Options for the U.S. to Deter China in the East & South China Seas

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Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Curtin is a Field Artillery Officer with over 20 years of experience in the United States Marine Corps, including at the Pacific Division of Plans, Policies, and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps.  Annie Kowalewski is a Chinese military and defense researcher at Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Chinese militarization of artificial islands in disputed waters in the East and South China Seas.

Date Originally Written:  March 1, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  March 12, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The authors are a military member and a defense researcher.  The authors believe that Chinese actions in the East and South China Sea are destabilizing and threaten to shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Background:  China is showing no evidence of slowing down its territorial aspirations within the “nine dash line” and continues to emplace anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems on its man-made islands in the East and South China Seas[1].  China also uses its maritime militia to bull neighboring countries and extend Chinese fishing rights and territorial reach.  The United States has thus far been unsuccessful in responding to or deterring these Chinese challenges to the status quo.

Significance:  Chinese actions represent a “salami-slicing” strategy aimed at slowly changing regional norms and asserting Chinese dominance in the East and South China Seas.  This strategy allows China to exert influence and establish itself as a regional hegemon, thereby threatening the balance of power and U.S. primacy in the region.  Chinese militarization and power projection also threaten the United States’ allies and security partners, some of which the United States is bound by treaty to offer security assistance.

Option #1:  The United States invests in capabilities-based deterrents that can deter specific Chinese actions.

Risk:  China has objected to the capabilities that provide this type of deterrent, such as the new F-35B fighter operating on naval vessels in the pacific[2].  China may use the deployment of these capabilities as an excuse to finally militarize islands such as the Scarborough Shoal.

Gain:  A capabilities-based deterrent will make Chinese islands in the East and South China Seas vulnerable and, ultimately, a military liability rather than an advantage.  New technologies such as the F-35B allow the United States more flexibility when operating in the Pacific, by providing U.S. and allied commanders with a 5th generation aircraft that is normally only employed off traditional U.S. aircraft carriers.  Option #1 would not only help offset the eventual Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA(N)) numerical superiority in the Pacific, but also demonstrate the U.S. commitment to modernizing a capability that has been historically suited for military operations against static, geographically isolated island targets.  This option may help shift China’s risk calculus when deciding how aggressively it hopes to militarize the islands, once it realizes that increased island investment actually increases vulnerability instead of capability.

Option #2:  The United States invests in strategic deterrence by helping boost allies’ and security partners’ amphibious capabilities.

Risk:  Boosting allies’ and security partner amphibious capabilities runs the risk of antagonizing China.  China has already strongly condemned proposed amendments to the Japanese constitution calling for a larger defense budget[3].  China has been known to use economic and political coercion to pressure regional countries to adopt, or abandon, policies.

Gain:  Boosting allies’ and security partner amphibious capabilities will be key to creating a sea force able to challenge an increasingly capable PLA(N).  This option would also allow allies and security partners to better deal with Chinese salami-slicing activities by providing them with the capability to deter or engage the Chinese on their own, rather than rely on U.S. deployments and assistance[4].

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Bader, Jeffrey. (2014). The U.S. and China’s Nine-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-u-s-and-chinas-nine-dash-line-ending-the-ambiguity/.

[2] Lockheed Martin. (2018). The F-26B Lightning II. Retrieved from https://www.f35.com/about/variants/f35b.

[3] Huang, Kristin. (2017, October 23). China to keep wary watch on Abe’s push to change pacifist constitution. Retreived from http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2116635/china-keep-wary-watch-abes-push-change-pacifist.

[4] Erickson, Andrew. (2016, September 21). Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea. Retreived from https://armedservices.house.gov/legislation/hearings/seapower-and-projection-forces-south-china-sea.

This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

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