Obama Needs to Actively Confront Chinese Revisionism in Asia

Posted on August 7, 2012

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In this July 21, 2012 file photo, Chinese people chat in front of an administration office building for the Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha islands on Yongxing Island, the government seat of Sansha City off the south China’s Hainan province. Beijing on Saturday, Aug. 4, summoned an American diplomat to express its dissatisfaction over U.S. criticism of China’s new military garrison in the South China Sea.
AP/File

In the aftermath of the failed Russian re-set, much has been written about the Obama Administration’s inability to convince Moscow to support Washington’s diplomatic priorities. Nowhere is this more evident than Syria, where Russia’s third veto at the United Nations’ Security Council was widely portrayed as Moscow’s support of Assad’s reign of terror.

The Obama Administration was right to diplomatically confront Russia, however weak, for its support of an illegitimate regime willing to bomb its own people. The problem is that China, who also used its veto, has not been held to task for its unwillingness to denounce the Syrian regime. Why then the double standard?

In large part, the fault lies directly with the Obama Administration. They have demonized Russia in press conferences but held their tongue on China. One can only surmise that this reflects their strategic decision to passively accommodate rather than actively confront a rising China.

The South China Sea is a great example of the U.S.’ timidity. When the U.S. closed its bases in the Philippines, America lost its hard power leverage in the region. A power vacuum was created and ASEAN could not match the strategic influence of the U.S. forward presence. China then responded by challenging the status quo and threatening its Southeast Asian neighbors with use of force by its growing navy.

The Obama Administration was caught flat-footed but nevertheless tried to pivot. Their late response was to wage a high-level diplomatic campaign against Chinese aggression in the region. They also announced a new basing agreement in Darwin, Australia for a small contingent of U.S. Marines.

The problem is that these small efforts fail to address the strategic root of the problem — the U.S. lacks the sufficient forward presence in the Western Pacific to disincentive China from threatening use of force against its neighbors. And U.S. allies are concerned.

To be fair the new basing agreement in Darwin is a step in the right direction. But, a few thousand Marines are more of a symbolic nuisance than a strategic deterrent for the Chinese. This undermines the very rhetoric voiced by the Pentagon and State Department.

The Obama Administration must also rethink its overall defense strategy. Over the last four years, they have promoted the development of an agile, Special Forces-oriented military backed with top-secret strategic assets based far from the battlefield.

Such assets might be appropriate for killing terrorists or waging a nuclear war but they do little in the way of addressing Chinese aggression in Asia. Why? Because no one really believes that the U.S. is going to risk nuclear war over a conflict in the South China Sea unless American (or possibly its allies’) forces are attacked.

If the U.S. wants to counter Chinese aggression in Asia, the Obama Administration needs to be more consistent in their approach against strategic adversaries and back-up its diplomatic rhetoric against China with hard power leverage. And, the first step should be to increase the American military’s forward presence in Asia.

Richard Grenell

Why China Wants South China Sea

Beijing is interested in more than just energy and fishery resources. The area is also integral to its nuclear submarine strategy.

In an effort to underscore its importance to Asia, geostrategist Nicholas Spykman once described it as the ‘Asiatic Mediterranean.’ More recently, it has been dubbed the ‘Chinese Caribbean.’ And, just as Rome and the United States have sought control over the Mediterranean and Caribbean, China now seeks dominance over the South China Sea.

It’s clear that China’s claims and recent assertiveness have increased tensions in this key body of water. Yet while most attention has focused on Beijing’s appetite for fishery and energy resources, from a submariner’s perspective, the semi-closed sea is integral to China’s nuclear strategy. And without understanding the nuclear dimension of the South China Sea disputes, China’s maritime expansion makes little sense.

Possessing a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent is a priority for China’s military strategy. China’s single Type 092, or Xia-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, equipped with short-range JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), has never conducted a deterrent patrol from the Bohai Sea since its introduction in the 1980s. However, China is on the verge of acquiring credible second-strike capabilities with the anticipated introduction of JL-2 SLBMs (with an estimated range of 8,000 kilometres) coupled with DF-31 and DF-31A road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In addition, China plans to introduce up to five Type 094, or Jin-class, SSBNs outfitted with the JL-2 missiles, while constructing an underwater submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

It’s clear, then, that China is making every effort to keep the South China Sea off limits, just as the Soviet Union did in the Sea of Okhotsk during the Cold War. Back then, the Soviet Union turned to SSBNs as insurance against US capabilities to destroy land-based ICBMs. The need to secure its insurance force from attacks, and the need for effective command and control, meant that Soviet SSBNs had to be deployed close to home, with longer-range missiles to be used to strike the continental United States. In addition to the Barents Sea, Moscow prioritized making the Sea of Okhotsk a safe haven for SSBNs by improving the physical defences of the Kuril Islands and reinforcing the Pacific Fleet based at Vladivostok. The Soviet Pacific Fleet deployed 100 submarines, combined with 140 surface warships, including a Kiev-class light aircraft carrier, to defend its insurance force in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Likewise, China needs to secure its forces in the South China Sea and modify its maritime strategy and doctrine accordingly. Currently, the primary wartime missions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy are: 1) securing sea approaches to Taiwan; 2) conducting operations in the western Pacific to deny enemy forces freedom of action; 3) protecting Chinese sea lines of communication; and 4) interdicting enemy lines of communication. With the introduction of the Type 094, protecting Chinese SSBNs will become another primary mission, and this mission will require China to kill enemy strategic antisubmarine forces and end the resistance of other claimants in the South China Sea. Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities, especially quieter nuclear-powered attack submarines, can be used to counter enemy forward antisubmarine warfare operations. China’s aircraft carriers, when operational, will be deployed in the South China Sea to silence the neighbouring claimants.

This strategy dates back almost two decades, to a time when China began encircling the South China Sea to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces from the Philippines in 1991. China reasserted ‘historical’ claims over all the islets, including the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, and 80 percent of the 3.5 million km2 body of water along the nine-dotted U-shaped line, despite having no international legal ground to do so. Those islets can be used as air and sea bases for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, and as base points for claiming the deeper part of the South China Sea for PLAN ballistic missile submarines and other vessels. China also interprets the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in an arbitrary manner and doesn’t accept military activities by foreign vessels and overflight in its waters.

Yet China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea face significant challenges. Chinese assertiveness hasn’t only inflamed hostilities from other claimants, but has also raised concerns from seafaring nations such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. After all, the South China Sea is a recognized international waterway, unlike the Sea of Okhotsk. In addition, since the JL-2 missiles can’t reach Los Angeles from the South China Sea, Type 094 submarines need to enter the Philippine Sea, where the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force conduct intense anti-submarine warfare operations.

To calm neighbouring claimants, China has conducted dialogue and consultations with them since the 1990s. One result was the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls for peaceful solutions through dialogue. But China has been reluctant about concluding a binding code of conduct. In response to China’s recent assertiveness, Vietnam and the Philippines have conducted live-fire exercises in disputed waters, and strengthened ties with the United States, with a US presence seen by both as the most visible deterrent.

The United States, for its part, has made clear its opposition to China’s assertiveness at various regional forums by emphasizing its interest in freedom of navigation. The United States recently announced the deployment of littoral combat ships in Singapore in the hope that their presence would have an additional deterrent effect on China’s assertiveness – just as Great Britain deployed HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse at the ‘Gibraltar of the East’ to deter Imperial Japan. On the other hand, since China’s excessive claims have led to incidents such as that in 2001 with the EP-3 spyplane and 2009’s USS Impeccable incident, the United States is seeking an incidents at sea agreement with China. China, though, isn’t interested in any such thing as an agreement would justify a continued US presence in the South China Sea.

India is another important player in the South China Sea. Delhi is expected soon to introduce its first ballistic missile submarine, Arihant, and plans to build two more ballistic missile subs with the development of longer-range K-4 SLBMs. But until India successfully develops longer-range SLBMs, Indian submarines will need to operate in the South China Sea to target Beijing.

Australia is also concerned about high tensions in the region. Stability in Southeast Asia on Australia’s ‘Northern approaches’ is seen by policymakers there as particularly important as a hostile nation can project power out to Australia or threaten its seaborne trade and energy supply routes. As a result, it’s expected that Australia will boost its military presence in the state’s north while allowing greater access to its bases by the US military.

Japan, meanwhile, has its own strategic interests in the South China Sea, which is a critical sea lane through which 90 percent of its imported oil passes. The power balance in the South China Sea also has an enormous impact on security in Japan’s surrounding waters, namely the East China Sea and Philippine Sea. In addition, if China successfully obtains a sea-based second-strike capability by dominating the South China Sea, that would undermine the credibility of the US extended deterrent.

Japan announced its new National Defence Programme Guidelines in December 2010, which call for enhanced ISR operations along the Ryukyu island chain and reinforcement of the submarine fleet. In the recent US-Japan 2+2 meeting, Tokyo and Washington included maintenance of maritime security and strengthened ties with ASEAN, Australia, and India in common strategic objectives.

All this means that China faces a dilemma in the ‘Chinese Okhotsk.’ The more it seeks dominance over the international waterway, the more it invites hostilities. To avoid further deterioration, China should modify its nine-dotted claims in accordance with the UNCLOS (and the US should accede to UNCLOS immediately). As long as China continues its assertive behaviour, its maritime neighbours will strengthen strategic cooperation with the United States, India, Australia and Japan to establish a regional anti-submarine warfare network.

But the onus isn’t just on China – other nations in the region should seek cooperation. Where possible, joint development in disputed waters should be pursued, and the growing threat of piracy in the South China Sea suggests another area for nations to work together. Meanwhile, countries in the region should continue their dialogue with China on maritime security at venues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.

It won’t be easy, but thrashing out a code of conduct offers the best chance of avoiding armed conflict.

Tetsuo Kotani

Time to make the Chinese nervous

Over the weekend, Beijing’s foreign ministry summoned Robert Wang, our deputy ambassador there, to hose him over Washington’s statements on recent goings-on in the South China Sea.

If Beijing is a bit nervous about America’s maneuvering in its neighborhood, then good. America would do well to make China, which is turning into a neighborhood bully, even more nervous.

It all started when Beijing announced plans to build a new military base and companion city, Sansha, in the Paracel Islands — ignoring the fact that the islands are also claimed by others in the region, including our allies Taiwan and Singapore.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell protested last week, noting that China’s moves “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences, and risk further escalating tensions in the region.”

The next day, Beijing summoned Wang for that dress-down. The Chinese press chimed in with headlines demanding America “shut up” already, and accusing Washington of “fanning the flames” in the region.

Disputes over small, mostly uninhabitable islands in the South China Sea and beyond have been going on for ages, but as China grows ever more resource-hungry, local skirmishes threaten to blow up into full shooting confrontations: Some of the contested isles are prized for rich fishing, while others show promise of vast oil or gas yields.

The Obama administration has adopted a policy of studied neutrality in those regional disputes, mostly staying above the fray even as Beijing dispatched military vessels (at times disguised as fishing boats) to scare off competing claimants.

China’s neighbors — the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam — have long relied on America for protection, so naturally they’re puzzled: Does our neutral stance mean we’ll stay out if a skirmish turns to all-out war?

But that’s only half of the story.

Over the winter, President Obama announced at the Pentagon his new “rebalancing” policy, shifting significant military assets from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, where “there’s no multinational organization like NATO to maintain the peace,” as one of the thinkers behind the new doctrine, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, told the Asia Society in Manhattan last week.

A China Daily reporter in that crowd confronted Carter with the view from Beijing, which feels threatened by America’s military buildup: Isn’t all this “rebalancing” talk actually a move to deter rising China?

“This isn’t about China,” Carter retorted. “We don’t take sides” in regional disputes, he said. We’re there “to assure freedom of navigation for everybody.”

But, as the weekend’s diplomatic protest and media attacks show, Beijing is unconvinced. And on the other side, long-term allies wonder: If America won’t “take sides” now, what happens if they need to invoke the mutual-protection treaties we’ve signed with many of them?

For now, the American and Chinese economies depend on each other too much to allow an actual military confrontation. Our best policy would be to assure that cool heads prevail as a new generation moves into leadership positions in China’s ruling Communist Party.

But that doesn’t mean we should coddle Beijing with phony “neutrality.”

Protesting China’s attempts to create new facts in the South China Sea by seizing disputed territories is a good start. State now must clearly put everyone on notice that aggression will be answered aggressively, and reassure allies that we’d rush to their aid if attacked.

By the way, the “rebalancing” thing is a ruse. Although President Obama tells voters that the “tides of war are receding” in the Mideast and elsewhere, we’ll need to maintain a sizable military presence there for a long time yet.

But Obama is right to focus on the Pacific as central to our interests. Flexing our muscles there is the right move. Now he must make clear to everyone that if needed, we’d use our power — and not only to assure free navigation.

That’s the surest way to de-escalate building tensions and assure that all the guns stay holstered.

Benny Avni

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