Actually, that was a title of a piece I wrote in July 2010, before island-building, before the Senkaku crises, before the rare earths brouhaha, even before Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at the 2010 ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference in Hanoi and formally kicked off the “pivot.”

I offer it as a reminder to the indignant commentators who declare we’re just out in the South China Sea responding to the PRC threat, a theme sounded in an op-ed in The Australian by the Lowy Institute’s Alan Dupont:

Fairfax columnist Hugh White, for example, believes US policy makers have long believed that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a strategic opportunity rather than a problem for the US, allowing them to “cast Beijing as a bullying and aggressive rising power and themselves as the indispensable guardians of regional order and international law”.

These portrayals misrepresent the main causes of the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the issues at stake for Australia and the region.

The genesis of the current imbroglio was Beijing’s 2012 decision to prioritise the South China Sea and initiate an extensive, unprecedented land reclamation program on disputed islands that it occupied or planned to occupy.

That’s leaving out a big chunk of history, much of the stuff Hillary Clinton was involved in before she left office.  I think history will judge Hugh White’s focus on US maneuvers to exploit the PRC vulnerability in the South China Sea as the driver of the crisis more favorably than Dupont’s “everything was going great until those darn Chinese starting kicking up trouble.”

But a key element of escalation—and make no mistake, the SCS crisis is undergoing a major escalation right now—is blaming the other guy.  Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…

A more alarming piece of opinion management than Dupont’s measured op-ed appeared courtesy of  Yomiuri Shimbun.  It includes this map

yomiuri map

Security experts believe that China’s “covert purpose” is to be able to advance its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) from the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean in the future.

At its underground base in Sanya, Hainan Island, China deploys at least two Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines carrying JL-2 ballistic missiles, according to Kaneda. Washington analysis suggests that China will launch patrol activities using these submarines before the end of this year.

The JL-2’s firing range is said to be about 7,000 kilometers at present, so it would be unable to reach the U.S. mainland if fired from the South China Sea. But a Chinese submarine with JL-2 ballistic missiles mobilized in the Central Pacific or the Sea of Okhotsk, or the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle after passing through the Bashi Channel, would be able to reach targets as distant as the U.S. East Coast.

Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of the MSDF fleet, said: “China would be able to make nuclear attacks on the US mainland from two or more directions with considerable ease. The United States, which cannot allow this to happen, will try to contain Chinese SSBNs within the South China Sea like a ‘birdcage.’ This is how the two countries are confronting each other.”

Then, under the heading helpfully titled Need for containment:

If the South China Sea comes under Chinese control, it will change the military balance in the area dramatically, making it certain to worsen the security environment surrounding Japan.

The new guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation have incorporated the joint activities of intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, with the current South China Sea situation in mind. But concrete measures for implementation remain to be examined.

For the Self-Defense Forces to cooperate in these activities, it is essential to strengthen capabilities in terms of patrol planes and other equipment. The government must explore ways of cooperating within the constraints of security legislation. At the same time, it needs to exert influence on China by strengthening its cooperation with the relevant countries around China

A few observations:

First, the “sea lane vital to Japan” (white line through Malacca Strait up through South China Sea) is BS.   I’ve debunked this ad nauseum but instead of relating my arguments in detail I will lean on the authority of Prime Minister Abe, who recently told the Diet that minesweeping in the Malacca Strait could not be covered by the new defense guidelines (which permit joint ops beyond Japan’s territorial waters to protect vital national interests) because other routes existed and the Strait is simply “not vital.”

Second, the possibility that hardline Japanese analysts are amplifying US talking points in part is supported both by the Malacca non sequitur and the close affinity this strategic perspective has to AirSea Battle, the notorious US megawar scenario that posits a massive war to beat back a PRC campaign to evict the United States from the western Pacific.

Third, trying to bottle up the PLAN subs in the South China Sea is a rather destabilizing proposition.  The PRC still operates under a no-first-use doctrine and its nuclear arsenal is meant to survive a US first strike and retaliate.  Strategic missile subs is one way to do this.  But if that option is foreclosed, the PRC’s alternative is muscling up the inventory of land-based ICBMs, either by adding missiles or MIRVing the ones they’ve already got.

In fact, the Pentagon claimed the PRC started testing MIRVed ballistic missiles last December.  Maybe we can score another point for SCS pivot blowback!

Fourth, the PRC’s new land-based, MIRV capable DF-41 ICBM to be deployed “as early as 2015” has the capability to reach the entire continental United States, so encouraging the PRC to make more of them by hobbling the submarine part of the deterrent triad doesn’t exactly make the US homeland much safer.

Fifth, a cause of concern for Japan has always been that the PRC would target US bases in Japan in a US-China war.  Signing on to the US SCS containment strategy that undercuts the PRC deterrent as part of the new defense cooperation means that the PRC may target Japanese DF installations as well as US ones.  And there is no practical guarantee, I would imagine, that an ABM system will catch every PRC missile launched under the quantity-not-quality/MIRV/countermeasures/overwhelming barrage of dummy warheads doctrine to provide a 100% impenetrable shield to the Japanese homeland.

Which means that by signing on the defense guidelines and joining the SCS nuclear sub containment party, the Japanese military has to consider signing on to a proactive AirSea Battle II, which is predicated on massive early-and-often air strikes deep within the PRC to negate its nuclear as well as conventional missile superiority.   And maybe it’s time to build that Japanese nuke!

Sixth, given the issues raised by the Yomiuri article, one has to wonder: Is this supremely unattractive scenario meant to corral the backing of hesitant Japanese voters for the new security legislation?  Is it simply a signal to the United States of Japan’s enthusiasm, at the military level at least, for its enhanced responsibilities under the new defense guidelines?  Or is it a rather bald play of the threat card meant to shake loose defense funding to make sure Japan is Armageddon-ready, at least on the war-fighting side?  I tend to the last explanation.  We’ll see.

Seventh, isn’t it interesting how the US has converted a PRC “core interest” in its vital near beyond sea lanes in the South China Sea into a US “core interest” in securing the South China Sea 8000 miles away against unrestricted PRC submarine traffic?

In any case, a remarkably brazen show of the cloven hoof of containment even while the US still spins the rather unconvincing “we’re just here to ensure freedom of navigation” canard.  But maybe FoN will soon get to take its much deserved dirt nap.

The United States’ real concern has always been military freedom of the seas, not civilian freedom of navigation.  “FoS” involves more than sailing through somebody else’s EEZ in transit; it involves conducting purely military operations that have no commercial or scientific dimension (which would invoke the economic rights of the EEZ claimant): shooting off guns for practice, conducting training maneuvers and, most importantly, conducting surveillance, maybe mapping the sea floor for classified military charts and maybe tracking the PRC’s submarine strategic deterrent.

When the PRC was not obviously strong & aggressive, the “Freedom of Navigation” handwaving was needed to provide a benign civilian overlay to the whole military FoS.

In contrast to the insistence of the United States on absolute, undiluted FoS, key US allies in the region, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam all seek to impose limits on military FoS in a variety of matters relating to transit or exercises within their EEZs, in a position that is arguably closer to the PRC than the US; and even the Philippines has expressed reservations.

And, for that matter, the navy second most likely after the United States to exercise its FoS rights to operate inside the EEZs of suspicious and aggrieved nations surrounding the South China Sea is the PLA Navy; so it is perhaps understandable that “Freedom of the Seas” for military vessels was not a surefire propaganda point.

Now that the PRC is big & scary and the United States looks ready to overtly challenge the PRC in the SCS as a matter of military national security, maybe FoN and FoS can be discarded in favor of a straight “resisting Chinese aggression” play.

China hawks in the US Navy have been itching for such a policy for some while, and I would say their opportunity is at hand.

Now, of course, the DoD has a new boss—Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; and PACCOM has a new commander—Admiral Sam Harris, and the general consensus is that the muscular defense sector has wrestled China policy away from the milquetoastian White House.  Interestingly, Admiral Harris was previously the Pentagon’s liaison to to the State Department under Hillary Clinton as well as John Kerry, which reinforces my impression that Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy advisors have pre-loaded China policy with her supporters, and I expect things to get ugly quickly so that the nasty and awkward business of starting the confrontation can be done under Obama before Clinton enters office.

As I put it elsewhere: Hillary wants to inherit her China crisis from Obama, not foment it herself.

It may give heartache to the “Chinese aggression is the root of all evil” crowd but anybody who doesn’t see a crash US program to escalate what the PRC would like to limit to a contained and manageable local friction in the SCS simply isn’t paying attention.

Right now, I would say the goal is to escalate the crisis steeply enough to stampede Japanese public opinion to support the enabling legislation for the new defense guidelines, which is now struggling in the legislature; and lock in the civilian leadership of our Australian and Philippine allies, especially in anticipation of important elections looming in the Philippines and Taiwan.  The barrage of leaks and bellicose declarations from the military quadrant in Australia, the Philippines, and Japan (typified by the Yomiuri article) with the apparent objective of bucking up or boxing in the civilian leadership is a sight to behold.

My apparently distinctly marginal view is that this policy is not going to work very well (though its difficulties will be the source of much occupation and profit for the milsec fixer-uppers and explainers).

As I see the problem, America is not striving for the goal of regional security; it is chasing the chimera of continued American leadership even as the strength of all the Asian powers—Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well as the PRC—grow, and US relative strength declines.

In other words, China will spend the next ten years grabbing what it can; and the United States will be struggling to keep what it can’t.

But US PRC policy is in the hands of men and women determined to try.  It’s up to the American people just to hold on to our hats—and pay the bills, which I expect will be considerable.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of U.S. policy with Asian and world affairs.

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