The Landing Zone| 7.15.15
By Alan W. Dowd
is turning tiny reefs and atolls hundreds of miles from its territorial
waters into instant islands. Its goal: to control the resource-rich
South and East China Seas, carve out a Chinese sphere of influence, and
shove the United States out of the Western Pacific. Beijing's
just-released military strategy offers some of the details.
document vows to "accelerate the modernization of national defense and
armed forces (and) resolutely safeguard China's sovereignty, security
and development interests." This expanding military capability will
"safeguard the unification of the motherland" and "China's territorial
phrases are worrisome. First, the Taiwanese people have no desire for
unification with the mainland (64 percent are opposed and only 19.5
percent are in favor). Yet Beijing is brazenly practicing amphibious
invasion operations aimed at Taiwan.
Second, Beijing's notion of territorial sovereignty differs radically from that of its neighbors.
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 privileged exploration rights. Not only does Beijing
expect others to observe its EEZ and the airspace above it as sovereign
Chinese territory (they are not), not only does Beijing refuse to
respect the EEZs of its neighbors (ask the Philippines, Vietnam and
Japan), but Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the Chinese
mainland. Its justification: a map created by Chinese cartographers in 1947.
on that map, Beijing lays claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea,
encroaching upon Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian and Philippine
territory, in addition to claims on Japanese territory to the northeast. To back up those claims, Beijing earmarked $1.6 billion in 2012 to build ports and airfields on islands long claimed by other nations. Three years later, satellite images detail Beijing's brazen land grab—or more accurately, island-construction operations.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, "China has expanded the artificial
islands in the Spratly chain to as much as 2,000 acres of land, up from
500 acres last year."
instant islands have obvious military applications. According to the
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, "China appears to be
expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including
radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns,
helipads and docks—on some of the man-made islands."
Beijing is not trying to lop off part of Venezuela (like Kaiser Wilhelm
II in 1902), or annexing the Sudeten in the heart of Europe (like Adolf
Hitler in 1938), or declaring a sovereign Kuwait "Province 19" (like
Saddam Hussein in 1990). But the principle is the same. As they bully
weaker neighbors and dot international seaspace with man-made islands,
China's leaders are taking what's not theirs. The lesson of Munich
teaches that it's better to confront such aggression than to appease it.
other expansionist dictatorships, Beijing masters in the double
standard and sometimes drifts into paranoia. According to Beijing's
defense document, "China faces various threats and challenges in all its
strategic directions and security domains;" "China's reefs and islands"
are "illegally occupied;" and "external countries" are "meddling in
South China Sea affairs." The document criticizes Washington as it
"carries on its rebalancing strategy and enhances its military presence"
in the Asia-Pacific, derides Tokyo for "overhauling its military and
security policies," and complains about "provocative actions" affecting
"China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests."
mind that the Obama administration's "Pacific pivot" came in reaction
to China's aggressive behavior in the region; or that Japan began
retooling its military and reinterpreting its constitution after China
began super-sizing its military; or that the only provocative actions in
the region are being carried out by China; or that China's policies are
eroding the sovereignty, rights and interests of U.S. treaty allies in
Japan and the Philippines.
new military strategy goes on to declare that its "armed forces will
work harder to create a favorable strategic posture with more emphasis
on the employment of military forces and means." China's navy will
"shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense' to the combination of
‘offshore waters defense' with ‘open seas protection.'" China's air
force will "shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense
those words in the context of recent pronouncements by China's leaders.
In 2012, Hu Jintao, then-president of China, called on the Chinese navy
to "make extended preparations for military combat." His successor, Xi
Jinping, declares, "We must insist on using battle-ready standards in
undertaking combat preparations, constantly enhancing officers' and
troops' thinking about serving in battle, and leading troops into
battle, and training troops for battle."
mushrooming military spending suggests this isn't mere bluster. In
2015, Beijing increased military spending by 10 percent. This follows
increases of 12.2 percent in 2014, 10.7 percent in 2013, 11.6 percent in
2012 and 11.2 percent in 2011. Here's the payoff, according to the Pentagon:
China has "a growing ability to project power at increasingly longer ranges."
China's air force deploys more than 2,800 aircraft, including 600 "modern" warplanes.
swelling missile arsenal gives it "the capability to attack large
ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific."
China deploys more attack submarines than the U.S. Navy.
China is primed to deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 55 amphibious ships, 34
destroyers, five ballistic missile submarines and two aircraft carriers
need to answer a threshold question: Is maintaining an international
system that has kept the Asia-Pacific peaceful and prosperous since 1953
in the national interest? If so—and it's difficult to argue otherwise,
given America's trade linkages and treaty commitments in the region—then
Washington should move on three fronts.
Reverse sequestration. According to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter,
"The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law
allows." However, words are not enough to preserve the status quo and
deter China. President Obama lacks the resources to flex America's
maritime muscle in the South China Sea in the same way that President
Reagan did in the Gulf of Sidra (1981-86), or President Clinton did in
and around the Taiwan Straits (1995-96).
definition, sea power is an essential element of America's deterrent
strength in the Pacific. But the bipartisan gamble known as
sequestration is chopping away at America's deterrent capabilities. At
the height of President Reagan's buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships.
Even the post-Cold War Navy of the 1990s totaled 375 ships. Today's
fleet numbers is just 284 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not
keep pace with plans to retire ships, leading to "a Navy of 240-250
ships," according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman. At that size,
America's fleet will be equal to what she deployed in 1915.
numbers aren't even close to America's maritime needs. "For us to meet
what combatant commanders request," according to Adm. Jonathan Greenert,
"we need a Navy of 450 ships." That gap has real-world implications:
The Asia-Pacific region will be left unprotected by a U.S. aircraft
carrier for some four months this year. Citing "sequestration's impact on our shipyards," among
other factors, Navy Cmdr. William Marks concedes, "The Navy is not
scheduled to provide a continuous carrier presence in some operating
regions in fiscal year 2016."
current trend lines hold, America will be investing a scant 2.3 percent
of GDP in defense by 2022. The last time America invested less than 3
percent in defense was 1940. As China builds up and builds out, this is
the best way to invite the worst of possibilities: what Churchill called
"temptations to a trial of strength."
Internationalize the problem. There's strength in numbers. Given
Beijing's economic heft and burgeoning military capability, those who
want to keep the Pacific, well, pacific will need all the numbers they
that end, officers from 23 nations—including Japan, Malaysia, the
Philippines and Vietnam (each with maritime territorial disputes with
China)—gathered in Hawaii in May for a U.S.-hosted conference on island
defense and amphibious operations.
what Jane's Defense called "unusually forceful language," the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations has issued a declaration
endorsing "freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South
China Sea." Washington should put muscle behind those words by
organizing a standing multinational maritime taskforce to answer and
turn back China's outsized claims.
Washington also should force international organizations to deal with China's provocations and illegal actions. Manila has offered a roadmap by taking its behemoth neighbor to court.
Specifically, Manila is appealing to a UN tribunal to keep China out of
Philippine waters. That's a lot to ask of the often-feckless UN, but
Manila's decision exposes Beijing to the glare of international
Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and any nation whose maritime rights have
been infringed by China should follow Manila's example. Washington can
help by offering technical assistance, diplomatic support, and satellite
and reconnaissance evidence to keep international attention focused on
3. Strengthen old alliances and build new ones. Already, there's a patchwork of alliances emerging as a counterweight to China.
"continuous provocations" by China, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
has increased defense spending for the first time in 11 years and troop
strength for the first time in 20 years. Tokyo is standing up amphibious
military units, deploying power-projecting air and naval assets, and
pursuing deeper security collaboration with India, Australia and the
Japan and the Philippines have inked a "strategic partnership
agreement" enfolding arms sales and arms transfers, conducted air and maritime exercises in the South China Sea, and are exploring plans for Japanese troops to be based on Philippine territory.
Manila has granted the U.S. military broad access to Philippine bases. Some 2,500 Marines
are rotating through northern Australia on six-month deployments.
(U.S.-Australian war games this month enfolded 30,000 personnel.) The
Navy is basing littoral combat ships in Singapore. The U.S. and India
just agreed to collaborate on aircraft-carrier development—a policy
aimed directly at Beijing. India was the biggest foreign buyer of U.S.
arms in 2013, and the two nations have conducted large-scale military
exercises annually since 2002. Washington has eased an arms-sales ban on
Vietnam, and military officials from the two former foes recently
signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations. "Among all the
choices, Vietnam chooses Pax Americana," Le Van Cuong, a retired
Vietnamese general, tells the New York Times.
ad hoc system of alliances is not a Pacific version of NATO. Instead,
what's emerging is a kind of chain-link fence of bilateral and
trilateral partnerships. Those who counter that such a posture might
trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict don't remember the
lessons of the 20th century—and don't live in China's neighborhood.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.