On the night of March 26 the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy corvette patrolling in the Yellow Sea, mysteriously erupted in a cataclysmic explosion and sank to the bottom. The ship was just off Baengnyeong Island, near the Northern Limit Line, which is the armistice separation line between North and South Korea. Of the 104 crew on board, only 58 survived. Salvage operations confirm the ship was struck by a North Korean heavy torpedo armed with a 200 kg warhead.
Exchange the cast of characters from North and South Korea to China and the United States, and the sneak attack on the Cheonan is exactly the sort of nightmare scenario envisioned in an analysis I wrote for the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Orbis—’How the US Lost the Naval War of 2015‘.
The article foretells a devastating Chinese surprise attack using a newly-developed anti-ship ballistic missile against the Yokosuka-based nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The parallels between the 2015 thought experiment in Orbis and the Cheonan disaster are eerie. In the hypothetical scenario, China shoots an advanced DF-21 ASBM into the American aircraft carrier, and then denies it, leaving the United States in the same quandary that Seoul now finds itself. Any defensive response risks a major war while bolstering North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
The prospects for a Chinese surprise attack are, of course, debatable. The greater issue, however, is how China has invested decades in a patient and aggressive campaign to slowly push other countries out of the East China Sea and South China Sea. The US Navy is the main target, as it’s the largest obstacle to Beijing’s strategy. The result: a well-coordinated campaign of legal, political and military pressure—and sometimes aggression—to gradually bring the littoral seas under Chinese domination.
Beginning in 2000, for example, China initiated increasingly provocative warship and aircraft maneuvers, and even started using armed oceanographic ships and fisheries enforcement vessels to try to disrupt routine US military survey missions in the East China Sea. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet aggressively intercepted a US Navy propeller-driven EP-3 surveillance aircraft 75 miles from Hainan Island. The fighter jet collided with the US aircraft, resulting in the loss of the jet and pilot. The heavily damaged EP-3 made an emergency landing on the island. In 2003, a similarly aggressive intercept occurred.
In another of the many instances of harassment of US naval and air forces, on March 7 of 2009, Chinese maritime forces stalked the USNS Impeccable ocean surveillance ship. Working in tandem with an intelligence ship, an oceanographic ship and a fisheries enforcement vessel, two commercial cargo ships crossed the bow of Impeccable, stopping directly in front of the ship. President Obama dispatched the USS Chung-Hoon to provide armed escort for the surveillance ship. In response, China sent its largest and most modern ocean surveillance patrol ship, the Yuzheng 311, into the South China Sea to assert China’s ‘rights and interests.’
These three cases are only the tip of the iceberg. In the summer of 2001, and again in 2002, Chinese ships and aircraft harassed and threatened the USNS Bowditch and the USNS Sumner, which were operating in the East China Sea. Soon after the Impeccable incident, the USNS Victorious was harassed. In each of these cases, China failed to comply with its obligations under international law to show due regard for the rights of vessels and aircraft of other nations operating in the East and South China Seas.
At the same time, China has been equally obstinate in pressing specious ‘territorial’ claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. In 1953, China issued an infamous map with a U-shaped, ‘nine-dotted line’ that laid claim to 80 percent of the South China Sea. Today, the line is derisively called ‘the cow tongue.’ In 1974, China seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam. In 1988, China again attacked Vietnamese forces on Johnson Reef and occupied six features in the Spratly Islands, and in 1994 Beijing captured Mischief Reef from the Philippines.
Ironically, most of the rocks and reefs of the Spratly and Paracel chains are merely navigational hazards and not ‘islands.’ They also lie far from China and within the 200-mile economic zones of neighboring Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. But in March, the New York Times reported that Chinese officials had told Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg that China would not tolerate ‘foreign interference’ in its ‘territory’ in the South China Sea. For the first time, Beijing has elevated the ‘the cow tongue’ to a vital national interest.
Ironically, it was Steinberg, a longtime Clinton associate, who notably coined the phrase ‘strategic reassurance’ to describe the idea that the United States should reassure China that its rise to prominence is welcome, while China should in turn reassure its neighbors that its rise is peaceful. But by claiming the South China Sea as its ‘territory,’ China is reaching far beyond its shores.
Last year, China seized 33 Vietnamese fishing boats and 433 crew members near the Paracel Islands. On April 10 of this year, farther north, a 10-ship Chinese flotilla, which included two submarines, transited between Okinawa Island and Miyakojima, another Okinawa Prefecture island. This occurred only two days after a Chinese helicopter flew within 90 feet of a MSDF destroyer monitoring the battle group, raising the danger that China was willing to endanger the safety of one of its aircraft to make a point. Then, on April 13 a Chinese Navy destroyer performed the menacing act of aiming its rapid-fire guns at a Japanese MSDF P-3C plane, demonstrating its ability to shoot down the aircraft, which was on a regular patrol mission in international airspace.
These maritime disputes are cast against the backdrop of decades of Chinese naval build-up, Beijing’s maritime bullying, and the country’s intransigent and tireless peddling of patently illegal maritime claims. China’s grand effort to convert large swaths of the oceans into an area under Chinese suzerainty is a dangerous game that risks naval war. The cornerstone of American power and security is global access, and particularly maritime mobility. This isn’t new. The first war fought by an independent United States was over the issue of freedom of the seas—the 1798-1800 Quasi-War with France. The second US war was the First Barbary War of 1804; the third US conflict was the War of 1812, and the fourth war involving the United States was the Second Barbary War. For each of these conflicts, the key US issue was ensuring freedom of the seas. Likewise, the issue of freedom of the seas helped precipitate US involvement in two world wars and, in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Vietnam War. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
But China has made uncanny progress on its dogged trek to transition from an obsolete 1950s-style coastal defense force to a balanced blue water fleet. Several factors are in play as China unveils a stable of advanced and emerging systems. First, China is working feverishly on a new weapon that will alter the strategic calculus—the 1,500-mile range DF-21 ASBM, specifically designed to decapitate US carrier strike groups. The DF-21 will be armed with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) that, in combination with a space-based maritime surveillance and targeting system, can be used to strike moving warships at sea. This is unlike any threat ever faced by the US Navy, and the prospect of intercepting a maneuvering ballistic missile reentry vehicle is daunting.
Second, after suffering an embarrassing indignity in 1996 when President Bill Clinton ordered the Nimitz and Independence carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait, China has embarked on a program to build a powerful surface fleet, which will include aircraft carriers. As a maritime nation with worldwide responsibilities, the United States devotes only 26 percent of its defense budget to the Navy and Marine Corps. The Chinese Navy, on the other hand, attracts more than 33 percent of the nation’s military spending.
While the United States has the forward-deployed USS George Washington on a short tether, oftentimes Washington has no other carrier in theater, meaning that even two or three Chinese carriers operating in the area likely will exceed the number of US flattops. The Chinese fleet is about 260 vessels, including 75 major warships and more than 60 submarines, and the entire force is complemented by hundreds of fast cruise-missiles shooting offshore patrol vessels and land-based aircraft.
By comparison, the US Navy battle force, run ragged with global responsibilities, has shrunk by 20 percent since 2001. The US fleet will be hard-pressed to maintain a force of 11 carriers, 31 amphibious warfare ships, 88 major surface combatants and 48 submarines, all spread thinly throughout the world. The United States believes it can be ‘virtually present’ everywhere, and then surge actual forces in the event of a crisis. But ‘virtual presence’ is actual absence, and the US strategy is tacit recognition that the Navy that had approached 600 ships in the 1980s is incapable of maintaining even half that number.
In February, the Center for Naval Analysis issued a report suggesting that none of this is hyperbole: the US Navy is at the tipping point, about to abandon its position of maritime superiority. So accustomed to being militarily superior, the United States is under the delusion that it could maintain sea control in Asia.
Third, China has mastered quiet air-independent propulsion (AIP) power plants for its new Type 041 Yuan-class boats. AIP extends underwater endurance from a few days to one month, and enables submarines to sprint underwater—greatly increasing their attack radius. Reportedly quieter than the US fast attack Los Angeles-class boats, the elusive AIP diesel electrics are equipped with wake-honing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. In one incident in October 2006, an ultra-quiet Song–class AIP submarine surfaced inside the protective screen of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
Fourth, China’s geographic position, with short and secure internal lines of communication, is a force multiplier. All of Beijing’s warships and land-based aircraft and submarines already are present in theater. Chinese ground command and control is connected by spoof-proof hard-wire landlines.
Fifth, China is riding a wave of national overconfidence at the same time many regard the United States as preoccupied with counter-insurgency in central Asia, strategically listless and brooding. Brimming with uncontained satisfaction—even joy—at its relentless ascent, China is overflowing with ethnic and cultural pride and itching to ‘teach lessons’ and settle old scores. These emotions fuel a ballooning sense of past wrongs to be compensated and future entitlements to be seized. Any maritime conflict with the United States (or Japan) will push China teetering over the edge of a war fever not seen since the Guns of August.
These developments don’t leave a lot of room for optimism. Caught up in the fanfare of the country’s meteoric rise, China behaves like the gangly teenager who, upon suddenly experiencing a growth spurt, clumsily begins to throw around his weight. Moreover, as the United States buckles under the strain of enormous budget deficits, the prospect is remote that the US Navy alone will recalibrate the balance of sea power.
This suggests two outcomes. The first is that China will indeed achieve its goal of becoming the Asian hegemonic power, dominant not only on land, but in the Western Pacific. The second possibility is that other nations—foremost among them Japan and India—but also including virtually every other nation in the region from Russia to Vietnam, will begin to think more overtly about collective measures and how they can balance the growing power of Beijing.
Commander James Kraska, JAGC, U.S. Navy, serves as the Howard S. Levie Chair of Operational Law at the U.S. Naval War College and Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views presented do not represent the official policy or position of the United States.