The Buzz

Time to Raise the Ante in the South China Sea?

The U.S. Navy’s USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group has recently concluded a five-day “routine patrol” in the South China Sea. Accompanied by several U.S. vessels based in Japan, at first glance it appears that Admiral Harry Harris’s congressional testimony two weeks ago was the opening bell in a new round of military responses to continued Chinese provocations. That perception is reinforced in light of Harris’s call to resurrect Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2007 proposal of a four-democracy naval convention to police the South China Sea and deter any who sought to “bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion.” As great as China’s fear of a military powerful Japan is, perhaps even worse from Beijing’s perspective is the inclusion of USS Ashland in the Stennis group. Ashland is an amphibious docking vessel with the capability to support an amphibious assault by a Marine landing team on, say, a small islet such as Fiery Cross Reef.

The Obama Administration doesn’t rattle sabers very well, however. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s lone attempt at doing so failed miserably. It’s also struggled to devise a workable response to China’s aggressive expansionism in the SCS. Thus, although “Johnny Reb’s” arrival appears supremely well timed, it’s far more likely that it was planned weeks earlier to deflect criticism and reassure allies and regional partners. As should’ve been expected, China’s foreign minister lost no time in condemning the U.S. presence and concluding his remarks with a veiled threat that “history will prove who is merely the guest and who is the host.”

As Australia’s recently released Defence White Paper states, Australia’s security depends in part on how China and the United States resolve their disagreements. Therefore, it’s well worth every Australian’s time to consider just what the stakes are in the South China Sea. Although the White Paper dismisses the likelihood of an invasion of the Australian homeland, it emphatically doesn’t claim that regional war is unlikely and is, contra Hugh White, not short on “credible analysis” of the breadth of challenges facing the region today.

Two facts underline this difference. First, all three of the White Paper’s Strategic Defence Interests encompass facets of the ongoing territorial disputes in the SCS. The reality of interstate competition cannot be denied, nor can the possibility be ignored that competition could easily become conflict. Second, the vast majority of the acquisition program laid out in both the DWP and the Investment Strategy involve end-items required for success in a potential maritime conflict. Surveillance and combat aircraft, surface warships (especially the Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers), advanced submarines, and additional intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, cyber and space-based enablers all facilitate execution of operations beyond the confines of Australia’s land area. In other words, the DWP’s analysis abandons any attempt at rose-colored-glasses optimism and identifies a rising China as the paramount challenge to regional order and stability. The Chinese government, as expected, lost no time in impugning the Turnbull Government’s motives.