In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss how China is inexorably accumulating small changes in the South China Sea, confounding U.S. strategy in the region.
The Pentagon recently commissioned recommendations from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on its military basing plans in the Pacific. CSIS's June 27 report recommended that the Pentagon reallocate forces away from Northeast Asia and toward the South China Sea. Specifically, CSIS called on the Pentagon to base more attack submarines in Guam, beef up the Marine Corps' presence in the region, and study the possibility of basing an aircraft carrier strike group in Western Australia.
The South China Sea is undoubtedly heating up as a potential flashpoint. Disputes over territory, fishing rights, and oil leases have accelerated this year. A recent ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, aimed at making progress on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, collapsed in acrimony and failed, for the first time in 45 years, to agree on a concluding joint statement. Vietnam and the Philippines were particularly upset that their Southeast Asian neighbors made no progress on a unified stance against Chinese encroachments in the sea.
The increase in U.S. military power in the region, called for by both the CSIS report and by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a June speech in Singapore, is designed in part to deter overt aggression, such as a sudden restart of the Korean War or a Chinese blitzkrieg against Taiwan. To the extent such scenarios are now considered highly remote, the U.S. military presence in the region is doing its job. But what about an adversary that uses "salami-slicing," the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change? U.S. policymakers and military planners should consider the possibility that China is pursuing a salami-slicing strategy in the South China Sea, something that could confound Washington's military plans.
Appendix 4 of this year's annual Pentagon report on China's military power displays China's South China Sea claim, the so-called "nine-dash line," along with the smaller claims made by other countries surrounding the sea. A recent BBC piece shows China's territorial claim compared to the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has granted to the countries around the sea. The goal of Beijing's salami-slicing would be to gradually accumulate, through small but persistent acts, evidence of China's enduring presence in its claimed territory, with the intention of having that claim smudge out the economic rights granted by UNCLOS and perhaps even the right of ships and aircraft to transit what are now considered to be global commons. With new "facts on the ground" slowly but cumulatively established, China would hope to establish de facto and de jure settlements of its claims.
In April, a naval standoff between China and the Philippines occurred when Chinese fishing vessels were caught inside the Philippines EEZ near Scarborough Shoal. The standoff broke up after several weeks without a resolution of the underlying legal issues. Separately, the Philippines now intends to begin drilling for natural gas in the Reed Bank near its Palawan Island, a program to which China objects. A Chinese naval frigate recently ran aground 90 miles off Palawan; last year, Chinese warships threatened to ram a Philippine survey ship near Reed Bank.
Across the sea, and on the eve of the ill-fated Phnom Penh summit, the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), a state-owned oil developer, put out a list of offshore blocks for bidding by foreign oil exploration companies. In this case, the blocks were within Vietnam's EEZ -- in fact, parts of some of these blocks had already been leased by Vietnam for exploration and development. Few analysts expect a foreign developer such as Exxon Mobil to legitimize China's over-the-top grab of Vietnam's economic rights. But CNOOC's leasing gambit is another assertion of China's South China Sea claims, in opposition to UNCLOS EEZ boundaries most observers thought were settled.
Finally, in June, the Chinese government established "Sansha City" on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which China seized from South Vietnam in 1974. Sansha will be the administrative center for China's claims in the South China Sea, to include the Spratly Islands near Reed Bank and Palawan, and Scarborough Shoal. China also announced plans to send a military garrison to the area.
China's actions look like an attempt to gradually and systematically establish legitimacy for its claims in the region. It has stood up a local civilian government, which will command a permanent military garrison. It is asserting its economic claims by leasing oil and fishing blocks inside other countries' EEZs, and is sending its navy to thwart development approved by other countries in the area. At the end of this road lie two prizes: potentially enough oil under the South China Sea to supply China for 60 years, and the possible neutering of the U.S. military alliance system in the region.
The collapse of ASEAN's attempt to establish a code of conduct for settling disputes in the sea benefits China's salami-slicing strategy. A multilateral code of conduct would have created a legitimate framework for dispute resolution and would have placed all claimant countries on an equal footing. Without such a code, China can now use its power advantage to dominate bilateral disputes with its small neighbors and do so without the political consequences of acting outside an agreed set of rules.
Meanwhile, The Pentagon intends to send military reinforcements to the region and is establishing new tactical doctrines for their employment against China's growing military power. But policymakers in Washington will be caught in a bind attempting to apply this military power against an accomplished salami-slicer. If sliced thinly enough, no one action will be dramatic enough to justify starting a war. How will a policymaker in Washington justify drawing a red line in front of a CNOOC oil rig anchoring inside Vietnam's EEZ, or a Chinese frigate chasing off a Philippines survey ship over Reed Bank, or a Chinese infantry platoon appearing on a pile of rocks near the Spratly Islands? When contemplating a grievously costly war with a major power, such minor events will appear ridiculous as casus belli. Yet when accumulated over time and space, they could add up to a fundamental change in the region.
Although seemingly a distant player in the drama, the stakes for the United States are high. Both the global and U.S. economies depend on freedom of navigation through the sea; $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of which passes through U.S. ports. Second, the United States has a strong interest in preventing any power from unilaterally rewriting well-established international maritime law to its liking. Finally, the credibility of the U.S. alliance system and its reliability as a security partner will be at stake.
A salami-slicer puts the burden of disruptive action on his adversary. That adversary will be in the uncomfortable position of drawing seemingly unjustifiable red lines and engaging in indefensible brinkmanship. For China, that would mean simply ignoring America's Pacific fleet and carrying on with its slicing, under the reasonable assumption that it will be unthinkable for the United States to threaten major-power war over a trivial incident in a distant sea.
But what may appear trivial from a U.S. perspective could be vital to players like the Philippines and Vietnam, who are attempting to defend their territory and economic rights from an outright power grab. This fact may give these countries a greater incentive to be more aggressive than the United States in defending against China's encroachments. And should shooting break out between China and one of these small countries, policymakers in Beijing will have to consider the reputational and strategic consequences of blasting away at a weaker neighbor.
Both the United States and ASEAN members would greatly prefer a negotiated code of conduct for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. But should China opt to pursue a salami-slicing strategy instead, policymakers in Washington may conclude that the only politically viable response is to encourage the small countries to more vigorously defend their rights, even if its risks conflict, with the promise of U.S. military backup. This would mean a reversal of current U.S. policy, which has declared neutrality over the sea's boundary disputes.
The United States has stayed neutral because it doesn't want to pre-commit itself to a sequence of events over which it may have no control. That approach is understandable but will increasingly conflict with security promises it has made to friends in the region and to the goal of preserving the global commons. Policymakers and strategists in Washington will have to ponder what, if anything, they can do against a such a sharp salami-slicer.