Many times this has often proved true. But in the case of the South China Sea it has horribly backfired against American objectives. Two primary examples illustrate this point. First, War on the Rocks contributor Robert Haddick analyzed an intriguing piece written earlier in the year by David Barno and Nora Bensahel, who argued that U.S. policymakers and military planners should think about how to prepare for the next big war. Their stimulating essay identified six gaps — munitions, weapons platforms, manpower, planning, technology, and stamina — that a big war against a peer competitor could reveal. These important articles combined together were ultimately a de facto call for the United States to improve its planning for mobilization and on a surface level would seem fairly benign to almost all readers, ie, there is no specific ‘big target’ named in either article or intimation against whom the next big war and American mobilization should be aimed. At least, there isn’t until a completely separate piece of information is connected to it.
On March 18, 2016, Deputy Secretary for Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Amy Searight, told reporters that the Department of Defense had already submitted notification to Congress about a new maritime capacity-building initiative for Southeast Asian states near the South China Sea. While the DoD has been relatively secretive about the exact details, some information has leaked out about the point and purpose of the initiative:
Speaking generally due to the sensitivity of the issue, [a DoD source] said that more advanced intelligence, surveillance and radar (ISR) capabilities might enhance ‘sensing’ of allies and partners in the South China Sea; technical “supporting infrastructure” would facilitate ‘sharing’ maritime information across the region to build a common operating picture; and expanded exercises, training and other engagements would lead to more ‘contributing’ from allies and partners. MSI is more about equipment, supplies, training and small-scale construction that fit within this broad approach, rather than hardware.“What you hear is improving the ability of allies and partners to sense, share and contribute,” the source said.
In other words, this maritime capacity initiative is built around improving planning, manpower, platforms, technology, and stamina of most if not all of the smaller littoral South China Sea states. It is built around improving the abilities of American allies in exactly the manner in which contributors to the War on the Rocks articles declared as being crucial for US readiness in fighting the next big war. The idea that China would be unable to piece this together or draw its own stark strategic conclusions was wishful diplomatic thinking, at best. As it turns out, it was wishful thinking misplaced.
At almost exactly the same time period as when the above events were transpiring, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a huge announcement to ‘buoy the country’s faltering economy’ by bringing military research and development back under the jurisdiction of the People’s Liberation Army. The reason for this new restructuring was in order to launch a new agency that would be modeled directly after the famous US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This new agency will aim to ‘strengthen management of defense science and technology, promote indigenous innovation in national defense, and coordinate integrated development of military and civilian technologies.’ In other words, China, having connected the dots between disparate American strategic analyses and policy developments, responded with basically doing the exact same maneuvers and initiatives. Arguably, the timing and speed of the Chinese response is directly predicated upon what it considers to be disconcerting American initiatives that seem more potentially offensive and aggressive rather than defensive and reactive. Even this distinction, between offensive and defensive, between action and reaction, is a constant source of opacity between China and the United States when it comes to the South China Sea.
The following are excerpts taken from an assessment of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper given to Sen. John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was a formal letter meant to address the ‘Chinese reclamation and militarization of disputed holdings in the South China Sea.’
Feb. 23, 2016
Dear Chairman McCain:
Thank you for your letter of 29 January 2016 in which you articulated concerns about China’s reclamation activity in the South China Sea and the impact this will have on China’s ability to deploy military capabilities across the area. Unclassified answers to the specific questions contained in your correspondence follow:
Would you assess China has militarized its reclaimed features in the Spratly Islands?
We judge that China has the capability to provide basic self-defense at its Spratly Islands outposts. China has also installed surveillance systems to improve situational awareness and is building airfields and ports that can support military operations. Based on the extent of land reclamation and construction activity, we assess that China has established the necessary infrastructure to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defense of its outposts. These capabilities could include the deployment of modern fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), and coastal defense cruise missiles, as well as increased presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface combatants and China Coast Guard (CCG) large patrol ships.
Has the United States observed the construction of infrastructure or deployment of capabilities that would enable military-grade early warning, target acquisition, and/or target track radars?
China has installed military radars, most likely air-surveillance/early warning radars, at Cuarteron and Fiery Cross Reefs and a beacon for aircraft direction at Fiery Cross. Additionally, China is employing a combination of solar, wind, and stable base-load generators to power the outposts.
Has the United States observed the construction of infrastructure or deployment of capabilities by China that would enable the deployment of surface-to-air missile systems?
None of the infrastructure developed to date is consistent with the deployment of SAM systems to any of China’s Spratly Islands outposts. However, China’s mobile SAMS are field-deployable and do not require fixed, prepared sites
Do you assess China will pursue further reclamation in the South China Sea or East China Sea?
While we have no evidence that China has plans for any significant additional land reclamation at its Spratly Islands claims, there is sufficient reef area at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs to reclaim more than 1,000 additional acres. We further assess that the underwater features at the four smaller reefs would support additional land reclamation. We do not assess that China will conduct reclamation efforts in the East China Sea.
Do you assess China will seek to militarize its reclaimed features in the Spratly Islands in the 2016-2018 time period?
We assess that China will continue to pursue construction and infrastructure development at its expanded outposts in the South China Sea. Based on the pace and scope of construction at these outposts, China will be able to deploy a range of offensive and defensive military capabilities and support increased PLAN and CCG presence beginning in 2016. Once these facilities are completed by the end of 2016 or early 2017, China will have significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power to the region. China’s continued construction activity and press reporting indicate that Beijing may view the establishment of “defensive” capabilities similar to what some other claimants have installed as consistent with not “militarizing” the dispute. The Intelligence Community continues to monitor these and other critical developments in the region using our full array of collection capabilities to produce analysis with explanatory and predictive power to inform decision makers ahead of emerging trends. Please contact me with any additional questions you might have.
James R. Clapper
What usually gets overlooked on the American side (but emphasized on the Chinese side) is how much Clapper’s analysis confirms maneuvers that are being positioned militarily and declared diplomatically as ‘defensive’ in nature, only to quickly counter with the retort that America believes it would not be difficult to adapt and transform such defensive postures into dangerous offensive ones. But that same retort was used by the Chinese in not only discussing the creeping deployments of the THAAD missile defense system but with general American postures and initiatives throughout the region:
China has taken aim at the United States over its criticism of what it considers China’s militarization of the disputes in the East and South China Seas. Washington has considered such actions as violations of “international norms.” As a result, it resumed freedom of navigation patrols in the western Pacific last year. But China considers Washington’s reaction as hypocritical. How, Chinese officials ask, can the United States criticize China for militarizing the South China Sea, when it uses military forces to conduct its freedom of navigation patrols near Chinese-held islets and has expanded its Asian military alliances, most notably through the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines?
The purpose of these excerpts, indeed of the entire analysis, is to show just how much of the disputes and tension in the South China Sea are about competing narratives over intentions, objectives, and ‘real’ meanings. It has very little to do with verifiable dispassionate evidence based on military action. Most important is to acknowledge that these competing narratives do indeed exist and that the effort to characterize one as wholly righteous and another as wholly unjustified is not only unhelpful but actually exacerbates conflict in the region. There is strategic manipulation, diplomatic exploitation, and military posturing going on all over the South China Sea today. But it would be naïve and unproductive to think all of this is happening only on the Chinese side. It is happening on all sides, by and against all the players, and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.