The Fight Over the 21st Century Silk Road
The U.S. has dominated all aspects of power throughout the Pacific since the end of World War II and has wielded that power in a mostly benevolent way. The mantra has always been to maintain unimpeded access for all to the waterways for commerce. It has fit into the framework of the interconnecting agreements, treaties, and trade agreements put in place after World War II. As China’s outlook on the world turned from internally focused to externally focused, it has expanded its influence in the region while the U.S. was focused on conflict in the Middle East and the international fight against terrorism. As a result, China has gained de facto control of the Pacific through its decades long combination of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic efforts. How does the U.S. regain the initiative in the Pacific without starting World War III?
China’s Belt & Road Initiative is a great catch phrase for tying a nostalgic, idealistic past with contemporary, hegemonic intentions. It is a Chinese “whole of society” approach to an aggressive foreign policy. Utilizing not only their economic heft, they are also using Chinese culture to spread influence. World-wide it involves more than 60 countries and two-thirds of the world’s population. (“China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative,” Andrew Chatzky and James McBride, 21 MAY 19, Council on Foreign Relations, cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative). There is also a parallel 21st Century Maritime Silk Road plan announced at the 2013 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit which involves port development from the Indian Ocean through the Pacific and all the way to East Africa. Diplomatically, throughout the Pacific, they have used the carrot and stick approach to garnering associate states somewhere between a vassal state but not quite up to the level of a full partnership or ally.
The Chinese have learned a lot from observing the U.S. fight in the Middle East and scrambling to contain Russia in eastern Europe. Do not let the U.S. have the luxury to use their long-range fires with everything from missiles to aircraft. Their approach to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) and expanded long-range precision guided munitions has pushed the U.S.’s aircraft carriers, which are its major power projection platforms, to the extreme limits of their range. Also those same munitions have made the concentrations of U.S. forces in Guam, Japan, and South Korea vulnerable.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) realizes that presence and forward positioning are everything. Despite losing a UN Tribunal ruling in 2016 in a claim over disputed islands (the Philippines claimed ownership), China refuted the court order and still held onto those islands. (“China attacks international court after South China Sea ruling,”The Guardian, 13 JUL 2016, theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/13/china-damns-international) For them, possession is everything. That is why they now have two functional aircraft carriers and have terraformed 27 outposts in the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands which are both located in the South China Sea (https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/china/#Spratley%20Islands). Since 2013 China has created 3200 acres in the South China Sea. In essence, they have 27 “fixed” aircraft carriers scattered throughout this important corridor for one-third of the world’s commerce (https://chinapower.cisis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/#toc-2).
The current narrative in the South China Sea is that it is China’s by default, and nobody else has a right to them. As far as the rest of Asia, the Chinese narrative is that China will eventually be the dominant power, America is distracted and declining, so choose “the winning side.” How does the U.S. and its allies counter this theme?
How to Win it Back
Even though the U.S. has lost the initiative in the Pacific, we can still gain it back. The U.S. is still the partner of choice. And that is the key word, partner. The Chinese are less about partnerships and more about dominance. It is evident in their Belt and Road Initiative loans. Many of these loans are so large, and the recipient countries so poor, they will never be able to pay them back and will be permanently indebted to them. The U.S. can capitalize on the seemingly predatory Chinese practices through mutually beneficial bilateral agreements as well as multilateral agreements. As The Economist points out, the U.S. seems to do best when they have something tangible to offer a partner. (“Return to Centre, Special Report: China’s Belt & Road,” The Economist, 8 FEB 20, p. 4)
The U.S. should have an aggressive and transparent Pacific engagement strategy to win over partner countries. It should include economic and military assistance as well as political clout to assist in thorny disputes. Foreign policy hates a void and the U.S.’s disengagement from multilateral relationships has China quickly filling that role.
Just a sampling of some of the major countries in the region (some neglected allies, some emerging powers) shows hunger for U.S. leadership and largess. India, the largest democracy in the word needs fuel for its growing population. The nuclear deal with the U.S. should be expanded along with military contacts. The U.S. has true allies in the region: Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. It should enhance those and foster relationships with the fence sitters such Vietnam and Malaysia. An alternative to the Belt & Road Initiative is worth pursuing. Unfortunately, pushing for bilateral agreements in lieu of multilateral, regional agreements and berating partners to pay more for U.S. troops being stationed in their countries, just alienates them and pushes them reluctantly towards the Chinese. As a data point, here are the percentages of total costs that U.S. allies pay to have U.S. troops in their country: South Korea-40%, Japan-74.5%, and Germany-32.6%. (“Washington asked Tokyo to pay five times as much per year for U.S. forces based in Japan,” The Japan Times, 16 NOV 19, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/11/16/national/trump-wants-tokyo-quadruple-base-hosting-payments-8-billion-foreign-policy/). In comparison, Australia and the U.S. have a cost sharing agreement for the 25-year commitment for continual U.S. deployments to northern Australia (total of $1.5 billion with no exact figures released). (“U.S. agrees to share cost of American military presence in Australia’s Northern Territory,” The Guardian, 6 OCT 2016, theguardian.com/Australia-news/2016/oct/07/us-agrees-to-military-presence-in-australias-northern-territory) Allied burden-sharing is a legitimate concern, but the relationships should not be reduced to transactional when they are so much more than that.
The U.S. should consider stationing troops alongside partners in their respective territorial islands in the South China Sea. The U.S. is already considering placing forces on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands off of the northeast coast of Taiwan (the U.S. transferred administrative control of these islands to Japan in 1972). (“U.S. Army examines basing Multi-Domain Task Force troops on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” Ashley Roque, Jane’s, 13 JAN 20, https://www.janes.com/article/93673/us-army-examines-basing-multi-domain-task-force-troops-on-the-senkaku-diaoyu-islands). Several of our key allies and partners lay claim to land masses in the area to include Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The U.S. could partner with them to place troops and “lillypads” for navy and coast guard ships. If China can baselessly lay claim to the entire South China Sea and build military bases there, so can countries with legitimate claims to the area. Placing U.S. forces in the South China Sea is not without risk. This author doubts China would passively watch as U.S. troops move into the area. It will be a balancing act, but the U.S. is used to that type of relationship with Taiwan.
Is it time for a new Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)? The current trend in U.S. foreign relations is against multi-lateral agreements, but combining existing bilateral security agreements would be a way to economize Asian security. The U.S. currently has four Asian treaties/agreements security agreements (if you still include the treaty with the Philippines which Philippine President Rodrigo Duerte recently announced he was pulling out of): the Philippines Treaty; the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand Agreement (only the agreement between the U.S. and Australia remains in place); Republic of Korea Treaty; and the Japanese Treaty. (https://2009-2017.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense//index.htm). There are pitfalls to a new mutual security agreement in Asia. It could spawn a new arms race or mini-Cold War in the region, but it also could serve as a counterbalance to Chinese expansionist intentions.
Militarily, the U.S. should consider other radical changes such as reducing the reliance on aircraft carriers, dispersing the base clusters, and making military tours of duty in the Pacific unaccompanied. It is blasphemy to say this, but aircraft carriers are now the obsolete battleships of the 21st century. They are too vulnerable to modern day, precision-guided, munitions, unmanned kinetic systems as well as the silent Chinese submarines now patrolling the Pacific. (“China’s Submarines May Be Catching Up With U.S. Navy,” Forbes, 24 NOV 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2019/11/24/latest-chinese-submarines-catching-up-with-us-navy-/) The Navy should consider a revolution in naval power that involves a centerpiece platform that is less vulnerable, stealthier, and with less assets concentrated in one location. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy’s Distributed Maritime Ops concept which could have been a starting point for this revolution, is more focused on offensive operations such as precision-strike platforms and systems being able to talk to each other.
The Marine Corps Commandant, General David H. Berger, is focusing the Marine Corps in the right direction with his latest “Commandant’s Planning Guidance.” He has directed that the Marine Corps will return to its core mission of working with and supporting the Navy in being “prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces.” (“38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” p. 1, 15 JUL 2019, https://www.marines.mil/News/Publications/MCPEL/Tag/143328/38th-commandants-planning-guidance/) He understands the future fight will be in the global commons waterways and the Marine Corps will need to operate in concert with the Navy.
If the U.S. does not act now, it will be too late once China reaches military parity. It will just take the U.S. backing down once to show that China is the dominant country in the Pacific. With that said, the U.S.’s goal should not just be military dominance. It needs a coherent strategy for engaging with China. Right now it vacillates between challenging China militarily and negotiating a quid pro quo trade agreement. It will take a “whole of society” approach to dealing with China and those efforts need to be synchronized across the government into one coherent message. The new strategy needs to include nuclear arms control as well. The Chinese have doubled and upgraded their nuclear arsenal in the past decade to make it more lethal and less vulnerable according to U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Michael Brooke, director of intelligence at the U.S. Strategic Command. (“China’s nuclear arsenal was strikingly modest, but that is changing,” The Economist, 21 NOV 2019, www.economist.com/china/2019/11/21/chinas-nuclear-arsenal-was-strikingly-modest-but-that-is-changing). The Chinese have taken a whole of society approach to their future, the U.S. needs to do the same.
There is a new kind of multidomain conflict about to take place in the Pacific. It won’t quite be a cold war in the USSR vs. U.S. sense, because our economies are so entangled. China will cherry pick what has worked well for the Russians in Europe and the U.S. such as disinformation, exploiting Western decision-making consensus lag-time, and plausible deniability. It will be an economic war with tariffs and embargos instead of missiles and tanks. It will be special forces conducting training to woo the militaries of potential allies. It will be coast guard ships exchanging gunfire with fishermen guarded by their own coastguardsmen encroaching on their territorial waters. It will be proxy wars fought not over ideology but resources and the levers of power. It will take place in cyber space and with all-seeing satellites. It will show surprising moments of restraint. Countries do not want others to shoot down their satellites or cut their underseas internet cables, because they rely on those same systems for the day-to-day functioning of commerce, governance, and life.
This author thinks that a conflict between China and the U.S. is inevitable, but how far it goes and who loses and who wins will depend upon our long-term strategy now which includes bringing the Chinese into the interlocking system of nation-states and raising the pain threshold for conflict diplomatically, militarily, and economically. It also hinges on the U.S.’s ability to foster partnerships in the region and offer a better alternative to the Belt & Road Initiative.
About the Author:
Spent over 26 years in the Army as both enlisted and as an officer to include 19 years in Special Forces. He continued his service post military working for the government as a civilian and in that capacity served in various hot spots around the world. Some of his deployments include Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, Korea, and Ukraine. He has written extensively on international security matters.
Francis Marion is an SOFX BLACK network member and can be reached for comment at [email protected]
Original opinion and editorial articles are invited from the SOFX Network. We publish these in the Saturday editions of SOFX. We have a bias toward publishing which sometimes means articles may seem peculiar, political, or very controversial. This is a direct reflection of the opinionated spirits that inhabit our very special community. The opinions shared in the OPED editions of SOFX are not a reflection of our corporate position on anything. – Sam Havelock, CEO, Founder, SOFX.