South China Sea Is No Black Sea

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South China Sea Is No Black Sea

The idea that the United States should abandon Southeast Asia to China is misplaced. Asia isn’t another Georgia, says James Holmes.

A couple of months back, writing in Foreign Policy, my colleague Prof. Lyle Goldstein likened the South China Sea today to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. In a nutshell, he maintains that the United States unwisely staked its prestige on a weak, remote, strategically third-rate ally adjoining a far stronger nation that coveted its territory and its political subservience. The Bush administration had ‘showered’ Tbilisi with ‘high-level attention and military advisors,’ only to utter barely a ‘whimper’ when Moscow ordered armoured forces to crush the Georgian military and occupy much of the country. The United States’ credibility took a beating when it couldn’t reverse the outcome. Siding with a vastly outclassed Georgia was a clear loser as far as foreign policy ventures go.

Lyle paints a doleful picture. If US leaders heed his advice, they should shed most commitments in Southeast Asia, which he portrays as a region of trivial importance situated adjacent to an increasingly powerful China. He maintains that ‘Southeast Asia matters not a whit in the global balance of power.’ Otherwise, Washington risks a new diplomatic setback for no conceivable gain. Just as the Bush administration had ‘no appetite for risking a wider conflict with Moscow over a country of marginal strategic interest,’ the Obama administration will not—indeed, must not—tether its fortunes to weak Southeast Asian states. This adds up to a warning against supporting friendly yet ‘unimportant’ states fighting at an impossible disadvantage. The United States should abjure vain efforts to reverse facts already established on the ground. Better to shed needless entanglements while working with Beijing to combat piracy and terrorism in the region, in hopes of building a trustful relationship at sea.

If this were a straightforward entreaty for Washington to avoid getting embroiled in the intricate maritime territorial disputes roiling regional politics, I would second it unreservedly. As we Southerners say, the United States has no ‘dog in the fight’ over who controls which island, atoll, or rock, provided the power that does control them respects navigational freedoms enshrined in customary and treaty law. Accordingly, a standard talking point among US officials is that the United States’ only interests in the controversy are upholding free navigation through regional waters and seeing quarrels over territory settled without resort to arms.

But it’s far from clear that China will respect the law of the sea or refrain from using force. It has repeatedly proclaimed ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over international waters and airspace within certain lines on the map of the South China Sea. It has sought to proscribe activities such as flight operations, military surveillance, and military surveys within select parts of the global ‘commons’, much as coastal states may do in their ‘territorial seas.’ The territorial sea is a 12 mile belt of sea just offshore where the coastal-state government exercises complete jurisdiction. It’s not coastal states’ gift to rule the waters beyond, even though international law grants them exclusive jurisdiction over natural resources in the water column and seabed up to 200 miles offshore (farther if the underwater geography warrants). Washington is entirely correct to resist creeping Chinese encroachment on the rights of seafaring states.

The Black Sea analogy changes none of this, largely because the dynamics there were quite different from those prevailing in the South China Sea today. To my mind, a situation must pass three tests for the Russo-Georgian analogy to fit. First, it must pit a strong power against a weak power of peripheral interest to the United States. Second, the mismatch in military power must be so stifling that the stronger party can stage a fait accompli, overpowering the weaker contender before the United States and the international community can muster the resolve and physical might to intervene. And third, the distance separating US forces from the theatre of conflict must be so great that Washington cannot deploy forces in time to make a difference. US forces would lack forward bases for staging and sustaining assets near the scene of combat. Happily, the South China Sea meets none of these tests especially well.

First, consider the disparity of power between China and its smaller neighbours. It’s certainly true that China outmatches any Southeast Asia state in a one-to-one competition, and by a large margin. The Philippine government, for example, has pledged to double its defence budget—to all of $2.5 billion. The US Navy will spend about that sum on its next Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer. By contrast, China spent $91.5 billion this year according to official—and likely lowballed—figures. That’s over 36 times the Philippine budget. Another data point: the US Coast Guard recently transferred a 1967-vintage Hamilton-class cutter to the Philippines. This elderly law enforcement ship became the pride of the Philippine Navy, replacing a destroyer escort built for the US Navy in World War II. This speaks volumes about Manila’s weakness at sea. Small wonder Philippine leaders have invoked the US-Philippine mutual defence pact in hopes of coaxing Washington to support their maritime territorial claims. They need the help.

The Philippine armed forces simply can’t measure up to the fleets deployed by Chinese maritime law-enforcement agencies—let alone the blue water People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) now building in Chinese shipyards. Goldstein makes much of the fact that Beijing relies on ‘unarmed patrol cutters’ deployed by non-military agencies ‘to enforce its claims in the South China Sea.’ This is ‘clearly a sign’ that China ‘does not seek escalation to armed conflict.’ Of course Beijing doesn’t want to escalate the territorial disputes to armed conflict. What sane government doesn’t prefer to get its way without fighting, accomplishing its goals without the unintended consequences that accompany warfare? By deploying cutters to defend its claims, Beijing signals matter-of-factly that it’s simply policing sovereign waters. It shrouds its claims with legitimacy. But if Southeast Asian states push back effectively, you can bet China will dispatch PLA Navy vessels to enforce its will. As former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew prophesies, ‘behind these small patrol craft will be a blue-water navy’ if China’s law-enforcement agencies can’t get the job done.

This is not a farfetched scenario. The mismatch between China and its neighbours doesn’t approach Russo-Georgian proportions. Tbilisi stood alone in its standoff with Moscow, whereas Southeast Asian states—considered in aggregate—boast considerable resources. Vietnam, for instance, fields a serious army and is procuring Russian-built Kilo­-class submarines for its navy. Its capacity to withstand Chinese bullying is on the increase. If Beijing keeps up its strident diplomacy while attempting to enforce Chinese law in disputed expanses, it may create a ‘community of interest’ among Southeast Asian governments. If small states see common interests at stake in the South China Sea, they could join forces to constitute a counterweight to Chinese ambitions. Whether China’s neighbours make common cause, then, depends in large part on whether Beijing can reinvigorate its non-threatening ‘smile diplomacy,’ or ‘charm offensive,’ toward the region—replacing the glowering visage it has displayed in recent years.

The larger point is that Southeast Asia occupies far more than marginal interest to the United States. The contrast could hardly be more stark between the strategically placed South China Sea and the remote Black Sea. The latter may as well be a dead sea for US policy. This appears lost on Goldstein, who maintains that freedom of navigation has ‘inexplicably become the main pillar of US policy in the region,’ and that this supposed pivot ‘is actually rather absurd.’ But freedom of the seas is hardly some novel concept. It has been a mainstay of US foreign policy for decades. The US State Department website helpfully points out that the Freedom of Navigation Program dates to the Carter years in the late 1970s. Since then, successive administrations from both political parties have refused to ‘acquiesce in unilateral acts of other states designed to restrict the rights and freedoms of the international community in navigation and over-flight and other related high seas uses.’

Preventing coastal states from fencing off parts of the global commons, to the detriment of freedom of the seas, is far from absurd. The Freedom of Navigation Programme ‘operates on a triple track, involving not only diplomatic representations and operational assertions by US military units, but also bilateral and multilateral consultations with other governments in an effort to promote maritime stability and consistency with international law.’ The US diplomatic and military apparatus routinely challenges excessive claims, which have a way of hardening into international custom over time if left unopposed. The State Department files diplomatic protests with offending governments. US Navy units deliberately cross over lines improperly drawn on the map, serving notice that Washington rejects them.

If freedom of navigation has only recently become a pressing matter in the South China Sea, that’s because Chinese assertions of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over nearly the entire body of water are a fairly new thing. Only in 2009 did Beijing circulate a map to the United Nations delineating its maritime claims. The much-discussed ‘nine-dashed line’ inscribed on the map encloses nearly the entire body of water. Chinese officials evidently labelled these waters a ‘core national interest’—an interest China is prepared to use force to uphold—in 2010. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly responded that Washington has a ‘national interest’ in free navigation through regional waters. But Clinton was only restating US policy goals spelled out decades before.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the South China Sea to US maritime strategy. The 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the American sea services’ most authoritative statement of how they see the strategic environment and intend to respond to it, designates the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean region (including the Persian Gulf) as the central theatres for the exercise of hard US naval power. The South China Sea straddles the seam between the two theatres. It’s a gateway not only for merchant shipping but also for navies, facilitating strategic manoeuvre for US forces. US forces are forward-deployed largely along the extreme eastern and western peripheries of Eurasia, at Bahrain, Japan, and Guam. Seagoing forces must be able to ‘swing’ between the two oceans, concentrating to meet contingencies that arise in either theatre. If denied free transit through the South China Sea, US forces would be compelled to detour to the south, around the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The agility of US military power in the grand ‘Indo-Pacific’ theatre would suffer commensurately, degrading US strategic effectiveness.

Second, it remains an open question whether Beijing boasts the power to overcome its neighbours swiftly enough to hand Washington a fait accompli. Goldstein appears ambivalent about Chinese military strength. On the one hand, he depicts the PLA Navy as so feeble that it must reposition submarines and other assets to the South China Sea to avoid US-Japanese forces stationed to the north. On the other, he implies that the People’s Liberation Army is virtually invincible. A China equipped with such a military can prevail in Southeast Asia before outsiders can step in. Which is it? It’s certainly true that the ‘anti-access’ capabilities being fielded by the PLA will prove troublesome for any opponent of China. PLA commanders can turn weaponry like shore-fired anti-ship missiles against Southeast Asian navies while inhibiting efforts by the United States, India, or other external powers to intervene in the region. Beijing’s options multiply as Chinese military power waxes.

But at the same time, China’s military and naval build-up remains a work in progress, while Beijing confronts numerous challenges along the Asian seaboard. From north to south, China must manage the North Korean nuclear impasse, the continuing US forward presence in Japan, territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, Taiwan’s de facto independence, the South China Sea imbroglio, threats to shipping in the Malacca Strait, and growing interests in the Indian Ocean. No wise commander disperses forces willy-nilly. If the PLA tries to do everything, everywhere, it may end up doing little anywhere. China’s armed forces may possess the capacity to dominate the South China Sea if commanders are willing to concentrate the bulk of their assets there. But they do so at considerable risk to Chinese interests elsewhere in the ‘near seas’. Facing few threats in the Black Sea, Russia had the luxury of concentrating against Georgia, a contiguous land power it could crush before outsiders could intervene. The strategic setting denies China this luxury.

And third, US forces remain entrenched in Northeast Asia, letting them shape events with greater ease than in the Black Sea. As Goldstein rightly points out, mounting a relief expedition to Georgia would have imposed severe if not insurmountable demands on US logistics. It’s also true that US strongholds in Japan fall under the shadow of hundreds of Chinese ballistic missiles and tactical combat aircraft. These bases’ wartime staying power is increasingly in doubt. Nevertheless, countermeasures are available. The allies are fielding ballistic-missile defences in Aegis warships, for example. They can also ‘harden’ military installations through simple (albeit expensive) expedients such as constructing rugged shelters for aircraft and shipping. In short, US statesmen and naval commanders hold many more options vis-à-vis China today than against Russia in 2008.

In short, the Russo-Georgian analogy is a stretch as a guide to US policy toward the South China Sea. Goldstein is correct that the United States has no interest in the specifics of the maritime territorial disputes and should refuse to be drawn into them. But neither can Washington permit Beijing to establish the principle that major powers can modify or nullify international law by fiat. Navigational freedoms are not China’s to grant or withhold. If it disengages from the region, letting China get its way, the United States will risk appearing to acquiesce in a dangerous precedent. It could forfeit its liberty of strategic manoeuvre along with its standing as guarantor of the global commons.

Goldstein closes his essay by invoking Theodore Roosevelt’s doctrine of the ‘Big Stick,’ urging the Obama administration to ‘speak softly’ through ‘flexible, practical, and quiet diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia. To be sure, ‘TR’ was a fervent believer in behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But for him, brandishing a big stick meant being tactful while yielding nothing on matters of principle. It also meant backing up US diplomacy with ample reserves of physical power—witness the 1907-1909 cruise of America’s ‘Great White Fleet,’ a venture designed to deter Imperial Japan from carving out a nautical preserve in the Western Pacific. Freedom of the seas was a non-negotiable principle for Roosevelt, and it should remain so today. His big stick makes an excellent guide to US diplomacy—just not in the way Goldstein intends.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.