The Bully of the South China Sea

Posted on August 9, 2012


Last Friday, a U.S. State Department spokesman stated that Beijing’s recent decision to upgrade tiny Sansha City in the disputed Paracel Islands to a “prefecture-level city” and establish a military garrison there runs “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” That muted protest was just the excuse Beijing wanted to play a round of Down With American Imperialism. The Foreign Ministry called in a U.S. Embassy official for a tongue-lashing Saturday. State-run media also went to town, telling the U.S. to “shut up” and stop “instigating” conflict in the region.

Why the irruption of ire? Partly it’s because Beijing’s various factions need to look tough on sovereignty issues ahead of the upcoming Party Congress. The Congress will pick the next generation of Party leaders.

But another reason is that China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has caused a backlash among its neighbors and hardened their determination to resist Chinese bullying. Instead of admitting its mistake, Beijing wants to treat the U.S. as the “black hand” that is poisoning its relations with Southeast Asia. This may have a purely propagandistic purpose, but the danger is that the Communist Party will now fixate on America as its regional enemy.

In a 2000 white paper, Beijing claimed that the source of its “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands, the most important features in the South China Sea, is imperial China’s historical record as “the first to discover and name the islands as the Nansha Islands and the first to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over them.”

This basis is disputed. China may have some of the oldest surviving maps of the area, but aboriginal, Malay, Indian and Arab traders traversed these seas before Han Chinese began their explorations. And the maps produced by China and other countries from ancient times through the 20th century show the islands as uninhabited dangers to navigation, not destinations under anyone’s sovereignty.

Militarist Japan, ironically, is the true origin of China’s claims. As the great scholar of the Chinese diaspora Wang Gungwu noted recently, World War II-era Japanese maps that showed the entire South China Sea as a Japanese lake were the first serious claim to sovereignty over the islands.

A second irony is that the People’s Republic’s current claims date to a 1947 map issued by the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, which drew a u-shaped line of 11 dashes around more than 90% of the South China Sea. Mao’s regime republished that map with a simplified nine-dashed line after it routed the nationalists, claiming the sea as China’s “historic waters.”

Beijing continues to use this map to justify its claims, although it alternates between arguing that its claims rest on the U.N.’s Law of the Sea treaty, which it signed and ratified in 1996, or otherwise on territorial rights that predate the treaty. Whatever the case, Beijing acts as if it owns all of the sea within the line, last year condemning Vietnamese exploration of areas that fall both within the “territorial” line and Vietnam’s coastal exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.

Resolving the ambiguity about how China makes its claims is more than an academic question. For the U.S. it matters because about a third of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea, and freedom of navigation is a vital U.S. interest. China’s neighbors also care, since they are most immediately confronted by what they term Beijing’s “creeping assertiveness.”

Even if all the disputed islands belong to China, the area of water they control under maritime law would be relatively small. Only a handful of the islands are capable of sustaining human habitation, which is required to claim a 200-mile EEZ, and some of those would be circumscribed where they overlapped with the EEZs generated by other countries’ coastline. Rocks and shoals only generate a 12-mile radius of territorial waters at most.

This raises another demonstrably false claim made by Beijing—that Southeast Asian nations accepted its rights to the islands until the 1970s, when potential oil and gas reserves were discovered. Not so: The 1947 map was a matter of international dispute at the time.

It was only after the hydrocarbon discoveries that China began bullying its way into the islands. In 1974, the People’s Liberation Army launched a surprise attack and ejected (South) Vietnamese forces stationed on the Paracel Islands. In 1988, the PLA again surprised the Vietnamese on Johnson Atoll in the Spratlys. Beijing seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1994 without a fight.

Now Beijing accuses its neighbors of stirring up tensions. But in June it staged its biggest provocation since 1994: putting up for bid oil exploration blocks that lie within Vietnam’s EEZ and overlap with blocks that Vietnam has already leased. This is especially threatening to Vietnam because China is no longer dependent for such contracts on multinational companies, which shy away from the risk of military conflict around their rigs. The state-owned China National Off-shore Oil Corporation is developing its own deep-sea exploration platforms, a new way for Beijing to mark its claims.

Meanwhile, Beijing is also using its navy and militias to escalate the tension. During the standoff with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal in May, nearly 100 fishing boats were inside the atoll at one time, according to the Philippine government. Last year, its vessels cut the acoustic cables on two Vietnamese exploration ships—much as they tried to do to the USNS Impeccable in 2009. And in June, China’s Defense Ministry announced it had started “combat ready” patrols in waters claimed by Vietnam.

To Beijing’s mind, being able to make outlandish territorial claims and violate international law at will is the prerogative of a great power. That was certainly the message Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi delivered at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi in July 2010. He described the South China Sea as a “core national interest,” and he followed that up by saying, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

So it’s no wonder that Southeast Asian nations that 40 years ago looked to the U.S. to halt the spread of communism are now asking Washington to help push back against Chinese encroachment. The wonder is that Beijing seems surprised that it is again isolated in the region and surrounded by U.S. allies. But as China’s power grows, some of China’s neighbors realize that the window of opportunity for a unified response that will change Beijing’s behavior is closing.

The best chance of avoiding a nasty showdown is a strong U.S. response. Washington has maintained its own ambiguity toward the South China Sea, saying it takes no side in the dispute but has a national interest in the peaceful resolution.

That’s fine as far as the islands and the small areas of territorial waters around them. But Beijing has shown that it has no interest in a negotiated settlement and will use force to claim and dominate the entire South China Sea if it can. Washington needs to call out the U-shaped line as the travesty of international law that it is, and state clearly that it will fight to keep the sea lanes open.

South China Sea: China Escalates Brinkmanship To Dangerous Levels

“But what about an adversary that uses ‘salami-slicing’—the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which could add over time to a major strategic change?

The goal of Beijing’s salami-slicing would be to gradually accumulate through small but persistent attacks, evidence of China’s enduring presence in the claimed territory, with the intention of having that claim smudge out the economic rights granted by UNCLOS and perhaps even the right of ships and aircraft to transit what are now considered to be global commons. With ‘new facts on the ground’ slowly but cumulatively established, China would hope to establish de-facto and de-jure settlement of its claims.” — Robert Haddick, Foreign Policy Journal, August 03, 2012.

Introductory Observations
The South China Sea dispute between China and its South East Asian neighbours which has been festering for decades assumed conflictual contours since 2008-2009 after China declared it as a ‘core interest’ for China, and on which it would be ready to go to war to defend its self-proclaimed sovereignty.

China’s such assertions should not surprise the international community as it is very much in keeping with China’s past posturings and its marked propensity to resort to conflict to resolve territorial disputes rather than by conflict resolution initiatives.

Noticeably, China after 2009 has embarked on what can be best described as on a dangerous course of military brinkmanship which not only is destabilising for the Asia Pacific region but could ignite China’s military confrontation and conflict with the United States over China’s military adventurism in these contested waters.

South China Sea disputes stand well covered in media analyses and need not be focussed in this Paper. Since China’s contentious military unilateralism and aggressiveness carries the dangers of spilling into a wider conflict what needs to be focussed on is as to why and how China feels emboldened to indulge in military adventurism over territorial disputes with its neighbors which could ordinarily be resolved through multilateral regional and international forums.

This paper therefore intends to examine the following related issues:

  • China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict: The Intended Target is the United States.
  • China’s Timing of Escalated Brinkmanship Significant
  • United States Strategic Dilemma in Effectively Responding to Chinese Brinkmanship on the South China Sea Conflict
  • China’s Contending Claimants Options on South China Sea Conflict: ASEAN not an Option, the Effective Option is the United States
  • Global Responses to China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict

China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict: The Intended Target is the United States
China’s escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict can no longer be limited to China’s burning desire to garner the control of the vast hydrocarbon reserves that not only lie in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea region. China’s disruptive strategies in the South China Sea region has now transcended onto a bigger strategic canvass, namely to checkmate the United States and assume the dominant role in Asia.

China can ride rough-shod over all its rival claimants in the South China Sea conflict with its military might any day but it will not do so as it can achieve the end result on a low-cost option by a graduated and incremental strategy which keeps the conflict boiling but yet does not boil over. In such a strategy China pre-empts a swift intervention by the United States and yet achieves its strategic objectives outlined above.

The South China Sea aggressive claims are but only a precursor for similar aggressiveness to follow in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea where it will be pitted against a more powerful rival in Japan.

However to graduate to the seas in the North, China must first attempt to get the better of the United States in the South China Sea region, both geopolitically and geostrategically

Geopolitically, China’s aims against the United States is to belittle the United States image by its seemingly inaction against Chinese military adventurism in the South China Sea region. Symbolism carries weight and the image of a helpless United States to checkmate China could be damaging for the United States.

Geostrategically, the Chinese aim is to portray to South East Asian nations that the perceived lack of strong ripostes by the United States against China arise from lack of political and strategic will on part of the United States to confront China on contentious issues. More starkly China wishes to the strategic credibility of the United States as a reliable strategic partner of Asian nations in countervailing China.

China’s three-pronged strategy outlined above is a manifestation of what in an earlier Paper I had described as China’s strategy of asymmetric attrition of wearing down US military embedment in Asia Pacific leaving the field wide open for China to dominate the Asia Pacific.

China’s Timing of Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Conflict Significant
China’s timing of escalated brinkmanship in the last few months is significant, especially as it goes against the grain of any strategic logic. China is always credited by the global strategic community as having strategic patience, long range strategic vision and that China is evolving into a responsible stakeholder in global affairs. But in the present process of China’s escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict these ingredients are visibly absent.

Then how does one make sense of its current military aggressiveness on the South China Sea conflict? China’s timing for escalated brinkmanship on South China Sea conflict can be attributed to the following factors/developments:

  • China’s strategic consternation on United States strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and rebalancing its military postures in Asia Pacific. China hopes that by escalated brinkmanship on the South China Sea conflict it could deflect/disrupt United States rebalancing its military postures in Asia Pacific.
  • China is seeking to impede the strategic gravitation of South East Asia nations to the United States camp and force them to arrive at strategic compromises with China by a bilateral process in which China’s political and military coercion can fully come into play.
  • China senses that with the United States fully engrossed with Presidential Election year politics, the present time is opportune for exploitation of its geopolitical and geostrategic objectives stated earlier in this paper.

China has long been involved in sowing disunity amongst ASEAN nations as part of pursuance of its overall strategy to wean away Asian nations from US influence and which has a direct bearing on China’s aggressive brinkmanship posturing on the South China Sea conflict with ASEAN nations. ASEAN divisive disunity was starkly visible at last month’s ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Cambodia. Cambodia on China’s prodding sabotaged ASEAN unity in a glaring fashion where Cambodia indulged in a proxy war against its ASEAN member nations.

United States Strategic Dilemma in Effectively Responding to Chinese Escalated Brinkmanship on the South China Sea Conflict
The United States is not a passive bystander to China’s escalated brinkmanship over the South China Sea conflict. Even before it enunciated the Obama Doctrine of strategic pivot to Asia Pacific, the United States had already put into motion a southward realignment of US Forces to Guam with the aim of swift responses to any outbreak of conflict in the South China Sea region.

The United States has also been refining and redefining its military doctrines specific to any military threats that China may pose in the region, in particular the Air-Sea Doctrine which is aimed at neutralising China’s Anti Access strategies .

However it seems that in terms of responding to China’s piecemeal coercive military actions against its ASEAN neighbours claimants to territories in the South China Sea, the United States is in a strategic dilemma.

The United States dilemma is best reflected in the words of the author quoted above, and he observes: “But policymakers in Washington will be caught in a bind attempting to apply this (US ) military power against an accomplished salami-slicer (China). If sliced thinly enough, no action will be dramatic enough to justify starting a war.”

He further observes that “A salami slicer puts the burden of disrupting actions on his adversary. That adversary will be in the uncomfortable position drawing seemingly unjustifiable red lines and engaging in indefensible brinkmanship. For China that would mean simply ignoring America’s Pacific Fleet and carrying on with its slicing under the reasonable assumption that it will be unthinkable for the United States to threaten a major power over a trivial incident in a distant sea.”

The United States however needs to recognise that historically that such trivial military brinkmanship provocations have a tendency to cumutavely add upto major flashpoints which could have been best pre-empted and nipped in the bud at the nascent stage.

Further, the United States in order not to allow its political and strategic image and stature in Asia Pacific be undermined by China’s nibbling provocations in the South China Sea region, is honour-bound to ensure that it provides the necessary security against China to its existing Allies and those whose strategic partnerships it is seeking like Vietnam.

China’s Contending Claimants Options on South China Sea Conflict: ASEAN is Not the Option; the Effective Option is the United States
Confronting China for control of disputed islands/shoals that dot the China Sea are South East Asian countries all of which are members of ASEAN. The ASEAN grouping as an organisation had all along been trying to involve China for a dialogue on the South China Sea conflict but without success. China all along resisted that the dispute dialogue be a subject of multilateral discussions.

Additionally, the ASEAN nations, most of them were till recently adopting hedging strategies on China unsure that the United States would have the resolve to confront China on the South China Sea conflictual disputes. The picture seems to have changed after the enunciation of the Obama Doctrine.

China’s response was to inflict a divisive blow on ASEAN by proxy use of Cambodia to scuttle issue of a Communique after last month’s ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting in Cambodia, which would have incorporated critical references to China’s current postures on the South China Sea dispute.

ASEAN is likely to emerge as more deeply divided as China’s brinkmanship escalates on these territorial disputes. All that this bodes is that ASEAN cannot as a grouping hope to be an effective counterfoil against China on behalf of its members involved in territorial disputes with China.

Even if ASEAN was united in its stand against China’s coercion, it still does not have the military muscle to confront China. That is the stark reality.

The other stark reality for ASEAN is that China is averse to any multilateral dialogue with ASEAN grouping and this is best explained by Haddick who rightly surmises that : “ The collapse of ASEAN’s attempt to establish a code of conduct of conduct for settling disputes in the seas(South China Sea) benefits China’s ‘salami-slicing’ strategy. A multilateral code of conduct would have created a legitimate demand for dispute resolution and would have placed all claimant countries on an equal footing. Without such a code, China can now use its power advantage to dominate bilateral disputes with its small neighbours and do so without the political consequences of acting outside an agreed set of rules”

ASEAN countries confronting China on the South China Sea territorial disputes are left with no option but to strategically rely on the United States for a security cover and countervailing force against China. In doing so they would have to be ready to enter into security relationships with the United States.

Global Responses to China’s Escalated Brinkmanship on South China Sea Disputes.
The global responses are best illustrated from a reading of speeches given at the Shangri La Dialogue June 2013 deliberations at Singapore. The common thread running through these speeches was that the global community and major powers were committed to the security of the “global commons” and to the “freedom of the high seas” and that no country had a right to declare them as national territories.

The United States, UK, and the new French Foreign Minister emphasised that all of them stood committed to the security and stability of South East Asia. The new French Government through its Foreign Minister made clear that France and European nations had a stake in South East Asia and the stability and security of the region was their strategic concern. He further emphasised that France would support any regional security grouping in the region.

China fearful of critical reference on its South China Sea posturing virtually stayed away from the Singapore annual event and sufficed it with a low level representation.

Undoubtedly, China stalks the South China Sea as a lone ranger bent on establishing its hegemony over the South China Sea and to be followed by similar provocative posturing later on the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

Fearful of the above, China’s power rival in the region, Japan has issued some initial cautionary warnings. While China seems to be getting away with military bullying of its smaller ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea, the same walk through may not be possible for China when it confronts Japan on similar disputes up North.

Concluding Observations
China’s recent escalated brinkmanship on South China Sea disputes with small ASEAN countries needs to be viewed as a strategic and military gauntlet flung at the United States in the nature of a challenge to provide effective United States countervailing power against China and security guarantees to South East Asia countries locked in territorial disputes with China on the South china Sea

United States responses to China’s provocations and brinkmanship are being carefully being scrutinised in ASEAN capitals and Asia Pacific capitals as eventually the success of the American strategic pivot to Asia Pacific would overwhelmingly depend on United States resolve in effectively checkmating China and before The China Threat cumulatively becomes too hot for the United States to handle.

United States declared neutrality on South China Sea disputes is no longer a viable option for the United States. The United States needs to see through the diabolical ‘Salami-Slicing Strategy” being practised by China in the South China Sea and effectively checkmate China before China prompts a United States exit from Asia Pacific.

Subhash Kapila

China’s Two-Pronged Maritime Rise

For the past decade, while the West has been consumed battling Islamic extremists in the Middle East and Central Asia, China has been engaged in a rapid and impressive effort to establish itself as the supreme maritime power in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.

For years, China focused its military spending on the People’s Liberation Army, while the Air Force and Navy served as little more than adjuncts to the Army. But with the launch of its first aircraft carrier next month, the rest of the world – and especially the United States’ Asian allies – is taking note of how dramatically things have changed. China has big maritime ambitions, and they are backed up by a naval build-up unseen since Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British naval power with the building of the High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.

China’s build-up is driven by a two-pronged strategy. First, China seeks to deny access by the United States and other naval powers to the Yellow, East China and South China Seas, thereby (1) establishing its own equivalent to the way the United States saw the Caribbean in the 20th century, from which its blue water navy can operate globally; (2) dominating the natural resources and disputed island chains such as the Spratly and Senkaku Island chains in those seas; and (3) giving it the capacity to reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force and without US interference, if necessary. China’s assertiveness in confronting and harassing Asian and US civilian and naval ships in the region over the past decade shows a sustained level of determination on this front.

Second, China seeks international prestige and a power projection capacity in the Pacific and Indian Ocean sea lanes by deploying multiple aircraft carriers and fifth-generation stealth fighter-bombers. The booming Chinese economy has become ever more dependent on imported minerals and oil from Africa and the Middle East, and the ability to protect its Indian Ocean and Strait of Malacca sea lanes is a responsibility that China is no longer willing to delegate to other powers.

The officially reported Chinese military budget for 2011 is $91.5 billion, a massive increase from its $14.6 billion budget in 2000.  China acknowledges that a third of its spending is now devoted to its Navy, yet even this big leap is almost certainly understated. China is notoriously non-transparent with its military expenditures, and most analysts believe that it spends significantly more on its armed forces than the publicly reported number. Further, Chinese military labour costs for its soldiers, sailors and airman is a fraction of what Western governments spend, where salaries, benefits and pensions are usually the largest share of defence budgets. This allows China to devote more of its budget to building weapons systems than its competitors. Unlike Western governments, which are slashing defence spending, China will continue to increase spending in coming years.

A key goal of China’s maritime build-up is access denial. While multifaceted, China is building its access denial strategy around two backbone platforms: the DF-21D (Dong Feng) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), described as a ‘Carrier Killer,’ and an ever expanding and modern attack submarine fleet. US Navy Pacific Commander Adm. Robert F. Willard has characterized the DF-21D as already having reached the Initial Operational Capability stage of development, meaning that they are operable, but not yet necessarily deployable. Taiwan sources report that China has already deployed at least 20 ASBMs.  Whether deployed now or in the near future, the US Navy believes China already has the space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control structure, and ground processing capabilities necessary to support DF-21D employment. China also employs an array of non-space based sensors and surveillance assets capable of providing the targeting information necessary to employ the DF-21D.  With a recently reported range of 2,600 kilometres, these missiles will give naval planners real concern when operating anywhere nearby the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese submarine programme has been especially vigorous. For most of the Cold War, China operated outdated Soviet-era coastal submarines. In the 1990s, China purchased Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines, and has been launching two indigenously-built Song-class diesel-electric attack submarines per year for the past decade. It has also developed and launched the high tech Yuan-class diesel-electric attack boat, which may have the silent air-independent propulsion system. Analysts believe that China will in the coming years also launch the Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, further strengthening its already robust submarine fleet. It has surely not escaped China’s notice that US anti submarine warfare capability has atrophied significantly since the end of the Cold War.

But China’s maritime capabilities are set to extend beyond access denial, into power projection. The systems that have gained most international attention are China’s planned aircraft carriers and its new fifth-generation fighter bomber. Anytime now, the PLA Navy will commence sea trials for its first carrier, the ex-Ukrainian Varyag, which has been renamed Shi Lang. The former Soviet ship is larger than European carriers, but one-third smaller than US Nimitz class carriers. Moreover, China has publicly confirmed it has a second, larger, conventionally powered carrier under domestic construction that will likely be launched in 2015. China has planned or is constructing a third conventionally-powered carrier and two nuclear-powered carriers are on the drawing board, with a planned completion date of 2020.

Equally important as the warships, are the aircraft China plans to deploy on its flat tops. The main fighter-bomber in the PLA Navy carrier air wing will be the J-15 Flying Shark, which under current configuration is comparable in size and capability to the US Navy’s retired F-14 Tomcat. The jet will have limited range given its weight taking off from the ski deck-configured Shi Lang, however, it’s believed that advances in Chinese aeronautics and avionics, as well as a catapult launch system on forthcoming carriers, could put the J-15 in the same performance class as the USN F-18 Super Hornet in the future. China may also have developed a carrier-based airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) aircraft, which would be a major development. An Internet-sourced photograph that appeared in mid-May, meanwhile, shows a corner of a model of what is clearly a small AWACS aircraft inspired by the E-2 Hawkeye and the unrealized Soviet Yak-44 designs.

To put China’s carrier programme in perspective, with the retirement of the USS Enterprise this summer, the United States will have only ten carriers to meet worldwide commitments; China will likely have five carriers devoted to the Asia-Pacific region alone.

China’s build-up is being noted even in the popular Western media, which has given significant coverageto China’s prototype fifth generation twin-engine stealth fighter-bomber, the J-20 Black Silk. The jet is larger than the USAF F-22 Raptor and could prove to be comparable in capability (although some US observers claim it is more similar to the slightly less sophisticated US and allied F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be the frontline US carrier fighter).

The J-20 prototype took off on its ‘maiden’ test flight in January from an airfield in the southwestern city of Chengdu, flying for about 15 minutes on the same day then-US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, sending a strong political message and earning the jet a spot on evening news programmes worldwide.

China is believed to have received a major assist in developing the J-20 by obtaining materials from a downed US F-117 Night Hawk from Serbia, as well as from the believed cyber theft of JSF plans from US defence contractors. (With this in mind, US planners should also assume that Chinese engineers have had access to the rotor tail of the stealth helicopter that was ditched in the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan).

These rapid and high-level technical achievements have apparently surprised many Western observers, and the consensus is that the West has consistently underestimated the strength of China’s military industrial capability and its determination to expand and modernize its armed forces, especially the PLA Navy. But it should now be more than clear that the world is facing a significant challenge to a maritime system that has been dominated for the past 200 years by Anglo-American navies. How the United States responds to China’s challenge will define the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific for the rest of the century.

Robert C. O’Brien

Posted in: Politics