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Posts Tagged ‘South China Sea’

We’re Looking In The Wrong Strategic Direction

Posted by Bob Kohm on June 23, 2011

Last night President Barack Obama gave what has been billed as one of the most important speeches of his Administration to discuss the winding down of hostilities in Afghanistan. While this speech was undoubtedly as important as it was purported to be and contained very significant news, the major address of the day on American and global strategic issues was given by Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai.

Speaking about recent tensions that have been spurred by the Chinese government over the Spratly and Paracel Island chains in the South China Sea, Mr. Cui  rattled China’s saber by saying, “I believe some countries now are playing with fire… And I hope the U.S. won’t be burned by this fire.” These comments come on the heels of two weeks of comments from the Chinese government instructing the United States to stay out of the South China Sea entirely.

To understand the gravity of this situation it is necessary to have a firm grasp on the background of a conflict that has seemed meaningless for decades but that is now growing into what may become the fulcrum of the United States’ claim to relevance in the Pacific Ocean. The Spratly and Paracel Islands are a collection of minuscule reefs, islets, shoals and rocks in the South China Sea, with the Paracels located off the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam and the Spratlys located off the

Map of the South China Sea, showing China's claims

coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. The Spratlys are located over 635 miles from the nearest Chinese coastline on Hainan Island while the Spratlys lie roughly 185 miles from Hainan and the Vietnamese coast, respectively. Both island groups have multiple claimants– the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the PRC all lay claim to territory in the Spratlys while Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to the Paracels, which have been administered by the PRC since fighting a minor war with Vietnam over them in the mid-70s.

As is the answer to most questions in Asian strategic puzzle, the importance of the island groups themselves lay in the natural resources they harbor. The Spratlys in particular are thought to be extremely rich in untapped undersea natural gas and oil deposits and both island groups are extremely rich fishing grounds. That was enough to maintain this conflict at the low simmer it has been on for nearly forty years, with ludicrous military bases being built on stilts on islets to small to hold a Boy Scout camp, occupations and counter-occupations of rocks, naval skirmishes and fisheries fights. Money has always been a good enough reason to spur on a conflict, but in the past several months the South China Sea issue has grown tenfold in strategic importance and tension for reasons rooted firmly in the geopolitics of an emergent China and its decision to test what it sees as a weakening America.

As America has become mired in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns over the preceding decade and seen its economy dive, China has sensed an opportunity to transform its economic power into regional hegemony in East Asia and the Western Pacific. In the early part of the previous decade, China committed to increasing its ability to project power off of its own shores and into the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the creation of a true blue water fleet for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Beijing started building out the Type 054 destroyer program, kicked off several submarine production programs and obtained from Russia and rebuilt the Varyag (now PLAN Shi Lang), an aircraft carrier started during the Cold War for the Soviet Navy and abandoned before completion with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Additionally, China focused on the concept of denying the United States access to the oceans within striking distance of the Chinese mainland itself by investing in advanced ground to sea and air to sea cruise missiles and finally the DF-21 ballistic anti-ship missile, the first system ever built to utilize a land based ballistic missile with a maneuverable conventional warhead  specifically to strike at ships at sea. Interestingly, the Chinese carrier will go to sea for the first time next week to undergo sea trials, almost certainly at the heart of the tensions in the South China Sea.

Coupled to the increase in China’s strategic military capability is an increase in China’s strategic vision. Sorely wounded by then President Bill Clinton’s decision to send two US carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 during a period of high tension between China and Taiwan, China started to evolve a strategy that had as its end goal the replacement of the United States Navy as the preeminent force in the Western Pacific Ocean and the limitation of America’s ability to hem China in with the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines-Guam wall of American allies. China, once divided into “spheres of influence” by the United States and the European powers, would now seek to carve out its own sphere of influence running from the Russian border to the Indian border to Myanmar on the land and which would encompass the entirety of the South China and Yellow Seas. It ultimately foresees “reunification” with Taiwan, economic and military influence over Japan and the Philippines and practical control over the nations of South East Asia. Additionally, China would seek to outflank its major Asian rival, India, by establishing forward naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Further into the future, China also would seem to be laying the groundwork for an eastward expasnsion, purchasing large blocks of land and coastal facilities on the West Coast of South America as it attempts to control the Pacific Ocean in 2050 in much the way as the United States has controlled it since 1945.

All of this leads us back to the current question, that of the greatly increased tensions over the past several weeks in the South China Sea. The PLAN and the Chinese Maritime Security Ministry have made unprecedented deployments of ships to the South China Sea region and have acted extremely aggressively, bumping and even ramming foreign fishing vessels, menacing Vietnamese and Philippine patrol boats and installations and issuing proclamations of Chinese sovereignty over the entire South China Sea– prompting– in the one funny bit of this whole imbroglio– the Philippine legislature to rename the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea” to assert their claims.

The United States, of course, does not and will not acknowledge China’s spurious claims to sovereignty over an area of ocean that lies mainly outside of China’s territorial waters and economic exclusion zone under every recognized international charter. Much of the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea, including almost all of the oil and raw materials that feed Japan’s industrial society and oil shipments from the Gulf States to the United States’ West Coast, compounding the US opposition to any restriction on the right of free passage through open waters.

Here’s is where China’s gamble comes into play. During the pre-War on Terror era, the United States would likely rush carrier strike groups into the South China Sea to stare down the Chinese and put an end to these claims and tensions. Today that is a much more difficult proposition. China holds extensive economic leverage over the United States, which is undoubtedly being exercised behind the scenes in a dual strategy– China issues very public warnings to the United States to stay hands off while it militarily bullies our allies prompting them to look to us to stand up for them, but in private the Chinese are threatening to inflict tremendous damage on the US economy if we move to challenge them. The Philippines are already publicly seeking to invoke provisions of a 1951 calling on the United States to come to its defense in the event of a naval attack, upping the pressure on America to show the flag. China is betting that we will not do that in any meaningful way and thus break the confidence our Pacific allies have in us, forcing them to accept the “reality” that accommodating  China is their only way forward. This is made more important to China by the reaction of the United States to the inter-Korean conflict several months ago over the shelling of Yeonpeyong Island and the near shooting war that broke out over it; China did not anticipate the United States so strongly backing South Korea’s military play and was deeply offended by the revelation that US cruise missile and attack submarines were operating in the Yellow Sea, which China has always declared to be sovereign territorial waters. That particular move, the operation of US submarines in  a sea that China regarded as its own and which bolstered the United States at the expense of China at a time that China felt it had clear advantages over the United States, is a mirror image of the Chinese assertion of sovereignty claims over yet another entire sea as we are seeing today.

How will this play out? There are several possibilities– it seems almost inevitable that China, which is issuing point blank warnings to all other claimants of the islands to get out of its way, will wind up in a minor naval skirmish with the Vietnamese in the coming days and weeks. If it sees no dire reactions to that, it will challenge a Filipino ship to really test the resolve of the United States. All along it will continue to publicly warn and attempt to embarrass the United States over this issue with the intent of eventually putting us in a position where we either have to deploy a carrier strike group and a host of subs back to the South China Sea with the threat of massive Chinese disruptions to our economy or put our tail between our legs and show our Pacific allies that they have to obey Beijing. Expect to see in the news over the coming weeks an increase in cyberattacks against the American government and financial systems coming from China to further push the message to the White House and Congress and continued increases in naval tensions in the South China Sea.

China, historically long in thought and slow to act, believes it has reached a point where action is wise. It knows that the period for this action is limited– the American economy will recover over the coming five years and the US debt spending regime of the past several Presidencies will be more limited, so the period of magnified Chinese influence will ebb back to more balanced levels. It is for this reason that I believe that we will see China continue to very aggressively press this claim, even at the risk of a minor Chinese economic disruption caused by damaging the American and global markets or even at the risk of a limited engagement with the US Navy if it believes that the PLAN can gain the strategic advantage.

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