Tag: south china sea

Taiwan’s Best Option for Deterring China? Anti-Access/Area Denial

There are few David versus Goliath matchups in the international system quite like Taiwan versus China. Across virtually every indicator of national power, Taiwan is completely outclassed. In the past, Taiwan relied on a qualitatively superior military and an implicit U.S. security guarantee to maintain its de facto independence, but advances in military technology have enabled Beijing to close the quality gap. Taiwan’s military equipment and doctrine is ill-suited to this new reality. If Taiwan wishes to preserve its de facto independence, it must take a page out of Beijing’s playbook and adopt an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy.

A2/AD incorporates guided weapons and intelligence/observation systems to prevent enemy military forces from entering a specified area, and, failing that, make it costly for forces to operate within said area. Relatively inexpensive weapons systems that are difficult to defend against, such as long-range anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, are a hallmark of A2/AD. American military and political objectives in East Asia require power projection, the moving of air and naval power close to China’s shores. A2/AD is designed to make that difficult.

The same A2/AD concepts and technology that threaten U.S. forces’ freedom of movement can be used by Taiwan to defend against a Chinese invasion. This is just one of several military scenarios that could unfold, but the Taiwanese military should be prepared for the worst. The first phase of a Chinese invasion would be establishing air superiority over the Taiwan Strait and control of the sea around Taiwan. China needs to project power in order to accomplish its objectives. Taiwan can’t defeat China in a stand-up fight, but it can deny the PLA from achieving its objectives with an A2/AD strategy.

Today, Taiwan does not have the necessary military equipment, especially air and naval forces, to conduct an effective A2/AD strategy. Despite having talented pilots, the fighter aircraft of Taiwan’s air force are outclassed by new and numerous Chinese aircraft and missile systems. Earlier this week, the RAND Corporation published a study assessing Taiwan’s air defense options. The study recommends reducing the size of Taiwan’s relatively costly, aging, and increasingly vulnerable fighter fleet to invest a limited military budget toward mobile surface to air (SAM) missile systems. The relatively few surface warships in Taiwan’s navy are similarly vulnerable to Chinese weapons systems. James Holmes of the Naval War College recently recommended that Taiwan’s navy acquire more numerous, fast missile boats armed with anti-ship missiles instead of fewer, larger surface warships that would be relatively easy for the PLA to locate and sink.

A Sixteen-Decade-Long Seawater pH Record from the South China Sea

In environmental circles, ocean acidification is one of the twin evils of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations (the other being global warming). The concern is that as more and more carbon dioxide dissolves into the surface waters of the world’s oceans, the pH values of the planet’s oceanic waters will decline to such a degree that great harm – and possibly death – will be inflicted upon vast quantities of marine life in the decades and centuries to come. As a result, many are calling for immediate reductions in CO2 emissions to avoid these potential outcomes.

However, much remains to be discovered and learned about ocean acidification before any policy-related actions to address it are implemented, including a basic understanding of the natural variability of oceanic pH and its impacts on marine life across space and time. Such understanding is essential in order to prepare realistic projections of future oceanic pH, as well as the impacts of those projections on marine life. Unfortunately, as reported by Wei et al. (2015), “seawater pH has seldom been recorded owing to the nonroutine nature of its measurement, and thus continuous long-term seawater pH records are scare.” As a result, the team of nine researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences states that “very little is known about regional variability in ocean acidification on decadal to centennial time-scales, especially since the industrial era.”

The South China Sea Is Not Worth the Risk of War

Contrasting Chinese and American perspectives were on display at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, during which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter challenged Beijing over its island expansion program. Privately the possibility of war has emerged as a serious topic in Washington. Both nations should draw back from their increasingly dangerous game of chicken.

China’s territorial claims involve a complex mix of control, historical practice, international law, and treaty. In the view of most observers, Beijing’s claims are extravagant. Yet they are not unprecedented.

The early American republic made aggressive claims against both Canada and Mexico. The United States won its claims in the first case through conquest and in the second instance through negotiation. Great Britain’s decision to accommodate the United States yielded long-term peace and future friendship.

As territory most of the islands are worthless rocks. However, they carry with them control over surrounding waters and underlying resources.

While Washington lays claim to no land, it insists on free transit in surrounding waters. Equally important, with China expanding many Americans want the United States to contain Beijing.

Indeed, there is increasing comment among the chattering classes about the importance of making China “pay a price” for its aggressive behavior. The administration is more vigorously advancing claims than the claimants themselves. The United States created particular controversy flying over islands claimed by China, courting a corresponding challenge from the latter.

The problem is not asserting American navigational freedoms, but doing so in a way seemingly designed to provoke a response. In 2001 similar military gamesmanship resulted in an aerial collision which killed a Chinese pilot and brought down an American spy plane, leading to an extended bilateral stand-off.

Since then both nations have become even more concerned over credibility and reputation, which means neither will readily back down when challenged. This creates a real danger of a military confrontation.

Rather than working to prevent such an eventuality, however, a number of officials, pundits, and analysts appear to view it as almost inevitable. I recently attended a gathering which mixed policy and non-political professionals. Without a neoconservative at the table there was broad agreement that Beijing had tossed down the gauntlet, so to speak, and had to be confronted.

Most sobering was the acknowledgement that an aggressive reaction could trigger a Chinese response in kind and a confrontation such as a ship collision or plane shoot-down. The consensus was that Washington would have to act immediately and firmly by, for instance, sinking a vessel or destroying a runway.

As I point out on China-US Focus: “The unspoken presumption was that the confrontation would end there, with Beijing duly chastened. But the obvious question is what if the Chinese made a similar calculation and escalated in turn? Some “damn fool thing” in the Asia-Pacific just might trigger war between the two nations.”

Washington enjoys military superiority but must disperse its forces around the globe. More important, the PRC views its interests in nearby waters as important if not vital. In contrast, American domination is not necessary for America’s defense. Beijing knows that and will risk much more than the United States in handling nearby territorial issues.

The possibility of miscalculation and misjudgment makes it even more important that all participants step back from confrontation. The fuse to war may be long, but no one should risk lighting it.

All parties should look for creative solutions to the plethora of territorial disputes. Countries could set aside deciding on sovereignty while jointly developing resources. Neighbors could share sovereignty and resources. Beijing could pledge to maintain navigational freedoms irrespective of the islands’ ultimate disposition. 

The disputed territory is important, but not worth war. Yet a dangerous dynamic appears to have taken hold. Instead of sleepwalking into a shooting war while assuming the other party will bend, both America and China should renew their determination to defuse territorial controversies peacefully.

Military Cooperation with China: RIMPAC as a Model for the Future

The Rim of the Pacific Exercise recently concluded in waters near Hawaii.  For the first time China joined the drills.  It was a small but positive step for integrating Beijing into more international institutions.

RIMPAC started in 1971.  This year there are 23 participants, including the People’s Republic of China, which explained that the maneuvers are “an important mission of military diplomacy” and a means to strengthen “friendly relations with countries of the South Pacific through public diplomacy.”

Beijing’s participation comes at a time of significant regional tension.  The PRC’s more aggressive stance in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan have led to dangerous maritime confrontations. 

RIMPAC offers an opportunity to create some countervailing pressure in favor of a less threatening regional naval environment.  At the political level inviting Beijing to participate demonstrates respect for China’s increased military power and international role.   Doing so also counters the charge that Washington is seeking to isolate and contain the PRC.

Moreover, inclusion hints at the benefits for Beijing of a civil if not necessarily friendly relationship with its neighbors as well as America.  No doubt, the direct pay-off for China from RIMPAC is small. 

But to be treated as an equal and regular participant in international affairs is advantageous.  Although any great power must be prepared to accept unpopularity when necessary, in general a friendly environment is more conducive to ensuring both peace and prosperity. 

Law of the Sea Treaty: A Tool to Combat Iran, China, and Russia?

Every few years, the Law of the Sea Treaty rears its head as a one-size-fits-all solution to a host of current maritime problems. This time, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, are urging the Senate to ratify the treaty. The officials claim it will act as a tool to deal with aggressive actions by Iran, China, and Russia. But as I have long argued, no matter the current rationale for the treaty, it represents a bad deal for the United States.

Panetta and Dempsey rolled out three hot issues to make their case:

  • Iran is threatening the world economy in the Strait of Hormuz? The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) will help solve this.
  • China is threatening the Philippines in the South China Sea? LOST is a crucial tool to prevent war.
  • Russia is claiming land in the Arctic region to extract natural resources? LOST will put the screws to Moscow.

These international controversies will be magically resolved if only the Senate ratifies the convention.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. It is not clear the treaty would do much at all to alleviate these flashpoints. Especially since the two most important potential antagonists, China and Russia, already have ratified LOST. And it is certainly not the best option policy-wise for the United States with each issue: Iran’s bluster in the Strait of Hormuz may prove its weakness. U.S. policy in the South China Sea suffers from a far more serious flaw: encouraging free-riding by allied states. Russia’s move into the Arctic has nothing to do with Washington’s absence from LOST.

The treaty itself, not substantially altered since 1994, is still plagued by the same problems that have halted its ratification for decades. Primarily, it will cede decisionmaking on seabed and maritime issues to a large, complex, unwieldy bureaucracy that will be funded heavily by—wait for it—the Untied States.

On national security, the U.S. Navy does not need such a treaty to operate freely. Its power relative to all other navies is the ultimate guarantee. Serious maritime challengers do not exist today. Russia’s navy is a rusted relic; China has yet to develop capabilities that come close to matching ours. Moreover, it is doubtful that the United States needs to defend countries such as the Philippines when flashpoints over islands in the region affect no vital American interests.

The average American knows very little about this treaty, and rightly so. It is an unnecessarily complicated and entangling concoction that accomplishes little that the longstanding body of customary international law on the high-seas or the dynamics of markets do not account for. My conclusion in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2004 still holds true:

All in all, the LOST remains captive to its collectivist and redistributionist origins. It is a bad agreement, one that cannot be fixed without abandoning its philosophical presupposition that the seabed is the common heritage of the world’s politicians and their agents, the Authority and Enterprise. The issue is not just abstract philosophical principle, but very real American interests, including national security. For these reasons, the Senate should reject the treaty.

U.S.-China Summit Likely to Downplay Security Issues

The fact that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington has been overshadowed by the frenzy over Iran is an indictment of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment’s priorities. The U.S.-China relationship is far more consequential than Iran, the Israel/Palestine dispute, the war in Afghanistan, or any other development in southwest or central Asia. This relationship will define U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.

During the trip, Xi is likely to highlight the cooperative aspects of the U.S.-China relationship such as trade and the two countries’ shared interest in shoring up the global economy. The leaders are likely to gloss over their differences on issues such as intellectual property, the value of the renminbi, and creeping protectionism. Further down the list of issues are the growing security disputes between China and U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific: the status of China’s claims in the South China Sea, the growing U.S. military presence in China’s region, and Beijing’s belief that Washington is encircling China militarily. It should be expected that these more contentious issues will take a backseat in the discussions, at least in public.

But putting the relationship on a sounder footing requires addressing security issues. Power transitions have represented some of the most unstable periods in world history. Should China’s relative power continue to grow, its ambition is likely to do the same. Given that there are few signs that Washington will welcome a larger Chinese role in Asian security issues, this could portend serious disagreements in the years to come.

America’s China Conundrum: Simultaneously Confronting and Engaging

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is off to China for discussions with Chinese military officers. His trip follows a visit in May by China’s army chief of staff. The discussions are valuable since they will help increase transparency, if nothing else. But they won’t do much more if Adm. Mullen doesn’t bring the right message.

While the admiral is in China the U.S. Navy will be holding exercises with Australian and Japanese forces in the South China Sea. Although the number of ships involved is few, the maneuvers are meant to send a message to Beijing about its controversial territorial claims, which would turn much of these waters into a Chinese lake.

Washington has many issues at play with China—the status of Taiwan, trade and currency disagreements, support for North Korea, status of human rights, policy towards Iran. If the U.S. and People’s Republic of China cooperate, the 21st century is likely to be far more peaceful and productive. If the two nations confront each other, the future could turn ugly.

The ultimate question is whether Washington is prepared to accommodate a wealthier and more powerful PRC in coming years. Contrary to the fevered claims of some, the shift in global power likely will be gradual, not abrupt. The U.S. will remain richer, more influential, and possess a better military for years, if not decades. Indeed, China faces significant economic and political challenges and will be poorer than America even as its GDP grows larger.

However, while the speed and process of China’s rise is not guaranteed, its ability to deter U.S. military intervention will expand. Beijing’s outlay of $100 billion to $150 billion a year on the military already raises alarms in Washington, even though the latter devotes about $700 billion to “defense.” The reason? It is much cheaper for the PRC to defend itself than for the U.S. to sustain an offense capable of imposing Washington’s will on China. Beijing doesn’t need to build 11 carrier groups. It just needs the ability to sink American carrier groups.

Even if a new policy of containment seemed affordable, it still would not be in America’s interest to scatter military tripwires throughout East Asia. Americans obviously will remain very involved in Asian affairs. But alliances should be a means to an end, namely defending the U.S. Alliances should not become ends in themselves. It is hard to imagine what likely dispute—such as whose claim to the Paracel Islands is paramount—would justify the U.S. risking war with an increasingly well-armed nuclear PRC over issues the latter considered vital in its own neighborhood. Consider how Washington would react to Chinese military intervention in Central America.

The better approach would be to encourage friendly states to do more on their own behalf. In fact, that is already happening to some degree.

Japan is slowly moving beyond the strict limitations of Article 9 of its constitution, which technically bans a military. South Korea has begun looking at security beyond North Korea. Australia has embarked upon an ambitious security program. Several Southeast Asian nations have begun purchasing submarines and improving their militaries. All see, and generally fear, the specter of a rising, hostile China.

This process would be accelerated if Washington made clear that it planned to step back and would no longer act as the meddler of first resort. Countries must look after their own interests instead of automatically looking eastward for aid.

Adm. Mullen’s message in the PRC should be simple. China has gained much from its peaceful participation in the international system. Beijing will gain even more in the future if it continues the same strategy. If, however, it chooses aggressiveness over assertiveness, the PRC will have much to fear, and perhaps more from its own neighbors than America.