24 August 2015

New U.S. Security Strategy Doesn’t Go Far Enough on South China Sea

New Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy: necessary but insufficient…

Andrew S. Erickson, “New U.S. Security Strategy Doesn’t Go Far Enough on South China Sea,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2015.

The Pentagon just released an “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.” The document articulates three regional maritime objectives heretofore insufficiently stressed and linked: “to safeguard the freedom of the seas; deter conflict and coercion; and promote adherence to international law and standards.” Long-overdue, the strategy represents a positive contribution, but remains far from sufficient.

First, the strengths:

The Pentagon understands the importance of following the money. It documents the importance of international sea-lanes in general, and the Indian Ocean, South China Sea (SCS), and East China Sea (ECS) in particular, to American interests. Two-thirds of world oil shipments transit the Indian Ocean, with more than 15 million barrels of oil transiting the Malacca Strait daily in 2014. The Asia-Pacific boasts eight of the ten busiest global container ports. The SCS alone is home to 10% of global fisheries production and may contain 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Nearly 30% of global maritime trade transits its waters annually, including about $1.2 trillion in ship borne trade bound for U.S. ports. ECS figures are 200 million barrels of oil and 1-2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The publication builds on recent Office of Naval Intelligence and Pentagon reports to document dramatic Chinese maritime force structure progress. China’s navy “now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.” China’s 303 naval combatants dwarf the 202 possessed by Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines combined.

China’s 205 maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessels likewise dwarf the 147 deployed by those same nations. Of these, 110 of China’s MLE vessels are “small” (500-1,000 tons), as compared to 129 of its neighbors’. Japan has 25 and Vietnam 50, leaving Indonesia with 5, Malaysia 0, and the Philippines with 4. Now consider (as the report fails to mention) that the Tanmen Village branch of China’s Maritime Militia—an entirely separate force—has itself already acquired 17 of 29 preordered 500-ton displacement steel-hulled trawlers. When it comes to maritime vessel numbers, excluding U.S. forces, China already dominates the region, from top to bottom. And the buildup continues.

The publication documents that Chinese island building in the SCS has added 2,900 acres of artificial land, dwarfing Vietnam’s 80, Malaysia’s 70, the Philippines’ 14, and Taiwan’s 8. China has built 17 times more artificial island area in 20 months than rival claimants combined over the past 40 years. It has generated 95% of all artificial land in the Spratlys. The Pentagon rightly emphasizes that all sovereignty claims must be based on natural land features, and calls out all parties making excessive claims.

Reassuringly, the report documents tangible American commitment to the region. As part of home-porting 60% of its naval and overseas air assets to the Pacific by 2020, the U.S. is upgrading its forward-deployed carrier; home-porting its three newest stealth destroyers; and deploying its newest air operations-oriented amphibious assault ship, two additional Aegis-capable destroyers, an additional attack submarine, and manifold advanced aircraft. It is funding wide-ranging weapons modernization, with—at long last—increased focus on missiles.

Washington is increasing presence, exercises, and capacity-building with regional partners. It is putting its metal, mettle, and manpower where its mouth is, maintaining 368,000 personnel in the Asia-Pacific—97,000 west of the International Date Line. This is a powerful deterrent against any efforts to use force, or the threat of force, to resolve the region’s many island and maritime claims disputes.

Now, the weaknesses:

From the start, the strategy goes too far in attempting even-handedness, employing equivalency language suggesting that multiple claimants are at fault—even as it documents that China has committed the lion’s share of recent negative behaviors, and has amassed capabilities dwarfing those of all other SCS neighbors combined. It should go further and state clearly that Beijing’s 9-dash line claim has no basis in international law.

Moreover, its extreme emphasis on minimizing tensions makes Washington look timid and deterred. In a lengthy section on “reducing risk,” the strategy repeatedly emphasizes that U.S. interlocutors express “concerns” to Beijing, with no sign that their words have any impact. Further undermining leverage by ruling out cost-imposition preemptively, the document declares that China has been invited to participate in the RIMPAC 2016 exercises at a similar level to 2014. This suggests a core weakness of President Obama’s leadership, particularly the optics: he appears uncomfortable with acknowledging the enduring role of material power in international affairs, and with wielding it as necessary to command respect and ensure the achievement of U.S. objectives.

What the strategy should communicate instead is American willingness to impose friction to counter a series of highly negative Chinese behaviors in recent years. China has lambasted and pressured its neighbors, harassed U.S. and other regional survey ships (cutting cables on Vietnamese oil and gas surveyors) and reneged on its promise to return to status quo ante after the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff. It also dangerously approached U.S. cruiser Cowpens in 2013 and a U.S. P-8 aircraft in 2014, and has drilled in Hanoi-claimed waters while using force to fend off Vietnamese vessels—not to mention its aforementioned industrial-scale island building. All the while, the U.S. has been excessively restrained. Having paid few costs for this misbehavior, Beijing continues pressing forward.

The strategy’s myopic focus on freedom of navigation (FON) as almost an end in itself misses a key strategic communications opportunity: FON is rather a means to preserve regional economic, political and military access. Such access is essential to counter a progressively more worrisome situation in which, as Naval War College Prof. Peter Dutton notes, “the laws, rules, principles and norms that brought increasing stability to the global maritime domain over the course of the 20th century are under pressure from Chinese behavior.”

In sum, the report represents progress, but much work remains. Here’s what the Obama administration still needs to do to defend U.S. interests and the global system, and thereby shore up its Asia-Pacific legacy:

1. Issue a comprehensive Asia-Pacific Strategy. Such a document would offer the broader context lacking in the Pentagon’s publication and clarify to allies, partners and potential challengers alike that all key executive branch stakeholders are on board—currently not a universally-shared perception.

2. Call out China’s “Little Blue Men.” Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin used so-called “Little Green Men” in the 2014 Crimean Crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping is now accelerating the development of maritime militia elements in part to advance China’s position in claims disputes, particularly in the South China Sea. Before these irregular forces interpose themselves at Second Thomas Shoal or some other contested location, the U.S. government must publicize the details of their existence and clarify that their use to resolve disputes or impair foreign vessels operating legally in international waters will not be tolerated.

3. Create friction to impose costs on harmful Chinese behavior. Washington must seize the initiative and demonstrate that it is resolved to keep the region open for all to use freely and without fear. The U.S. response to actions by Saddam Hussein’s forces during Operation Southern Watch offers an extreme conceptual example of creative cost imposition. With respect to Sino-American relations, by contrast, friction can be managed; thanks in part to substantial shared interests, Beijing has as much incentive as Washington to avoid escalation.