Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur operates in the South China Sea in October. Photo: US Navy Handout via Reuters

There is growing concern about China’s intentions toward Taiwan and its actions in the South China Sea. Military analysts attribute this threat to Beijing’s desire to assimilate the so-called renegade province into the Communist fold. However, China is more interested in claiming the missing link in its first island chain line of defense.

The first island chain consists of the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, the Diaoyu Islands (administered by Japan and called the Senkakus), Taiwan and the offshore islands administered by Taipei, the Philippine Islands, the Indonesian Islands, and others. This string of islands forms a chain that runs from the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido to the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea.

It is important to control what American General Douglas MacArthur once described as an unsinkable aircraft carrier just offshore from the Chinese mainland. Taiwan poses a distinct threat to the mainland in addition to being a gap in what Beijing considers its littoral seas defensive perimeter.

Lines of defense

Even though China is a large country, Beijing has recognized that its coastline represents its future through trade and commerce with other nations accessible only by sea.

According to The Economist’s estimates, China was the world’s leading exporter in 2014, accounting for nearly 14% of world trade. Beijing was the second-largest importer of goods for that year, importing about 10% of the world’s total. Most of this trade is by sea, and the country is dependent upon having clear and reliable sea lines of communication.

The first island chain is occupied or administered by countries that China considers to be hostile toward it. Together, the islands are thus seen as a barrier to Beijing’s free and unimpeded access to the Pacific Ocean. Not surprisingly, China has designs on changing that.

The book Red Star over the Pacific, Second Edition, by Toshi Yoshihara and James R Holmes, subtitled China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy, examines the problem as China defines it as well as Beijing’s strategy to overcome it. The book, published by Naval Institute Press, is based on extensive examinations of official policy documents over the years as well as thoughtful analyses of China’s recent behavior.

China has for decades been engaged in developing a modern navy with highly sophisticated weaponry. Except for Japan, no country in the region can stand up to Beijing’s maritime forces that – for now at least – are only middling. And China intends to challenge America’s Western Pacific hegemony openly.

It is building surface vessels, from littoral ships to blue-water aircraft carriers and their related support craft. Furthermore, it is enlisting coastal law-enforcement boats and the forces of its merchant fleet for both surveillance and intimidation.

Beijing continues its development of a formidable undersea force composed of nuclear and modern diesel-electric submarines equipped with ballistic missiles of varying ranges. All this is in addition to land-based missiles that project Chinese firepower scores of nautical miles out to sea.

Only now are American leaders publicly acknowledging what has probably been spoken about behind the scenes for some time in Washington’s halls of power. When the new American interim secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, was questioned about where the United States needed to focus, his reply was immediate: “China, China, China.”

Strategic tactics

Incrementalism is a useful ploy for accomplishing in small steps what – were it to be attempted straightaway in one large operation – would likely generate some sort of significant response from the West.

Since the South China Sea is part of that first island chain, Beijing cites “historical records” to justify its claim to – and outright occupation of – the reefs and shoals there. However, that so-called historical narrative is only a subterfuge to conceal the goal of consolidating its first island chain.

Next came building of artificial islands atop reefs and shoals to form permanent bases from which to project Beijing’s power far out to sea, despite initial claims that these man-made isles would not be militarized. China’s intent there was not recognized as such until it was a fait accompli with Beijing firmly controlling much of the South China Sea.

The Philippines, whose exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and territorial waters have been violated, brought suit in 2013 against Beijing before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In 2016, the court ruled against China, but Beijing rejected the findings.

Unfortunately, the court is toothless without an enforcement mechanism. The current flurry of “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) conducted by the United States, Britain, Japan and others will by themselves not accomplish anything but increase tensions.

China has recently increased its forays into airspace previously not shown to be of interest. Moreover, Beijing has been conducting Coast Guard patrols near the Japanese-administered but Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyus to Beijing).

This is an incremental step in which other nations in the region will become accustomed to Chinese military presence in international airspace or waters yet close enough to the territory of other nations that concerns are raised.

The next goal will be the chokepoints or bottlenecks – straits – between the islands in the chain. From north to south, the straits that will likely become Beijing’s next focus are:

  • Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea;
  • Miyako Strait between Okinawa and Miyako Island;
  • Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines’ Luzon Island;
  • Malacca Strait between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra;
  • Sunda Strait and a host of others in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago.

Further, China now has bases on the Indian Ocean – Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota on Sri Lanka – from which it intends to control approaches to those straits between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

There can be little doubt that a confrontation between China and the US-led FONOPs is in the future. It will begin in increments. The first step is a game of chicken, as last year when a Chinese destroyer turned in front of the American navy’s USS Decatur. The US ship had to maneuver drastically to avoid a collision.

Next will likely be small – perhaps even armed – clashes, but nothing big enough to elicit anything more than a protest from Washington. Eventually a real battle will come, and Beijing will likely strike first, with devastating results. The question is when.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Robert E. McCoy

Robert E. McCoy is a former US Air Force intelligence specialist. He was stationed in Asia for fourteen years and his focus remains on events in and around Northeast Asia. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/.

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