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