Thursday, May 28, 2015

Red line in the South China Sea

The real issue is not territory or trade routes but whether the US or China leads in Asia.

May 27, 2015

By Hugh White, For The Straits Times

LAST week in the South China Sea, a US Navy P8 maritime patrol aircraft very deliberately flew into airspace around one of the disputed islands claimed by China. It did so to demonstrate America's displeasure at China's development of some of the islands into bases to support military operations. CNN journalists were aboard the aircraft just to make sure the world would see America openly defying China's moves to reinforce its claims to the islands.

This marks a new and more risky phase in the strategic rivalry between America and China which has been brewing for some time now. It seems that people in Washington have decided that the time has come to draw a red line around China's growing power, and that the place to do it is in the South China Sea.

But as President Barack Obama discovered in Syria not long ago, red lines can backfire badly. His administration may find that drawing them in the South China Sea proves more difficult and dangerous than it imagines, and there is a real risk that the whole idea will blow up in Washington's face.

This has nothing to do with the actual territorial disputes themselves, about which America takes no view. Nor, despite Washington's claims, is it really about freedom of navigation in a vital trade route, because there is no suggestion that commercial shipping is at risk. Instead, it is about something even bigger - about who leads in Asia.

Beyond pressing its claims to the islands themselves, China is using its maritime capabilities more assertively in the region's territorial disputes to demonstrate its growing power at sea where America has, until now, always been strongest.

Now America's new approach is to match China's greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own. But what will this really achieve? The thinking in Washington seems to focus on two linked ideas. One is that by more overtly "standing up" to China, the US will encourage other regional countries to do the same. If so, the argument goes, China will find itself forced to pay a diplomatic price for its assertive behaviour, which will make it think twice before continuing.

The other idea is that a firm show of US resolve will deter China from further challenges to US maritime supremacy and leadership in Asia by reminding China of America's military power and reach in the Western Pacific. The idea here is that the last thing China wants is a war with America, so it will be sure to back off once it is reminded of US power and resolve.

But both these judgments may be based on false assumptions. The idea that a more assertive US posture will encourage others to stand up to China assumes that regional countries are being held back from making a more robust response to China's growing power and ambitions only because the US has not provided the leadership they need to do so.

But the reality is much more complex. All of China's Asian neighbours - even Australia - have an immense stake in maintaining good relations with China. Many of them are certainly uncomfortable about how China will use its power, but they are also very reluctant to take steps which might damage a relationship that is vital to every country's future prosperity. A more assertive US policy is unlikely to persuade them to shift the balance, which each of them has to strike, in managing their relations with China, because that is determined by their strong sense of how important China is to their future.
Likewise, the idea that a more assertive US response to Beijing's actions in the South China Sea will deter China from persevering with them reflects a serious confusion about the concept of deterrence and the balance of advantage between the US and China today.

Deterrence was, of course, a central factor in the Cold War. Even minor clashes between the US and then Soviet Union were avoided because both had not just the military capacity but also, critically, the will to fight a full-scale nuclear war to preserve the status quo between them.

Both sides understood that the other saw the issues between them as so central to their national survival that they would accept the appalling costs of major war rather than surrender them. That meant that leaders on both sides knew that even a small clash would present them with the choice between a humiliating backdown and a terrifying escalation towards a nuclear exchange.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, many people in Washington seem to have forgotten the essential role that evident will plays in deterrence. They now assume that simply having the capability to fight a major war will deter adversaries like China from taking steps that Washington does not like.

But that is not so. America's armed strength will deter China from pursuing its assertive policies in the South China Sea only if Beijing is convinced that America has the will to actually go to war with China.

Back in the 1990s, it was clear that America did indeed have that will. That was because the costs and risks of a US-China conflict to America were relatively low, both militarily and economically. But over the past few years, as China's military capabilities and economic weight have grown, the costs to America have grown very sharply.

America's prosperity would now be as devastated as China's if a conflict disrupted economic flows between them. And America today would stand to lose major military assets like aircraft carriers which were once considered invulnerable, and the risks of escalation up to and across the nuclear threshold are much higher.

Indeed, as the costs and risks to each side have equalised, China might today be better placed to deter the US than vice versa. It seems likely that China would be more willing than the US to allow a crisis in the South China Sea to escalate into a war. If so, America's assumption that China can be deterred from staking its claims to regional leadership in the South China Sea by minor infringements of its claimed air and sea space is a dangerous and outdated delusion.

This leaves a big question: What can America and its Asian friends and allies do in response to China's power? The first step to an answer is to recognise that the choice is not between outright defiance and abject surrender. There are more options to choose from. The task of America and its friends is to explore those options.

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

Why Beijing poses no threat to South China Sea commerce

May 28, 2015

By Greg Austin

THE heat being generated outside China about its putative threat to commercial shipping in the South China Sea because of activity in the Spratly Islands is becoming tiresome. (Note: The term "sea lines of communication", SLOC, is often used in these debates as a substitute for "commercial shipping", though in normal parlance the two are not completely synonymous.) It is not clear who invented the "China SLOC threat" thesis but it does not stand close scrutiny.

Here are a few considerations that may stimulate a rethink.

First, China does not need the Spratly Islands to threaten north-bound shipping in the South China Sea. It could do so easily, if it wanted to, without controlling this disputed island group. China's Southern Fleet is headquartered in Hainan, which sits in a commanding position opposite the Philippines in the area that overlooks the northern-most egress from this semi-enclosed sea. China's mainland province of Guangdong has 4,300km of coastline that forms one side of this sea egress. The distance between this coastline and the Philippines' coast is around 800km and this area is in relatively easy reach of China's maritime military assets.

Most of the tiny islands and submerged reefs in the Spratly group are more than 800km from Hainan Island. Chinese military leaders would have to be mad before they used these remote and tiny islands as the foundation for an anti-shipping campaign.

Any country wanting to mount a sustained attack against shipping would use land-based air assets supported by a secure supply chain before it would use sea-based assets, such as submarines, or an air strip in mid-ocean built on a submerged coral reef remote from any secure supply chain.

Second, China almost certainly imports as much oil through the South China Sea as, say, Japan, and possibly more.

According to BP, China's oil imports in 2013 were 282 million tonnes, compared with 178 million tonnes for Japan. Just what share of China's imported oil goes through the South China Sea is unclear, but these two countries have a near-identical interest in protecting shipping in the semi-enclosed sea.

According to the US government this year, at least 60 per cent of Chinese oil imports last year came from countries whose oil exports would have to use maritime South-east Asia to reach China. Moreover, China's economy is highly dependent on sea trade, with manufacturing employment in the main coastal cities highly dependent on seaborne trade (between China and Japan, and China and the US).

Third, the historical precedents for a campaign against commercial shipping in open ocean areas are extremely small in number since 1900.

There have been none since Germany lost hundreds of submarines in World War II in its attempt to shut down seaborne trade and block naval access to Britain. In May 1943 alone, Germany lost 46 submarines.

In fact, a modern campaign against civil shipping is judged by most naval experts to be most effective as the vessels leave port or approach the destination ports, or in narrow straits, rather than in open ocean areas, such as around the Spratly Islands.

One example of this is the war on shipping in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The South China Sea is 3.5 million sq km in area, around 14 times larger than the area of the Persian Gulf.

In the era of satellite and sea-bed surveillance of Chinese warships, any of its combatants (surface or submarine) would be picked off by the United States and its allies before they could do much damage to allied shipping.

Moreover, the number and tonnage of ships involved in seaborne trade are today many times higher than during World War II. The increase in world seaborne trade between 1940 and now has been around 1,000 per cent (a factor of 10), with year-on-year increases expected for decades to come.

Thus, the situation in East Asia today, if we were contemplating a possible China SLOC threat compared with the Battle for the Atlantic, is (in very crude terms) 10 times more merchant ships facing 10 times fewer submarines. Even if the submarines are much more capable today, so are anti-submarine surveillance assets.

Fourth, the South China Sea (via the Malacca Strait) is a route of convenience (and lower cost) for shipping bound for Japan from the Indian Ocean. If there was a threat in the South China Sea, all shipping could simply avoid the Malacca Strait, divert south of Java, pass through the Sunda or Lombok Straits, enter the Java Sea and then the Philippines Sea to the east of the Philippines, never having entered the South China Sea.

The added distance and time would be costlier but the viability of this additional route in a conflict would undermine the value of any anti-shipping campaign focused around the Spratly Islands. This route is used fairly consistently by many larger oil tankers.

One reason the "SLOC threat thesis" has emerged is that officers of the PLA Navy have paid increasing attention to the issue themselves. The mission of sea lanes protection is now mentioned far more often in official Chinese documents than 10 years ago, in part because China has itself become far more vulnerable to interruptions of its seaborne trade. But another reason is that PLA officers are using this argument, just like their Western counterparts, as an additional lever to win more money for the defence budget.

At the same time, China's leaders know that for any country in today's world, protection of shipping is not something one country can deliver by itself. It has to be a shared international responsibility. That is what China's official doctrine of 2013 says, and I believe this to be the prevailing view in its government.

China's actions in the Spratly Islands are influenced most by the belief that the specks of sand, rock, or reef are Chinese territory. The leaders have no expectation or belief that control of the islands will enhance the country's military power projection capabilities in a way that might enable a confrontation over the safety of shipping with the world's greatest naval power and its many allies.

China is beginning to learn the hard way, and it is still learning, that its obduracy and military gambits in the Spratly Islands do not remotely serve its interests - even if its claim to the entire Spratly group were defensible.

Diplomacy by the United States is working. It is not served by exaggerating or inventing military threats, such as that related to commercial shipping.

The writer is a Professorial Fellow with the EastWest Institute in New York and a Visiting Professor at the Australian Centre for Cyber Security at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. This article first appeared in The Diplomat online. 

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