5 Ways to Foil China in the South China Sea
By James R. Holmes in Real Clear Defense [RCD]
So how, in practical terms, should U.S. and friendly powers defy excessive Chinese claims in South China Sea waters and skies? By deploying some small-stick diplomacy of their own. Make a statement that no one can unilaterally abridge freedom of the sea—and make China look like the bully it is. A twofer!
Beijing, of course, has been relying on nonmilitary implements of sea power to bolster its claims. It sends ships from the China Coast Guard and fellow maritime enforcement services to ply disputed waters. It banks on Southeast Asian navies’ and coast guards’ being too sparse in numbers and too ill-equipped to oppose Chinese white hulls. They can ram, or yield ground. China wins by weight of steel rather than by weight of gun- or missile fire. Worst of all from rival claimants’ standpoint, they also lose if they send military units to chase off Chinese vessels. They look like bullies if they deploy ships festooned with guns or missiles—and justify China’s use of the big stick that’s out of sight over the horizon. A bad situation. Herewith, five mutually reinforcing ways to frustrate China’s excesses in Southeast Asia:
Essay some LCS diplomacy. The embattled U.S. frigate—née Littoral Combat Ship—program could supply the ideal platform for this mission. The new small surface combatants are no capital ships, vessels meant to fight rival navies for maritime command. Deployed individually in peacetime, they’re lightly enough armed that charges of American hegemonism, Cold War mentality, yada yada yada would elicit guffaws. Yet they’re strong enough that no Chinese white hull would tangle with them lightly. Beijing would have to send People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships to oppose them. Guess who look bad brandishing the big stick first?
Send the Coast Guard. China is not the only Asian actor to field a nifty fleet of white hulls. Like other nautical law-enforcement services, the U.S. Coast Guard exists mainly to police the parent country’s territorial seas and exclusive zones. But it’s also an overseas arm of U.S. foreign policy, providing boarding and search parties, helping apprehend traffickers and other seagoing ne’er-do-wells, and, in wartime, merging into the U.S. Navy as a sister fighting force. Emplacing American cutters in Southeast Asian waters would help stiffen resistance to Chinese claims. Placing detachments of coastguardsmen aboard Southeast Asian patrol craft, and loudly advertising their presence, would accomplish much the same. Let’s figure out how to augment the U.S. Coast Guard presence in Asian seaways. If that means purchasing civilian craft for government service, adorning them with the coast guard’s cheery red, white, and blue colors, and attaching them to mother ships prowling disputed expanses, then that option should be on the table. It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. sea services had bought new ships on the fly. Indeed, it was once common practice for the navy in Asia.
Take video. Small stick, big publicity should constitute the guiding principle for this enterprise. It’s astonishing how passive and ineffective Southeast Asian propaganda vis-à-vis China has been. (And yes, I use the word propaganda advisedly. Present the facts in persuasive fashion, and you shall go far.) Why did it take the New York Times, not diplomats in Manila, to mount a photo essay about, say, Philippine troops anchoring the nation’s claim to Ayungin Shoal? Why is it so hard to find photos of the face-off at Scarborough Shoal? They should be everywhere. American mariners and aviators must not repeat this mistake. They must document every interaction with Chinese ships and aircraft, complete with GPS data and other information about U.S. operations. Thus armed, the U.S. Pacific Command can reply truthfully and convincingly to China’s attempts to frame what transpired in its favor. Let key audiences choose whether to believe Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces—or their lyin’ eyes.
Know the law. China oftentimes gets the jump on the United States after an encounter in regional waters or skies. That’s mainly because Chinese spokesmen know instantly what to say. They have a party line—China is right, America is wrong—and can retrofit the facts to it later. The lawyerly U.S. Navy takes the time to study the facts and put out a factual account grounded in law. By that time Beijing has seized the story. Remember: this is a form of warfare for China, not a dispassionate discourse about legal niceties. Think about it as such, and America’s performance will improve in such affairs. Spokesmen well-versed in the law of the sea and the United States’ role as chief custodian of nautical freedom will stand a better chance of matching Beijing for rapid response. Speed kills.
Swing a big stick. China understands that it has to back up small-stick diplomacy with the big stick of military force. Lesser competitors know very well that—even should they confound China’s small stick—Beijing has a big stick in reserve, manifest in PLAN fleets, air squadrons, and missile forces. Nullifying that mismatch of physical power is crucial to deterrence. Positioning U.S. forces around the South China Sea rim, negotiating access to external but nearby strategic positions—Australia, anyone?—and constructing coalitions and alliances strong enough to face down Beijing are essential steps. A tall order? Yep. But that’s why diplomats and naval officials get paid the big bucks. Let’s earn it.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. He is RCD’s new national security columnist. The views voiced here are his alone.
Poster's only comment: Expect a typhoon to correct things sometime in the future.