The US Navy wants nastier FONOPs in the South China Sea — operations within the 12 mile territorial sea imputed to PRC island holdings, and not innocent passage, but something overtly military and intrusive that the US would not permit in its own territorial waters, maybe something with helicopter flights or “signals intelligence.”

That’s no surprise.

The White House is not enthusiastic.

No surprise here either.

The FONOPs strategy appears to have delivered little more than PRC intransigence (absent the direct and overtly humiliating military confrontation I believe Pentagon pivoteers secretly crave), and has impelled the PRC toward an island-based response, one that dodges the PRC’s extremely shaky maritime claims under UNCLOS and instead relies on territorial sovereignty claims (on which the US as a matter of policy takes no position) and lays out the prospect of a multi-decade frozen conflict based on wrangling over South China Sea islands, man-made and otherwise.

Carrier USS John C. Stennis recently conducted FONOPS in South China Sea
Carrier USS John C. Stennis recently conducted FONOPs in South China Sea

The imminent UNCLOS arbitration on the Nine Dash Line, in other words, will probably not yield triumph and catharsis; it will create more tension and stress for the region and for the United States.

Now US planners are wrestling with the issue of how to handle the next strategic contingency: the possibility that the PRC will geoform, render suitable for habitation, and “territorialize” the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll 140 miles from the Philippine main island of Luzon, thereby communicating to the Philippines that participation in the US pivot, in addition to estranging it from the PRC, has alienated in perpetuity an important fishing ground.

China hawks screech

The China hawks—John McCain in the Senate and their legions in the Pentagon—are feeding titbits to the press about a) the need for FONOPS and b) distaste for White House fecklessness and c) the risk to the Scarborough Shoal.

No surprise there either.

But there was something new contained in the most recent high-profile media blast by the China hawks.

The main event occurred in an independent service publication called “Navy Times” and not in the usual prestige media outlets such as the Washington Post or the New York Times. Perhaps the WaPo and NYT were too sedulous in cultivating their relationships with the White House; no such qualms for Navy Times, whose audience is pretty much the US Navy full stop.

One of the key takeaways in the piece was the revelation that the National Security Council (whose risk-averse big-picture preoccupations infuriate gung-ho strategists at the Pentagon) had told the military to zip it in the run-up to President Obama’s cherished Nuclear Security Summit, which was attended by PRC supremo Xi Jinping (and the resentful military was unzipping it post-summit to reveal its discontent to Navy Times).

The likely context for the NSC directive (the Woody Island missile furor unleashed by the Pentagon through Fox News to crash President Obama’s previous Asian big deal, the ASEAN meet in Sunnylands) goes unmentioned, but Pentagon umbrage is unambiguously conveyed.

The tone of the piece was not designed to please President Obama:

Military leaders interpreted this as an order to stay silent on China’s assertive moves to control most of the South China Sea, said both defense officials, prompting concern that the paltry US response may embolden the Chinese and worry US allies in the region, like Japan and the Philippines, who feel bullied.

… Critics say the administration’s wait-and-see approach to the South China Sea has failed, with the island-dredging continuing in full force.

“The White House’s aversion to risk has resulted in an indecisive policy that has failed to deter China’s pursuit of maritime hegemony while confusing and alarming our regional allies and partners,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement to Navy Times. “China’s increasingly coercive challenge to the rules-based international order must be met with a determined response that demonstrates America’s resolve and reassures the region of our commitment.”

Perhaps a big surprise to those inattentive to the fact that China hawks working off a sturdy Pentagon base have been warring on the Obama White House for two years, but that’s not really news.

The big news is that the Department of Defense’s public rationale for involvement in the South China Sea appears to be undergoing a major modification.  Call it an “un-sea change.”

Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea looks ripe to be superseded by a new and much more robust China threat narrative:

“When it comes to the South China Sea, I think the largest military concern for [US] Pacific Command is what operational situation will be left to the next commander or the commander after that,” said a Senate staffer familiar with the issues in the South China Sea. “The status quo is clearly being changed. Militarization at Scarborough Shoal would give [China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy] the ability to hold Subic Bay, Manila Bay, and the Luzon Strait at risk with coastal defense cruise missiles or track aviation assets moving in or out of the northern Philippines.”

The administration is negotiating rotational force presence in the Philippines that would put the US in a position to counter China’s moves in the region but the focus on the big picture isn’t changing the China’s gains in the here and now, the staffer said.

“Force posture agreements and presence operations are important, but the administration has yet to develop a deterrence package that actually convinced Beijing that going further on some of these strategic-level issues like Scarborough … is not worth the costs.”

Bye-bye! “Freedom of Navigation.” Hello! “Militarization.”

The Navy Times piece looks like a gambit to trump a possible PRC move to “territorialize” Scarborough Shoal with a US declaration that the shoal is not just an UNCLOS matter or a territorial dispute; it’s a security issue for the United States.  Therefore, the United States, despite its non-accession to UNCLOS and its policy of neutrality in territorial disputes, can mess with the Scarborough Shoal on security grounds.

And not just because the Philippines is an ally; because US forces rotating into the Philippines under the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement would be at risk too.

Meanwhile evidence is mounting that China aims to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines’ capital of Manila and well within the Philippines’ 200-mile economic exclusion zone, that would extend China’s claims. Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put US forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis.

In the public record there is not, by the way, any evidence yet that the PRC is dredging around Scarborough Shoal. Photographs from end-March showed no activity (as an aside, I don’t understand why continuously updated video or photo data from the Spratlys & Scarborough Shoal is not put in the public domain for this supposedly existential global hotspot, given the frequent reconnaissance overflights conducted by the US, as well as its satellite coverage).

Scarborough Shoal

For what it’s worth, I tend to doubt the PRC plans to island-build the Scarborough Shoal. There is no existing PRC facility on the island, and building something new would be in violation of the ASEAN standstill agreement and exact a pretty high cost, regional-diplomacy-wise for the PRC. It would also mean burning a major bridge to the Philippines, since recovering Scarborough Shoal has evolved into a hot button patriotic issue in the Philippines.  As to the strategic threat from Scarborough Shoal, a couple of cruise missiles from a US submarine could probably vaporize it in under 5 minutes.

The US Navy’s Scarborough Shoal alarms are perhaps part of a campaign to keep everybody on board for a confrontational approach when the UNCLOS arbitration ruling comes down, the PRC declines to recognize it, and some tough and potentially ugly decisions have to be made.

As it stands, the Pentagon’s idea seems to be to anticipate any public displays of buyer’s remorse (and pre-emptively reduce the chances of embarrassment in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections) by seizing the helm of South China Sea policy and steering a course for “escalation”.

Observers in the Philippines will note with interest that, having let the US camel nose in the tent with EDCA, the Philippines risks turning itself into a passenger on the pivotmobile as the US can drive the pace and character of events in the South China Sea under the rubric of US force protection.  It might be time for the Philippine Ministry of Defense to take some schooling from Japan on how to keep US military planners at bay.

It’s not just FONOPs and hyping the Scarborough Shoal.

The Navy Times article contained this interesting tidbit:

Stepped-up patrols and of the South China Sea like the one conducted by the carrier John C. Stennis and her escorts in early March are part of the PACOM response to China, but actual freedom of navigation patrols in close proximity to China’s islands must be authorized by the White House.

In other words, the White House has been able to keep total control of FONOPing (albeit in the teeth of Pentagon public displeasure and political pressure) but PACOM can do lots of other stuff … like sail a carrier battle group through the South China Sea on its own initiative.

One more example of how much stuff—in other words, how far can the Department of Defense go in pushing its confrontation-based strategy—may be provided at the end of the Balikatan exercises, which provide the US and Philippine militaries experience in joint operations and practice in high priority skills like, in this year, an amphibious landing. Unless the Philippines is planning to invade itself, this is an island-invasion exercise targeting the PRC in the SCS.

Rocket’s red glare

A high point of the exercise, to be observed in person by Secretary of Defense Carter, will be the demonstration firing of rockets from the US HIMARS mobile battery, a shoot-and-scoot (or scoot-and-shoot) missile launcher airlifted in by the US military for Balikatan. It can either fire six guided or unguided rockets with a range of 200 km or one GPS-guided cruise missile with a range of 300 km. The basic unguided rocket option is colloquially known as the “Grid Square Removal System” a.k.a. two pods for a total of 12 rockets will obliterate a 1 kilometer x 1 kilometer grid square on a military map i.e. pretty much all of a PRC faux island, in preparation for an amphibious landing mop-up.

US HIMARS rocket launch
US HIMARS rocket launch

A report was floated in the Philippine press that, after Balikatan concludes on April 15, the HIMARS battery would be retained at the Antonio Bautista Air Base on Palawan, where it could cover some of the PRC occupied islands in the Spratleys (but not Scarborough Shoal). Placing the as-yet unfortified PRC islets within range of a US military battery is, to put it mildly, somewhat “militarizing,” so one assumes the threat of HIMARS, rather than an actual installation, is being suggested to deter the PRC from further SCS shenanigans at Scarborough Shoal.

Expect multiple cycles of threat, escalation, response, and more escalation from both sides in pursuit of questionable outcomes.

Perhaps Pentagon muscle will not overawe its critics and doubters in the White House and in the region — and in the PRC— and  deliver a robust, sustainable security regime in East Asia. But it looks like the Department of Defense is going to lead us on a long, dreary, sideways slog to get there.

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

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Peter Lee

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

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