By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
SEPTEMBER 2020—If there’s a silver lining to the terrible storm unleashed by the Pandemic of 2020, it’s that COVID19 has exposed the PRC’s nature, vision and reach. Like a midnight flash of lightning, what was unseen or ignored by so many for so long has been laid bare: The PRC is an ends-justify-the-means regime that has contempt for international norms of behavior. This worldview informs every aspect of PRC decisionmaking—from its hoarding of humanitarian supplies and jailing of doctors, to its designs on dominating international sealanes and controlling strategically located ports. In this issue, we explore Beijing’s assault on international sealanes. We will consider Beijing’s toehold in strategic ports next issue.
Some of us didn’t need COVID19 to see the PRC for what it is (see here, here and here p.50). All we needed was to consider how the PRC treats its own people. The PRC is a place where, as Freedom House reports, “hundreds of thousands” of religious adherents are sentenced to forced labor; Christian churches are smashed and followers of Christ are sent to reeducation camps; Buddhist temples are bulldozed; Uighur Muslims are herded into concentration camps, Uighur men are packed into freight trains, Uighur women are forcibly sterilized, and Uighur babies are forcibly aborted; where bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates die in prison. A regime capable of perpetrating such crimes against its own is capable of doing anything. That would include trying to parlay a pandemic into a geopolitical windfall, annexing vast swathes of the South China Sea (SCS), leveraging state-owned companies as fronts for its military, and using ports to plot Trojan Horse attacks. As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observes, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at why the SCS is so important. A prime reason, as CSIS reports, is the region’s vast oil and gas deposits. The SCS holds 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 11 billion barrels of proved oil reserves, and perhaps another 12 billion barrels of oil yet to be discovered. Given that China imports 10.1 million barrels of oil per day and recently became the world’s largest net importer of oil, Xi Jinping has an enormous economic interest in controlling the SCS. Thus, his regime claims 90 percent of the region, based on a map drawn by Chinese cartographers in 1947.
The SCS also is a vital trade route. About one-third of global shipping travels through the SCS. The value of U.S. trade transiting the SCS is $208 billion annually (5.72 percent of all U.S. trade in goods). More than 19 percent of Japan’s trade transits the SCS, 11.8 percent of Britain’s, 30 percent of India’s. Thus, if Xi could become the gatekeeper or tollman of these sealanes, it would not only increase China’s global standing, but also undermine the prosperity of China’s main foes.
Before scoffing at this, recall that a Chinese province has promulgated a law authorizing Chinese ships to intercept foreign vessels sailing in a vast swath of the SCS. In and above the East China Sea, Beijing is violating Japanese airspace 58 times per month, while loitering coast guard vessels in Japanese waters for days at a time. Beijing has fired on Philippine fishing boats in Philippine waters, rammed Vietnamese ships in international waters, and warned Indian ships in international waters and Australian planes in international airspace that they are violating Chinese territory. As soon-to-retire Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warns, “The South China Sea seems set to become a ‘Lake Beijing.’”
Toward that end, China is turning reefs hundreds of miles outside its territorial waters into military outposts, and has constructed some 3,200 acres of illegal islands in the international waters of the SCS. Xi has deployed surface-to-air missile batteries, anti-ship missile batteries and sophisticated radar systems on some of the man-made islands. One of the instant islands features a 10,000-foot airstrip—long enough for bombers and fighter-interceptors.
Xi is putting plenty of muscle and teeth behind his claims. As it tries to annex the SCS piecemeal, China continues a massive military expansion—a 164-percent increase the past decade, a 210-percent spike since 2000. The payoff: China bristles with hundreds of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, deploys a high-tech air force, and boasts a 335-ship navy. China’s navy is 55-percent larger than it was in 2005. Beijing added 24 warships to its fleet in 2019, 21 in 2018, 14 in 2017.
The Trump administration rejects Beijing’s claims in the East and South China Sea as “completely unlawful.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced that the U.S. “will support countries all across the world who recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims…The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”
Underscoring Pompeo’s words, the U.S. expanded freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait and SCS this year; surged three aircraft carriers into the Pacific this summer for the first time in three years; and carried out a robust deployment to support Malaysian vessels harassed by PRC ships. Yet words and periodic deployments are not enough to contain the Beijing behemoth. In contrast to the rapidly expanding PRC navy described above, America’s Navy—at just 296 ships—lacks the assets needed to prevent Xi’s piecemeal annexation of the SCS. At the height of President Reagan’s rebuild, by way of comparison, the Navy boasted 594 ships. When President Clinton dispatched two carrier battle groups to the SCS to smother Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait, the fleet totaled 375 ships. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
A Senate bill would earmark $15.3 billion for much-needed weaponry, infrastructure and alliance support in the Indo-Pacific. That’s an important step, but it’s just one step on a long road back to Cold War levels of defense spending. Given America’s mushrooming debt, that won’t be easy. Today’s defense budget is 3.1 percent of GDP, half what it was for most of the Cold War.
These realties underscore why partnerships and alliances are so important in meeting the challenge posed by China. The good news is that our allies are awake to the risks and responsibilities.
Japan is upconverting its helicopter carriers into flattops capable of deploying F-35Bs; has increased defense spending eight years in a row; and is constructing military-grade runways on Mageshima Island in the East China Sea.
Following Pompeo’s lead, the Australian government has officially rejected Beijing’s “coercive actions in the South China Sea.” Canberra is increasing defense spending 40 percent the next decade, doubling its submarine fleet, and hosting U.S. Marines, F-22s and B-52s for extended rotations.
In the wake of COVID19 and the unprovoked Himalayan border attack, the Indian government has fast-tracked purchases of tanks and warplanes—and has pivoted closer to Washington. The Philippines has reversed plans to terminate a military-training agreement with America.Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin recently declared, “We need the U.S. presence in Asia.” Vietnam is opening its ports to U.S. aircraft carriers, most recently in March 2020.
All 10 ASEAN members recently rebuked Beijing for its lawlessness in the SCS. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in June, “NATO has to address…the security consequences of the rise of China.” Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will make its maiden deployment to the Pacific. France has outlined plans to strengthen military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Canadian and French warships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait.
Deft diplomacy is needed to build this disparate group into a durable anti-Beijing bulwark—a chain-link fence around China. And resolute action is needed to support the diplomats. A good first step is organizing a multinational naval taskforce—perhaps under the auspices of the Combined Maritime Forces—to enforce rules of the road in the SCS, keep the sealanes open and remind Xi that he is taking on the world.
Photo: Getty Images