China's Island-Reclamation Project: A War of Posts
A “Great Wall of Sand”? Kudos are due U.S. Pacific Command chieftain Harry Harris for spotlighting China’s misadventures in the South China Sea. Engineers are busily manufacturing islands from reefs and shoals, presumably with the aim of emplacing naval and air stations in forward positions—and thus extending the reach of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China Coast Guard, and other implements of Chinese sea power. Greater reach, greater presence; greater presence, greater control.
Admiral Harris coined the Great Wall reference while addressing a surface-navy conference convened by those fine young cannibals down at Canberra’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute. (If you haven’t bookmarked ASPI yet, run—don’t walk—to your favorite electronic device and do so.) And that’s all to the good. U.S. leaders must constantly shine the klieg lights on China’s effort to redefine freedom of the sea out of existence within Asia’s first island chain. Sporadic efforts will do little to shape opinion against China’s lawlessness.
All of that said, Great Wall of Sand is a lame metaphor, and a doubtful standard around which to rally opposition. What’s the first image it summons to mind? For me it was the annual Fourth of July sandcastle competition at the Jersey Shore, where the family and I cavort with the Snookis of the Mid-Atlantic most years. A sandy Great Wall is not the walls of Harfleur. It doesn’t take mines or cannon shot to demolish it. Passersby can breach such an edifice by tripping over it. It washes away when the tide comes in, or blows away in a stiff sea breeze.
In short, it’s ephemeral. Sandcastles constitute a false if not guffaw-inducing metaphor for China’s “reclamation” efforts in the Spratly Islands. Remember, this is not China’s first venture in this domain. It built Mischief Reef into a permanent station two decades ago, presaging its current undertaking. There’s little reason to think China’s new Spratlys redoubts will exhibit less staying power.
Implying that China’s island-building enterprise is impermanent or can be easily reversed lends credence to the cavalier arguments you sometimes hear, to the effect that U.S. or allied forces will make short work of Spratlys airfields or naval stations in wartime. Nothing to see here, move along. But think about the politics of striking the islands. Sure, they might prove militarily vulnerable. My guess is they will. But they will be Chinese territory. Striking them from the sea may elicit the same PLA blowback striking natural islands like Hainan or Sansha would.
Think about it. During the debate over the rap group JAM-GC, nee AirSea Battle, influential voices outside China clamored for exempting Chinese soil from counterstrikes in wartime, lest Beijing escalate a limited conflict to a nuclear exchange. Wouldn’t the same logic hold here? Is there any reason to think patriotic Chinese will attach less value to newly created bits of territory dotting the South China Sea than they do to continental soil or true islands?
Not if you ask them. The South China Sea is their “own yard.” Eminent Chinese assure us that balking China’s territorial claims in Southeast Asia would be like cutting off a person’s arms and legs. Maritime China, then, is indivisible from the motherland’s sacred soil. So it could be true that manufactured islands won’t capture the popular imagination in China or concentrate popular passions. But let’s not assume so in order to escape thinking about unsavory possibilities. If hitting mainland sites might set escalation in motion, so might hitting the Spratlys.
William of Ockham would counsel against averting our eyes from this prospect. The safest working assumption is that China will enfold Southeast Asian waters and geographic features within its national sense of self—if it hasn’t already. From a political standpoint, then, there’s little reason to suppose China’s efforts to erect and maintain island outposts will prove fleeting.
Politics aside, though, the PLA’s island project still doesn’t add up to a seaborne Great Wall. Look at your map of the region. Walls are lines or continuous curves. The Spratlys may be an island group, but it’s not an island chain. Try tracing a curve along the reclaimed reefs and atolls. You can’t. From a purely visual standpoint, then, Great Wall of Sand will resonate with few. If the visuals don’t work, it will be hard to use the metaphor as the basis for a messaging campaign about Chinese purposes and power.
What would be a more apt analogy? Well, how about America’s Old West, or medieval Scotland or Wales? Or how about Mao Zedong’s base areas, which anchored Red Army control of the Chinese and Manchurian countryside in the 1930s and 1940s? Anyplace some government scattered fortified outposts across ungoverned or contested spaces, bringing these spaces under its rule, would rhyme with China’s Spratlys project better than the Great Wall does.
In such cases, soldiers and lawmen fanned out from their bases, consolidating a near-monopoly of force across vacant or embattled zones on the map. Fortresses offered safe refuge for troops, fulfilling defensive purposes, while also providing strongpoints for radiating armed might outward. As political scientists tell us, a monopoly of force represents the essence of sovereignty—and Beijing has asserted, loudly and often, that it holds “indisputable sovereignty” throughout most of the South China Sea. If Beijing can enforce physical control there, watch out.
The better metaphor for China’s island-reclamation project isn’t some defensive wall but a “war of posts” on land. That’s a conflict whereby armies establish strongpoints in an effort to impose a stifling presence over large swathes of territory. Now transpose that to the sea. From their seaborne posts, PLA airmen and rocketeers may be able to mount overlapping fields of fire, using tactical aircraft in concert with anti-ship and anti-air missiles.
How can allied air and sea forces counteract the PLA’s bid for maritime supremacy? Loosely speaking, they should look for ways to cut the connective tissue between the island bases, and between the islands and the mainland. Isolating them from one another and from their logistical support would leave them withering on the vine. And that would nullify their wartime potential. As with any war of posts, figuring how to sever sea and air communications connecting the base with outside support is the trick. Concentrating superior firepower to overwhelm individual outposts is a corollary.
And in peacetime? To cancel the island bastions’ impact, deploy tangible assets—warships, coast-guard white hulls, civilian and military aircraft—to flout China’s unlawful claims. Maintain a constant, conspicuous presence and document it. Stop being unobtrusive about freedom of the sea. Rather than issue a memo, take video of cruises and flights, broadcast it far and wide, and explain what it all means—especially when the PLA harasses ships or planes in international waters or airspace.
China’s opponents should hold an edge in the war of narratives, provided they wage it wisely. Freedom of the sea is codified in international law, while China’s case for indisputable sovereignty amounts to sputtering about history and threatening its neighbors. Advantage: Washington. So Beijing may get to keep its island outposts, the way it has Mischief Reef. But peacetime counterstrategy can render them largely inert. Let’s heed U.S. Seventh Fleet commander Robert Thomas’s call for multinational patrols of Southeast Asian waters and skies.
Physical assets are the crucial component of any counterstrategy, but situating ships and planes in political context is crucial to harnessing them for diplomatic purposes. If not a Great Wall of Sand, what should freedom proponents call Chinese expansionism? Well, in effect China has asserted squatter’s rights to 80-90 percent of the South China Sea, including enormous swathes of its neighbors’ exclusive economic zones. In other words, the PLA is building on someone else’s territory and defying the forces of law to evict it.
How’s that for a starting point for a diplomatic counteroffensive? Let’s mock China’s island campaign while at the same time conveying how menacing it is. You may not want to fight squatters who pack serious heat. But you can refuse them control over the countryside. Let’s wrest the narrative about freedom of the sea back from Beijing.