US security strategy for the economic and political development of East Asia has been remarkably consistent and successful since 1945. In a strong position at the end of the Pacific War, the United States has maintained a military balance so that no regional aggressor would be emboldened to use force to change political boundaries.
Twice the United States, with Japanese support, has gone to war in East Asia over what it considered military aggression – on the Korean Peninsula and in Vietnam. It had a weak and mistaken understanding of the internal dynamics – these were in large measure civil wars. However, the United States was basically motivated by a strategy of defeating major power aggression – on these occasions through proxies.
Once the aftershocks of World War II and the end of the colonial period subsided, the US maintained this security strategy with a large margin of air and maritime superiority.
Meanwhile Japan’s strategy for the region has reflected its evolution from the vanquished, disarmed and powerless nation that it was in 1945 to the strong and prosperous nation it is today. It provided bases for American forces in the region and active logistic support during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Today, it is still strongly against the use of military force for political gain, and is now developing a new strategy that it calls “proactive contribution to peace.”
East Asia has been a peaceful place from 1975 to the present, and the economic and social progress has been astounding.
Nowhere have the results been more impressive than in China. It has grown to the second largest economy in the world and has pulled almost half a billion citizens out of poverty.
However, China’s economic success has also provided the resources for military spending. For the last fifteen years it has increased by roughly 10% annually, sustaining that pace even as GDP growth has slowed. Much of these increased resources have been spent on maritime and air power, both military and civil.
With greater power, China has revived long dormant maritime territorial claims, and has greatly raised political tensions in the region. It is ironic that the American security balance has provided the stable security environment that has enabled the Chinese economic growth that has in turn provided the resources to upset that stable balance.
There are specific local balances of force in the areas of dispute in East Asia.
On the Korean Peninsula the balance is based on in-place South Korean and American ground and air forces, with reinforcements available by mobilization and by American redeployments. The political commitment is by treaty.
For Taiwan, the balance is based on strong Taiwanese ground forces and prepared defenses, with powerful American maritime and air reinforcements at the ready. The political commitment is by legislation, the Taiwan Relations Act.
For the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the strategy is based on Japanese coast guard, maritime, air and deployable ground forces, supported by American maritime and air reinforcements. The political commitment is by Treaty and public US declaration.
China lays claim to Taiwan and the Senkakus; North Korea, an ally of China, to South Korea. However, the combination of Republic of Korea, Taiwanese and Japanese forces, along with trained, ready and deployable American forces, makes military aggression so high risk that a potential aggressor has every incentive not to attempt it.
Fundamental to the American role in all these local balances is the freedom to operate maritime and air forces freely throughout the international water and air space of the region. This becomes important as we turn to a fourth location within East Asia.
That location is the South China Sea, and it is here that this traditional strategy of establishing local favorable military balances is not working well.
South China Sea islands are not large, populated and defended, as is Taiwan, or the peninsula of South Korea. They are claimed by several different countries, none of which has the advanced and powerful military capability that Japan has committed to defend the Senkakus. While the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States, the Philippines has never developed the type of combined forces command that South Korea has built with the United States. In fact in 1992 the Philippines ended its agreements with the US for the use of Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base.
In this large and important sea China’s persistent campaign is steadily eroding important US and Japanese interests. It is undermining important interests of all seafaring nations, as well as vital territorial and defense interests of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
China is pursuing an administrative, civilian and sub-military strategy, what Japanese observers call a “gray zone” strategy. Based on a single old map, the “nine-dashed line” map that now appears in the frontispiece of every new Chinese passport, China claims ownership of the entire South China Sea.
It has created a new territorial jurisdiction over the South China Sea, called “Sansha,” with government offices on Woody Island in the Paracels. It has promulgated Chinese fishing and environmental regulations for the entire South China Sea and on occasion enforces with Coast Guard vessels. Last year it deployed a drilling rig deep into waters claimed by Vietnam, and escorted it with fishing and coast guard vessels, for a period of several months. It is physically enlarging two islands in the Spratlys to build a harbor, runway and storage areas that will support both civil and military ships and aircraft. These islands are claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, all of which are hundreds of miles closer to them than is China.
According to a careful count done by researchers at the National Defense University, China has initiated over three quarters of the aggressive incidents in the South China Sea in recent years.
China backs up its “gray zone” aggression with steady intimidation and occasional force, its goals are to gain de facto control of the islands and other land features and to extend its effective jurisdiction over all the waters of the South China Sea. It will then be in a position to enforce its nationalistic interpretation of its rights, and to control the access and activities of other nations’ naval forces and shipping.
China has been quite open about its objectives. It has developed the military concept of a defensive sea barrier extending hundreds of miles from China’s coast to what it calls “the first island chain.” Chinese commentators frequently refer to China’s “three-million square kilometers of blue territory.”If you do the math, this is the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China claims that this huge region of water and the territory of its neighbors is China’s natural defensive barrier, within which China has the right to control the access and activities of other countries’ military forces. It goes further and asserts that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, it has control over the activities of foreign maritime and air forces within its exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
It has taken action to support that assertion. In 2001 its fighter aircraft harassed, and then one of them collided with, an American reconnaissance aircraft 70 miles off Hainan. In 2009, Chinese ships and aircraft used sustained harassment to force the unarmed survey ship USNS Impeccable out of China’s EEZ. In 2014 China protested the deployment of the USS George Washington into international waters in the Yellow Sea in response to North Korean provocations.
Chinese maritime legal experts know that its interpretation of EEZ rights is not shared by the great majority of UNCLOS signatories. They know that old maps have never been recognized by international maritime law as a valid basis for territorial claims. Through its “gray zone strategy,” using administrative declarations and civil enforcement actions, it is building a much more powerful basis for a claim to ownership of the entire South China Sea.
American national interests, the interests of all the nations on the shores of the South China Sea, and in fact the interests of all seafaring nations, will be gravely compromised if this “gray zone” strategy is successful. America’s position of influence in East Asia will be deeply undermined if the South China Sea is entirely Chinese territorial sea or exclusive economic zone.
The actions of the four other Southeast Asian claimant countries have not been enough to slow China down. The Philippines has confronted Chinese coast guard and naval forces at places like Scarborough Shoal, but it has been overmatched. Vietnam has swarmed the Chinese drilling rig with coast guard and fishing vessels, and China has responded with larger numbers.
The American and Japanese response to this threat has also not measured up to the seriousness of the threat. Official spokespersons have stated that the United States does not take a position on the territorial claims themselves, have called for peaceful settlement of disputes, and have stated that we stand for international codes and the rule of law.
Invoking international norms and the rule of law has had – and will continue to have – little effect on China’s policies and actions unless there are incentives to follow those norms and rules along with penalties if China violates them. As far as China is concerned, international norms are set up to protect the interests of dominant military powers like the United States, and to protect the wrongful and impudent claims of small countries that have, in the past, taken territory from a weak China.
So long as there are no penalties to its actions in the South China Sea, China will continue to pursue them. China will follow the international norms when it is satisfied with its territory and security arrangements. It has not yet reached that point.
If current trends continue, there is no reason to believe that China’s strategy will fail – it will in fact be the dominant island and atoll occupier and regulation enforcer in the South China Sea, and other countries will challenge its interpretation of its rights at their peril.
So what should the United States and Japan do?
First, both countries, joined by other seafaring nations, must make official, strong declarations of the important interests that they have at stake.
In making those declarations, we must go far beyond saying that we stand for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Chinese brush aside such statements by saying they would never interfere with the flow of oil tankers and other commercial shipping through this region, much of which, by the way, is headed for China. We must assert that 12 miles beyond every coastline and beyond every true island are “high seas,” where military operations are unconstrained.
We must go beyond general calls for peaceful settlement of disputes. We must state officially that it is in the American national interest that the ownership of the islands in the South China Sea must be decided by multilateral negotiation rather than unilateral claims of control and unilateral military and civil actions.
It would make the American position much stronger if we ratified UNCLOS. The high seas provisions of the Treaty are critical to the situation in the South China Sea, and we are in a much better position to enforce those provisions if we have full membership in the Treaty – as opposed to the awkward space we now occupy.
Second, the interested parties must establish a diplomatic framework for achieving a multilateral settlement of the conflicting claims.
The maritime ASEAN nations, most importantly including Indonesia, should initiate a process for a multilateral settlement of the outstanding claims in the SCS.
The maritime nations of the world – the United States, Japan, India, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, others – should pledge to support the outcome of such a process.
China will decline to participate, announce that it will not abide by the results of any such process, and perhaps increase its aggressive activities. Nonetheless, the process should proceed, in a transparent fashion and with advice from the best maritime international legal experts.
There will have to be some imaginative provisions in this settlement. For example, assigning international trusteeships for some islands. For the Spratlys it will be impossible to draw lines dividing up more than 100 islands, atolls and features. Rather, the settlement should assign individual features to specific countries, and draw a joint development area around the Spratlys, with fair proportions of revenues divided among claimant countries. China’s claims need to be taken into account, even if China is not present to argue its case in meetings and conferences.
Once the settlement is agreed, then all the countries in the region and the world should recognize its provisions. Claimant countries should act on the terms of the settlement. They should develop the islands that are assigned to them. They should enforce fishing and environmental regulations in the EEZs assigned to them. They should authorize hydrocarbon exploitation in their own EEZs, and sign joint development agreements to explore and drill for hydrocarbons in joint development areas.
China will denounce the settlement, and may continue to take its own unilateral actions to attempt to stop the actions of other claimants, as it does now. However, with a settlement, instead of being the dominant country initiating development actions, China will be one among a number of countries taking action. If China takes actions outside of the islands, territorial seas and EEZs allotted to it, the international community should condemn those Chinese actions and support the legitimate claimant countries’ capability to take their own actions and resist China’s.
The objective of this plan is not to contain China. It is, rather, for China to respect a fair multilateral settlement of a complex set of international overlapping historical claims.
Back in 2002 China and all the ASEAN states signed a “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.” It states, “Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”Since then, and contrary to this declaration, China has insisted it will only negotiate individually with each of the other four claimants. Aside from settling an EEZ line in the northern end of the Tonkin Gulf with Vietnam, has shown no willingness to reach compromise settlements.
This proposal would return these issues to the realm of diplomacy, where they belong. A settlement would still allocate to China considerable territory, territorial seas and a large exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. China would have the right to operate its military maritime and air forces on the high seas throughout the region, and to pass through international straits.
This plan does not advocate military confrontation with China. China has generally taken action that falls below the military level, and it is at this level that the other claimant countries and the world’s seafaring nations should contest them and support their own claims. Right now, it does not now seem that China is set upon military conquest of the Paracels, Spratlys, and other islands – Chinese military power generally is kept over the horizon. However, it is worth remembering that on two occasions – 1974 in the Paracels and 1988 in the Spratlys – China fought naval engagements with the Vietnamese, sank Vietnamese ships, and took physical control of islands. Neither China, nor the other claimant countries, nor outside seafaring nations should escalate this competition to the military level.
To conclude, let me return to the basic American and Japanese strategy for the region. It is to create security balances of power in specific disputed locations in East Asia. These balances make it high risk to undertake military or sub-military aggression to support disputed claims.
That security strategy also supports a greater goal – that is, for the countries of the region to avoid arms races that cost government resources and to avoid military confrontations that raise national animosities. Instead, governments can concentrate their resources and their energies on economic development. The results so far have been astounding and of great benefit to all of East Asia, including China.
This strategy of establishing security balances that make aggression high risk is still sound, but the growth of Chinese maritime and air power, Chinese expansive maritime territorial claims, and the Chinese actions to enforce their own concept of a defensive maritime zone out to the first island chain are challenging that strategy in the South China Sea. The concept of security balances must be extended in the South China Sea to include a policy of sub-military balances, including administrative claims, sub-military forces and civil activities.
The claimant countries there, supported by other seafaring nations including the United States and Japan, must develop the multilateral policies and maintain the military and sub-military resources to keep the balance intact, to remove incentives for aggression and to foster growth of further prosperity in the region.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
Dennis Blair is project advisory committee chair for MAP and the chairman and CEO of Sasakawa USA.