The South China Sea is Not Beijing's Next Battlefield

Think Taiwan instead. 

No one likes to admit they made a mistake, especially in Washington.  But what if America's top strategic thinkers have gotten China's military buildup all wrong?

The definition of military deception is “actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary decision makers...thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the mission.” Could Beijing be using the South China Sea to this end?  By creating a constant stream of provocations in an area it cares relatively little about, China has diverted attention from an area it cares a lot about. This could be leading the Pentagon toward bad planning assumptions and investments. 

The South China Sea Pivot:

Since at least 2011 many of America's leading thinkers have become convinced that the South China Sea will dominate military and security affairs in the 21st century. It is the new battleground, the Fulda Gap with Asian characteristics. China's South Sea Fleet is the new Soviet 8th Guards Army. Or so many have come to believe.

The Pentagon and State Department, as a result, have urgently ramped up their efforts to meet the new threat. Special operations forces, diplomats, and congressional delegations have poured onto the scene, eager to play their roles in this new great game. White House sanctioned security assistance and top-level visits have followed close behind.

This regional influence campaign has resulted in a breathtaking series of breakthroughs. Burma has been re-opened for business. Vietnam, having its arms embargo relaxed, has become a security partner.  U.S. Navy ships, fresh from dockyards in America, have taken up station in Singapore, ready to sally forth in an emergency. The Marine Corps has established a strong presence in the Philippines and Australia. Air Force fighters, bombers, and drones now shadow the skies above. The horizon seems limitless for American geostrategic positioning across Southeast Asia.

China seems more than willing to validate foreign fears. Indeed, Beijing has turned up the volume on its strategic messaging system to full blast. Washington foreign policy elites have been inundated with aggressive Chinese messages about the key importance of the South China Sea.  Just to make sure the point is fully understood, China has provoked a series of incidents with U.S. Navy ships in the area.  China has also preyed on vulnerable fishing boats in waters claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.   

Most shockingly, China has built a number of manmade islands in the disputed waters. It is now rapidly turning them into military outposts. Semi-submerged reefs and rock features, once labeled “dangerous grounds” on maritime maps, now appear dangerous for a very different reason.

Each of Beijing's moves appears carefully calibrated to maximize foreign fear and minimize Chinese risk.  Nothing has happened in this war of nerves that might result in a shooting war. China knows it would lose such a fight. But more important, and often missed by observers, the South China Sea is not a top priority.

China's Main War Plan:

China's military buildup is about Taiwan, not the South China Sea. According to reports from the Pentagon and Office of Naval Intelligence, conquering Taiwan is the core mission that drives the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Why? Because China's authoritarian leadership is deeply insecure. Beijing views the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan), which exists as an independent and sovereign state, to be a grave threat to the communist party's vice grip on power. Taiwan is dangerous because it serves as a beacon of freedom for Chinese speaking people everywhere.