By Alan W. Dowd, 10.28.15
After months of warning Beijing that the U.S. Navy would challenge China’s illegal bid to seize a large swath of the South China Sea by turning atolls into armed islands, the White House has finally ordered the destroyer USS Lassen to defend freedom of the seas and to sail within 12 miles of an artificial island built by China on Subi reef in the Spratly island chain. As in the case of President Obama’s hesitant responses to the Pentagon’s surge plans in Afghanistan, Egypt’s revolution, Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the Islamic State’s dismemberment of Iraq, it may be too little too late. Even so, when it comes to preserving and promoting freedom of the seas, it may be more appropriate to say “Better late than never.”
In any event, what the president doesn’t seem to understand is that there’s nothing new, let alone provocative, about the U.S. Navy challenging this sort of mischief. America has been keeping the open seas, well, open for 215 years.
Before digging into some of that history, we need to understand what China is doing today.
China is laying claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea based on a map drawn up by Chinese cartographers in 1947, ignoring international borders, flouting international norms and turning tiny reefs hundreds of miles from its territorial waters into military outposts.
Beijing’s goal: to control the resource-rich South China Sea and muscle the United States out of the Western Pacific. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan puts it, China is trying to turn the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing.” No doubt reflecting the views of his government, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai says, “The South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.” (By that logic, the Gulf of Mexico belongs to Mexico, Indian Ocean to India, Persian Gulf to modern-day Persia, better known as Iran.)
Beijing’s new military strategy offers some of the details of how China will achieve this goal. The document vows to “accelerate the modernization of national defense and armed forces [and] resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.”
China is certainly succeeding at the former: China’s military spending mushroomed 170 percent between 2004 and 2013, with no signs of letting up. Beijing increased military spending by 10 percent in 2015 and 12.2 percent in 2014.
As to the latter, Beijing’s notion of sovereignty differs radically from that of its neighbors. By international convention, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles from its coastline. Beyond that, nations observe an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 miles off a country’s coastline and allows for privileged exploration rights. Not only does Beijing expect others to observe its EEZ and the airspace above as sovereign Chinese territory (they are not), not only does Beijing refuse to respect the EEZs of its neighbors (ask the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan), but Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the Chinese mainland.
Bolstered by its instant islands, China is asserting these claims in fait accompli fashion. Satellite images detail Beijing’s brazen island-construction operations. These instant islands have obvious military applications. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks—on some of the man-made islands.” One of the islands has a 10,000-foot airstrip—big enough for long-range bombers and fighter-interceptors. It pays to recall that Gen. MacArthur once described Taiwan as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” These islands could become China’s unsinkable aircraft carriers.
True, Beijing is not trying to lop off part of Venezuela (like Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902), or annexing the Sudeten in the heart of Europe (like Adolf Hitler in 1938), or declaring a sovereign Kuwait “Province 19” (like Saddam Hussein in 1990). But the principle is the same. As they bully weaker neighbors and dot international seaspace with man-made islands, China’s leaders are taking what’s not theirs. The lesson of Munich teaches that it’s better to confront such aggression than to appease it.
That brings us to America’s enduring role in defending freedom of the seas. America’s willingness to commit military force to freedom of the seas dates almost to the beginning of the republic.
The Barbary States of northern Africa required ships traveling near their waters to pay tribute to guarantee safe passage. In fact, at the time of George Washington’s inauguration, as Donald Chidsey observes in The Wars in Barbary, Americans were being held hostage by Barbary pirates. The U.S. paid huge sums in tribute, ransom and naval stores to win release of those being held—and appease further piracy.
Thomas Jefferson opposed this policy as secretary of state, and he overturned it once he became president. He initially proposed an anti-piracy coalition with Europe “to compel the piratical states to perpetual peace.” But as Gerard Gawalt of the Library of Congress explains, “Jefferson’s plan for an international coalition foundered on the shoals of indifference.” (Sounds familiar.) So, Jefferson launched a unilateral war on piracy, famously concluding, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”
Skirmishes, battles and full-scale invasions followed—Chidsey calls it “the great pummeling”—until the Barbary pirates finally ended decades of attacks against U.S. shipping.
But piracy wasn’t confined to the Barbary Coast. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The U.S. Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and Mexico. All told, between 1801 and 1870, as CRS details, U.S. forces waged a far-flung war against piracy—and for freedom of the seas—in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong, Sumatra, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Of the hundreds of instances of U.S. military intervention tallied by CRS, dozens are related to piracy, freedom of the seas, freedom of transit and maritime poaching. So, it should come as no surprise that President Wilson’s 14 Points called for “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.” FDR and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter envisioned a postwar peace allowing “all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” FDR bluntly called “freedom of the seas” an “American policy.”
Since 1979, U.S. forces have challenged excessive airspace and coastal claims around the world under the Freedom of Navigation program. Thus, when Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi declared the Gulf of Sidra as his own, the Carter administration ordered U.S. warplanes and warships into the area from time to time, although it suspended the exercises during the Iranian hostage crisis “because of a desire not to cause unnecessary agitation in the region,” as the New York Times reported at the time.
President Reagan ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet to resume exercises throughout the Mediterranean. “We weren’t going to allow [Qaddafi] to declare squatter’s rights over a huge area of the Mediterranean in defiance of international law,” Reagan said. Qaddafi responded by warning that any vessel entering the Gulf of Sidra without his permission would be crossing a “line of death.” When the exercises recommenced in 1981, Qaddafi sent several warplanes into international airspace to challenge the Americans. Authorized, in Reagan’s words, to pursue attacking Libyan warplanes “all the way into the hangar,” U.S. Naval airpower responded with deadly force and made it clear to Qaddafi that there would be no payoff for disregarding international norms—only costs.
But Reagan wasn’t finished defending freedom of the seas. When Iran began attacking commercial ships in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, Reagan ordered Kuwaiti ships reflagged with the Stars and Stripes and had U.S. warships escort Kuwaiti vessels. After an Iranian mine ripped through a U.S. ship in international waters, Reagan launched a series of punishing military strikes against Iran. While most Americans forget this war on the Gulf, Tehran doesn’t. On a single day in 1988, the U.S. crippled Iran’s outlaw navy. “By the end of the operation, U.S. air and surface units had sunk, or severely damaged, half of Iran’s operational fleet,” a Navy report recalls.
Today, 90 percent of global trade, equaling more than $14 trillion, travels by sea. It doesn’t happen by accident or by magic. The burden of keeping the sea lanes open—discouraging encroachment, deterring bad actors, fighting piracy, clearing vital waterways and chokepoints—largely falls on the U.S. Navy. As military writer Robert Kaplan suggests, the U.S. is more of a global umpire than global empire, which is why the Freedom of Navigation Program continues. In fact, the U.S. military directly challenged the dubious maritime claims of 19 countries last year. The Obama administration also sent a flight of B-52s into China’s unilaterally-declared “air-defense identification zone” in late 2013 to enforce freedom of the skies. So it’s difficult to understand why Obama has been so slow to enforce freedom of the seas around China’s illegal islands.
In reaction to Beijing’s behavior, Defense Secretary Aston Carter began declaring in May that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” But as the months ticked by, the White House failed to back up Carter’s words with naval action. In fact, up until the Lassen’s movement the last week of October 2015, the Navy had avoided sailing or flying near the disputed territories claimed by China since 2012—no doubt under orders from the Obama administration. This spring and summer, the White House reportedly blocked PACOM Commander Adm. Harry Harris from steaming ships within 12 miles of China’s instant islands. “We should…be allowed to exercise freedom of navigation and flight—maritime and flight—in the South China Sea against those islands that are not islands,” Harris said. Note his use of the word “allowed.”
To move forward, the administration needs to answer a threshold question: Is maintaining an international system that has kept the Asia-Pacific peaceful, prosperous and open in the national interest? If so—and it’s difficult to argue otherwise, given America’s trade linkages and treaty commitments in the region—then Washington should move on four fronts.
First, Obama should order the Navy to enforce freedom of the seas by routinely steaming ships through the international waters China is trying to poach. Equally important, these exercises should not be pre-announced. Just as I need not notify my neighbors of where, when or why I will be traveling the city streets, Washington is under no obligation to forewarn Beijing about plans to deploy Navy or Air Force assets in international seaspace and international airspace. In fact, doing so implies that China is owed such a forewarning, which implies that China has a special prerogative over the areas it claims. It does not.
Second, the administration needs to internationalize the problem. There’s strength in numbers. Given Beijing’s economic heft and burgeoning military capability, those who want to keep the Pacific Ocean pacific will need all the numbers they can get.
In what Jane’s Defense called “unusually forceful language,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has issued a declaration endorsing “freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea.” Washington should put muscle behind those words by organizing a standing multinational maritime taskforce to challenge China’s claims.
Washington also should call on international organizations to address China’s provocations. Manila has offered a roadmap by taking its behemoth neighbor to court, appealing to a UN tribunal to keep China out of Philippine waters. Other nations whose maritime rights have been infringed by China should follow suit. Washington can help by offering technical assistance, diplomatic support, and satellite and reconnaissance evidence.
Third, Washington should play the asymmetric card. Beijing fancies itself a master of asymmetry, but asymmetric warfare cuts both ways.
Consider the anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2AD) Beijing is employing. Researchers at RAND propose “using ground-based anti-ship missiles (ASM) as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy” by linking several strategically located partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines—in a regional ASM coalition. As former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested last year, the Army could begin “leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery and air-defense systems” with an eye toward “helping ensure the free flow of commerce.”
Fourth, Washington should end the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration. The defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. As China builds up and builds out, this is the best way to invite the worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
At the height of Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Even the post-Cold War Navy of the 1990s totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 284 ships. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
Given the reservoir of U.S. military capacity, the White House seems to argue, the balance of power will still favor the United States, even after sequestration takes its toll. That may appear to be true—but only until one considers that America’s military assets and security priorities are spread around the globe, while China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in The American Interest.