Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. Show of Force in the South China Sea

A sacrifice

Pham Huy Thong, “A Sacrifice,” Oil on canvas Craig Thomas Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In a show of counterforce, the U.S. has sailed an aircraft carrier, two destroyers, two cruisers, and the command ship of the Japan-based 7th Fleet into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.  The USS John C. Stennis deployed from Washington state on January 15.

The action follows the Chinese deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands last month, and the testimony before Congress of the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, who told Congress “China seeks hegemony in East Asia”.

The United States has patrolled these waters for decades, spending a combined 700 days in the South China Sea with ships of the Pacific Fleet during 2015.  Last October, the USS Lassen, a destroyer, conducted a freedom of navigation patrol within the 12 nautical mile limit of Subi Reef, one of seven artificial islands built up by China in the Spratly Island chain. And on January 30, the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a similar patrol around Triton Island, also claimed by Beijing, and part of the Paracel Islands archipelago.

Beijing denies it is the source of the military tension in the region, arguing it is the U.S. that is causing the tension. “If you take a look at the matter closely, it’s the U.S. sending the most advanced aircraft and military vessels to the South China Sea,” said a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Foreign Ministry, who warned that such a buildup could lead to a “miscalculation.”

A potential miscalculation was among the fears raised in a March 3 op-ed by Michael T. Klare for The Nation, entitled “Are the Major World Powers Blundering Toward War?” Klare argues the great powers are coming dangerously close to starting another world war, noting the rising aggressiveness of Russia and China, and the escalating reaction of the U.S., with its “pivot to Asia.” 

Klare argues that all of the major powers need to step back and reduce tension, and calls for the Obama administration to rethink its decisions to send B-52s and warships into Chinese-claimed airspace or waters.  Given Beijing’s implementation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its claim to 90% of the South China Sea, such a move would effectively lock-out any military maneuvers by B-52s and warships in much of East and South China Seas.

He further argues that Beijing as well should undergo reciprocal actions, and “engage in intensive dialogue” with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to reduce tensions. Unfortunately, much dialogue has already taken place and has failed to stop Beijing increasingly assertiveness.

Despite China’s economic slowdown, there are some calls for further increases in the defense budget, which has a nearly unbroken two-decade run of double-digit budget increasesThis week, state-run nationalist tabloid the Global Times featured an op-ed arguing for double-digit growth in military spending, while advising the Chinese military to deploy more weaponry to the South China Sea—in response to the threat of containment by the U.S.   

Arguably, one of the Obama Administration’s objectives is to contain a rising China—not an economically-rising China but a geographically-expanding China. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter reiterated this point to a group of U.S. troops on Friday, stating that China’s rise as a prosperous nation “is fine. China’s aggressive behavior is not.”

With a rapidly growing defense budget and military prowess, Beijing is indeed a threat to the region when it claims 90% of disputed territory among six Pacific nations and is increasingly enforcing its claims. Furthermore, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted last Sunday vowing to “resolutely contain ‘Taiwan independence secessionist activities in any form.” Will sending its B-52s and warships enable the U.S. to rein in the nationalistic rhetoric and halt Chinese expansion?

Perhaps in the short run, as Beijing stalls its efforts temporarily, only to chip away or “salami-slice” once the threat is removed. The deployment of Washington’s most fearsome war machines to the region clearly escalates the conflict and may have significant repercussions. If Beijing does not respond to the U.S. challenge, its leadership and military loses face among its nationalistic citizenry, and stirs up anxiety among the rest of its populace. Likely, Beijing will “wait until the coast is clear” before embarking on another minor assertion of its territorial claims.

Now that the strong message has been sent, the Obama Administration should in future seek to deploy more of its smaller ships and aircraft to monitor any Chinese military buildup and to guarantee safe passage and freedom of navigation. Other concerned nations in the region should follow suit—Japan announced today one of its submarines will visit Subic Bay in the Philippines for the first time in 15 years, along with two warships, which will then call in at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

Greater efforts to coordinate cooperation among maritime nations are needed, as is greater media attention to the conflict in order to shame Beijing away from any additional aggression towards its neighbors.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666