Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: China's Foolish Fight Over the Yellow Sea

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) China picks a foolish fight over the Yellow Sea.

2) The Army's next nightmare scenario

China picks a foolish fight over the Yellow Sea

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in South Korea on July 21 to display their commitment to that country's defense. In March, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Last month, South Korea took its case to the U.N. Security Council but was unable to get much satisfaction -- China, with North Korea's stability its paramount concern, blocked the Security Council from explicitly naming North Korea as the perpetrator.

China had hoped that the Cheonan incident would simply disappear, keeping the strategic situation in northeast Asia in the frozen state it prefers. After the Security Council's non-action, Chinese leaders should have anticipated that the United States and South Korea would take their own actions to reinforce deterrence against the North. China's handling of this affair will end up costing it and brings Beijing's judgment into question.

With South Korea's attempt at justice having come up short, the U.S. and South Korean governments have arranged for a showy two-part display of solidarity. Part one was the arrival of Clinton and Gates, with a photo-op at the demilitarized zone and a meeting with their South Korean counterparts. Part two will be a large U.S.-South Korea military training exercise, involving 8,000 troops, 100 aircraft (including the first deployment of F-22s to South Korea), and the USS George Washington carrier strike group.

Having dug itself into a hole by energizing the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, the Chinese government continued digging: On July 21 its Foreign Ministry spokesman warned, "We resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China's coastal waters that undermine China's security interests."

The U.S. government has made no commitment to send the USS George Washington carrier strike group, the most ostentatious display of U.S. military power, to the Yellow Sea. But with the Chinese government now having thrown down the gauntlet over the U.S. Navy's right to sail in international waters, the United States will have to respond with a significant display. Anything less than a transit of the Yellow Sea within the next few weeks by USS George Washington and its escorts will come off as a loss of face by the United States.

This tussle between China and the United States over prestige is alarming. Why has China suddenly decided to pick a fight over the Yellow Sea? The USS George Washington carrier strike group last made a routine transit of the Yellow Sea in October, which few noticed or cared about. If the Chinese government is interested in stability in northeast Asia, it should have stayed quiet and allowed the Korean training exercises to proceed uneventfully as they have for many decades.

What is disturbing is the newfound lack of judgment by China's decision-makers. China's gauntlet-throwing has given a boost to the U.S. military alliances in the region. And China's troubling misjudgment in this case does not bode well the next time a real crisis in the region occurs.

The Army's next nightmare scenario

After the Cold War ended, Pentagon planners restructured the U.S. military's ground forces to cope with what was considered at the time to be the worst-case scenario -- simultaneous high-intensity wars in the Middle East and Korea. But recent Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) have drifted away from planning for traditional conventional combat. The 2010 QDR discussed the need for ground forces to prepare for conventional warfare, irregular warfare, stability operations, and disaster assistance. However, the review recommended few significant changes to the military's force structure.

Did the 2010 QDR provide any useful planning guidance to the Army and Marine Corps? Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, says no. Writing at Small Wars Journal, Freier says the QDR's "more of the same" conclusions failed to provide ground forces with either a long-term threat narrative or a vision about structure, operating concepts, or missions they need to prepare for the future.

What ground-force planning concept does Freier envision? In his essay, Freier describes a worst-case scenario demanding enough to prepare the Army and Marine Corps for a full range of comprehensive and lesser tasks. Freier calls his worst-case scenario "opposed stabilization" and imagines a nuclear-armed state that has collapsed into insurgency and civil war. Freier's scenario portrays Hobbesian chaos with well-armed local, foreign, and criminal groups battling each other as well as outside intervention forces for control of territory and populations. In spite of the distasteful memories of the stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Freier's scenario sees the United States drawn into this new opposed stabilization mission due the potential for nuclear proliferation, violent ethnosectarian contagion, threats to strategic resources, or the possibility of mass refugee migrations into key allies or the United States itself.

Freier adds to the difficulty by providing no outside or local U.S. allies and no nearby logistics base to support U.S. military operations. Intervention would require a forcible entry by U.S. expeditionary forces and the buildup of combat power and logistics support, presumably over long distances. The U.S. expeditionary force would then have to fight some combatant groups while attempting to form alliances with others. The campaign objective would be to establish minimum essential order with the goal of containing the proliferation, regional instability, ethnosectarian, and migration threats that sparked the intervention.

Freier asserts that if the Army and Marine Corps can prepare for all the tasks required to complete the opposed stabilization mission just described, these services would also be prepared for currently envisioned missions such as conventional combat, counterinsurgency, and security force assistance. It takes little imagination to pick out a few spots on the globe where Freier's scary scenario seems plausible. One wonders whether his worst-case scenario is too demanding for Pentagon planners to care to think about. Alas, no one, least of all staff planners, gets to choose how history plays out.


<i>Whereas, "transformation" (of troublesome states and other actors) may be beyond the capacity of the United States alone, it is not beyond the combined capacity of the world's old, and its new, great and rising powers.</i>

Do you see any place on earth where the old, new, great, and rising powers are combining their capacities to transform anyone? Do ye see any place where they are likely to? I certainly don't. For the most part they simply don't care, and unless a failed, rogue, or failing state is posing a direct problem for them, they've no reason or desire to intervene. Neither do I see any reason to suppose that a combined effort, in the most unlikely event that it occurred, would have a greater chance of success, as all parties involved would be pursuing their own interests. Too many cooks, and all that...

<i>taken together, these troublesome states and actors (as noted by the President of the United States) are considered to be a prominent threat to what today might be called "international security."</i>

That doesn't mean they are a huge threat, and of course they are not a huge threat. There just aren't any other threats out there to rally people against. Thus I would have to call a good thing.

Aside from a brief surge of enthusiasm in the early Clinton administration (which was snuffed out totally in Mogadishu) and a reflexive lashing out after 9/11, the US has shown very little enthusiasm for intervention and transformation in failed, rogue, and failing states. The rest of the great and rising powers have shown even less, and our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan seems unlikely to inspire any, anywhere. There's just no reason to do anything more than deter the rogues and contain the failed and failing.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 08/01/2010 - 6:21pm

Whereas, "transformation" (of troublesome states and other actors) may be beyond the capacity of the United States alone, it is not beyond the combined capacity of the world's old, and its new, great and rising powers.

And whereas no individual rogue, weak, failing or failed state may -- or may not -- be sufficiently important, economically or otherwise, to produce the worst case scenerio described above (failed new great and/or rising power[s], demise of the current great power peace, loose WMD on the grandest scale imaginable, etc.), taken together, these troublesome states and actors (as noted by the President of the United States) are considered to be a prominent threat to what today might be called "international security."

As is often the case in the rapid expansion and incorporation of smaller communities, today's rapid expansion of the so-called "International Community" requires that certain "infrastructure" improvements and updates be undertaken.

This often finds communities deploying their "elements of power" to "clean up" previously tollerated "bad" neighborhoods and "troublespots."

This is what is envisioned today -- but on an international scale.

Today, we intend to use of such things as "development," "diplomacy" and "defense" (the stated elements of our new foreign policy focus) in an effort to (1) galvanize international community effort and (2) effect the "troublesome neighborhood transformations" that are required.

This "cleaning up the neighborhood" -- on its normal, smaller, local community scale -- is nothing new and happens all the time.

What is unusual today, is that this present "cleaning up of the neighborhood" endeavor is to be done internationally.

With "great powers" no longer being an obsticle in this regard (they have all moved in the direction of capitalism and markets), then the effort today is directed at such lesser entities as rogue, weak, failing and failed states.

And, as in the case of the "cleaning up of the neighborhood" in smaller local communities, the "cleaning up" process directed at the international community troublespots is, likewise, likely to be meet with opposition.

Thus, the order of the day for the military forces (especially land forces) of the International Community today might, indeed, be labeled as "opposed stabilization" -- or -- possibly better put: "opposed transformation."

<i>Then could the need to transform rogue, weak, failing and/or failed states (so as to provide the safer, more free and more open international environment needed to avoid the "worst case scenerio" described at "a" - "d" above) be better understood?</i>

Not really. Rogue, weak, failed, or failing states have pretty much zero influence on the worst case scenario you describe. If Russia, China, or India fail, it won't be because of rogue, weak, failed, of failing states... no such state is sufficiently important, economically or in any other way, to produce such a failure.

The simple reality is that there is no real need, unless you postulate a humanitarian imperative, to "transform" states, unless they attack us or our allies or harbor those who do... and even in those cases the need to attack, occupy and attempt (generally unsuccessfully) to transform is highly debatable... especially since "transformation" is clearly beyond our capacity.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/30/2010 - 12:39pm

If one were to think of the "worst case scenerio" as one involving the failure of one or more of the new capitalist great and/or rising powers, to wit:

a. China, Russia, India.

b. With resulting loose WMD on the largest scale imaginable.

c. These nations reverting back to communism -- or something worse.

d. And with the current great power peace lost and destroyed.

These events being caused by the stagnation and/or demise of the current world capitalist system -- due to a variety of potential reasons -- one being:

The inability to obtain safe, free and open access to vast new quantities of resources and trade routes -- needed to accommodate and sustain the growth of these new "strategic states" (our new capitalist partners and fellow stakeholders),

Then could the need to transform rogue, weak, failing and/or failed states (so as to provide the safer, more free and more open international environment needed to avoid the "worst case scenerio" described at "a" - "d" above) be better understood?

In this regard, the term "opposed stabilization" would seem to be very appropriate to today's military requirements:

a. On the front end, this would mean the need to prepare our forces for "opposed stabilization" missions re: our intention (via "development, diplomacy and defense") to transform rogue, weak, failing or failed lesser states.

b. On the back end (should we fail in this "transformation" endeavor) it would mean the need to prepare our forces for the "worst case scenerio," to wit: "opposed stabilization" missions relating to the failure of such WMD-armed great and rising capitalist powers as China, Russia or India.

To get back on topic... I don't really see the Chinese "picking a fight" in the Yellow Sea. I don't think they have any desire to fight or any interest in fighting. What they're doing is marking their presence, like a dog pissing on the neighborhood lampposts, and announcing that they expect to be consulted on affairs conducted on their doorstep.

Troufion (not verified)

Wed, 07/28/2010 - 9:34pm

"I don't see how that translates to an intention to invade and transform failed states... in fact there's little or no appetite for that, for excellent reasons."

You are right. The threat that exists now doesn't translate to the intent to invade failed states. But the question at hand is not what will be done but what form of military does the US need? To answer this, to build the right military for future defense we must ask question like- what are the most likely and most dnagerous threats we could face? It is somewhat academic but it has true and lasting impact. If you are wrong you end up with a Maginot line, if you are close you have a flexible miltiary capable of detering and defeating enemies well into the future. Both of these articles deal with this question. And their focuses show just how hard it is to predict what is needed in the US military arsenal to protect US interests world wide now and into the future.

The People's Liberation Army Navy recently created a Yellow Sea Fleet of five Jianghu light/patrol frigates which are corvette sized and armed with guns and/or or Styx anti-shipping missiles. Many of the class have had the missiles removed and all best described as a manouevring practice target for Maverick/Penguin/Harpoon or Standard missile systems. One Arleigh Burke has more firepower and combat capability than the entire fleet.

China has at ten to twelve major naval surface combatants that are survivable against anti-shipping miisles. The rest carry anti-shipping missiles and guns but no anti-missile systems.

The threat should not be exaggerated lest the Chinese stsrt to believe their own propaganda. They pack a punch but have glass jaws.

Bill C:

Once again I think you've a way of taking very general comments and forcing them into what seems to be a preconceived paradigm... where they don't necessarily fit.

I can't say I see international progress as a particularly bad thing, and the need to protect trade and commerce is nothing new, it's been a core military function for centuries. Managing threats is also nothing new, and I don't see how any of this can be taken to represent a policy change, or a policy evolution. Certainly there's nothing here to indicate intent to enter or attempt to transform failed or failing state.

The US may well be impacted by the failure of a strategic state at some point, and yes, we have to be prepared to manage such a situation as circumstances require. Again, nothing at all new.

Bill C. (not verified)

Wed, 07/28/2010 - 12:21pm

The first paragraph of President Obama's introduction to the National Security Strategy:

"Time and again in our nation's history, Americans have risen to meet -- and to shape -- moments of transition. This is one of those moments. We live in a time of sweeping change. The success of free nations, open markets, and social progress in recent decades has accelerated globalizalation on an unprecedented scale. This has opened the doors of opportunity around the globe, extended democracy to hundreds of millions of people, and made peace possible among the major powers. Yet globalization has also intensified the dangers we face -- from international terrorism and the spread of deadly technologies --- to economic upheavel and a changing climate."

In his second paragraph, the President notes:

"Moreover, as we face multiple threats -- from nations, nonstate actors, and failed states, we will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country and underpinned global security, for decades."

These first and second paragraphs of the Presidents introduction seem to frame national security today in terms of (1) "international progress" (via globalization, etc.) and (2) the threats to international progress (to wit: international terrorism, the spread of deadly technologies, economic upheavel, climate change, and certain nations and non-state actors and failed states generally).

When national security is described in this way, then:

a. On the front end, the United States would seem to need to design and deploy its "instruments of power" such as to (1) foster and support continued "international progress" and (2) adequately deal with the threats thereto.

b. On the back end, however, in a "worst case scenerio," the United States must also have its instruments of power prepared to address the potential that "international progress" might faulter or fail.

In this latter regard (potential for "international progress" to faulter or fail), Mr. Freier's discussion of preparing to deal with the failure of "strategic states" seems, indeed, to be very important and MIA.

For the most part the failed or rogue states have a very minimal impact on world commerce. The exception would be Somalia's piracy, but even that is more of an irritant than a threat.

Certainly there is and will continue to be a policy of trying to contain the impact that these states have, or to respond to direct threats. That's not at all unreasonable. I don't see how that translates to an intention to invade and transform failed states... in fact there's little or no appetite for that, for excellent reasons.

Troufion (not verified)

Tue, 07/27/2010 - 9:53pm

Capitalism requires freedom of movement for commerce. Freedom of the Seas for example. Freedom of movement on the sea is best safeguarded by Nations and the international standards, regulations and laws these nations set and enforce. Failed, roque states and the terrorist and criminal enterprises they spawn infringe upon this freedom of movement. Therefore they impact international commerce and constitute a threat to world order. It then becomes important for the captialist nations of the world to at a minimum contain these failed, rogue states and these criminal and terrorist organizations. For that matter capitalist nations are compelled to address any event, action or organization that threatens world trade.

<i>On the front end, the US military must be prepared to help prepare and provide the international environment needed for the continued capitalist transition of such nuclear-armed great and rising powers as China, Russia and India. This will mean helping to overcome the problems in the international environment seen in this regard, to wit: those posed by rogue, weak, failing and failed states.</i>

How do rogue, weak, and failing states pose an obstacle to the emergence of the emerging capitalist powers? I can't see that they do at all, and I see no American intention or desire to mess with rogue, weak, or failing states unless those states are perceived to be intruding on US interests.

Russia, China, and India chose capitalism because their previous systems were failing, not because we wanted them to. Their capitalist transitions are in their own interest, and in ours, though like all transitions it poses new challenges. Of coursde the US has to be prepared to protect itself and its interests, but that hardly represents a major change. I see no reason to suppose a global intent to support the sprerad of capitalism through armed force, which if nothing else seems quite unnecessary. Capitalism doesn't spread because we force it on people, it spreads because people want to make money and buy stuff.

Bill C. (not verified)

Tue, 07/27/2010 - 12:25pm

In my comment above, I am referring to the article by Nathan Freier re: MIA in the QDR.


Thus, a new "unifying vision for land forces" might be summed up in this manner:

a. On the front end, the US military must be prepared to help prepare and provide the international environment needed for the continued capitalist transition of such nuclear-armed great and rising powers as China, Russia and India. This will mean helping to overcome the problems in the international environment seen in this regard, to wit: those posed by rogue, weak, failing and failed states.

b. On the back end, the US military must likewise be prepared to deal with the problems that it would encounter should these nuclear-armed great and rising powers fail in their capitalists experiments. These are the problems specificially associated with the failure of (1) weak, failing or failed great and rising powers who (2) have quantities of WMD.

Bill C. (not verified)

Tue, 07/27/2010 - 12:00pm

If, in this planning for "worst case scenerios," involving the failure of "strategic states," the author is pointing to the need to prepare for the partial or complete failure of such nuclear-armed "great and rising powers" as Russia, China and India, then this would seem to be very appropriate indeed.

These great and rising powers are presently in an experimental / evolutionary phase; wherein, they have only recently come to trust the fate of their nation -- and the fate of their citizenry -- to capitalism and markets.

The US government and US military has been working very hard on the front end of this initiative, to try to provide the international environment necessary for the incorporation and success of these new great and rising capitalist powers.

But the US military, as the author seems to acknowledge and point out, must also be prepared to deal with things on the back end of this initiative (the worst case scenerio); wherein, these nuclear-armed great and rising powers falter and/or fail -- for whatever reason(s) -- in their attempt to support their nations and populations via their current capitalism/markets experiments.

CPT Keith B. Miller (not verified)

Mon, 07/26/2010 - 10:27pm

I would tend to agree in regards to China. It shows a clear lack of forethought in recent provocations regarding the Yellow Sea. I believe their intentions are demonstrate that they are in charge when it comes to their neighborhood.

It is apparent that North Korea's recent actions were a surprise to Chinese policy makers. In order to reassert their dominance in the region and save face China has had to take a hard stance for fear of further destabilization due to an unruly North Korean. This show is as much for the global audience as it is for North Korea.

However China may not realize that North Korea may not only be posturing for the west but also trying to shake their Chinese overlords.
Your nightmare scenario is intriguing however your assumption that "(t)his worst-case scenario is too demanding for Pentagon planners to care to think about" is not completely factual.

With the publication of Army Field Manual (FM) 7-0 TRAINING FOR FULL SPECTRUM OPERATIONS, December 2008. The Army has begun the necessary steps to address the threats described above and those that Israel recently faced in 2006 against Hezbollah as outlined JFQ Issue 52, Hybrid Warfare and Challenges By Frank G. Hoffman.

To further demonstrate that planners are indeed looking at the questions posed; FM 7-0 lays out five (5)complete threats currently facing the U.S.

1. States, nations, transnational actors, and non-state entities will continue to challenge and redefine the
global distribution of power, concept of sovereignty, and nature of warfare.

2. Traditional threats emerge from states employing recognized military capabilities and forces in understood forms of military competition and conflict.

3. Irregular threats are those posed by an opponent employing unconventional, asymmetric methods and means to counter traditional U.S. advantages.

4. Catastrophic threats involve the acquisition, possession, and use of nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, also called weapons of mass destruction.

5. Disruptive threats involve an enemy using new technologies that reduce U.S. advantages in key operational domains.

In fact the last directly addresses the problem of access denial in regards to force projection and in country basing. This threat was superbly demonstrated by Hezbollah when they nearly sank an Israeli C2 Corvette off the coast. Military planners are indeed taking notice.

Full Spectrum Operations doctrine attempts to prepare Army forces for operations across the spectrum of conflict, from limited intervention to major combat operations.

Finally though "no one, least of all staff planners, gets to choose how history plays out" they can prepare; and planning is half the battle.

CPT Keith B. Miller
Student ILE, Ft. Belvoir, VA

"The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government."