DN - Defence Notes

Has the US lost the plot in South China Sea?

23rd June 2017 - 10:06 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

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As the South China Sea transforms into a spider web of interconnected military facilities designed to lock out uninvited guests, one would have thought that the Shangri-La Dialogue, held earlier this month, would have put the South China Sea issue front and centre.

The area, the size of India, has been commandeered by the Chinese military with virtually no physical resistance, beyond the decision by The Hague last year in a legal challenge by the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal that determined that China had no historical rights based on its nine-dash-line map.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US and other foreign dignitaries appeared disinterested in overall Chinese antics in the South China Sea, minus Vietnamese delegates who expressed annoyance about Chinese claims within its own exclusive economic zone.

The question raised by such apathy over this sea could be that the US has lost the line of sight on policy goals on sea lines of communication in the South China Sea.

Recommendations on how to respond fall far short of engaging in armed conflict with China, but an increased US Navy presence is a necessity.

‘Given that it is not possible to stop every unilateral change to the status quo in the South China Sea, the best we can do is to maintain a strong forward posture, engaged with increasingly capable partners,’ said Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

The US now has to treat China’s blue-water navy with the urgency of a long-term competition. ‘The last time we had to fight our way back inside the Second and First Island Chains around the Asian mainland was the Pacific War,’ Cronin said, referring to the 1944 Marianas campaign.

If stopping the expansion means going to war with China, then I think the US is unlikely to do so, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), also in Washington.

Glaser pointed out that the US is indeed doing something about China’s land grab in the South China Sea. US military presence operations there have increased over the last few years with 3-4 naval ships in the sea on any given day. ‘The US is committed to enforcing freedom of navigation, but is unlikely to use force to roll back China’s gains,’ she said.

‘It remains to be seen whether the US might be willing to signal a willingness to use force to prevent further dredging and militarisation at Scarborough Shoal,’ she assessed.

Others go further with darker solutions to countering China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

Richard Fisher, senior fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center, Washington, said, ‘China is not going to consider any kind of rational dialogue about the South China Sea until the United States, Japan and India combine to threaten its most important interests propelling its actions: the security of its nuclear-missile submarine force on Hainan Island; the security of its access to sea lanes for global power projection; and its heavy-lift space access also based on Hainan Island.’

The islands, artificial or enhanced, in the South China Sea are extremely vulnerable, said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS. Due to this vulnerability, China is stoppable if the US is willing to go to war, but that is not going to happen, he said.

‘The South China Sea is NOT and will not be a Chinese lake and the Chinese, even with their artificial islands, cannot dominate the sea or keep the US Navy out of it.’

Others agree. China is not unstoppable in the South China Sea, but China’s defence modernisation is not standing still and every year it grows stronger, said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

‘I’d hate to be defeatist and just say it’s all over. That’s just conceding the South China Sea without a fight. I think that other militaries do have some options and capabilities. In particular, the Chinese cannot put all their forces in the South China Sea, and many countries, particularly Vietnam and Singapore, still have considerable capacities for sea denial, viz-à-viz the Chinese.’

If the US chooses to do so, it can still constitute a counterweight to China, he said. ‘It’s premature to say that China is ‘unstoppable’. That said, the window is closing,’ Bitzinger warned.

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