This Week at War: Salami Slicing in the South China Sea

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.

 

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Comments

The above article by Robert Haddick and the response by CBCalif raise points that deserve serious reflection. Three questions come to mind:

First, for China to close the South China Sea to maritime traffic is I think plausible only if for other reasons China has already gone to war with the United States. The more immediate point is whether a Chinese claim to seabed in the South China Sea would interfere with peacetime commerce. I think CBCalif answers that concern by noting the ways to bypass the seabed in dispute. But I wonder if commerce between the Indian Ocean and Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and North America could simply take the longer route hugging the northern coast of Australia to the Pacific Ocean. This route would also be much easier to defend in a crisis.

Second, I agree that it is anachronistic to assume that every outward extension of Chinese power requires reflexive resistance from the United States. Apart from the fact that the changing naval balance will limit our ability to project power before too long, the assumption that power is a zero-sum game can only contribute to unthinking commitment. However, the problem that Robert Haddick identifies is exactly where to draw any new line. Salami tactics cannot continue indefinitely, because the sausage to be sliced get bigger the farther out China goes, but clearly if our commitment to smaller countries closer to China becomes more ambiguous, we could invite the sort of risk-taking that led to the Korean War.

For this reason, we also need to remember that East Asia is not a board with only two players. The problem in the South China Sea is not the economic interests at stake but the political ones. We have a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and if we do not back Manila in its maritime dispute with China, should it come to blows, we should expect the treaty to collapse. South Korea, Japan, and Australia could go nuclear in reaction. Perhaps these responses are inevitable as China's power grows, but we need to ask ourselves how we want this to happen.

Third, conflict in Pacific Asia seems most likely to arise over disputed maritime boundaries. Maritime disputes may be more susceptible than land claims to compromise, though, given the precedent in the 19th century for co-dominance over disputed islands. Compromise is especially likely if the consequences of pressing a claim risk escalation to nuclear conflict. The time for more imaginative diplomacy is now, not when tensions erupt.

A very interesting series of papers on the strategic problems that can arise from this country’s (once again) involvement in the South China Sea – a locale on which I spent more than a few months of my youth as a Naval Officer during the Vietnam War.

From my perspective, whether China, the Philippines, or Vietnam has control over the sea bed areas where possible oil resources lie under the South China Sea and / or controls the small islands in that area should not be the concern or interest of this country. As will be seen, it poses no strategic threat whatsoever to our nation's economic well being – regardless of which of these three competing countries control and exploit those resources – should they exist.

The root article on this proposed controversy appears to be from the Council on Foreign Relation and can be accessed through a link in this article, or see http://www.cfr.org/east-asia/armed-clash-south-china-sea/p27883 which references the paper “Armed Clash in the South China Sea” by Bonnie S. Glaser – of which I am sure the author (R. Haddick) is aware.

The CFR notes or implies (without footnote reference) that the $5.3 trillion in commerce which passes through the South China Sea, including 1.2 trillion going to or proceeding from US ports will be / could be endangered and America's economic well accordingly threatened should China [improbably assert] control the South China Sea. I am certain

A CFR assertion repeated and evaluated in this article, summed up herein, as follows:

"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.

China's interest in an area of the South China Sea, as this article indicates, stems not from a desire to control its sea traffic, but is (in all probability) due to the "possibility" that substantial oil reserves lie under the sea bed of that body of water in the vicinity of numerous small islands, generally located closer to the Philippines as versus China.

Islands with which I am personally familiar and still have numerous photographs of their landscape, from my time in the South China Sea as a Naval Officer during the Vietnam War. We routinely received reports that the North Vietnamese were using the Islands as staging areas from which to smuggle supplies into the South through our (so-called Market Time) blockade of the Vietnamese coastal waters intended to prevent movement of supplies into South Vietnam. A number of times we landed men on those Islands and, of course, found nothing there other than floats and nets from visiting fishermen. Those islands are quite small and structurally incapable of supporting naval bases. You can throw a baseball across most of them, so to speak. The sudden interest in claiming and occupying that property stems from the potential resources in that area and nothing else.

Regardless of which nation controls those (presumed) resources and economically benefits from them, one thing for certain it is not going to be this country. Let us not forget that the Philippine Senate through the US out of our bases on its soil finding our presence there was last vestige of colonialism -- despite our providing that nation hundreds of millions in annual aid as part of the lease agreement. As the saying goes, what goes around comes around. Why should this country care whether the supposed oil propels the Philippine economy or the Chinese economy? If it goes directly to the Chinese economy it could lower the price of oil by lessening China’s need for oil from other sources, i.e. Iran. Only costs to this country will result from our entering into this dispute, and even if we could (hypothetically) successfully obtain control over those resources for the Philippines, this country would obtain zero economic benefit from that effort. Simply put, there is no strategic gain that can underlay our participation in that struggle. The US should act in a strategically mature fashion and view that dispute from afar.

Second, this article proposes, presumably for discussion purposes, that if the Chinese are proceeding incrementally (one slice at a time) to obtain control over sea borne traffic in the South China Sea, America’s (alleged) strong interest in preventing any power from unilaterally rewriting well-established international maritime law to its liking and the credibility of the U.S. alliance system with other nations in the area and our reliability as a security partner will be at stake, should we not intervene on their behalf and, therefore, our naval and air forces could be drawn into conflict with the Chinese. Similar possible scenarios are noted in the article by the CFR.

Probably unrealized by most who have not spent numerous months on ships steaming in the South China Sea, it covers a vast 1.5 million square miles area from Taiwan to Singapore and Indonesia. The area under dispute between China and the Philippines is comparatively small and not located near any key port in that vast area. Most of the sea traffic proceeding through the South China Sea goes to and from Chinese ports, with some exceptions such as the flow of goods in and out of Taiwan.

First, does anyone realistically believe the Chinese are going to attempt to cut off the flow of goods to and from their own country? Second, it would require a major size fleet to control that area of water, and to what effect. Ship borne trade flowing in and out of Taiwan accesses that island nation from the Pacific Ocean and at best only steams in the South China Sea for a short duration in Taiwanese coastal waters. Trade going into the Gulf of Thailand and countries West and South of the Philippines, such as to Indonesia, Singapore, etc. transit an area nowhere near China while ships proceeding into Vietnamese ports proceed along its coast, hundreds of miles from the area of dispute.

A simple view of the geographical facts demonstrates that Chinese interest in securing potential oil resources in the South China Sea poses no short or long term threat to freedom of the sea traffic in the South China Sea and no threat whatsoever to trade from the United States flowing into and out of that particular Sea.

Finally, the United States must always place our strategic interests over the need to have credibility with other nations of the world. What value do we strategic value can we obtain from having credibility with countries such as the Philippines? The answer is none. Every country routinely abandons so-called allies over the course of time when the cost of that alliance exceeds the benefits that can be obtained from continuing that relationship. The same analogy holds similarly true in the business world.

Every major country which is a world or regional power has one or more geographic spheres of influence, especially in its coastal and nearby waters. China is most certainly a regional and possibly a world power. The area in close relationship to its coast is within its sphere of influence. The US should recognize and accept that fact.

There simply is no positive percentage to our entering into a conflict with China over the ownership of islands and natural resources in the South China Sea. The ownership / control by China of those islands can or will pose a strategic threat whatsoever to this nation’s security or economic well being – now or in the future. The Philippines would obtain substantially greater economic benefit from emulating the experiences in China and other countries such as Malaysia which has lead to, or is leading to, industrial growth and economic and academic advancement in those nations.

In the current economic environment this nation finds itself, its leadership would more beneficially spend its efforts on determining how to restore our homeland’s deteriorating industrial base and involve our military only to secure those specific geographical locations on which we currently economically depend, such as “some” countries in the Middle East; to eliminate threats in out nearby sphere of influence should they arise; and in preventing any nation we deem a potential danger from being able to cause serious damage to our country – if possible.

However, for those who fail to remember the danger and destruction that alliances have the potential of bringing upon both strong and weak nation, they should read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. One never knows.

The above is similar to my posting in the article in Foreign Policy absent my other comments in response to another individual who believes that “This article is another attempt to sell magazines with hype about a war that does not, and probably will not, exist except in the delusions and fantasies of aging Cold Warriors,” to which I responded:

[T]he potential, not necessarily probable, problems that could accrue to this nation vis-a-vis the Chinese interest in the "potential" resources under the South China Sea are proceeding not from us aging (so called) Cold War era Veterans (given Korea and Vietnam), but instead from the actions of the "youth" of the "current" administration. "Youth" COIN era warriors (civilian or military) deciding for some reason or other to focus American military (Naval) attention into the Pacific and making an appearance of confronting China. The "new kids on the block" of the Obama administration, civilian or military, despite their brilliant strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq, will learn what those of us with experience in the Cold War era already know, and many experienced first hand, challenging, confronting, or ignoring China should that nation elect to commit its forces to a military effort is a dangerous game. They do not back down when that confrontation occurs in their backyard. Parts of the South China Sea are their backyard -- not ours.

Maybe I overdid my use of the term "Youth" for those not so young, but not as aging as myself.”