The Landing Zone| 7.15.15
By Alan W. Dowd

China 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.

The 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 sovereignty."

Those 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.

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 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.

Based 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."

These 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."

True, 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.

Double-Standard Trouble

Like 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."

Never 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.

China's 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 and offense."

Consider 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."

China's 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.

  • China's 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 by 2020.


Americans 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.

1. 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).

By 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.

These 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."

If 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."

2. 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 can get.

Toward 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.

In 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 attention.

Vietnam, 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 Beijing.

3. Strengthen old alliances and build new ones. Already, there's a patchwork of alliances emerging as a counterweight to China.

Condemning "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 Philippines.

Indeed, 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.

This 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.