Thursday, May 28, 2015

• How America Can Stop China in the South China Sea - John Hemmings

Attacking China's potent ballistic missiles, their launchers and their command-and-control systems before the missiles strike U.S. bases and surface ships would be an efficient way to reduce the threat.
By Thomas J. Christensen


Coercive diplomacy with China today is arguably more complicated than it was with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, at least after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
One reason for this is that no consensus exists in East Asia on the territorial status quo, as there did between the two Cold War camps in most regions of the world. 

The People’s Republic of China, in the center of a region of great importance, has maritime sovereignty disputes with several of its neighbors, including two formal U.S. allies (Japan and the Philippines) and one security partner (Taiwan).

Laboratory research on prospect theory, a psychological exploration of risk-based decision-making, demonstrates that most actors accept much bigger risks and are willing to pay larger costs to defend what they believe is rightfully theirs than to obtain new gains at others’ expense. 

In a world in which conventional conflict could conceivably escalate to nuclear war, this human tendency is a force for stability; attacks across recognized boundaries by either side would be risky, and deterrence against such attacks is relatively credible.

But in East Asia today, governments draw competing maps about the maritime domain. 

There are significant differences between mainland China and Taiwan about the sovereign status of the government on the island, and between China and Japan over who owns the Senkaku islands.

There is also disagreement among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over ownership of islands, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea.
We should take no comfort in the apparent sincerity of all the claimants. 

If all actors truly feel they are defending rightful claims against the revisionism of others, the chicken game of international security politics is more likely to lead to a deadly collision.

These disputes are fueled by historical victimhood narratives and postcolonial nationalism.
For the countries involved, defending sovereignty claims and recovering stolen territories are core missions.
China is no exception.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, China has been more confident abroad and more afraid at home.
The country's elite feels that its power position on the international stage has improved drastically.
But the foundations of its export-led and investment-fueled growth model were shaken at the same time.
Top leaders worry about rising social discontent.
It isn't a good time for Chinese leaders to look weak on defense. 

And China doesn't have to be the actor that sparks a dispute for tensions to escalate.
In 2010, for example, China often reacted sharply to events initiated by others, such as Japan’s arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain and crew near the Senkaku Islands.
Since then we have seen a mix of Chinese assertiveness -- such as its placement and then removal last year of an oil rig in waters disputed with Vietnam and its continuing land reclamation projects on South China Sea reefs -- and its abrasive reactions to others’ actions, such as an upgraded Chinese maritime presence near the Senkakus since the Japanese central government purchased some of the islands from a private Japanese family in 2012.

The Chinese leadership could use its conventional military power to threaten U.S. partners and to impose high costs on U.S. forces if they intervened to assist their allies. 

The ability to conduct such asymmetric warfare against the U.S. can potentially affect how disputes are managed in peacetime and who might prevail politically if a fight were to occur.

The U.S. has ways to reduce a threat posed by China’s ability to wage asymmetric warfare.
But a future U.S. president might be reluctant to use some of the more effective methods the American military has at its disposal -- such as destroying or disabling military targets on the Chinese mainland -- especially early in a conflict when such measures would be most effective. 

For example, attacking China's potent ballistic missiles, their launchers and their command-and-control systems before the missiles strike U.S. bases and surface ships would be an efficient way to reduce the threat. 

Chinese submarines, which can fire torpedoes and cruise missiles or lay sea mines, pose another potential threat.
The U.S., all things being equal, might be tempted to attack submarine ports and naval command-and-control systems on Chinese soil.

But all things are not equal.
No U.S. president has ever launched robust conventional attacks against the homeland of a nation with nuclear retaliatory capability

Moreover, the conventional mobile ballistic missiles and submarines China has developed to counter superior U.S. forces overlap dangerously with the land-based missiles and submarines that China is developing to provide a secure nuclear retaliatory capability.

If the U.S. were to attack missile systems and submarines for the purpose of protecting against conventional attack early in a conflict, Washington could unintentionally compromise portions of China’s nuclear arsenal as well. 

Chinese leaders could mistakenly view this as an attempt to eliminate China’s nuclear deterrent, risking escalation.
China adheres publicly to a no-first-use doctrine on nuclear weapons, a position that would seem to mean that no amount of conventional firepower leveled against it would cause it to resort to a nuclear response. 

But internal Chinese military writings suggest that no-first-use is more of a guideline than a rule and doesn't necessarily apply under conditions in which a technologically superior foe attacks crucial targets with conventional weapons.
Even without this risk, the regional partners the U.S. relies on would likely oppose provocative early conventional strikes against the Chinese mainland. 

Those countries are in range of China’s conventional weapons and economically dependent on the transnational production system that has China as its fulcrum.
If the situation sounds hopeless, it's not. 

It helps mightily that China and the U.S. would be severely harmed by a conflict across the Pacific.

For Americans, it is important to fixate less on China's potential to catch up to the U.S. in total military power and more on analyzing which U.S. and allied strategies since the end of the Cold War have been effective in specific geographic and political contexts. 

For example, the George W. Bush administration successfully mixed the credibility of the American commitment to the security of Taiwan (by selling it large tranches of weapons and warning mainland China against aggression across the Taiwan Strait) with reassurances to Beijing that the purpose of the U.S. defense relationship with the island was not to support permanent Taiwan independence from the Chinese nation. (For example, the U.S. publicly opposed a 2008 referendum that called for seeking United Nations membership for the island under the name Taiwan.) 

The Obama administration has signaled to the Chinese that the U.S. supports Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands (for example, when the president reiterated in Tokyo in 2014 that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan covers the disputed islands).

But his administration also has reportedly called for restraint from Japan as well.

Both of these examples show how a combination of U.S. power and resolve on the one hand, and diplomatic appeasement on the other, can temporarily calm volatile situations involving a rising China.

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How America Can Stop China in the South China Sea
John Hemmings

"If the United States and its allies want to stop this, they must think fast and act faster."
The release of a U.S. Navy P-8 video flying over the South China Sea was a shock to many.
The footage revealed a small armada of dredging vessels, support ships, and auxiliaries, working diligently to build People’s Liberation Army Air Force bases. 


According to international law, most islets China has occupied lie within the territorial waters of either the Philippines or Vietnam, and Chinese actions could be interpreted as maritime invasion. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, neither Chinese behavior, nor its 9 dotted line, are consistent with customary international law or the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Nor do it’s historical claims stand real scrutiny, as a recent piece by South China Sea scholar, Bill Hayton shows.

China’s actions, therefore, are a gross infraction of the internationally agreed upon system of rules and represent a major challenge to the current global order, particularly since it takes place across one of the world’s most vital shipping arteries. One might argue, that it is as much a challenge to international peace and security as was Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. If China is allowed to create islands in order to claim control over a vital shipping lane, what’s to stop a slew of global imitators? What exactly is China’s strategic aim and what can be done about it?

Some would argue that China views the international system with cynicism, having been prey to Japanese and Western imperialism during the 18th and 19th centuries. China’s behavior, they say, is merely a means of protecting itself from the types of naval intrusions that it suffered, a “Great Wall of Sand,” to consolidate its First Island Chain. There is some truth to the argument that Chinese naval behavior is predicated on a political historical narrative of weakness and foreign predation. Certainly, much of what China is doing is explained this way domestically.

However, China has shown itself to be willing to adopt elements of the international system which favor its interests; its membership in the UN Security Council and a number of international fora, like the WTO, World Bank, and many others. Furthermore, China’s narrative of weakness—the so-called “100 years of humiliation”—cleverly highlights predation on the part of the West, while papering over China’s own Imperial Qing (1644-1912) predation on neighbors Dzungaria, Tibet, Vietnam, Formosa, and Laos. In many ways, the 100 years narrative is used to justify China’s behavior in a similar way Berlin used the “shameful peace at Versailles” to mobilize Germany’s domestic politics in the inter-war period.

The historical similarity to Germany’s expansionism during this the 1930s and China’s push on its periphery is striking, and might serve as a framework for how the US and its allies should build a political-military counter strategy. One immediate implication of this framework is to avoid any policy of appeasement; history teaches us this merely facilitated war in the end as Hitler’s ambitions were fed by the Rhine area and the Sudetenland. China’s strategy seems to hold a geopolitical logic. Certainly undersea gas fields and fertile fishing waters play a role, but it is fundamentally Chinese behavior is about taking control of one of the world’s busiest trade sea-lanes. This is in essence the first step in a three pronged strategy: first, dominate the South China Sea with Chinese military forces; second, use this de facto control to develop a new benevolent Sino-centric system in Southeast Asia; one in which ASEAN states implicitly submit their foreign policy to Chinese control; third, use this control to exert pressure on Seoul, Taipei, Manila and Tokyo—four U.S. allies, heavily dependent on the sea-lane, which transits the South China Sea.

The only way to counter this strategy would be for the United States to incrementally shift its policy of hedging from one of engagement to one of balancing, politically and militarily. The United States should adopt this two-pronged political and military strategy in close consultation with its friends and allies in the Asia Pacific region. It cannot afford to walk too far forward; it must seek to maintain the moral high ground afforded it by China’s actions. The first step should be to begin a long-term, multilateral diplomatic push at states in the region for a conference to cease militarization of the seas. The date of such a conference should be at least six months in the future, to give the US and its allies time enough to coordinate a concerted diplomatic push at fence-sitting states in the region, particularly the “flip” states Indonesia and Malaysia. US diplomats might trial this at the Shangri-La conference later this week. After all, even Chamberlain had a “Munich.” The failure of the United States and its allies to get China to a conference up until this point is a deeply troubling failure.

Secondly, in order to pressure China to the table, the United States must assist a concerted strategic change in the military posture of the Philippines and Taiwan. With American, Japanese and Australian help, the two island states should build up strong asymmetric capability, known as anti-access, area denial (A2/AD). Radar systems, mobile anti air-and-ship missile systems should be built up en masse so as to counter Chinese attempts to dominate the sea and air in and around the South China Sea. Such systems should be able to reach far into the South China Sea, and fundamentally challenge Chinese attempts to dominate the immediate domain. Such a strategy would nullify China’s new bases, making them virtually useless, while remaining defensive and non-provocative. Other ASEAN states interested in such defense technologies should also be considered.

If such a strategy were well-funded, it would make things very difficult for Beijing. Certainly the PLAAF island bases could be hardened, and their presence would continue to be a peace-time source of leverage, but at least this leverage would be somewhat ameliorated tactically. Furthermore, their use as actual air fields in times of crisis would be challenged completely from Philippine and Taiwanese air space. Such a tactic, if carried out incrementally and in response to Chinese efforts, would present Chinese strategy with a dilemma. If they continue to build up their forces, U.S. and allied forces would simply respond in kind. If they seek diplomatic redress, then both sides freeze the build-up. In many ways, this tactic would solve the age-old conundrum of how to get Beijing to parlay at the diplomatic conference described above. It would also counter the historical problem of appeasement or ‘rolling ambition’, the ever-increasing appetite for territory of challenging states.


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A Chinese Naval submarine docks at the Ngong 
Shuen Chau Naval Base in Hong Kong.



China's drive to expand its influence throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans has alarmed the rest of Asia and caused countries in the region try their best to counter Beijing's rise.
India, in particular, is wary of China's apparent desire to expand its role and become a dominant naval player in the Indian Ocean.


This concern over its own backyard has led New Delhi to join the US, two of the world's largest militaries, and ink a military-cooperation agreement that would provide India with sensitive US military technology. 


According to a statement from the US Defense Department, the deal "agreed to expedite discussions to take forward cooperation on jet engines, aircraft carrier design and construction, and other areas."


India hopes to complete two indigenous carriers with US aid within the next decade, although one of those carriers has yet to progress out of the planning stage. 


This aid will help to quicken the pace of construction as well as contribute to the utility of future aircraft carriers within India's navy. 


In addition, one of the key carrier technologies India is interested in is General Atomics'Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). 


EMALS works in concert with catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) systems, which are used aboard US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the most advanced carriers currently in the US fleet. 


This technology would allow Indian vessels to launch aircraft at a faster rate and with improved ease, compared to previous models. 


An EMALS and CATOBAR system would also allow Indian carriers to launch a range of heavy fighters and surveillance planes. 


This willingness to partner with India showcases the unease over China's rise and the consequent US push to create a coalition to check Beijing's expanding influence. 



India's Indigenous Aircraft Carrier P-71 "Vikrant", built for the Indian Navy, leaves Cochin Shipyard after its launch in the southern Indian city of Kochi on August 12, 2013.
China has consistently increased military spending year over year. 


In 2014, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated Beijing spent $216 billion on its military compared to $610 billion for the US and $50 billion for India.
Aside from military spending, Beijing has been steadily investing in port installations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. 


These ports have allowed for Chinese merchant vessels, in addition to submarines and warships, to have safe harbor throughout the entirety of the Indian Ocean.


China has raised Indian suspicions by docking submarines at the port of Colombo in nearby Sri Lanka, and there is concern that Beijing, in the words of Indian GeneralDeepak Kapoor, is trying to construct a "string of pearls" through the Indian Ocean in order to establish naval and commercial superiority on India's strategic turf. 


In addition to the naval bases, China has raised concern within India by further expanding its maritime powers with the development of aircraft-carrier battle groups.


Currently, China has the largest aircraft carrier in Asia in the Liaoning, a 302-meter former Soviet vessel, which is capable of carrying 50 aircraft or helicopters. 


Although the carrier's size is daunting, the Liaoning is an older vessel that's prone to mechanical problems.
It's more of a test carrier than an actual tool for Chinese force projection. 



China is hoping to rectify that problem with an indigenously produced carrier that Beijing hopes will be ready by the 2020s.
Currently, the carrier is still in the development stage and is not yet under construction. 


India has similar carrier-related problems to China.
Although it has three vessels, the Viraat is set to be retired next year and the Vikrant, though set to premier in 2018 or 2019, is years behind in delays and cost overruns.


That leaves only the Vikramaditya operational — although, like the Liaoning, it's a repurposed Soviet carrier built in the early 1980s that suffers from frequent mechanical problems.
However, with US aid, India should have a new carrier operational within 10 to 12 years. 


Further afield, China has also pushed its territorial claims in the South China Sea. 


Although India does not directly border the sea, New Delhi retains interest in the region for both commercial shipping as well as oil exploration. 


Beijing's aggressive claims to the region disrupt both of these interests while playing into the US' interest of forming a loose international coalition as part of its Pacific Pivot. 


"I think what the U.S. is doing if you look carefully with the defense guidelines with Japan, Vietnam and elsewhere, is we're putting together a loose coalition of allies and security partners that includes India, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia and so on," Atlantic Council senior fellow Robert Manning told the Washington Times.
"What we're doing in India is kind of a piece of that counterbalancing strategy."


So far, China has constructed over 1.5 square miles of artificial islands on top of reefs in the South China Sea.
According to Reuters, Beijing has completed advanced stages of construction for six different island reefs throughout the sea with construction starting on a seventh. 


The expansion of Chinese construction in the South China Sea is kicking off a series of territorial disputes with Beijing's neighbors in the south, all of whom also have competing maritime claims to the reefs and islands:



Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all have military bases within the South China Sea on islands that those countries control.
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