ASCF Report | 4.28.14
By Alan W. Dowd
The Obama administration’s
long-promised “Pacific pivot” can’t come soon enough for the Philippines. After
trying to fend off Beijing’s bullying, encroachment and, at times, outright
aggression in the South China Sea, Manila is taking its behemoth neighbor to
court. Specifically, Manila is appealing to the UN to settle a decades-old
sea-border dispute and keep China out of Philippine waters. That’s a lot to ask
of the often-feckless UN, but with the United States focused on
“nation-building at home,” it may be Manila’s best option for now.
At issue in the South China Sea are boundary lines separating the
territorial waters—and in some cases, the islands, atolls and shoals—of the
Philippines, China, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam.
Beijing has made some truly outlandish claims in the South China Sea—an area that, not coincidentally, may
hold more than 200 billion barrels of oil. How outlandish? By international convention, a
country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles from its coastline. Beyond that,
nations observe an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200
miles off a country’s coastline and allows for exploration rights. Not only
does Beijing expect others to observe its EEZ as sovereign Chinese
territory—which it is not—not only does Beijing refuse to respect the EEZs of
its neighbors—just ask the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan—Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the
Chinese mainland. Its justification: a map created by Chinese cartographers in 1947. (Version of
the map below is courtesy of Radio Free Asia.)
Based on that map, Beijing has claimed 80 percent of the Philippines’ EEZ, enfolding territory just 50 miles off the Philippine coast;fired on fishing boats in Philippine waters;
and recently earmarked $1.6 billion to build ports and airfields on
islands long claimed by the Philippines. In
fact, The Washington Times reports that China has eight military bases on reefs
claimed by the Philippines.
Manila’s case before the UN arbitration tribunal is a direct
challenge to Beijing’s outlandish map.
In addition, Manila is tenaciously defending one of its clearest
claims to sovereignty in the area—the rusting wreck of an old warship the
Philippine navy purposely scuttled atop a shoal in 1999. As The Wall Street
Journal reports, the ship, which continues to be manned, is “something of a
symbolic marker in efforts to withstand China’s growing ambitions.” And it’s an
irritant to Beijing, which explains why China has tried to prevent resupply of
Manila’s defiant symbol of sovereignty.
Of course, this is about much
more than the Philippines. The waters claimed by Beijing comprise one of the
world’s main trade arteries, carrying 50 percent of global trade.
The South China Sea dispute cries out for
American leadership. America is the only nation with the capacity and
credibility to stand up to neighborhood bullies like China, enforce the
principle of freedom of the seas and keep the global commons secure.
It pays to recall that since 1979, U.S. forces have challenged excessive air
and sea territorial claims under the Freedom of Navigation program. President Reagan made good
use of the program in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean. But amidst
sequestration’s devastating defense cuts, Cold War-style tensions in Eastern Europe,
al Qaeda’s reemergence in the Middle East and North Africa, and nuclear
gamesmanship in Iran, President Obama may lack the resources to flex America’s
maritime muscle in the South China Sea in the same way President Reagan did in
the Gulf of Sidra. Consider the numbers:
At the height of
President Reagan’s buildup, the
Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. Current
recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to
“a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John
Lehman. At that size, America’s fleet will be equal to what she deployed in
Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78 stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to
seven years and had to seek a congressional waiverto deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the
legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald
Ford is completed. The attack-sub fleet will shrink from 55 to 42 by
sequestration continues to eat through the military, the Navy could be forced
to mothball 38 more ships.
plans to dry-dock14 ships—including half the Navy’s cruiser fleet—to save cash.
Under the plan, as the U.S. Naval Institute reports, “The cruisers would be modernized, but they would not be manned.” It will
be interesting to see how effective a fleet of dry-docked ships without sailors
is at deterring China.
These numbers aren’t even
close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders
request,” according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy
of 450 ships.”
As Assistant Secretary of
Defense Katrina McFarland admitted in March, “Right now, the ‘pivot’ is being
looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.” Although McFarland later retracted
her remarks, she
was guilty of nothing more than telling the truth.
While Washington whittles
away at the big stick, Beijing isn’t cutting anything from its military. On a
percentage basis, the growth in military-related spending by China since 2000
is staggering: from $20 billion to as much as $215 billion—an unparalleled jump on a percentage basis.
The payoff: According to the
Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, China now
deploys some 79 principal surface combatants, 55 submarines, 55 amphibious
ships and 85 missile-equipped fast boats. Beijing is investing in an array of
“anti-access and area-denial weapons,” including bombers, submarines and
sea-skimming missiles capable of attacking ships from 1,500 km away,
“particularly aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean,” the Pentagon concludes, adding, China wants “to become the preeminent
Asian power.” That presents a problem for the current preeminent Asian power:
the United States.
Of course, even if it patches
together the resources to keep the South China Sea open—and the Philippines secure—Washington
seems to lack the will to wield the big stick in the Pacific. Everything from
the White House’s “come home, America” rhetoric and “lead from behind” half-measures,
to its massive military retrenchment and utter failure to develop credible policy
responses to challenges from Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang, suggests
uncertainty. According to a high-level U.S. military official, the post-Crimea refrain from America’s Pacific
allies is: “Are you going to do the same thing
to us when something happens?”
That’s the worst message for
Washington to send—at the worst time—to friend or foe in the Pacific.
What to do? The short answer
First, the administration
should stop the slide toward sequestration’s guillotine. The United States
cannot keep the Pacific, well, pacific on the cheap. Policymakers of both
parties are making the mistake of being penny-wise and pound-foolish: The
lesson of history is that inadequate investment in defense always carries a
much higher cost down the road than the peace-through-strength model.
Second, the administration
must back up words with actions. Defense
Secretary Chuck Hagelrecently traveled to the region to “reemphasize the rebalance [and] strategic
interests of our country, to reassure our allies, to, again, make very clear of
our commitment to our allies in the Asia Pacific.”But words aren’t enough to deter aggressors, which means
President Obama needs to borrow a page from President Reagan’s playbook and
dust off the Freedom of Navigation program.The
administration deserves credit for sending a flight of B-52s into China’s
unilaterally-declared “air-defense identification zone” in late 2013 to enforce
freedom of the skies. In the same way, the president should order the Navy to
enforce freedom of the seas by routinely steaming ships through the
international waters China is trying to poach.
Having a U.S. presence in the Philippines will
reinforce the message. In 2012, Manila
offered facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Airbase as servicing hubs for U.S.
aircraft and warships. In April 2014, Manila and Washington agreed to
allow U.S. forces broad access to Philippine bases, while solidifying America’s
security commitment to Manila. Published reports indicate that Manila and
Washington expect hundreds of Marines to rotate through the Philippines
should help rebuild the woefully under-equipped Armed Forces of the Philippines
(AFP). The Philippines invests less than 1 percent of GDP on defense
(translating into a ranking of 136th in the
world). President Benigno Aquino is investing an extra $1.8 billion over the
next few years to beef up the AFP—a significant amount given that Manila’s
annual defense outlays are just $2.9 billion. (Manila increased defense
spending by 81 percent in 2011.) Yet these new
defense outlays cannot cover up the AFP’s deficiencies. Consider the
state of Manila’s air force, which retired the last of its fighter jets—antique
The Obama administration
pledged just $50 million in military aid to Manila last year. Yemen, by
comparison, receives $100 million in
military aid annually. Egypt’s not-so-friendly government recently received a
shipment of U.S. F-16s. Manila, too, requested F-16s from Washington but
had to settle for FA-50 fighter-jets from South Korea.
More akin to trainers than modern warplanes, these planes would be no match for
China’s high-tech air force.
Fourth, the administration should read up on history. Like today’s China,
the Germany of the late 1800s was a rising and restless power. Washington was
deeply concerned about Germany encroaching upon U.S. interests. Washington’s
concerns were validated by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s provocative deployment of a
fleet to Manila after Adm. Dewey’s victory over the Spanish. Germany’s
attempted blockade of Venezuela a few years later almost drew the United States
into a war. These incidents explain why President Theodore Roosevelt made sure his dealings with Germany were reinforced by
the big stick of the U.S. Navy.
Deterrence worked with Imperial Germany; it worked with the Soviet Union;
and it can work to keep the peace with China and keep the Philippines secure—but
only if Washington stops whittling away at the big stick.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.