South China Sea: How to Prevent China From Changing the Status Quo
Image Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Navy

South China Sea: How to Prevent China From Changing the Status Quo


North Korea’s recent nuclear test has once again focused world attention on a region fraught with 19th century security concerns of aggression and territorial aggrandizement. The recent G20 summit meeting in China, however, studiously avoided the greatest long-term threat to peace and security in the region – Chinese aggression in its maritime borders. In the month leading up to the summit, China sent at least 36 ships—coast guard, marine surveillance, fisheries law enforcement command—into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Another 200 to 300 fishing vessels entered the contiguous zone. Roughly 800 miles away, in the South China Sea, a flotilla of Chinese barges and coast guard ships have sailed around the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal. At this writing, China and Russia are conducting a combined exercise including seizing and defending islands.  This ramped up Chinese activity has stoked fears in Tokyo and Manila that China is positioning itself to change the status quo, such as occupy the features or, at a minimum, blockade them.

Both Japan and the Philippines are taking active diplomatic measures. Japan launched a furious set of protests, requesting China to withdraw its ships from Japanese waters and prevent the reoccurrence of such situations in the future. Former President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines visited China to negotiate an agreement on maritime disputes. These diplomatic measures are appropriate and important, but diplomacy without the threat of an armed response to aggression is unlikely to succeed.

China appears to be testing opportunities on its maritime borders – where is the weak spot it can exploit? The United States is a treaty ally of both Japan and the Philippines. The stakes for our two allies are sovereign territory – the highest stakes in international relations. At stake for the United States is its influence in East Asia, where most of the world’s wealth, and most of its military power, are located. The damage that China is doing to its reputation and the scramble of countries in the region to cooperate with the United States do not appear to deter China from engaging in provocative behavior. What should the three countries do?

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Without taking a position on the merits of all sovereignty claims, the United States should make it explicitly clear that it regards the Senkaku Islands and Scarborough Shoal as fundamentally different from the other territorial disputes plaguing the region. Chinese aggression against either would trigger the alliance obligations the United States has to both countries. The United States has already made this policy clear in the case of the Senkakus, but not yet for Scarborough Shoal.

At the same time, the United States should make it clear that the lead role for defense of these features lies with our allies, Japan and the Philippines. We can and will support them, but it is their sovereignty that is being challenged by China. They are the first lines of defense. They should continue to bolster their defenses. Japan has recently requested a record $50 billion defense budget that focuses heavily on island defenses. The Philippines has been slower, but it too recently requested a record-breaking $2.9 billion defense budget that included frigates, surveillance planes, and radar to boost its surveillance and detection capabilities of Chinese forces. President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent intemperate statements, although they do not represent the majority of Philippine sentiment, risk undermining American support against Chinese aggression.

Beyond general defense increases and diplomacy, Japan and the Philippines must build contingency plans for the defense of these features. Contrary to most military commentary, China is not an easy victor in a fight over these islands. Even without help from the United States, Japan’s Self Defense Forces can make a Chinese grab of the Senkakus a high-risk operation. The Philippines has a very weak maritime and air capability compared to China’s, but has a full range of maritime and air guerrilla tactics that could be brought to bear on a shoal only 100 miles – five hours’ steaming or 15 minutes’ flight time – off its coast. Both countries could send strong signals to China by exercising these plans in waters close to these disputed features. The United States should make plans to support the Japanese and Philippines contingency responses, and participate in exercises that practice and refine the combined plans. Japanese and Philippine defenses supported by the United States should be adequate to prevent China from successfully taking and holding any land feature.

Finally, the United States, Japan and the Philippines should prepare an economic strategy in case of Chinese aggression. China’s economy is big, and would retaliate against sanctions with measures of its own, but the interdependent nature of trade makes China vulnerable to actions brought against it. A full range of worldwide sanctions and embargoes triggered by an unprovoked Chinese attempt to seize either the Senkakus or Scarborough will deal further blows to China’s already contracting economy.

With strong defenses and realistic, effective and well-practiced military contingency plans in hand, Japan and the Philippines can treat Chinese activities in their waters as what they are – shadow-boxing, grey-area signaling, and provocative bluffing. Japan, the Philippines and the United States do not need to respond to every Chinese action, except an actual attack. They should make their own deployments to the area, but do so in a more unpredictable manner—sometimes in large numbers, sometimes in smaller numbers—to offset the perception that China controls access to these land features. Critically, they should continue to work together to offset Chinese actions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement that Japan will provide Duterte with two additional patrol boats and lend up to five used surveillance aircraft demonstrates trilateral unity and provides real capability.

The eventual objective in both the East and South China Seas is a series of diplomatic agreements to settle sovereignty disputes by negotiation and compromise rather than through force or gray zone actions. However, such diplomatic progress will not take place unless China’s potential military actions and current shows of force are neutralized by offsetting defensive military capability.

Dennis Blair is the Chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and former Director of National Intelligence (2009-10). Adm. Blair also served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, the largest of the combatant commands.

Dr. Jeffrey Hornung is the Fellow for the Security and Foreign Affairs Program at Sasakawa USA.

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