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On China

2:44 PM, Jul 29, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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The secretary’s repeated emphasis on the third objective—resolution based only on claims to legitimate land features—is important.  Its inclusion sets the stage for the United States to oppose proposals to delineate territorial boundaries that Washington considers to be based on illegitimate land features or tenuous historical claims.

While these recent assertions of U.S. interests in the region have been welcome, the Secretary, in my view, has not quite gone far enough. The fact is that the United States does have a very real interest in how these disputes are ultimately resolved.

The United States must be clear about its maritime interests particularly because UNCLOS, in my view, leaves too much room for conflicting interpretations of activity in EEZs.  While UNCLOS guarantees freedom of navigation in EEZs, it also requires foreign ships operating in EEZs to “comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal state…” In other words, coastal states have been given too much leeway to adopt interpretations of UNCLOS that threaten freedom of navigation in their EEZs.

Given the sea’s importance as an international shipping route and the necessity that our naval vessels continue to have unimpeded operations in the South China Sea—to protect sea lanes, keep an eye on Chinese military developments, deter aggression, and reassure friends and allies—U.S. objectives should be as follows:

1.     Thwarting Chinese attempts to claim and exercise sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea by continually exercising our rights under international law.

2.     Insisting upon a common interpretation of international maritime law that accepts unimpeded navigation and surveillance activities of commercial and military vessels through these waters, regardless how the disputes are resolved.  The United States should oppose any resolution that divides the South China Sea into a series of overlapping EEZs that leaves open the possibilities that other countries can interpret EEZ as restrictively as China does.  The United States must ensure that the swath of maritime territory between the Malacca and Luzon Straits remains a global commons, and that all states interpret EEZ rights the way we have now for decades.

In order to achieve these goals, Washington needs to do three things: 

First, it must be more forward in its diplomatic engagement and make its interests clear to all parties.  The U.S. must prioritize not just “peaceful resolution” of disputes, but resolution of disputes in a manner that does not prejudice our maritime rights. 

Second, we should continue to exercise our interpretation of customary international law by continuing our activities in China’s EEZ and by conducting regular freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. 

Third, we should reassure our friends and allies both through our diplomatic and military engagement and by building up their capacity to defend their rights.

The United States is enhancing its relationships with traditional allies, new partners, and former rivals. When Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario asked for clarification on U.S. commitments under the mutual defense treaty, Secretary Clinton offered some reassurance. She asserted that “the United States honors our Mutual Defense Treaty and our strategic alliance with the Philippines. I’m not going to discuss hypothetical events, but I want to underscore our commitment to the defense of the Philippines.”

The United States has also been improving its relationship with Vietnam, which appears to welcome greater U.S. involvement in the region. The two countries have been jointly exercising their militaries and, in a highly symbolic gesture, the USS John S. McCain visited Vietnam last year. Last month, Washington and Hanoi issued a joint statement claiming that “the maintenance of peace, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is in the common interests of the international community,” and that “all territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved through a collaborative, diplomatic process without coercion or the use of force.”

On the other hand, these welcome words may soon ring hollow: the American military’s ability to maintain presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and the South China Sea in particular, is at risk.  As Congressman Forbes has repeatedly noted, shortfalls in investment in U.S. forces—especially the Navy—are pushing the United States towards “strategic insolvency” – our commitments are growing while our resources are shrinking – just as Chinese military capabilities are rapidly advancing. If present trends continue America simply will not have the maritime forces necessary to conduct the missions that U.S. strategy requires.

Naval presence is crucial for achieving the above goals by deterring China from settling its dispute by force and palpably demonstrating to China in a very palpable way Washington’s rejection of Beijing’s interpretation of international law. But China is making such demonstrations increasingly difficult with what have come to be called anti-access/area denial capabilities.

Most well-known is China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile, which could be used to damage or sink surface vessels in East Asian waters.  But China’s anti-access/area denial/periphery control strategy also relies on surface combatants armed with advanced air defenses and anti-ship cruise missiles; submarines for surface ship interdiction; cruise and ballistic missiles capable of targeting regional U.S. and allied bases; over-the-horizon radars and enhanced space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms; stealthy aircraft for interception and strike missions; anti-satellite weapons; and cyber-warfare capabilities. Taken together, these capabilities are making it increasingly hazardous for U.S. forces to operate in the Asian littorals and Western Pacific.

Defense planners have a conceptual response –a new military concept called AirSea Battle, which will enhance the Navy and Air Force’s capacity for joint operations and will allow: “US and allied military forces [to]…mitigate the effectiveness of China’s A2/AD system by rapidly blinding it, regain the strategic and operational initiative, and thereby set the stage for sustained follow-on operations.

This will be an expensive effort requiring, for example, a next-generation bomber; large numbers of attack submarines (SSNs); a sizeable fifth-generation tactical aircraft fleet and accompanying aerial refueling tankers; base hardening; new joint Air Force-Navy precision-guided munitions; long-range, high-endurance unmanned undersea vehicles; a fleet of speedy surface platforms; and enhanced, long-range intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance assets.

But investment shortfalls here in Washington are putting at risk these plans. The Navy says it needs 328 ships compared to the current 284, but its 30-year shipbuilding plan does not enable the Navy to reach that goal. Rather, the Navy is projecting shortfalls of nuclear submarines, cruisers, and destroyers.

Take attack submarines, for example. Given the diverse threats that the People’s Liberation Army will soon pose to surface ships, submarines will play a key role in AirSea Battle, as they can safely operate much closer to the Asian mainland, both defending the U.S. fleet and operating effectively—in an anti-access environment, U.S. subs will have assured access.

The Navy has previously determined that it requires a total of 48 SSNs, a number that will surely increase with the heightened demands of AirSea Battle. Yet the Navy’s FY2011 30-year shipbuilding plan foresees that the number of SSNs will begin dropping from a peak of 55 boats in 2014 down to 39 in 2030. The fleet will then begin to grow again, but will not reach 48 boats until sometime after 2040. Without adequate investment, the fleet size may never reach a steady state of 48 boats.

China, by comparison, has fielded on average more than two subs annually for 16 years, adding four new classes in the last decade alone. It now has more than 60 attack subs in its fleet, with more in the pipeline. And unlike the U.S., which spreads its fleet among the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, China operates all of its boats in Asia.

China has modernized its surface fleet as well. Since 1990, the Chinese navy has nearly doubled its destroyer fleet, adding five new classes of ship since 2000. In the past twenty years, the frigate fleet has more than doubled from 24 hulls to over 50. And of course, China will soon field its first aircraft carrier.

Investment shortfalls are negatively impacting the U.S. Air Force as well, a service that is expected to play a large role in AirSea battle.  Thanks to the F-22 cancellation and F-35 delays, the Air Force is projecting a shortfall of 800 fighters within the next decade, and one that may be overcome until after 2030; the Navy and Marine Corps also face coming fighter jet shortfalls of up to 200 aircraft within the next seven years. A new long-range bomber, which the Air Force has desired for years and which is deemed central to AirSea Battle, received no funding at all last year. China, for its part, conducted a test flight earlier this year of its first-ever stealth aircraft and has developed an advanced integrated air defense system (IADS) with increasingly long-range surface-to-air missiles.

Why does all of this matter for the South China Sea? If present trends continue, the United States will not have the capacity to operate freely in the region.

This will be severely destabilizing. American military presence has ensured peace and stability in the region, made the seas safe for trade and transit, and enabled the region’s economic vitality.  China would be likely to use its newfound position to coerce neighbors to settle claims, and expand further its maritime reach, and influence other South East Asian Nation to accept its restrictive interpretation of “access’ in UNCLOS.

Chinese control—whether de facto or de jure—of the South China Sea would mark the beginnings of a Chinese “Monroe Doctrine” which would allow China to have a veto over which ships sail through the crucial passageways that connect the Indian with the Pacific Oceans.

While the United States has not always been clear or vocal about its interests in the South China Sea, those interests have been largely consistent since the end of World War II and are likely to endure. In order to defend those interests, the U.S. government should be forthright in asserting them, which will reassure friends and allies while forcing others to act with caution in the region. 

Needless to say, our declaratory policy will not amount to much if our combat power continues to whither.  The U.S. military—especially the Navy (including the Marines) and Air Force—must be adequately funded to ensure that they have the capacity and capability to continue operating in the South China Sea, both during times of peace and at times when their presence may be contested.   We are slowly almost invisibly moving toward the famous “Lippman Gap” in which our commitments grow commensurate with our vital interests, but we do not have the political will to resource them.

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