The Main Problem with America’s Abundant South China Sea Hawks

October 28, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: South China SeaChinaMaritime Strategy

The Main Problem with America’s Abundant South China Sea Hawks

It starts with the fact many don’t actually admit they are ‘hawks.’

As Washington and Beijing contemplate a new series of countermoves in the South China Sea, a debate over U.S. policy objectives and strategy is quite timely. For that reason, I particularly welcome Alexander Vuving’s recent critique of my original article that lays out “Five Myths” about the South China Sea. Vuving’s essay is refreshingly candid and he illuminates several interesting arguments. I particularly applaud his focus on power and national interest, the touchstones of realist thought in foreign policy. Therefore, we may call this a friendly debate among realists—the most worthy kind of debate.

Vuving’s general perspective is most clearly revealed in the final sentence of his essay when he suggests that “the greatest myth of all is that the U.S. cannot and should not contain China.” That is a kind of cryptic way of saying that “the U.S. should contain China.” I emphatically disagree with that conclusion for all the most obvious reasons (e.g. the risk of armed conflict between nuclear powers, trillions of dollars wasted on militarized rivalry, the imperative to cooperate on climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, etc.), as do the vast majority of America’s China specialists, Asia specialists, as well as academic and policy experts in the wider field of international relations.

Never mind that Vuving is apparently so far outside the mainstream; he still makes a number of valuable points in the essay that I would actually agree with, and these points are worth underlining at the outset as our common ground or shared assessments. We are apparently agreed that “Washington’s support of Southeast Asian claimants will create incentives for them to be more assertive and aggressive.” One of the most interesting discussions in Vuving’s essay is his very frank suggestion that “the term ‘freedom of navigation’ is a bad choice of words. Its meaning varies according to the legal position of the national perspective you take.” I agree with Vuving’s point here, but this statement may separate him from most American “hawks,” who have made “freedom of navigation” their primary rallying cry. It does have a ring to it, admittedly.

But then, we are both realists, and do not wish to fight bloody wars over such ethereal and nebulous concepts as defending “the global commons.” As to whether Beijing will close the gates to South China Sea maritime trade or otherwise attempt to restrict navigation, we are again agreed that “China has enormous vested interest in keeping the flow of commerce through the South China Sea unimpeded.” It is also noteworthy that Vuving agrees with me that “the outcome of a U.S.-China war is highly uncertain.” He goes on to explain his view that the “chance of a U.S. defeat is comparable to that of a Chinese defeat.” Given the daunting constraints (e.g. surprise, geography, etc.) that U.S. forces could face in such a conflict, I concur with that conclusion. It seems thus quite clear that Vuving does not subscribe to the “clean their clocks” school among America’s South China Sea hawks. That is encouraging, and on the basis of his realistic understanding of the military balance, he does conclude near the end of his essay that “war is something that needs to be avoided.” Once again, I strongly agree with Vuving on this point.

So what is the main issue of disagreement, after all? It concerns what Vuving and others have termed “gray-zone” operations. Vuving suggests that my analysis is flawed because I am using the “wrong lens” of war/peace binary decisions when, according to his assessment, “disputes and contestation [are primarily] occurring in a gray zone between war and peace.” Thus, the claim is advanced that Washington would have had a variety of options for contesting against Beijing in the so-called “Scarborough Shoal Crisis” during spring 2012—if only Americans understood that the game is weiqi rather than chess. Vuving is highly critical of the Obama Administration for being allegedly misled by Beijing’s tricks in the so-called grey zone. Vuving actually undermines his own critique when he concedes that Manila most likely did call on Washington for “military backup” in those circumstances.

The critique is further undermined by the lack of specifics regarding what exactly were Washington’s options during that crisis—apart from calling in airstrikes. Should Washington have organized some fishing boats to contest against the Chinese fishing boats at the atoll? Perhaps Vuving and others are calling for U.S. Coast Guard cutters to go “head-to-head” with water cannons and the like against their Chinese counterparts? These are, of course, rhetorical questions, because no such feasible options exist for mounting counter–gray zone operations of this kind. Nor is it feasible to retaliate by having our diplomats and prompting sympathetic journalists to use the moniker “West Philippine Sea,” vice “South China Sea” as a smart power method to turn the tables against China. The point is that the only way to stop China’s advance in the South China Sea in its tracks is to threaten the use of force, and, barring that threat, we are mostly reliant on Chinese good will.

It is quite instructive, actually, when considering “gray-zone operations,” to think about the other classic case. Indeed, the term only really became popular in strategic studies circles after Russia’s seizure of Crimea by “little green men” in March 2014. The implication of Vuving’s argument in this critique seems to be that if the U.S. and NATO had simply understood that this was a gray-zone operation rather than being fooled by Mr. Putin, that there could have been a proper gray-zone response. Washington could respond against “little green men” with “little beige men” (U.S. combat troops in desert camo, but lacking U.S. insignia, of course). The scenario is laughable, and no such options were ever under any consideration, to my estimate. The point is that the Russian “gray-zone operation” in Crimea was successful because Moscow’s gambit also represented a clear and credible threat to resort to the use force.

True, Beijing’s shenanigans in and around Scarborough Shoal are a little less clear and credible in that respect, but the unmistakable message has been that these ships, albeit unarmed for the most part, will be defended by Chinese armed might if necessary. Arguably, the Chinese gray-zone initiatives are more clever as they are less easily condemned since they do not represent an overt use of force, but rather a veiled threat to employ force. Thus, the first and most obvious counter to Vuving’s critique is that U.S. non-military options for use in such maritime gray-zone operations do not presently exist and are not likely to be created in the next decade—no matter how many former U.S. and Japanese coast guard vessels are gifted to the Philippines.

Still, the far more potent argument beyond the relatively obvious questions regarding feasibility against countering Chinese shenanigans with American shenanigans is that neither side knows where the other’s red lines actually lie. Thus, Vuving’s prescription to “up the ante” with either containment measures or robust support for front-line states is all but certain to increase tensions, such that “sleepwalking” into a U.S.-China direct armed clash becomes a near certainty. What is ultimately so shallow, therefore, about Vuving’s line of critique and the argumentation of most hawks is they do not admit that their prescriptions necessarily entail risks associated with the slippery slope of escalation. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood him, but Vuving seems to me to be saying implicitly: “Trust me. Beijing is not really serious. This is just a game of weiqi with no actual risk of military conflict. If Washington is serious, Beijing will back down.”


This type of oblivious attitude to the risk of conflict could be excusable perhaps if China was not a nuclear power with increasingly potent conventional forces to match. In fact, this demeanor is distressingly common among hawks of the “cakewalk” school, but we have already seen that Vuving has a relatively clear appraisal of the military balance and has recognized that outright U.S. military superiority in the Western Pacific is a vestige of the past. Thus, there is a clear contradiction in Vuving’s thinking: he does not view the military balance as favorable to the U.S., and yet he recommends escalatory maneuvers.

This is not only foolhardy from a military-strategic point of view, but also starkly ignorant of history. Did the Russian czar think that he would spark the largest war in history when he opted to mobilize forces in response to the Serbian crisis in 1914? Did President Roosevelt know that he was contributing to setting the Pacific War in motion when he pushed the U.S. Pacific Fleet from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor to deter Japan from striking at Singapore in 1940? Washington clearly misunderstood Chinese intentions in 1950 during the Korean War and underestimated Hanoi’s determination when undertaking escalation in Vietnam. The point is that one hardly has to look very far to find examples of leaders, including American leaders, “sleepwalking” into major conflicts. Do we really believe our leaders are any wiser or better informed today than they were back then?


Another point made by Vuving in his critique is more sensible, and concerns the actual strategic value of China’s newly built facilities in the South China Sea. He contends that I misunderstand China’s strategy, because I focus on resources (oil and fish) vice strategic location. For example, he holds that the main value of Scarborough Shoal is that it is an “ideal place from which to watch and patrol the central eastern sector of the South China Sea.” But another surveillance post in the South China Sea is quite redundant, because Beijing already has more than enough patrol assets (military, coast guard or militia)—and that is not even considering ample and developing aerial surveillance capabilities, as well as real-time satellite reconnaissance.

In fact, our assessments are not that different with respect to the new facilities in the Spratly islets. He explains, “Although China’s military assets on the South China Sea islands will be highly vulnerable in wartime, they can be very useful for peacetime patrolling and psychological intimidation.” A main point of my initial analysis was to draw attention to the high vulnerability of any Chinese assets based on these facilities in the age of precision guided munitions. So Vuving evidently accept my analysis for military conflict scenarios—as does a Pentagon official who was quoted in this forum as saying, “If China wants to build vulnerable airstrips on these rocks, let them—they just constitute a bunch of easy targets that would be taken out within minutes of a real contingency.”

I agree with Vuving that these facilities in the South China Sea will allow for somewhat increased surveillance and even maybe, yes, “intimidation.” Chinese sailors and air crews may be a little less green after getting a break from their long patrols. Chinese fishing boats may indeed grow more numerous in the area if they know they have a truly safe shelter from the common typhoons that sweep the area. But who exactly will be intimidated by the increased Chinese presence during peacetime? Will the U.S. Navy be intimidated? Of course not. Those likely to be intimidated by an elevated Chinese patrol presence are local hydrocarbon exploration and fishing interests. Thus, we return to the issue of resources, and I again emphatically reject the notion that Washington should take active steps in the direction of military conflict with Beijing to support Philippine or Vietnamese oil and fishing interests.

Vuving’s critique repeats many times that the new Chinese facilities in the Spratlys will indeed “allow China to upset the military balance.” Not only does he posit that China is likely to deploy thirty to forty fourth-generation aircraft to the new airstrips in the Spratlys, but he also claims that regional states will be deterred from attacking the new airfields, because “China can declare that it makes no difference between an attack on these islands and an attack on its mainland.”

To my estimate, it is still quite early to suggest that China is able or likely to stage so many fighter aircraft out of the new facilities. One leading expert on PLA development has stated, for example, that the only plane that will fly from these “bases” will be the small maritime patrol aircraft, the Y-7. As he explained it, that is partly due to the weak coral base of these airstrips, which can neither support heavy aircraft nor the tough tempo that fighter operations would require. But let’s assume the worst case, putting aviation logistics aside as well, that Chinese fighter interceptor squadrons will not only be deployed to these remote airstrips, but will deploy in operationally significant numbers. I have posited that, in any contest with the U.S., these aircraft would likely be smoking, twisted metal wrecks within the first twenty-four hours of the beginning of a conflict. Vuving does not contest that point, but says that the new Chinese facilities will “upset the regional balance.”

My response to this point is that there is actually no “regional balance” to upset. Since the 1990s (if not before), China has had the firepower to take on and defeat any Southeast Asian opponent with relative ease. In 1988, for example, they swept aside Vietnamese forces in a lopsided set of naval skirmishes to set up several preliminary bases in the Spratlys. I have discussed the very uneven nature of the China-Vietnam military contest in some detail in an interview with the New York Times and also in this article for National Interest. Thus, Vuving is correct to say that China will have vast military superiority in the South China Sea with its new set of airstrips in the Spratlys. However, my view is that China was already vastly superior in military terms (when the U.S. is not involved), so the actual change to the military balance is quite marginal.

And for the same reason that the new facilities will be highly vulnerable to U.S. firepower, so even Southeast Asian nations will have a reasonably good chance to put the new airstrips out of commission for lengthy periods. Indeed, one does not have to turn the islets into a “sea of fire” by cratering every part of the runway, when all that is required is to take out the fuel or munitions storage facilities. Most ideally, stealthy and relatively invulnerable submarines could barrage the new Chinese bases with missiles from various vectors. Vietnam and Malaysia could develop those capabilities quite easily. But even laggard Philippines could likely put ordnance on these obvious targets by, for example, quietly purchasing an array of medium and long-range surface-to-surface cruise missiles that South Korea has been developing for a long time. True, that may require some adjustment of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but that would be wholly reasonable in the face of China’s major conventional missile buildup. Other weapons systems could also be used to inhibit air operations, such as planting sea mines around the islets to interdict their resupply.

This kind of deterrence will be much more effective than attempts to massively scale up the Philippines’ coast guard to play gray-zone games against China’s massive coast guard forces. The latter approach is a genuine pipe dream for the foreseeable future. Maybe Vietnam’s coast guard prospects are a little better, but most Americans would oppose their taxes going to fund Vietnam’s coast guard since these gray-zone games are just about oil and fisheries interests and do not seriously impact U.S. national security.

The strangest and most objectionable part of Vuving’s critique comes near the end. Here he candidly suggests that “China and the United States may share the same view when it comes to nautical freedom…” and, as I have related above, Vuving also explains that “freedom of navigation” does not quite fit the bill as a persuasive rallying cry for confronting Beijing in the South China Sea. Therefore, he argues, the real question in the South China Sea is about China’s alleged “grave threat to U.S. leadership in the region.” This line of reasoning seems to resemble closely that classic neo-conservative tract from 1992, authored by Paul Wolfowitz, that claimed the goal of U.S. foreign and defense policy should be primacy, plain and simple.

Vuving may underestimate Americans’ distaste for the rather tautological formula of seeking to maintain leadership in all areas of the world in order to preserve primacy. In the critique’s final, tortured logic, Vuving explains: “The concentration in this domain of Asia’s chief arteries means that, to paraphrase Harold Mackinder, he who controls the East and South China Seas, dominates Asia; and with the rise of Asia, he who dominates this region, commands the world.” It strikes me as particularly odd and disappointing that even today leading American strategists could engage in such bombastic nineteenth-century rhetoric by looking to British imperialist theorists for guidance. Mackinder and such thinkers were obsessed with protecting India from the imagined Russian threat, neglecting the fact that Russia’s help would be badly required in the contests that would follow for Britain. Next, these contemporary South China Sea hawks, with Mackinder tucked under their arms, will propose erecting myriad new coaling stations around the “spice islands” and perhaps also making the U.S. presence in Afghanistan permanent—the better to protect the Asian “heartland” from China’s encroaching Silk Road initiative. Americans thankfully have more common sense than to pursue expansion and endless conflict on the other side of the planet indefinitely. Certainly, that is how the founders of our country distinguished themselves from statesmen in London way back when.

I am on record repeatedly calling for both a stronger U.S. Navy (increased numbers of submarines, for example), as well as the prudent drawing of credible red lines that would cover the home islands of our allies. Vuving mischaracterizes my approach when he suggests that my view is the U.S. should “keep its hands out of the South China Sea.” Indeed, I am reasonably comfortable with present U.S. force levels in the area, as well as occasional patrols by U.S. forces. Limited goals require neither massive forces nor enormous engagement. There may come a day when the U.S. needs to commit many more resources for deterrence in the Western Pacific, or could even have to contemplate a major war to halt Chinese aggression. But such dangers are nowhere on the horizon. The present danger is “fear itself,” related to the Thucydides Trap, not to mention the quite irrational or uninformed urgings of odious parochial and nationalist interests of various “third-party” states.

To summarize, Vuving does make a number of valuable points and I concur with parts of his assessment, including especially his clear-eyed view of the military balance and his rejection of high-sounding, but quite inappropriate rhetoric. As noted above, I do accept that Beijing has made some incremental gains with its new facilities in the Spratlys both with respect to “gray-zone” operations and also in underlining its military superiority versus Southeast Asian states, though I don’t think these marginal gains should be exaggerated, since they do not fundamentally alter previous strong advantages held by Beijing. Far and away the biggest problem in Vuving’s critique, and among many like-minded hawks, however, is the misguided notion that there is a clear and discernible line between non-military methods of coercion (“gray-zone” operations) and actual combat that rational leaders in Beijing, Manila, Hanoi and Washington certainly will not cross. That binary assessment is a gross simplification of these situations that will inevitably be confused by the “fog” of crisis and thus gravely underestimates the potential for escalation to war. A step in the right direction would be for such hawks, advocating for containment policies and the like, to be more candid and recognize that their recommendations carry significant risks, not only of heightened tensions and wasted resources, but also of direct armed conflict among nuclear armed superpowers.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet