As we enter the Year of the Rooster, a fierce debate rages over whether Donald Trump is trying to stake his claim as the Great Red Rooster lording it over the South China Sea.
First we had Secretary of State nominee Rex “T. Rex” Tillerson equating Chinese island-building activity in the South China Sea to “Russia’s taking of Crimea” and insisting “access to these islands also is not going to be allowed.” Then we had White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s pledge to defend “international territories” in the South China Sea.
All this after Trump had blamed Beijing for building a “massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.”
China’s Foreign Ministry has been remarkably cool. While stressing Beijing would not be drawn in to a “hypothetical” situation – a US blockade – “non-negotiable sovereignty” over Nansha Qundao (the Spratly islands) and surrounding areas was once again stressed. Moreover, “the United States is not a country directly involved in the South China Sea.”
The Beltway nevertheless considers the US directly involved, in the sense that Beijing will never be allowed to become the self-proclaimed master of security in the South China Sea. All that “muscular” South China Sea talk, coupled with the veiled threat of revising the One China policy, should be seen as Trump administration tactics to prevent a geopolitical vacuum.
Actually blockading islands in the South China Sea implies the folly of an act of war. Team Trump aims, at best, at positioning America to extract trade concessions from Beijing further on down the road.
All about OBOR
China-ASEAN bilateral trade reached US$472.16 billion in 2015. The target for 2020 is a whopping US$1 trillion.
Southeast Asia is an absolutely key hub in China’s New Silk Roads/One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. It is, as a whole, eager for top-class connectivity with China. But depending on the strength of the Chinese trade/business diaspora in each nation, controversy reigns, to varying degrees, on whether connectivity implies becoming a hostage of a Sino-centric tributary system.
Diplomatically, Beijing is trying hard to deploy soft power.
In their September 2016 summit in Laos, China and the ASEAN bloc pledged to respect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (which Washington insists is in danger); to solve territorial disputes peacefully, through negotiations (which happens to be the official Chinese position) and with consideration for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); and finally to come up with a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (optimistically, a binding text will be ready before summer.)
The South China Sea is not only the key hub of China’s highly complex global supply chain. As much as the South China Sea protects China’s access to the Indian Ocean, which happens to be Beijing’s crucial energy transit route, Woody Island in the Paracels, southeast of Hainan island, is another key bridgehead in the Maritime Silk Road.
For Beijing, expansion between the Spratly and Paracel islands means breaking through the geographical limits of Southeast Asia to project power through the Indian Ocean all the way to Southwest Asia; once again, OBOR in effect.
No matter who is in the White House, the Pentagon won’t refrain from its FON (Freedom of Navigation) program, from B-52 overflights in the South China Sea to more “muscular” US Navy patrols. When Beijing counterpunched – showing off one of its H-6K long-range nuclear-capable bombers over Scarborough Shoal, near the Philippines – no wonder the Pentagon went on red alert. Because the Great Game in the South China Sea has everything to do with China’s aerial and underwater military prowess – and how it might be able to face off eventual Pentagon maneuvers to disrupt OBOR.
Enter the “access” drama queens
The whole Chinese economic miracle always relied upon the eastern seaboard’s astonishing production/export performance. Yet, strategically, China has no direct access to the open seas. Geophysics can be implacable: China is “blocked” by islands all around.
Wu Shicun, the president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, has been solid over the years that all of Beijing’s actions boil down to securing strategic access to the opens seas. The Beltway, in contrast, sees it as the attempt to secure a “Chinese lake”. It is, in fact, about China securing its own naval backyard – the crucial entry and exit point for China’s complex global supply chains.
Beijing ultimately aims at puncturing the US belief that it must have full, unrestricted “access” to the seven seas, the bedrock of its Empire of Bases. China is now in a position to successfully defend the strategic southern island of Hainan. Yulin naval base in Hainan hosts China’s expanded submarine fleet, which not only features stalwarts such as the 094A Jin-class submarine, but has the capability to deliver China’s new generation ICBM, the JL-3, with an estimated range of 12,000km. So China now is able not only to protect but also to project power, aiming ultimately at unrestricted access to the Western Pacific.
Initially, the US counterpunch to all this was “Anti-Access”, or A2, plus Area Denial, which in Pentagonese translates as A2/AD. Yet China has incrementally evolved its own very sophisticated A2/AD tactics, including cyberwarfare; submarines equipped with cruise missiles; and most of all anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the Dongfeng 21-D, the ultimate nightmare for those sitting duck billion-dollar US aircraft carriers.
A program called Pacific Vision, funded by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessments, eventually came up with the Air-Sea Battle concept. Virtually everything about Air-Sea Battle is classified. But even as the concept was being elaborated, China mastered the art of long-range ballistic missiles – a lethal threat to the Empire of Bases, fixed and/or floating.
What is known is that the core Air-Sea Battle concept, in Orwellian Pentagonese, is “NIA/D3”: “networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces”. To break through the fog, this is how the Pentagon would trample over Chinese A2/AD – being able to attack all sorts of Chinese command and control centers in a swarm of “surgical operations”.
So these, in a nutshell, are the extremely high stakes in the event of the Trump administration ever daring to install a blockade in the South China Sea.
The recent diplomatic charm offensive by China spells out the absurdity of any military offensive against an ASEAN member: it’s bad for business. The environment after The Hague’s ruling – as the Laos summit proved – points toward long-term diplomatic solutions for all South China Sea disputes.
In parallel, Trump or no Trump, the indispensable nation’s military hegemony over the South China Sea must always be undisputed. But already it is not. China has positioned itself as a cunning, asymmetrical aspirant to “peer competitor”. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when” there is a serious confrontation between Red Rooster Trump and Red Rooster Xi over “access” to the South China Sea.