China’s Expansion Demands Bold Actions
U.S. strategy in the South China Sea is failing. Weak and ineffective policy has permitted Beijing to achieve near-complete dominance over the region—all without firing a single shot. When China dredged sand from the ocean and claimed 3,200 acres from the sea, the United States issued carefully worded statements. When Beijing transformed its reefs into military outposts complete with runways, underground bunkers, and missile shelters, the U.S. Navy conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs)—sailing one or two ships by the islands. When China deployed electronic jammers, surface-to-air, and anti-ship missiles, the United States disinvited China from a naval exercise. Washington’s symbolic actions have done nothing to stem Beijing’s expansion.
The U.S. and its military have failed to take a bold approach. While Congress has increased the budget for new ships, new weapons, and more sailors, our strategy has remained unchanged. Even though the military now has more money, it is letting China—and its untested navy—push it out of the South China Sea. Admiral Davidson, commander of the recently renamed Indo-Pacific Command, stated in April, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Sadly, while this statement is all too true for lower level confrontations, there is now significant doubt that the U.S. could prevail in a major conflict in the South China Sea. Instead of conceding defeat, the Navy should lead the effort to make China’s expansion costly by returning to tactics proven in battle decades ago: fly American flags over foreign merchant vessels, provide convoy escorts, expand allies’ islands, and conduct rotational deployments of surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles to local outposts. We need to pursue disruptive strategies to aid U.S. allies and keep China bottled up.
The South China Sea is not only an essential economic corridor, but it is also a key military battleground. Nearly two-thirds of all global maritime trade—$3.37 trillion— pass through its waters. Twelve percent of the world’s fisheries are located near its reefs. Five other countries—Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines—lay claim to all or some of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, but none are in a position to challenge China. In the last five years, China has transformed what once were tiny fishing stations on stilts into well-armed military bases. These outposts are a physical manifestation of China’s expansionist policy—capable of blocking international trade and other regional activity. The militarization of these islands has provided Beijing a springboard from which it can extend its reach far into the Indian Ocean and western Pacific. If the United States does not push back against China now in the South China Sea, in 10 years, Chinese submarines will patrol outside San Diego’s waters, and aircraft carriers will fly Chinese jets off Honolulu’s shores. Control of the South China Sea is key to maintaining our position in the western Pacific and, ultimately, throughout Asia. Only a bold strategy that helps allies assert their sovereignty and places the United States in a strong position to defend their territory will deter China.
In 2016, a UN tribunal ruled against China’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea in a case brought by the Philippines. However, Rodrigo Duterte, who was just named President, abandoned the ruling in the face of Chinese threats of conflict and promises of economic investment. In the years since, Duterte has cozied up to President Xi and slammed the United States. In his bid to woo China, Duterte is reportedly considering a joint venture with Beijing to exploit gas reserves in disputed waters.
Compared to the Philippines, Vietnam has a much stronger military, but it too has buckled in the face of Chinese pressure. Three times in the last four years, China has coerced Vietnam through the implied or direct use of force. In May 2014, China employed Coast Guard and maritime militia ships to establish a security cordon around a Chinese oil exploration vessel within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near the Paracel Islands. When Hanoi attempted to assert its sovereignty a U.S. Department of Defense report noted, “Chinese paramilitary ships…resorted to ramming and use of water cannons to deter Vietnamese ships and enforce the security cordons around the rig.” In 2017, China again employed a cordon of governmental quasi-military vessels to pressure Vietnam to abandon its drilling near the Spratly Islands. This time, however, China took it a step further. According to the BBC, Vietnamese officials told the oil drilling company, “China had threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the drilling did not stop.”[i] Hanoi capitulated, and yet another project was scrapped in March. This time Beijing did not need to employ cordons or voice threats. Head of the Communist Party of Vietnam, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and the Minister of Defense, General Ngo Xuan Lich, insisted drilling be abandoned to avoid antagonizing China.[ii]
The U.S. can and should do more. There is precedent for protecting weaker nations from bullying by from stronger adversaries in maritime disputes. In 1987, during the Tanker Wars, the Reagan administration reflagged 11 Kuwaiti tankers to protect their oil shipments from Iranian attacks and employed frigates, destroyers, and cruisers to escort those vessels and other merchant ships in the Arabian Gulf. The U.S. Navy should resume the role it held 30 years ago. Flag the exploratory drilling rigs with American colors and use cruisers and destroyer to protect them. Force China to confront 10,000 ton warships, not 500 ton Vietnamese patrol boats.
Reflagging and escorting merchant vessels was successful in 1987 and the same tactic will be successful in 2018. Iranian attacks against ships in the Arabian Gulf decreased from 89 in 1987 to 3 in 1988. In the same period, strikes against Kuwaiti vessels fell from 4 in 1987 to none in 1988. U.S. intervention galvanized American allies and catalyzed a wider effort by western European and southern Gulf nations to protect shipping in the Middle East.[iii] The situation in the South China Sea is not as dire as it was in the Gulf—no lives were lost of late, in the battle for the Spratly Islands—but the stakes are the same. The Reagan administration refused to cede the strategic advantage to the Iranians. The Trump administration must take the same bold actions the United States made 30 years ago. Just as Reagan’s decision compelled Iran to abandon their attacks on Kuwaiti ships, a bold strategy of reflagging ships and providing U.S. Navy protection will drive Beijing to abandon their coercive tactics.
Aside from protecting drilling rigs, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines also lack the resources to build the necessary infrastructure to compete with China’s bunkers, runways, and communication networks. Of China’s rival claimants in the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has made the most improvements to its territory. Since 2014, it has reclaimed about 120 acres across 10 islets, extended a runway, and added radars to maintain maritime domain awareness. Its efforts, however, fall far short of China’s enormous undertaking. The U.S. can provide logistics support and materiel assistance to all its partners to assist with island development and help establish a springboard from which Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines can defend their territory.
Expanding islands will help, but the United States should take a second step—conduct rotational surface-to-air and anti-ship missile deployments to allies’ outposts. The placement of these weapon systems would hold Chinese warships and combat aircraft at risk, just as Beijing’s batteries on Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross Reefs keep the United States’ military in their crosshairs. The United States has a surface-to-air missile system—Patriot—but no coastal defense cruise missile (CDCM). This is a gross oversight. CDCMs are a key force multiplier in a conflict with China because they limit the enemy’s available water space and can sink any surface asset within range. The Army’s recent test of the Naval Strike Missile from the back of a truck during exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) was an important first step, but now it must buy the weapon. During World War II, the Army was instrumental in the U.S. Pacific island-hopping campaign. Seventy-five years later, the United States is in danger of stepping into a fight with no effective way to project power into the sea from land. By conducting rotational deployments of Patriot and a yet-to-be-purchased CDCM, the United States would demonstrate its commitment to the region and better position itself to defend allies’ territories.
Some critics will argue that these options are too risky and could quickly escalate into a conflict. Instead, they will push for a safer approach—create a multinational combined maritime flotilla. Similar to Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) in the Gulf of Aden, the Pacific task force would ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific maritime environment. But inevitably, this path will fail for two reasons. First, the U.S. Navy is stretched too thin. It can conduct concentrated efforts like exercise MALABAR (a joint exercise in the Philippine Sea for one month) or provide escort to drilling ships, but it cannot patrol waters for endless periods. Too many destroyers are dedicated to carrier strike groups or ballistic missile defense missions. There simply are not enough ships in the Pacific. Second, and more importantly, even if the Navy could devote ships to this endeavor, a multinational flotilla floating by artificial islands will not deter China. In the same way it brushed aside U.S. FONOPs, Beijing will dismiss a flotilla sailing in the South China Sea. Five multi-nation ships will have the same effect as the two US ships: both will fail to prevent China from further expansion.
China will inevitably complain about rotational weapons’ deployments, improving partners’ territories, and reflagging merchant vessels. But it is important to emphasize that these actions are defensive in nature. Throw China’s words back at them. When Beijing first deployed missiles to their artificial islands, the Chinese Defense Ministry said: “as for necessary military facilities, they are for defense and self-protection, and that is proper and legitimate. For instance, if someone was at the door of your home, cocky and swaggering, how could it be that you wouldn’t prepare a slingshot.” Missile deployments and convoy escorts are the United States’ prepared slingshot. China argued its moves were defensive. The U.S. should do the same.
Stronger alliances and a robust military presence will stem Beijing’s expansion. The current policy is ineffective and must be abandoned. Absent American opposition and leadership, China will have a chain of islands bristling with firepower extending from the Philippines to Vietnam and capable of projecting power well beyond the South China Sea. The Spratly Islands are not lost yet, but they will be soon if the United States does not tack toward a more overt military presence. It is time to seize on a bold approach and employ American partnerships, military superiority, and economic might to push back against China.
LT Pierce MacConaghy is an intelligence officer who most recently served as Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Plot watch officer and briefer, and National Joint Operations and Intelligence Center watch officer at the Pentagon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.