Commentary / Japan

Is China winning the contest for South China Sea control?

by Phil Reynolds

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent lifting of the decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam is the latest move in the security game with China, currently centered on the South China Sea. China’s intention has long been to be the regional hegemon and Beijing sees physical possession of the South China Sea as necessary to its own security. Control of the various atolls and reefs has been disputed for decades; what has changed is the volume and speed of the island-building campaign.

The most likely trigger for this new phase of offensive expansion was the Obama administration’s 2011 announcement of refocusing on the Pacific. Early in the century, with the United States embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it appeared that China would have a free hand in Asia. With the pivot, that changed.

Geography matters and China intends to have physical possession of the South China Sea. It has expanded or built up from the sea floor seven islets and reefs in the Spratlys, in addition to having occupied the Paracel Islands, also claimed by Vietnam, and seizing control of Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines. In 2012, China expanded Sansha City in the Paracels to provide administrative control over its activities in the South China Sea, bolstering its claim that the islands are an integrated part of China. Most importantly, these build-ups allow naval and air patrols, cementing an economic and administrative claim with a military presence.

For the U.S., the Pacific, and the South China Sea particularly, are of vital economic, and thus military, interest, particularly in light of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal further integrating the U.S. and Asian economics. That interest in the South China Sea is shared by the Chinese, with 60 percent of China’s trade flowing through the region. China’s dominant position has caused some concern over “Finlandization” of the region. Policies that anger Beijing could cause disruptions in trade flows, which could cripple emerging markets like Vietnam. Smaller countries could find themselves with less freedom for political and economic maneuvering.

Closer economic integration may appear to make conflict less likely as China becomes more integrated with the global political economy, but there will come a point at which Chinese views become the controlling interest. At that point, moves to dominate the region becomes less risky for Beijing as formerly reliable U.S. partners fall under the influence of China. China has responded to the TPP by offering its own economic vision, proposing a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) and the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The U.S. opposes FTAAP, as well as the bank, but the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum has signaled cautious support, encouraging discussions of how FTAAP would enhance or conflict with other FTAs in the region. Even stalwart U.S. allies like Australia and South Korea have already signed major free trade deals with China, their largest trading partner.

America’s response

The U.S. has responded in the way that has proved successful in the past — with its visible military. It has been crafting agreements that are meant to forward position military capabilities and presence. The navy has committed a majority of its forces to the Pacific, with plans to increase the force load by one aircraft carrier battle group and 10 of the new littoral combat ships. The marines have a new basing structure in Australia, even as they begin the long awaited transition from Okinawa to Guam.

Not to be outdone, the army has developed “Pacific Pathways,” an idea that keeps a combat arms task force moving between countries for up to three months at a time — this despite the wear and tear on the army, which multiple testimonies to Congress have declared to be at a “breaking point.” The U.S. Pacific Command has stated that it will place Civil Military Support elements and Military Information Support teams, i.e., special operations teams, in U.S. embassies, as well as deploy Special Forces to advise and assist partner nation security forces.

Perhaps the most concrete evidence of the U.S. intention to retain dominance in the Pacific is the initiative to position more equipment in Asia. Long used in South Korea and Japan as a deterrent against North Korea, the U.S. Army “pre-positions” supplies and equipment in order to more quickly respond with deployments. It takes much longer to move brigades and divisions from the continental U.S. than to have people fall in on equipment only hundreds of kilometers, not thousands, from where it’s needed. Ostensibly limited to equipment that can be used in humanitarian relief missions, despite little army involvement in Asian disasters, some plans have called for “heavy” brigades of equipment — tanks and artillery — to be pre-positioned also. These equipment sets are being considered for Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Beyond reducing response times, this activity set will further cement security relationships.

New security agreements with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are meant to show the commitment of the U.S. to the region. All three countries have suffered from aggressive Chinese strategic maneuvering.

In May 2014, China moved an oil rig, protected by patrol boats, into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. This was seen widely as an attempt by Beijing to lean on Vietnam, reminding its small neighbor that moves by China cannot be repulsed by its burgeoning relationship with the U.S. Ahead of the first-ever visit to Washington by the leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2015, China moved the oil rig toward Vietnam — farther away than previously, but still in waters claimed by Vietnam. Despite the pressure from Beijing, Hanoi’s contacts with the U.S. military have increased, with ships of both nations working together at sea. Vietnamese officers have also attended professional education courses at U.S. military staff colleges and eagerly participate in the ongoing missions to recover the remains of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam.

The Philippines has also moved closer to the U.S. after South China Sea run-ins with China. After the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, and repeated attempts to block resupply of a Philippines garrison at Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines has been incentivized to increase its maritime capability.

Japan’s role

Of the three countries, Japan is by far the most significant U.S. partner. The September 2015 reinterpretation of the Constitution’s Article 9 allows Japan more flexibility on defense issues. Between the legislation and the recently signed defense cooperation agreement, the U.S. and Japan can begin planning and training for contingency operations, improving their abilities to communicate and conduct combined operations. Perhaps most importantly, the new legislation clarified how Japan can provide logistical support to U.S. operations.

The driving force behind this flurry of cooperation is the Senkaku Islands. Claimed by both Japan and China, the islands are uninhabited, lying almost 500 km from Okinawa Prefecture and the city of Naha, but only 60 km or so from Taiwan. Three of the islands were held in private hands, but in 2012, the Japanese central government purchased them, putting all five under state control. In November 2013, China unilaterally proclaimed an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the islands. ADIZs are legitimate airspace control measures used by countries to control air movement over their territory; in this case, the new Chinese ADIZ overlaps the original Japanese ADIZ by some 400 km. The new ADIZ is conveniently much closer to China’s disputed new exclusive economic zone, which Beijing claims stretches almost to Okinawa. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force has been scrambling at record levels to confront the Chinese in the area.

China’s perspective

Powerful countries take a paternal view of their neighboring geographies and China looks at the western Pacific in much the same way the U.S. viewed the Caribbean in the 19th century, and sees the Monroe Doctrine as a rational blueprint for its activity. Asian states looking to America for protection must take into account the power projection capabilities of their erstwhile defender and the ability of the Chinese to defeat the U.S.

China sees the U.S. as a declining power, unable to marshal a majority of nations into an anti-China coalition. China is making the strategic calculation that the U.S. would not be able to sustain a war and that, despite having a technological edge, the U.S. military is actually a fragile organization. The power the U.S. has enjoyed for most of the last 80 years has not been in using its very expensive military, but in the efficacy of its deterrent effect.

The U.S. has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, but it is doubtful it would be willing to risk those very expensive carrier groups, with their thousands of sailors, in a shooting gallery of Dong Feng missiles, of which the newest “D” variant has twice the range of the carriers’ attack aircraft. These missiles can approach their target at speeds of up to Mach 10, and with the ability to maneuver, there is no ship defense. If the Chinese, like the Soviets, develop multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs), the possibility exists that a single Dong Feng could defeat an entire carrier attack group.

China is using the South China Sea islands as the means of making the 21st century for itself what the 20th century was to the U.S. Chinese policies, coldly rational, are meant to elicit a military response from the U.S. As the dominant power, Washington has little incentive to give the challenger a stage on which it can engage the U.S. as a peer. On the other hand, China has everything to gain from a successful challenge.

This leads to an interesting hypothesis: The islands themselves are really not the objective of Chinese expansion. Rather, the goal of China’s grand strategy may be to successfully challenge the U.S. in the eyes of the world. If China is correct, any actual conflict with the U.S. will not end in an all-out war. Intense pressure from the international community will quickly lead to a negotiated settlement. This is a win for China, one that it is preparing for in its defense white paper released in mid-2015. China has been preparing its maritime forces for “offshore waters defense” and to “protect its maritime rights and interests.” China’s ability to deny the U.S. entry into contested areas is meant to last just long enough for negotiations to begin.

Faced with the loss of ships and sailors, it will be difficult to convince the American public that Chinese hegemony in the western Pacific is an existential threat, especially after the debacle in Iraq. History and China have maneuvered the U.S. into a bleak position with four alternatives, all of which benefit China: The U.S. can continue with low-grade military confrontations that do little to stop Chinese expansion; the U.S. can go to war and quickly find itself with heavy losses and a negotiated settlement; it can retreat, leaving its recent partner nations to develop their own status quo with China; or it can move away from the “pivot to Asia” toward a more realpolitik approach vis-a-vis China. A fifth outcome, worst of all, is that newly emboldened partners push back against the Chinese, triggering a shooting war and drawing in the U.S. All five outcomes make China look stronger and closer to making the 21st century a Chinese century.

Phil Reynolds is a University of Hawaii Ph.D. candidate. © 2016, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency

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