Outflank China in the South China Sea

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By Lieutenant Brett Wessley, U.S. Navy

New Challenges in the South China Sea

China has attempted to turn the South China Sea into a modern version of “no man’s land” in the event of war with the United States. If the U.S. Navy decides to sail into the teeth of China’s near seas defenses, it can expect:

• Antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) designed with carrier strike groups in mind as targets.

• Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), as part of sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS), deployed on coastlines and islands and aimed at limiting U.S. airpower.

• Sophisticated and dispersed radar and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, based on land, at sea, in air and space, designed to locate and track U.S. military assets through imagery and signals intelligence (SIGINT).

• Short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. bases in Guam, Japan, and South Korea.

• Electronic countermeasure (ECM) jammers and counter-space weaponry leveraged to blind navigation, precision-strike, and C4ISR systems.

• Modernized submarines and a sophisticated naval mine inventory, presenting a credible subsurface threat. 3

China’s natural geographic advantage and growing military strength may enable Beijing to achieve escalation dominance over the United States in a future conflict in the South China Sea. China has many coercive options available to intimidate opponents without tipping a conflict into actual war (consider the use of “maritime militias”—fishing boat fleets leveraged to swarm and harass opposing military or civilian maritime forces—as one example of military operations other than war to enforce its claims). 4 The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) supports these maritime militias, and just over the horizon, the PLAN waits to reinforce Chinese military presence, should the U.S. Navy or another foreign power attempt to intervene.

Attacking the Enemy’s Strategy

“Theory, therefore, demands that at the outset of war, its character and scope should be determined on the basis of political probabilities. The closer these political probabilities drive the war toward the absolute, the more the belligerent states are involved and drawn into its vortex, the clearer appear the connections between its separate actions, and the more imperative the need not to take the first step without considering the last.”– Clausewitz, On War, p. 584 (emphasis added).

The strategic dilemma facing the United States vis-à-vis China is that our strengths lie toward the absolute end of the spectrum of warfare, whereas China’s are concentrated in the domain of limited war or conflicts beneath the threshold of war. As military strategists, if we plan for war in a vacuum, we are cheating ourselves. China has shaped its strategy in the South China Sea to fit its carefully constructed “facts on the ground” and A2/AD operational concept. Knowing that an absolute war between the world’s top two economic powers—both of whom possess nuclear weapons—approaches the unthinkable, China has positioned itself to escalate beyond what the United States will find acceptable.

China’s rejection of the 12 July 2016 ruling by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, and rejection of internationally accepted norms through its pursuit of the nine-dash line encompassing the entire South China Sea, are blows aimed at the rules-based system supported by the United States since the end of World War II. 5 While the U.S. Navy may continue to sail through the South China Sea, China will continue to develop its illegally occupied and manufactured islands. Natural resources, ranging from oil reservoirs to vast fisheries, will be exploited by Chinese state-owned corporations and protected by the PLAN and CCG. Beijing will expand its military advantages in the South China Sea by extending the range of ASCMs and SAMs and establishing airfields across the Spratly and Paracel Islands and at Scarborough Shoal. 6Further incremental gains by China in the South China Sea, whether by seizing additional territory from competing claimants or reclaiming additional land features, will be a continuation of its incremental strategy used since 2012. 7 Over time, China will consolidate political gains through sheer inertia of the unchallenged status quo, diplomatically pointing to facts on the ground while its economic weight provides incentives for regional powers not to challenge its claims.

So what is the Clausewitzian “last step” the United States must consider in its approach to resolving the crisis in the South China Sea? This is where naval intelligence can help meet the challenge posed by China’s A2/AD strategy and help identify areas where the United States can impose costs on China’s pursuit of regional hegemony. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson captures this sentiment in the “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” stating that the U.S. Navy “will deter aggression and enable peaceful resolution of crises on terms acceptable to the United States and our allies and partners” (emphasis added).

To borrow a concept from Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, the way forward for the United States is “to attack the enemy’s strategy.” 8 By raising awareness of China’s actions in the South China Sea and enabling regional nations to invest in asymmetric capabilities for maritime defense, the United States can turn the tables on China’s A2/AD strategy and leverage geography and international partnerships to maintain freedom of navigation.

Outflank A2/AD

Increase Maritime Domain Awareness. The vast size of the South China Sea has worked to China’s advantage, obscuring its maritime movements and land reclamations, which often were in violation of international law. Although China has successfully coerced nations within the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) bloc—particularly Cambodia—to refrain from condemning its maritime claims, the 12 July 2016 ruling by The Hague has emboldened several countries to stand up for their sovereignty. 9 An issue facing Southeast Asian regional claimants, however, is the fractured status of their maritime domain awareness. With disjointed and limited funding going toward maritime domain awareness, the regional claimants’ ability to act in unison is hampered by a lack of historical and real-time intelligence in the South China Sea. How can a nation effectively call out China on disruptive maritime behavior if it cannot effectively see beyond its coastline?

Whether monitoring aggressive coercion by maritime militias and illegal maritime law enforcement or the seizure and development of contested land features, the ASEAN bloc needs to have a common picture of what is going on in the maritime domain. 10 Coastal surveillance radars, maritime law enforcement patrol craft, and maritime patrol aircraft can all play roles in maintaining awareness of China’s actions in the South China Sea. Commercial imagery satellites also can help regional powers identify illegal land reclamation. Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) could serve as a model for ASEAN cooperation on maritime domain awareness, and U.S. Navy engagement could help with providing best practices for maintaining a common operational picture (COP) across the maritime domain. 11

Although defense budgets for Southeast Asian nations have grown in recent years, ASEAN nation militaries combined spent just $38.2 billion in 2014 (compared to $165 billion spent by China in the same year). 12,13 A way around this disparity in spending is to leverage technology. The cost of ships and aircraft necessary to maintain an active presence in the South China Sea can be offset through investment in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Basing UAVs at coastal airfields or forward locations in the South China Sea could enable regional nations to keep eyes on Chinese PLAN and civil maritime activities and provide shareable intelligence to assist with an accurate COP. Partnership with the United States would provide regional nations with a wealth of experience for both operating and exploiting UAV operations and maintaining awareness of activity in their backyards.

Improve Regional A2/AD Capabilities. Just as China pursued asymmetric strategies to counter U.S. advantages in net-centric warfare and precision strike, regional ASEAN nations would be best served exploiting asymmetric advantages against China. China will continue to outspend the combined efforts of Southeast Asian nations, and it is unrealistic to expect that the regional militaries will contend conventionally with China in direct conflict or below the threshold of war. Investment in A2/AD capabilities is the most effective way to deter China from continued infringement of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Investment in coastal ASCMs and IADS would reduce China’s ability to operate unimpeded in the waters off the Philippines and Vietnam—the two nations that had maritime territory forcibly seized by China. If entering into a regional conflict, China could attempt to establish local maritime and air superiority in the South China Sea; opposing regional navies and air forces would be challenged to leave their ports or airfields. ASCMs and IADS deployed adjacent to contested maritime claims would reduce the operational benefits of China’s militarization of the South China Sea, and China likely would struggle in suppressing land-based maritime and air defenses (particularly if it were simultaneously engaged in hostilities with the United States). Instead of the South China Sea being a no-man’s land for U.S. Navy and allied forces, Chinese possessions at Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands would be denied to the PLAN and People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

The regional nations’ investments in maritime domain awareness would provide real-time targeting information for defensive antiship cruise missiles and air defenses. A functioning A2/AD system relies on ISR assets for finding, fixing, and finishing its targets, but the same investments in peacetime maritime intelligence could be leveraged in war. Regional nations could leverage relationships with the United States for help honing their proficiency in operating their A2/AD systems.

Expand Intelligence Sharing with Key Partners. The United States benefits from strong intelligence sharing with key regional partners—namely Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. Historical bilateral alliances are important, but moving into the multilateral dimension is central to affirming international treaties, such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The security of the entire region is imperiled by an aggressive China ignoring international norms. The ability of nations to share intelligence would build confidence and advance regional maritime domain awareness. If the nations of the Indo-Pacific are not seeing the same national security realities, the confusion among their policies and decision makers will play to China’s advantage.

India is critical to counterbalancing China’s actions in the South China Sea. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the U.S. Congress last year and in his speech stressed the importance of security ties between the U.S. and India. 14 India’s “Look East” foreign policy emphasizes engagement with Southeast Asian countries bordering the South China Sea, and China’s aggressive expansion in the region threatens India’s ties to the East. In addition to expanded basing agreements and joint development of defense technologies, talks are under way to increase intelligence sharing between the United States and India. Moving this relationship forward will increase India’s standing as a regional stakeholder and add to the voices calling for adherence to international law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Although the relationships between several ASEAN nations and China could make it difficult to increase intelligence sharing with the United States, select partnerships with regional nations could improve the United States’ strategic position. The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia all are claimants in the South China Sea and face similar challenges with an aggressive China. Individually tailored intelligence-sharing agreements with these states, along with continued development of bilateral naval ties, could provide an opportunity for increased intelligence collection in the South China Sea and assist regional stakeholders to better understand the sovereignty challenges posed by China.

Maintain Maritime Superiority

Changes in technology lead to changes in tactics, and understanding operational consequences is the primary concern of military strategists. Running into the teeth of an enemy’s defenses represents a lack of creative thinking—what was true at the Somme is true in the Pacific. On a macro scale, the United States can overcome the challenges posed by China’s A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea by outflanking China through regional engagement.

China’s aggressive actions have alienated ASEAN bloc members and isolated Beijing on the international stage. The geography of China’s near seas may enable its counter-intervention doctrine, but it also can be used against it. Improving maritime domain awareness across Southeast Asia, increasing the defensive A2/AD capabilities of territorial stakeholders, and establishing new intelligence-sharing agreements with and among regional partners will lay the groundwork for maintaining maritime superiority in the South China Sea. Naval intelligence will play a key role in all these endeavors. Operationalizing information in the South China Sea—whether for maritime awareness or targeting purposes—will be necessary to outflank China’s designs on the region.



1. Robert C. Rubel, “Command of the Sea: An Old Concept Resurfaces in a New Form,” The Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, vol. 65, no. 4. www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/e7dabb3b-333d-4af1-8eb3-b98d311c470d/Command... .

2. Cortez A. Cooper, “Joint Anti-Access Operations: China’s ‘System-of-Systems’ Approach,” 27 January 2011, www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/testimonies/2011/RAND_CT356.pdf .

3. Peter Dutton, Andrew S. Erickson, and Ryan Martinson, “China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities,” U.S. Naval War College Review, February 2014, www.usnwc.edu/Research---Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute.aspx .

4. Professor Andrew Erickson, “China’s Maritime Militia,” Midrats Podcast, 9 July 2016, www.cdrsalamander.blogspot.com/2016/07/chinas-maritime-militia-on-midrat... .

5. Katie Hunt, “South China Sea: Court rules in favor of Philippines over China,” CNN, 12 July 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/07/12/asia/china-philippines-south-china-sea/ .

6.“Airpower in the South China Sea,” The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 29 July 2015, https://amti.csis.org/airstrips-scs/ .

7. Robert Haddick, “America Has No Answer to China’s Salami-slicing,” War on the Rocks, 6 February 2014, warontherocks.com/2014/02/america-has-no-answer-to-chinas-salami-slicing/.

8. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 3: “Offensive Strategy.”

9. Ben Otto, “Southeast Asian Bloc Finds Unity on South China Sea Dispute,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2016, www.wsj.com/articles/southest-asian-bloc-finds-unity-on-south-china-sea-... .

10. Natalie Sambhi, “China to Indonesia: Thanks For All the Fish,” War on the Rocks, 22 March 2016, warontherocks.com/2016/03/china-to-indonesia-thanks-for-all-the-fish/.

11. “Fact Sheet: Information Fusion Centre (IFC),” Singapore Ministry of Defense, 13 February 2015, www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/press_room/official_releases/nr/2014/apr/04apr... .

12. Zachary Abuza, “Analyzing Southeast Asia’s Military Expenditures,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 7 May 2015, www.cogitasia.com/analyzing-southeast-asias-military-expenditures/ .

13. “What Does China Really Spend on its Military?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2015, chinapower.csis.org/military-spending/.

14. William Mauldin, “India’s Narendra Modi Emphasizes Security Ties in Address to Congress,” The Wall Street Journal, 8 June 2016, www.wsj.com/articles/indias-narendra-modi-emphasizes-security-ties-in-ad... .

Lieutenant Wessley is a 2009 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy currently assigned to the U.S. Pacific Command. His previous tours included Naval Special Warfare Development Group and Amphibious Squadron Six.

In conclusion...

This article appeared originally at U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings Magazine.

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