Why a forceful U.S. response to China’s artificial island-building won’t float

May 21, 2015
An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool

China’s creation of artificial islands on disputed South China Sea reefs — the actual dredging and pumping of sand, ongoing since 2014 — represents Beijing’s latest attempt to extend its territory and exert pressure over the five other countries that claim parts of the Sea. In response to the island-building, members of the U.S. defense community have in recent weeks called for the United States to get tough on China.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter asked for options for sending U.S. aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the construction. In a May 13 testimony before Congress, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear said that the United States planned to station surveillance aircraft and long-range bombers in Australia. (He later claimed to have misspoken, after pushback from Australia.) Rear Admiral Harry Harris, Pacific Fleet Commander, plans to station three additional vessels within patrol range of the Spratly Islands — the archipelago that includes the reefs — to respond to Chinese activity there.

This approach is misguided. Neither Carter, Shear, nor PACFLEET Commander Harris appear to be taking seriously the potential for a violent response from the Chinese. The risk in pushing China too far is great, as China has demonstrated on multiple occasions, when U.S. actions led to dangerous confrontations.

American military planners’ real concern is that the Chinese will use the newly constructed islands — which certainly include a runway large enough to handle military aircraft, and may include facilities to dock military vessels — to extend the scope of their Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy. Military installations in the South China Sea would provide platforms for land, air and sea-launched weapon systems sufficient to raise the cost of U.S. military actions in the region to prohibitive levels.

The question then becomes how best to deal with this possibility. Today the United States doesn’t have the resources in place for a major effort in the area unless it is willing to take some very great risks. The only naval vessel home-ported within patrol distance of the area is the Fort Worth, a new littoral combat ship. Otherwise, the closest assets are the ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, which would have to sail through areas within the scope of China’s existing A2AD capability in order to reach the area. Ships from further away could not be used in a short engagement. A military confrontation holds little prospect of success.

In order to justify an aggressive approach, the United States must determine that the creation of these islands is threatening some vital U.S. interest. The claim that the new islands are disrupting the United States’ freedom of navigation is a red herring. To date, China has done nothing in the South China Sea to disrupt shipping. It has countered activities by other countries who assert their ownership and control in the region, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, and has asserted its own ownership and control by intercepting fishing vessels and placing oil rigs in the area. Yet none of these actions have disrupted shipping in the region. It is disingenuous for the United States to claim that by using military force to counter the island-building, it is asserting the freedom of international shipping to sail close to rocks and submerged reefs — an action no merchant vessel is likely to take.

Another flawed justification for U.S. military involvement is to defend peace and stability in the region. There have so far been no major military confrontations in the disputes between the five other countries that lay claims to the South China Sea. Journalists as well as President Obama argue that this is simply because the smaller countries are afraid to confront China due to an imbalance in military might. While this imbalance exists, it isn’t a reason for the United States to step in. The United States has taken no position on any of the territorial claims, and has urged the parties to settle their disagreements peacefully. As long as the disputing countries are not coming to blows, the United States would be rash to risk a fight with a nuclear-armed China over China’s pursuit of its claims.

A final hollow justification for military action is that the United States needs to reassure its partners and allies in the region. The only U.S. ally that is a party to the dispute is the Philippines, which should need little reassurance; after 9/11 U.S. troops spent more than a decade on the ground in the Philippines conducting Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines to help the country rid itself of the terrorist threat from Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah. The United States has always stood by its treaty obligations, but will not commit to defending disputed grounds in the South China Sea, because it doesn’t consider them Philippine territory.

A better approach is to strengthen American diplomatic efforts, taking full advantage of the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the subsequent state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. China is already well-convinced that the U.S. rebalance to Asia is just a euphemism for containment. It would be unwise to take military actions that reinforce that notion.

43 comments

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This tactic by the U.S. has been going on around the globe since end of WW2. By claiming to defend democracy America now has occupied every strategic region with its iron-fisted velvet covered glove of claiming allies to Washington’s cause for world domination.
The U.S. is concerned over tactical response to its disingenuous moves for global power … be sure the reason for the Ukraine debacle and now the South China Sea. Russia and China are determined to halt this naked aggression to start a fight so the U.S. can use such resistance to occupy the strategic territories adjacent to these superpowers in the name of protecting DEMOCKRACY! As Putin said … how would America feel if Russia were to set up military bases in Mexico.

Posted by dalan68 | Report as abusive

A great article. Nice to know there are still some level-headed people in USA.

Posted by no_nonsense | Report as abusive

The US is not advocating a forceful action just sail a ship within 12 miles of man made island. China is building man made islands in a region where they get no love from any country. China’s actions is precipitating a arms race in the region. They will be challenged, which will be the natural outcome of them pushing the envelope.

Posted by cmc6549 | Report as abusive

Excellent article. These days cooler heads seem very much in short supply in the US.

Posted by Haav | Report as abusive

This article is pretty poorly laid out and reasoned. Much of the logic presented relies on the assumption that the U.S., by sailing a vessel or flying an aircraft near their illegal military installations, would be in the wrong from both a tactical perspective, and a moral perspective (neither is very well defended). And what A2AD does China actually have, that is proven to be effective (answer: none). Further, the author spends a whopping paragraph describing an alternative path (two sentences), basically just saying we should rely on diplomacy. Wow, what a poor attempt, Reuters.

Indeed, there have already been major confrontations in this region, and most of all of them have been brought to conflict by China’s aggressive actions. It should be clear to any reasonable observer that China will not back off from their aggressive and destabalizing actions through diplomacy alone. They need to be shown that they can’t do whatever they want, and bully their less powerful neighbors. The potential U.S. actions do just that.

We are the global superpower, not China. It is our responsibility to ensure China plays nice with its neighbors, something that has been shown time and time again to not be the case.

Posted by LonghornTX | Report as abusive

With the American “Rebalance to Asia” in full action, I can see that china’s next move is to beef up its nuclear deterrence to match united states has, so that they can be free of the “American” self-proclaim order in their door step. Soon we will see people refurnishing the nuclear shelter to get ready for the new round of nuclear arm race.

Posted by sean60173 | Report as abusive

Surely “a forceful U.S. response to China’s artificial island-building won’t float” alone…
We should, first and foremost, get into free trade with free countries like EU, discourage our corporations from selling America to Chinese commies, and to stop buying Chinese-made junk like this:
http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/year-lon g-investigation-counterfeit-goods-310665 34
http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/counterf eit-goods-make-china-store-31098364

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Sound editorial strengthened by a logical analysis of what our priorities ought to be. This is the only strategy that makes sense: minimize engagement opportunity unless there is clear and present danger. It’s a flat out fallacious to say that the US has some weird “superpower” obligation to balance the scales of influence whenever somebody has a disagreement. That’s how bad wars get started.

Posted by Munderwood | Report as abusive

Now is the ripe time for US and its all allies around the world to reduce to minimum level of FID,FII into China specially high techies industry as well as trade volume with China.
US,EU and Japan capitalist vampires are the first to be fiercely condemned as they have risked the lives and security of billions people around the world by pouring trillions dollars into China economy to satisfy their thirst of BLOOD MONEY for the past 30 years.China would have never and never again become that arrogant, aggressive as of today if those bastarded capitalist vampires stop sucking their country fellows BLOOD on time.
MONEY is the most dangerous and destructive weapon of all time.It is 100 times more powerfull than any superpowers NUKE arsenals.USSR collape and disintegration in 1991 is A CRYSTAL CLEAR EXAMPLE OF HOE POWEFUL MONEY IS.

Posted by Athen | Report as abusive

This article has an interesting construction — 8 consecutive paragraphs of criticism of everything the United States government is doing about the situation … followed by the big “payoff” of the discussion, paragraph 9, the final, game-changing brilliant analysis, the “here’s how to solve the crisis” …. a vague sentence that kinda sorta says “use diplomacy” … followed by two more sentences bashing the US.

Total constructive analysis contained in this entire article = one vague sentence (at best).

Is there a point to this work of literary madness other than complaining?

Posted by Lionel80 | Report as abusive

The dumbest article that I have read in years…the sky-is-falling so-called expert journalist completely forgets to mention that CHINA HAS NOT A SINGLE MEMBER OF THEIR CURRENT MILITARY WITH ANY COMBAT EXPERIENCE WHATSOEVER – THE LAST MILITARY ENGAGEMENT FOR CHINA WAS IN 1979 WHEN THEY WERE DEFEATED BY VIETNAM – THE US HAS BEEN FIGHTING CONSTANT WAR SINCE 1991….WHY ARE INTERNET JOURNALISTS SOOOOOOO INCREDIBLY STUPID?….Hey William Johnson do you want some cheese to go with your whine? The US should carpet bomb the artificial islands and freeze all the assets of the Bank Of China in the US..China will do nothing but make blubbering public comments and back way off and go lick their wounds while their economy flushes down the world toilet..

Posted by TGW | Report as abusive

Neville Chamberlain couldn’t have written a better article.

Seriously, all the US is doing here is purposefully ignoring China’s aggressive attempts to bully its neighbors, by sailing US ships through international waterways and flying planes through international airspace. Avoiding international areas in which China has attempted to set up “A2AD capabilities” would amount to tacit acceptance of China’s illicit land grabs and would be incorrect from both a tactical and strategic standpoint.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

China should use Japan as large military base and a huge labor camp.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

why did we prop up a government with no checks and balances? why send jobs overseas and not the unions now the chinese people cant vote to change the direction of their dictatorship/government. years of failed bush/clinton policy propping up the paper dragon

Posted by modurhead | Report as abusive

Seas should belong to the nearest country, within some modest distance from shore (200 nautical miles works well). Why should the US not defend this principle, especially when its allies are being wronged by China?

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

If the India-China border dispute in 1962 and the Russia-China Ussuri River dispute in 1969 are any precedents, local military forces clash and dozens are killed and some territory is seized.
But then the next level of “diplomacy as an extension of warfare” kicks in, with a standstill/ceasefire on the ground.
But a big shock for governments and populations, are we ready to not over-react ?

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

I’ll admit I’m surprised to read this balanced piece. More forward thinking less sabre rattling is a good start to peaceful future.

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive

i strongly disagree your point of view

Posted by twoOne | Report as abusive

The question is what will be the situation after couple years when China completed their work and shifted military facilities.They will not allow any one to trespass.Today they don’t interrupt ship movement but certainly they will do so after they are ready.Come what may only the first blow(Along with Japan) is always stronger.Delay is danger.After some resistance,China will come to table and then diplomatic solution may work, not now.US should start consultations with Japan,Philippines who have future concern.China is strong economically,not necessarily with
military to compare with US.This is the time US can prove,they are leader,when US image is fading due setback in Iraq,Libya,Israel and so on.Those think of resources are cowards.US is the richest country even today.No one can match their technology,militarily or otherwise.EU countries also seems losing confidence,To boost up that also is the need at this point.There are so many brains but many cooks spoil the soup.”First blow is stronger according to a ages old proverb in India “Pahelo gha Ranano”meaning first blow is always strongest.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Without obliging rule or no rule at all, by the China example, the South East Asia Countries will start building artificial islands on all over the sea to claim their territories. Every countries will afraid their sea territories will be claimed, if they don’t build artificial islands sooner. As a result, there will be no sea left. What will the Earth will become in future?

Posted by Pointers | Report as abusive

Without obliging rule or no rule at all, by the China example, the South East Asia Countries will start building artificial islands on all over the sea to claim their territories. Every countries will afraid their sea territories will be claimed, if they don’t build artificial islands sooner. As a result, there will be no sea left. What will the Earth will become in future?

Posted by Pointers | Report as abusive

The comparison of US actions elsewhere are for different purpose.This is the unique event of showing the leadership of US when China is showing teeth everywhere..India-China example also is different.There India was weak militarily.(Though they fought courageously)
Again those who talk of resources are cowards.US Govt.may not have money but their citizens and allys have money.All will be out to support the cause.Look at the recent recession how that was overcome?
China has indeed has expansionist tendency.By force they have taken Tibet and now eyeing parts of Arunachal and Kashmir.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

No. Diplomacy between India and China since years has not achieved anything.Current little soft attitude of China towards India is only to control influence of US on India.For any concrete result China has not yielded even one inch.Diplomacy is a very very slow process and by then the world events take different turn.Look at how Russia take away Crimea while taking,talking and talking.Same is the case of Iran nuclear agreement.It is certain now Iran will show eyes if not teeth once Iraq is in their fold.US must not delay action for Iraq also.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The age for china to keep military spending in relatively low level (1.2% GDP percentage vs U.S. 3.3%, 2014 figure from wiki) is over. U.S. is forcing china into arm and nuclear build up. The only way china can prevent humiliation from United States in their door step is to upgrade china’s own nuclear deterrence to the level of mutual destruction, until then China will continue to see US poking her nose.

Posted by sean60173 | Report as abusive

U.S. government complaining about geo-political over-reach. That’s rich. How about we all just share the restaurant and eat.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Yes, might as well put your tail between your legs now and run instead of later.

Posted by arman7 | Report as abusive

Yes wait till they build 25 more bases, great advice.

Posted by arman7 | Report as abusive

This article is every bit as disingenuous as they would have you believe an American response would be.

“Why a forceful U.S. response to China’s artificial island-building won’t float.”
-the response-
“Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter asked for options for sending U.S. aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the construction. In a May 13 testimony before Congress, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear said that the United States planned to station surveillance aircraft and long-range bombers in Australia.”
So taking an observational position in the sky or 12 miles away on boats is forceful? Let’s move on.
“This approach is misguided. Neither Carter, Shear, nor PACFLEET Commander Harris appear to be taking seriously the potential for a violent response from the Chinese.”

This article tries to convince the reader that America is taking an unreasonable stance by observing Chinese military build up in China’s neighbor’s territory. They go on to state that observation is unreasonable because they fear China will attack American ships. Have you discerned the hypocrisy and dishonesty here yet?

Posted by Obviously | Report as abusive

In another words: Western just lost South China Sea, back off. We don’t have resources, neither assets against China, that is simpler. We have lost the momentum, fait accompli. Dozen of lines, useless.

Posted by cleberalves | Report as abusive

The Philippines was not a sovereign state until July 1946 when the USA granted her independence. With warships transferred from the US navy China resumed all islands in the South China Sea and had established a military base in the biggest island there in late 1946.

To the US, there are two China. The Republic Of China has every right to the Spratly Islands, while the People’s Republic Of China has not.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon should be caged for economically helping China while the Chinese sent guns to North Vietnamese to shoot American soldiers.

Posted by Zorro21c | Report as abusive

There might be some unoccupied reefs around Hawaii that China would be happy to make into islands and promote economic development. Then we could have greater cultural and diplomatic exchanges face-to-face, surely this would be win-win and promote stability.

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

This is like a dream come true for the 50 centers…

Posted by USMC4EVER | Report as abusive

It is the Communist Party that needs the island-reefs. The Party has no intention to resolve the territorial problem in the South China Sea. It is in the interest of the Party that the country is involved in territorial tangles. This is a good diversion. Now that the Chinese economy is slowing down, there is a need to divert the attention of the population to external threats. By its forceful assertions, the Party now looks good in the eyes of the people. As long as the Chinese economy in on its downward direction, there will be more and more confrontations in the area. Poor Vietnam. Poor Philippines. No one can help them.

Posted by Limahong | Report as abusive

Wow, reading the article I can see quite a few of my fellow arrogant Americans are offended, hahahaha.

Let me ask you, WHO ARE WE TO BE MONITORING THE SOUTH CHINA SEA, or any sea for that matter?

I know everybody will disregard my first question. So here are America’s options. China is not Iran or Russia. If we even attempt to apply trade sanctions or any kind of economic consequence, WE ARE SCREWED. Remember, China technically owns part of the US. We would only be shooting OURSELVES in the foot……….

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

The biggest US foreign policy mistake of the 20th century was Nixon/Kissinger in China…all driven by ‘legacy’ fantasies and CEOs with visions of billions of Chinese consumers, and later near slave labor, dancing in their heads.

Just because the Chinese government officials wear Western suits does not mean their mentality is any different from a 15th century emperor and his courtiers.

Put a moratorium on all Chinese student visas and, if I had my way, all Chinese immigration – which the Chinese use to plant sleeper spies – and we might get their attention.

As long as we go along to get along with the Chinese, as long as we don’t simply shun them, they have the upper hand.

We don’t need to be confrontational with them. We just need to walk away from them.

Posted by emm305 | Report as abusive

I would be more impressed by the article if the author knew the difference between a Rear Admiral and Admiral. Attention to details matter.

Posted by jsjcdavis | Report as abusive

The best way is to have an Asian Union, like European Union, China is a bully, once set up, ban chinese products or put a sanction on chinese products and technologies. Thats the best way to counteract chinese bullying. Next time never trust a chinese.

Posted by alvin1435 | Report as abusive

Ironically enough, mintes after this piece was published, a US P8 Poseidon ASW aircraft flew directly over one of these “chinese islands”, with a cnn reporter on board. The only response from china was a pleading radio call to “go away”, which the Crew of the p8 laughed at and ignored.

So class, what did we learn?

Posted by joejoejoejoe | Report as abusive

What nonsense. Yes, let’s encourage more Chinese aggression, by showing every other affected nation in the area that the rules will be whatever China says they are. That worked out really well in Eastern Europe from 1937-1939….

Posted by SgtriatJfrspn | Report as abusive

That, and I just love the serious of posts from China-based bloggers talking about whether there are enough “cooler heads in the USA”…. Hey, boys, you are the ones doing all the aggressive “fortress building” 1000 miles from your shore, and a hundred or so from Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, etc. Even the appeaser Obama administration is starting to toughen up in the face of your one-sided aggression.

Posted by SgtriatJfrspn | Report as abusive

Stretching from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca chokepoint in the southwest to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast, the South China Sea is one of the most important energy trade routes in the world.
This is another Chinese “FREE TRADE” disaster in the making since no one was held accountable for the last US government giveaways.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

This sounds exactly like the advice President Obama must have received about ISIS/Syria/Iraq a few years ago. We all know how well that strategy worked out! In addition, China is still influenced by the old guard communists who are still mad they didn’t finish off Chiang Ki Shek (see Taiwan). The only thing these bullies understand is force. Why are they placing artillery? Who or what (ships?) do they intend to shell? I also do not think China can really claim a 12 mile limit on these islands considering they do not respect other countries 12 mile limits. I understand the author may be correct from a tactical point of view, but he is not seeing the broader strategic picture. While I agree we should avoid a military clash, we have as much right as anyone to fly 12 miles offshore. The Russian statement makes no sense since they intended to put missiles 90 miles from our shores in Cuba in the 1960s. Also, China has oil rigs off the Vietnamese coast and is trying to get oil rigs off the coast of Cuba in a Cuban zone. Sarcastic question…will the Chinese put weapons on those oil rigs?

Posted by VJ-DJ | Report as abusive