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The Simple Reasons Why the South China Sea is Headed for Tragic Troubles

The Buzz

The main problem is that China holds the strategic initiative. At great cost, China has built six large islands in the South China Sea: three are substantial airbases and three host sizeable electronic surveillance installations. The scale of those new facilities is such that China can deploy an air combat force larger and more capable than any current ASEAN air force (with the possible exception of Singapore) off northern Borneo when it wishes. Given that, China can now easily enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone across the South China Sea when the time is deemed right. Most worryingly, for the first time China poses a realistic air threat to Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and all of Borneo. China today militarily dominates the central ASEAN region thanks to those new airbases, and has effectively relocated itself to the geographic heart of ASEAN.

China has changed the ‘facts on the ground’. It won’t suddenly abandon its costly new facilities even if ASEAN develops an acceptable COC or America continues its FONOPS. China’s new military bases are now a permanent part of the core ASEAN region. The incoming Trump administration can’t change that new reality, and so far shows little desire to try.

This may seem a vision of despair, and to some extent, it is. There may be ways to move towards the envisaged ‘better’ South China Sea future, but there’s little appetite to impose the necessary costs on China to force a change of tack. Such costs cut both ways and no one—ASEAN, America or America’s allies—wishes to bear the imposts.

So the time might be right to embrace a risk management approach rather than a South China Sea strategy. It’s too late to try to solve the South China Sea disputes but not to limit the harm that China’s new island bases might inflict on their closer ASEAN neighbours, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Those middle power states are both particularly important to Australia and geographically near.

In risk management terms, the aim would be to enhance the resilience of those states to Chinese pressure, threats and coercive diplomacy. The inward domestic focus of some of these nations might seem to preclude such an approach, but building resilience is internally, not outwardly, directed. Resilience threatens no one, while potentially minimising the political, diplomatic and military usefulness the new islands might have for China in times of peace, crisis or limited conflict. It’s time for some future-leaning policymaking.

This first appeared in ASPI The Strategist here.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

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Revealed: The US Military's Electronic War Strategy to Counter Russia

The Buzz

The main problem is that China holds the strategic initiative. At great cost, China has built six large islands in the South China Sea: three are substantial airbases and three host sizeable electronic surveillance installations. The scale of those new facilities is such that China can deploy an air combat force larger and more capable than any current ASEAN air force (with the possible exception of Singapore) off northern Borneo when it wishes. Given that, China can now easily enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone across the South China Sea when the time is deemed right. Most worryingly, for the first time China poses a realistic air threat to Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and all of Borneo. China today militarily dominates the central ASEAN region thanks to those new airbases, and has effectively relocated itself to the geographic heart of ASEAN.

China has changed the ‘facts on the ground’. It won’t suddenly abandon its costly new facilities even if ASEAN develops an acceptable COC or America continues its FONOPS. China’s new military bases are now a permanent part of the core ASEAN region. The incoming Trump administration can’t change that new reality, and so far shows little desire to try.

This may seem a vision of despair, and to some extent, it is. There may be ways to move towards the envisaged ‘better’ South China Sea future, but there’s little appetite to impose the necessary costs on China to force a change of tack. Such costs cut both ways and no one—ASEAN, America or America’s allies—wishes to bear the imposts.

So the time might be right to embrace a risk management approach rather than a South China Sea strategy. It’s too late to try to solve the South China Sea disputes but not to limit the harm that China’s new island bases might inflict on their closer ASEAN neighbours, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Those middle power states are both particularly important to Australia and geographically near.

In risk management terms, the aim would be to enhance the resilience of those states to Chinese pressure, threats and coercive diplomacy. The inward domestic focus of some of these nations might seem to preclude such an approach, but building resilience is internally, not outwardly, directed. Resilience threatens no one, while potentially minimising the political, diplomatic and military usefulness the new islands might have for China in times of peace, crisis or limited conflict. It’s time for some future-leaning policymaking.

This first appeared in ASPI The Strategist here.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

Pages

This US Navy Super Submarine Made History Thanks to A Very Special Feature That Was Never Duplicated

The Buzz

The main problem is that China holds the strategic initiative. At great cost, China has built six large islands in the South China Sea: three are substantial airbases and three host sizeable electronic surveillance installations. The scale of those new facilities is such that China can deploy an air combat force larger and more capable than any current ASEAN air force (with the possible exception of Singapore) off northern Borneo when it wishes. Given that, China can now easily enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone across the South China Sea when the time is deemed right. Most worryingly, for the first time China poses a realistic air threat to Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and all of Borneo. China today militarily dominates the central ASEAN region thanks to those new airbases, and has effectively relocated itself to the geographic heart of ASEAN.

China has changed the ‘facts on the ground’. It won’t suddenly abandon its costly new facilities even if ASEAN develops an acceptable COC or America continues its FONOPS. China’s new military bases are now a permanent part of the core ASEAN region. The incoming Trump administration can’t change that new reality, and so far shows little desire to try.

This may seem a vision of despair, and to some extent, it is. There may be ways to move towards the envisaged ‘better’ South China Sea future, but there’s little appetite to impose the necessary costs on China to force a change of tack. Such costs cut both ways and no one—ASEAN, America or America’s allies—wishes to bear the imposts.

So the time might be right to embrace a risk management approach rather than a South China Sea strategy. It’s too late to try to solve the South China Sea disputes but not to limit the harm that China’s new island bases might inflict on their closer ASEAN neighbours, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Those middle power states are both particularly important to Australia and geographically near.

In risk management terms, the aim would be to enhance the resilience of those states to Chinese pressure, threats and coercive diplomacy. The inward domestic focus of some of these nations might seem to preclude such an approach, but building resilience is internally, not outwardly, directed. Resilience threatens no one, while potentially minimising the political, diplomatic and military usefulness the new islands might have for China in times of peace, crisis or limited conflict. It’s time for some future-leaning policymaking.

This first appeared in ASPI The Strategist here.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

Pages

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