US should put the brakes on China's expansion into South China Sea

With North Korea dominating the headlines out of Asia, not enough attention is being paid to major developments dealing with the South China Sea – the major cause of tensions in the larger Indo-Pacific region before North Korea started testing its long-range missiles and nuclear explosives.

China recently placed advanced anti-ship missiles and air-defense batteries on islands it has built in the South China Sea – yes, China has built its own islands from almost nothing, using some of the world’s most advanced dredging technology.

The Chinese are moving quickly to dominate this critical body of water and do what no nation has done since the age of sailing ships: successfully claim water as territory.

The stakes could not be any higher. Just a cursory look at any map of Asia and one quickly realizes that whoever dominates the South China Sea dominates East Asia – largely negating Washington’s own role in the region.

Nations like Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and others are dependent on the South China Sea’s vital sea routes – which carry one-third of global shipping – to power their economies and deliver vital fish, finished food products and oil supplies to their populations.

There are also potentially trillions of dollars of oil, natural gas and mineral deposits beneath the South China Sea, waiting like buried treasure to be brought to the surface.

All of this explains China’s brazen attempt – using expansive claims in maps, passports, military exercises, the subsidizing of massive fishing fleets and a powerful non-naval maritime militia – to dominate the South China Sea, which must be considered the beating heart of Asia.

In fact, Beijing’s new islands and their militarization are part of a slick strategy to dominate this near sea and all of the waters around China – turning them into what some are calling a “no-man's land” for U.S. naval vessels and aircraft.

Known to Western analysts as anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD, Beijing has leveraged the combined strength of its ultra-quiet submarines, over 80,000 sea mines (the world’s largest inventory), air-defense platforms, undersea tracking systems and cruise missiles.

China is sending a clear message to the U.S. and other nations traveling through the South China Sea: come too close to the Chinese coast, Chinese-claimed territory, or even Taiwan with military assets and you could pay a big price.

And that is just Step One of China’s plan. In fact, Beijing has acquired even more advanced military assets that – if deployed in the South China Sea – would be very difficult to stop in a regional conflict, unless America and its allies were willing to pay a heavy price.

The first of these advanced military assets is what has been called a “carrier-killer” missile, or the DF-21D, a mobile missile that terrifies U.S. naval planners. When launched, the missile is guided using advanced radar, satellites and possibly even a drone.

Various reports indicate this missile has a maneuverable warhead that is potentially capable of defeating missile-defense systems. The missile slams down on its target at 10 times the speed of sound or faster. Even more frightening, the missile can attack naval vessels 900 miles away, ensuring China can launch an attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier long before the carrier’s short-range fighter jets can strike.

Additional advanced military assets China possesses include newly acquired S-400 air-defense batteries and the long-range Su-35 fighter jet – both recently purchased from Russia. Placing these in the South China Sea would allow China to patrol and defend large sections of this area from above the waves, giving Beijing a massive home-field advantage that would be tough to overcome.

While China only has limited quantities of these advanced Russian arms now, it has an amazing track record of reverse engineering almost any technology it has bought from Moscow. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before these weapons platforms will be placed all over the South China Sea and the Chinese coastline. 

So far, besides promising catch phrases and grandiose policy plans that could be hard to operationalize, the Trump administration’s strategy to deal with the South China Sea challenge seems to be nearly the same as the Obama administration’s.

This involves taking U.S. naval vessels and sailing them close to the islands China has built, all in an effort to prove we do not recognize any of its expansive claims. These are called “freedom of navigation” operations.

Unfortunately for Washington, while such actions show some sort of response, they do nothing to slow China’s assault on the status quo. As U.S. ships simply sail around the South China Sea, Beijing presses ahead with installing more military hardware. China’s islands and equipment are permanent, while America’s naval deployments are temporary and brief.

Now is the time for the Trump administration to begin to formulate a comprehensive strategy to push back against China’s claims. Washington should partner with South China Sea nations to formulate a means to counter China, short of military conflict. 

Back in 2016, I offered a multi-part strategy that Washington could use to slow or even halt Beijing’s actions. One part of that strategy is something I have named “shamefare.” The U.S. and other nations could use this to fully expose China’s methods of coercion.

The goal of shamefare would be straightforward: to put China on the defensive and shame it in the media by using extensive documentation to show how China is taking over the South China Sea.

America and other nations could use social media and traditional media to distribute videos and photos of the areas the Chinese are slowly dominating. This stands a chance, when combined with other methods, to make Beijing pay a heavy and near constant price.

Considering the Trump administration’s clear focus on all things Asia – trade, North Korea and even a new interest in Taiwan – at the moment, Washington cannot allow China to simply dominate and effectively turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake that extends its territory.

If that happens, Washington’s credibility throughout Asia would be undermined dramatically, to the point where nations around the region seek accommodation with China, allowing Beijing to slowly but surely dominate all of Asia – and see the U.S. pushed out.

We simply cannot allow that to happen.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.