South China Sea: Bracing for Beijing's Next Move

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Philippines

Exercise Balikatan 2016, a joint U.S. Pacific Command exercise with the Philippines that ended in mid-April, demonstrated important elements of an effective strategy to counter Chinese expansion across the South China Sea. And it’s certainly not too soon. China is expected to take preemptive action in the South China Sea before the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration announces its verdict in the Philippines v. China case, anticipated in late May or early June. Much has been done, and much remains.

Balikatan (meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder”) demonstrated U.S. and allied capability to operate ashore in a widely distributed, operationally resilient posture, employing aviation and ground weapons with the range needed to support forces operating at sea and in the air. The presence of Australian participants, and observers from Japan and other Asian countries, signals rising interest in the collective protection of accepted international law that governs access to international sea and air space. Secretary Carter’s visit and remarks to the forces ashore, followed by his visit to the USS John C. Stennis with Philippine defense minister Voltaire Gazmin, reinforced the potential of air-land-sea allied force integration. U.S. forces, including an A-10 “Warthog” element, along with Pave Hawk helicopters and associated capabilities, will remain. Joint U.S.-Philippine patrols began last month, and continued into this month. Hopefully, this heralds the beginning of a sustained U.S. presence embedded with its allies.

The ability to operate highly mobile, widely distributed forces, able to integrate long-range fires in support of naval and air forces well out to sea, is vital to the defense of extensive littoral areas along the first island chain. Mobility within a widely distributed posture offers a constantly changing target picture, despite the pervasiveness of surveillance means. A widely distributed and mobile posture also provides a response to weapons that are accurate at distance. Japanese observers undoubtedly drew conclusions, validating their current plans for a “western wall” and integrated air-land-sea maneuver capability in the Ryukyus. This posture is also ideally suited for long-term U.S. presence to help enhance Philippine capability in a politically acceptable—even welcome—manner.

There is no faster way to overcome cultural barriers than by having our young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines live and work with their counterparts, sharing bivouac, local food and capability development over an extended time. This is underway in Japan, and needs to be expanded, as recommended in the recent CSIS report “Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025.” One recommendation, the creation of collocated Japanese and U.S. joint task-force headquarters elements in Okinawa, would greatly improve the development of alliance capabilities. Such a structure may also prove helpful in the Philippines.

Surveillance, particularly in the maritime domain, must be increased and expanded. Intelligence sharing, and the creation of a combined common operating picture, are closely related. Fishing vessels and other craft must be tracked, in addition to traditional naval and military vessels. The ability to police fishing areas, despite the presence of Chinese coast guard and maritime surveillance craft, must be developed and deployed. The United States must have solid means to enforce jurisdiction and administration of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones at the law-enforcement level, to help prevent escalation.

The widely publicized remarks of Secretary Carter and Lt. Gen. John Toolan, Marine Corps Forces Pacific Commander and U.S. Balikatan Exercise Director, show that candor is making a comeback. The United States should continue this trend by serving notice to the Chinese, privately at first, then publicly, that unless they can help in reducing tensions in the region (including restraining North Korea and lowering anxiety in the South China Sea), they will leave U.S. leaders with no choice but to reinforce their alliance capabilities. Then, the United States should do exactly that.

Military assistance is certainly needed, but reinforcing capabilities must also include building infrastructure along the South China Sea littoral. Ports and airfields are particularly needed for commercial and business development. These facilities are also available in the event of a contingency. Japanese investment in this area is now a prominent element in the region’s collective and common security.