverage of the South China Sea.
Additionally, China is ratcheting up pressure on the Philippine’s Pag Asa island in the Spratly Islands to the southwest of Scarborough Shoal. This island is small but has a short runway and would need less ‘filling in’ by Chinese island builders. Pag Asa could prove to be a major test of American commitment to a treaty ally, and by extension to all allies and friends in the region who count on US support – or willingness to confront Chinese coercion.
Another potential flashpoint is PRC efforts to further enforce its control over ships and aircraft transiting the South China Sea. In 2013, China declared a ‘Maritime Identification Zone’ to regulate all fishing in the South China Sea, requiring pre-approval from the ‘appropriate PRC State Council office’ for any nation’s fishing boats in the South China Sea. Also in 2013, the PRC also declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea that over overlapped Japan’s existing ADIZ and requiring all aircraft to check-in, not just those landing in China.
Many observers believe it is a question of time until the PRC declares an ADIZ over the entire South China Sea. In the event China does so, and also attempts to aggressively deal with planes and ships moving through South China Sea oceans and airspace, something it has not yet done, the United States will have to choose between confronting Chinese coercion and effectively ceding the SCS to China.
This dilemma may even be complicated by the Chinese only interfering with ‘non-US’ ships and aircraft from certain countries – such as Japan and Taiwan.
And finally, the United States will also be challenged over Taiwan. The Taiwanese are in for a hard time. They have been facing incessant Chinese intimidation – both verbal and economic – in addition to PLA saber rattling by flying bombers around the island, practice invasions, and over a thousand missiles targeted at Taiwan.
One can’t overlook Taiwan’s importance given its strategic position on the 1st Island Chain, which potentially gives the PRC a foothold to ‘break’ the chain and have unfettered access into the Pacific – while also outflanking Japan potentially severing Japanese sea lines of communication and trade. While China would prefer to acquire all of the territory is yearns for without firing a shot, Xi Jinping has given the PLA only three more years to be ready to take Taiwan by force. Some informed observers claim the PLA can already launch a successful invasion of Taiwan. Maybe, maybe not, but they will soon be ready to try.
There is no easy approach to defending American interests in the South China Sea and larger East Asia region. Taking some risk on behalf of US interests is unavoidable, and at long last imposing some risk on China is called for as Professors Toshi Yoshihara formerly of the US Navy War College and James Holmes at the US Naval War College have advocated.
There are a number things the United States might do. A simple but multi-faceted approach might include some or all of the following:
Establish That the United States Has Its Own Core Interests
Just as China demands respect for its “core interests”—as if stating them as a core interest automatically makes them unassailable—the United States should declare publicly and privately that it possesses its own core interests in Asia, and will defend them.
This requires more than just talk and furrowed-brow pronouncements of concern—or even of “grave concern.” U.S. forces need to maintain a constant, credible, and obvious presence on, below and above the South (and East) China Sea, regardless of cost.
Establish a Permanent, Serious Presence in the South China Sea
There should be no more half-hearted FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations) broadcast in advance, as if seeking Chinese acquiescence. This sheepish approach has had minimal effect. The United States should broadly publicize and criticize Chinese military provocations. Don’t hush them up, always respond and be prepared to “bump back” when Chinese vessels use a favored method to impede U.S. ships.
The US Navy still has something to learn or needs more guidance from Mr. Trump in this regard – as evidenced by the Navy’s supine response in January 2017 when two Chinese ships stole a USN underwater submersible from the Americans’ noses in the South China Sea.
Clarify and Strengthen U.S.-Japan Bonds
Solidly link U.S. and Japanese forces, with the “unsplittable” political linkage that comes with it. This linkage will present People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planners with their most difficult challenge. Neither the United States nor Japan can maintain its position in the Asia-Pacific without the other’s fullest support.
The United States and Japan should continue to better integrate their military capabilities, to include contingency planning, joint training and patrols, and interoperable command-and-control systems. Build camaraderie and interoperability along the lines of the U.S.-UK military relationship, back when bilateral relations were at their peak. A compelling reason for Japan to seek this interoperability is that, once China has the South China Sea “locked up,” the East China Sea is next.
Better alignment of U.S. forces and Japan Self-Defense Forces will also have a bracing effect on other regional nations that are nervously watching the PRC—and just as nervously watching whether the U.S. can and will still lead.
Although ASEAN will never take a unified stance toward PRC territorial aggression, it is possible to encourage a handful of ASEAN nations to do more. For those countries, doing more includes joining multilateral patrols and exercises in the South China Sea and surrounding waters. This, of course, requires convincing these nations that they will not be left hanging due to the United States once again displaying temerity and ambiguity about challenging PRC domination of the region.
Kill “Engagement for Engagement’s Sake”
The United States should restrict engagement with the PLA to what is professional and essential. The longstanding policy of engagement for engagement’s sake has not produced a less belligerent Chinese military, nor has it deterred the PRC. More to the point, it makes the United States appear to be a supplicant, clearly the more interested in developing military-to-military relations, and provides Beijing with a point of leverage where one need not exist. Pending sudden improvement in PRC behavior, the United States should withdraw the PRC’s invitation to the 2018 RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii.
While “holding the line” in the South China Sea area is essential, pressure needs to be applied elsewhere via a number of different lines of effort.
Implement the Taiwan Relations Act as originally intended
The United States should make it clear that it backs Taiwan against any coerced change in the status quo. This means the United States should provide requested high-tech arms, and even submarines. The United States might even push Japan to sell its older subs to Taiwan, keying this to Chinese behavior towards both Japan and Taiwan.
This is not a change from the United States’ longstanding “One China” policy. Yes, the United States recognizes only one China—and a “One China” that looks like Taiwan would not be a bad thing. Taiwan is a priceless reminder that Chinese people can govern themselves in a consensual manner, and have a free press, a full range of individual liberties and a functioning legal system.
Taiwan belies the CPC’s claims that stability and prosperity in China requires repression. This argument recalls apartheid-era Afrikaners insisting that black Africans were a unique race that demanded a boot on the neck, and were happy to have it.
Apply Meaningful Economic Pressure
It is long past time that the PRC follow its World Trade Organization commitments. Rather than continue to allow exceptions, the United States should insist on the simple—but apparently radical, by Washington standards—approach that China obey trade laws.
Also, the Americans can require the PRC to allow reciprocal treatment and market access for U.S. and foreign companies. China’s serial, decades-long record of hacking and intellectual property theft needs to be punished with real sanctions. There are many opportunities for punishing sanctions that would be effective.
The U.S. government’s harsh sanctions on Chinese electronics maker ZTE, for illegal dealings with Iran and other sanctioned countries, were a good example of what can be done. Still, it might have been more useful if these sanctions had been kept in place longer than two weeks before the United States backed down.
The United States might also apply pressure of the sort that will squeeze China’s ruling class by upsetting the money-making machine, centered on manufacturing and exports, which is the source of its power. Start taking thirty days to clear Chinese ships entering the United States, rightfully justified by the need to check carefully for counterfeits and unsafe products. Delayed cargo clearance and Lloyd’s of London raising insurance rates would potentially apply more pressure on PRC elites than the U.S. Air Force could dream of inflicting.
Use International Law to Challenge the PRC
The Obama Administration’s shameful acquiescence in the PRC’s flouting of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China was embarrassing. However, the United States should still energetically seek to bring territorial and other disputes to international forums for resolution—and support countries that do likewise. Further, in these legal forums, condemn and respond forcefully to the environmental damage foisted on the global commons by unbridled Chinese island building and its rapacious commercial fishing fleet.
This is helpful, but will not be decisive. International law has its limits, and the PRC will either ignore it or absorb whatever criticism ensues from unfavorable court rulings. In the PRC’s view, criticism is a small price to pay for gaining domination of the South China Sea and other useful territory.
Get Beyond Sophomoric Strategic Communication: Develop a Useful U.S. Narrative
In the absence of a clear national strategy for confronting the PRC’s bullying behavior and expansionism, it’s no surprise that what passes for U.S. strategic communication regarding the threat is not working. There is no “whole-of-government” communication approach to the threat, and a lack of useful synchronicity in messaging between the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense.
On this point, America should take bold action: it can tell the truth about the PRC.
Further, the United States can aggressively and unapologetically speak up for the system of rights, freedoms and accepted rules of international behavior that, in fact, has been largely responsible for the PRC’s development over the last forty years.
From senior U.S. officials down to the wide range of U.S. influencers, constantly challenge and expose false Chinese claims of the South China Sea being “historically Chinese” and transparently false statements of “non-militarization” of the islands. And go after China’s willful ecological destruction of the reefs and natural habitat of the South China Sea.
Exploit existing cultural exchanges and journalist programs to bring in emerging leaders, journalists and other influentials from like-minded nations in the Pacific to examine such topics as the likely future impact of PRC hegemony on the Asia-Pacific region.
These are simply a few strategies and tactics. There is much more that should be done. But the United States must quickly get beyond its often confusing, timorous statements suggesting “grave concern” from State Department spokesmen or other U.S. government officials. The United States must begin to speak firmly, clearly and consistently.
Meanwhile, in the existing vacuum, the Chinese position is heard repeatedly from multiple channels, as if playing on a loop. The PRC’s claims may be nonsense, but if they unchallenged or inconsistently opposed, the relentless claims tend to reinforce the Chinese position and create a sense of inevitability.
Stop Abetting—and Publicize—Corruption by China’s Elite
Public anger over corruption is probably what scares the Communist Party of China’s leadership the most. The CPC has outdone the old pre-1949 KMT in terms of corruption. One may be skeptical of President Xi’s selective efforts to punish corruption—until, perhaps, he arrests a relative. Regardless, the problem is too deep-seated in the nature of the Communist system for Xi to fix.
The United States should stop abetting the illegal capital outflows that constitute one of the biggest thefts in history. CPC efforts to suppress the Panama Papers reports in 2015 that included evidence of leading CPC families’ involvement in secret offshore companies, and its harassment of the New York Times and Bloomberg several years ago for reporting ruling-class corruption, show how this issue frightens the Chinese leadership.
Expose ruling-class corruption—perhaps starting with the top fifty CPC leaders and their families—and trumpet it repeatedly and widely. The United States is aware of part of the problem, but it can uncover much more with proper effort. Simply requiring Chinese investors in the United States to prove their money was lawfully exported from the PRC would be useful.
For those already here, selectively place liens on real estate and finances. And suspend green cards, until the card holders provide a note from the PRC government verifying and explaining how the money to make their grand purchases was lawfully exported from China. This may resemble “Chicago politics,” but that is sometimes appropriate. It was always surprising the Obama Administration did not play by ‘Chicago rules’ – given the President’s political origins
The PRC routinely claims its actions are just a response to mistreatment (past and present) by foreigners. This is debatable, but CPC corruption is unquestionably a homegrown phenomenon that’s hard to blame on outsiders.
America must develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to stop PRC aggression in the South China Sea and beyond.
Perhaps China has already decided it will soon be able to take on the full might of the United States, to include serious economic costs which the US is capable of inflicting. Perhaps China thinks it is worth the effort and the drain on resources of continuing its drive to dominate East Asia and international waters and ocean territory of other nations. But even if China has made that decision, America and its partners can make that price prohibitively high.
With the right approach on the part of the US and like-minded nations, China may find that after all its effort to build island bases in the South China Sea has been counterproductive. In the process of ruining its image and motivating Japan to take its defense seriously, it has merely done the 1917 equivalent of moving the Western Front a mile to the east–at great cost, but with few prospects for further advances.
 China rarely takes a ‘linear’ approach to expanding its influence and territorial domination regionally and worldwide. It has always made inroads into a number of South Pacific islands such as Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga among others – effectively leapfrogging the 1st and 2nd Island Chains. Chinese activities have mostly been economic-based so far, but a military component will in all likelihood follow. Such Chinese ‘outposts’ in the South Pacific are of course hard to defend in wartime – without having locked up the 1st and 2nd Island Chains. However, short of actual conflict Chinese advances in the far reaches of the South Pacific have a political and psychological effect that can make influence efforts in the islands chains easier and more effective.