29 May 2015

ChinaFile Conversation: “Did the Game Just Change in the South China Sea? (And What Should the U.S. Do About It?)”

Andrew S. Erickson, “Did the Game Just Change in the South China Sea? (And What Should the U.S. Do About It?),” A ChinaFile Conversation, The Asia Society, 29 May 2015.

As the 14th annual Asia Security Summit—or the Shangri-la Dialogue, as it has come to be known—gets underway in Singapore, we asked contributors to comment on what appears to be the recent escalation in tensions between the U.S. and China over the two countries’ presence in the South China Sea.  —The Editors.

Thursday, May 28, 2015 – 1:44pm

Yanmei Xie

The game has changed. By sending a military aircraft to take a close-up view of the outposts China is constructing and stating it “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the U.S. appears to have drawn a red line for Beijing.

Friday, May 29, 2015 – 2:02pm

Andrew S. Erickson

In attempting to prevent China from using military force to resolve island and maritime claims disputes in the South China Sea, the U.S. will increasingly face Beijing’s three-pronged trident designed precisely to preserve such a possibility. Maritime militia and Coast Guard forces will be forward deployed, possibly enveloping disputed features as part of a “Cabbage strategy” that dares the U.S. military to use force against non-military personnel. Such forces are supported by a deterrent backstop that includes China’s navy and “anti-navy” of land-based counterintervention forces, collectively deploying the world’s largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. In the region, only Vietnam also has a maritime militia, and the U.S. Coast Guard is not positioned to oppose China’s.

In addition to cooperation and capacity building with regional allies and partners, therefore, the U.S. must maintain robust deterrence that paces China’s growing arsenal of counterintervention weapons. Here, unfortunately, Washington continues to suffer lingering effects from mishandling of the Iraq War and its aftermath. Among other problems, a decade of land wars with unclear, unrealistic objectives diverted attention and resources from capabilities to preserve the ability of the U.S. military to operate in maritime East Asia even while threatened by Chinese systems. Washington is finally devoting more attention to two types of weapons with particular potential to demonstrate that counterintervention won’t work—missiles and sea mines—but existing efforts may be too slow and limited to arrest an emerging gap between U.S. goals and capabilities.