This Week at War: NIMBYs in the South China Sea

In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss the latest agreement on relocating Marines from Okinawa. I ponder whether there is a better place for them than Guam.

 

With this week's news that the United States has finally reached an agreement to cut the number of Marines stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, an ongoing standoff in the South China Sea between a Philippine Coast Guard cutter and a Chinese ocean surveillance ship, which is now in its third week, has taken on added significance.

The incident began in early April when the crew of a small Philippines warship attempted to arrest some Chinese men for illegal fishing near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, 124 miles northwest of Luzon. China quickly dispatched two surveillance ships and blocked the arrest of the men, who slipped away. China later recalled one its ships and Manila replaced its warship with the cutter, which defused the crisis a bit. In Beijing, the Philippine charge d'affaires has twice been summoned to the foreign ministry to receive lectures on why the rocks under dispute fall within China's "inherent territory."

With this as a backdrop, "Balikatan 2012," a 10-day U.S.-Philippine military training exercise, began on April 16. The 28th annual iteration of the exercise this year included a variety of maneuvers, including a simulated capture of an island by Philippine and U.S. Marines, staged in daylight for a large media contingent on Palawan Island, facing the South China Sea. Besides U.S. and Philippine military forces, Balikatan 2012 also included a command post exercise conducted with representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Philippine President Benigno Aquino used the flurry created by these events to warn his country's neighbors over China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea. "They claim this entire body of water practically. Look at what is excluded and what they are claiming," Aquino told reporters as he pointed to a map of the area. "So how can the others not be fearful of what is transpiring?" After the military exercises wrap up, Aquino's foreign minister will be off to Washington for consultations with U.S. officials.

If Aquino and his ASEAN colleagues are to have the confidence to stand up to China, few would dispute that they will require diplomatic support from the United States. Indeed, in 2010, when several members openly pushed back against Beijing at two ASEAN Regional Forum meetings in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were there to back them up. Since then, Southeast Asian leaders who are attempting to handle China's assertions seem to have warmed up to the idea of a more visible U.S. military presence in the area. For the South China Sea, that would mean a U.S. Navy and Marine presence to support Washington's partners in ASEAN. The challenge for all of these players is how to arrange this supporting presence so that it is credible yet also politically sustainable.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon has still not figured out where it will base its Marine Corps units in the Pacific. A work-in-progress since the 1990s, version after version of Marine basing plans have gone down in flames, including a 2010 debacle that took down the prime minister of Japan. U.S. partners around the South China Sea want a stabilizing U.S. presence, something Washington wants to provide. But the Pentagon won't be able to show exactly how it will support that mission until it finally determines where it is going to actually put its Marines.

Planners now agree that the Marine presence on Okinawa will shrink. The 2006 version of the plan would have transferred 8,600 Marines and 9,000 dependents about 1,500 miles southeast to Guam, a move that would have required $21.1 billion in construction costs to complete. The Marine Corps presence on Okinawa has become too politically toxic for the Japanese government. In addition, some military analysts fear that in a shooting war with China, missile strikes could close U.S. air bases and ports on the island, preventing the Marine infantrymen there from getting to where they might be needed. Meanwhile, the bill for the huge buildup on Guam came in much too high and would have concentrated too many assets on one spot. Last year, Senators Carl Levin, John McCain, and James Webb objected to the Guam plan and demanded a rewrite.

The latest plan scales back the Guam move to 4,700 Marines with 2,700 more moving to existing bases in Hawaii. That will reduce the Pentagon's Guam construction bill. However, Levin, McCain, and Webb still want to know how the latest basing proposal, "relates to the broader strategic concept of operations in the region."

Providing a forward presence in places like the South China Sea and reacting to military and humanitarian crises will be the major missions for the Marine Corps in the Pacific. How best to position Marine units to accomplish these tasks remains unsettled.

Aquino seems to welcome a stepped-up U.S. military profile in his neighborhood. But that doesn't mean he wants a return to the large and politically overbearing bases the United States operated in the Philippines until 1992, when a political consensus in the country threw the U.S. forces out. It is likely that a majority on Okinawa would follow suit, if they had the authority to do so.

The political path of least resistance will be to relocate overseas units back to bases in the United States (something almost all congressmen will welcome) and then fly or sail these units back out on relatively short-term deployments and training exercises in partner countries. Darwin, Australia, is already preparing to eventually host up to 2,500 Marines on six-month rotational deployments. The Philippines may soon roll out a similar welcome mat. Other countries in the region may follow.

In addition to reducing the corrosiveness of large foreign bases such as those in Okinawa and formerly in the Philippines, the rotational deployment method has other benefits. It will condition U.S. military forces and planners to an expeditionary mind-set. Logisticians will further improve their already formidable skills at moving military units around the world, skills that will always be handy during crises. Military units will learn to become more nimble, adaptable, and flexible, increasing their usefulness during crises. With deployments as the standard model, U.S. military personnel will become acquainted with a wider variety of foreign partners than they would under a static basing scheme. And when units are not deployed, they will be back at bases in the United States, which will have better training facilities and better family accommodations than those overseas.

The deployment approach has its risks. U.S. naval and air forces face increasing challenges from long-range, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft missiles. The ability of some adversaries to use these missiles to impose "anti-access, area denial" measures against the movement of U.S. reinforcements into crisis areas would be especially troubling for the deployment model. From a diplomatic perspective, some will question whether a U.S. strategy that relies more on distant deployments and less on a permanent forward troop presence will be sufficiently reassuring to partners who might be under stress from a strong nearby neighbor like China.

Under a growing missile threat, field commanders will likely prefer the flexibility afforded by an expeditionary approach compared to the vulnerability of fixed bases -- such as Okinawa -- located within easy range of Chinese missiles. The new slimmed-down relocation plan to Guam will still cost an estimated $8.6 billion, spent on elaborate barracks, family housing, and training ranges. Instead of building up another increasing vulnerable fixed base, the Pentagon should consider using that money to acquire additional Marine amphibious ships and anti-missile destroyers to protect them. That would boost forward presence and flexibility, which should be reassuring to both alliance partners and U.S. commanders in the region.

 

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Comments

It should perhaps be recalled that the supposed "Spratly Islands oil reserves" remain extremely hypothetical. There are some very optimistic Chinese estimates out, but they aren't based on test drilling and are open to a great deal of question. USGS has a much more restrained view on what's likely to be available.

The US interest in the case is less about securing anything for the Philippines than about maintaining unrestrained navigation in the SCS for its own shipping and that of its north Asian allies... there's also a fair bit of simple pride in the picture on both sides, with the Chinese feeling the need to assert themselves as the dominant force in their own front yard and many Americans still insisting that the US must be the dominant naval power everywhere, all the time.

Interesting to note the last 2 paragraphs of the cited Marine Corps Times article, and the discussion of it in the comments. If future deployments continue the old trend in terms of what we politely call "social impact" the welcome mat is likely to be withdrawn. Filipinos have to weigh the very limited extent to which exercises and deployments might deter Chinese adventurism (the presence of American forces for the current Balikatan exercise didn't deter the Chinese from messing about at Scarborough Shoal, and it's entirely likely that joint exercises will draw more Chinese provocation, as the Chinese will need to show that they aren't intimidated) against the impact of having foreign troops on their soil, something that hasn't always gone well in the past.

How interesting that the Philippine Government which decided to kick the US out of our bases in that area now want US Naval forces to "temporarily" return and protect them against what they view as Chinese encroachment into the South China Sea--at our cost of course. After we secure their rights to the Spratly Islands oil reserves our Philippine allies, of course, will insist our "imperialist" forces depart. Why should this country care who controls and benefits from those oil reserves, it will not be this country.

From an economic perspective, were the Chinese were to develop and exploit those presumed oil reserves that could reduce their need for Middle Eastern oil. Reduced demand would reduce the world wide price of oil. If this country were to correspondingly exploit its own “massive” oil resources (see below) that would further decrease the demand for Middle Eastern oil and further drive down the price of that commodity. An oil price reduction could help to bring about economic improvement in numerous countries by lowering costs to produce and purchase any number of goods, thereby benefitting many countries.

Were the Philippines to exploit the Spratly Island oil reserves, personally I doubt that country’s population has sufficient members with the economic intellect to enable that nation to widely benefit from reinvesting income from the sale of that resource—just as the Mexican population does not economically benefit their country’s sales of their substantial oil resources. At least that is my impression from having spent substantial time in that country at Nav Sta Subic Bay / NAS Cubi Point, NAS Sangley Point, and at Mactan AFB in Cebu for those who remember that installation.

This country needs to develop a foreign policy and military force disposition that secures our national strategic interests and little else--not to benefit the Philippines or any other country at our cost. Peace can be sustained by the more powerful countries de facto recognizing the spheres of influence of the others and not interfering in those area, especially when the interfering nation will incur no economic benefit from that interference even were it successful.

There is a definite link between the state of our economy, i.e. whether we have a need for foreign sourced oil or exploit our "substantial" local resources and whether we continue to allow our manufacturing to be off shore out sourced instead of returning it home by law if necessary, and our nation's perceived need for engaging militarily in foreign entanglements. Foreign entanglements from which our government (whether Democratic or Republican) is never intelligent enough to economically benefit, but which instead result in increases in either our taxes or national debt or both.

To be cost effective and successful over the long run a successful military strategy must recognize the above economic dilemma and not ignore it and allow for spheres of influence for other powerful countries when no economic benefit will accrue to this country from interfering in that sphere of influence. Our military brass should have the courage to repeatedly note to the Congress at every hearing that absent returning US manufacturing to our shores and exploiting our home based oil reserves (massively greater than the falsely touted 2%) while engaging in a (needed) ten year program to develop adequately powered alternative energy systems all military deployment strategic approaches to secure our perceived interests will eventually fail. A country lacking a home located large / inclusive industrial base cannot long remain a sea power. Losing their industrial base was the underlying cause for Britain’s decline as a sea power. See Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution (Studies in Maritime History)” by Nicholas Lambert, University of South Carolina Press, 1999. The status of America’s industrial base is of critical importance at least to Navy Admirals and Marine Carps Generals.

While I agree with your proposal that the size of the Navy's Amphibious Forces should be increased to enable ongoing forward (sea based) deployment of Marine Expeditionary Units (in today's terminology?). However, the number of accompanying ships needed for force protection and resupply will be substantially more inclusive then just destroyers equipped for anti-missile defense. It would also require ships and aircraft equipped for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) including continually accompanying long range P-3 type patrol aircraft to protect against enemy submarine threats; ships with mine sweeping capability, Aircraft Carriers to provide CAP style protection against potential enemy aircraft as well as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) surveillance, ECM, and control capabilities; Auxiliary Ships to replenish fuel, food, ammunition, and other consumables; submarines available to take out other nation's subs or surface forces, etc. If this country is going to be able to effectively forward sea base amphibious forces on a continuing basis, the Navy will also need forward bases at which to locate tenders as repair facilities and to provide a base for COD operations. The list goes on. Given the current administration's declining military budget, I don't see them providing the forces needed to sustain this type of effort. Doing it on the cheap (such as rotating 2500 Marines in and out of Australia) will be seen by our opponents such as the Chinese as a sign of weakness which they may considering exploiting. They may not currently have a large fleet, but they are students of naval operations.

So long as this country makes the necessary investments in ship based electronics and weapons systems, and that investment level is always in doubt, forces afloat will always defeat shore based defensive weapons systems (regardless of their potential reach) and will defeat submarines--particularly those which are conventionally powered. Having spent a few years as a Navy Officer and later working in the Aerospace Industry I am not unaware of the level of technical challenges needed to successfully compete against shore based high tech weapons systems, but I know our engineers and computer scientists are up to the task. Shore based weapons may have their range extended over time and may be conceptually more accurate, than in the past, but they still have to be guided to the target. Despite their use of anti-detection techniques, splitting of warheads, etc., that need to guide the device to the target is one of their Achilles Heels. Even absent distance, i.e. in short range exchanges, as the very positive results of the recent Israeli "Iron Dome" system's live fire test exchange with the Hamas Gazans recently demonstrated, we have fast enough electronics and computer processing speed to compute and effect fire solutions to rapidly approaching weapons devices lacking guidance systems control and ones with very small projectiles.

Depending on who is in the White House beginning in 2013, this country could be in for some interesting times on the world stage, at least as far as our military forces are concerned—given their planned weakening under the current budget based strategies and the deceased force levels and reduced capabilities being imposed on them.