By Jacob Shapiro
Every week, it seems, stories appear indicating worsening tensions and new disputes in the South China Sea. The narrative usually goes something like this: China, Asia’s rising hegemon, and its rapidly improving People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are pushing around smaller players like the Philippines and Vietnam, seizing small islands and building artificial ones for various storage depots and landing strips. Of course these smaller players are also squabbling among themselves, and all the while, loyal U.S. allies in Tokyo, Seoul and Canberra watch with concern and prepare themselves for inevitable conflict should the United States prove unwilling to sufficiently protect their interests.
In the last week alone, there have been at least four such developments that seem to confirm this narrative. On Jan. 22, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that his country would step up efforts to combat Chinese assertiveness in the region. On Jan. 26, officials from Japan’s Defense Ministry said that the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force would inaugurate a new air wing in Okinawa on Jan. 31, bringing the number of F-15Js deployed on Okinawa to 40. On Jan. 28, outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou paid a visit to Taiping Island, a small island in the disputed Spratly Island archipelago. Perhaps most notably, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in China on Jan. 27, and in a news conference afterward Kerry pushed China to get tough on North Korea and to stop escalating tensions in the region.
These moves sound impressive on the surface. More military personnel and equipment are being brought into the region from all sides, increasing the risk for, at best, misunderstandings and, at worst, war. Rhetoric from the various claimants of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea is becoming more strident. But these various maneuvers and statements belong more to the realm of gesture than conflict. Aggressive postures make for good news, but posturing is not always a prelude to conflict or war. Sometimes it is just a prelude to more posturing.
However, understanding the underlying strategic interests driving each of these countries is more important than tracking every little incident in the South China Sea. There are a number of parties with conflicting claims in the South China Sea, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and more. But the three major heavyweights in the Asia-Pacific theater are the United States, Japan and China. To separate the significant from the insignificant in these stories, we must remain focused on the major strategic interests motivating each.
The United States is relatively uninterested in who controls a few man-made molehills in the Spratly Islands. However, the U.S. would be vitally concerned should any power attempt to use its position to restrict freedom of navigation either for U.S. naval ships or global trade. About $5 trillion worth of trade flows through these key regional maritime routes in a year. Lacking the raw materials necessary to maintain its industrial output and standard of living, Japan is forced to rely on imports. For Japan, easy and open access to sea lanes is an existential issue. China too has vital maritime interests built around global trade. Though China’s economy is in the midst of transformation, China rose to become the second largest economy in the world through massive quantities of exports. China must also have access to these vital shipping lanes – and it must be prepared for the possibility that the U.S. could choose to block them.
Therefore, for the most part, the strategic interests of these three countries converge. The U.S., China and Japan, all for different reasons, are committed to keeping sea lanes in the Pacific Ocean, and in the key choke points throughout Asian waters, open. The U.S. controls these sea lanes, so China and even Japan must prepare for the possibility of losing access. But overall the goal is the same, and no side is going to jeopardize its access to those trade routes simply to seize an insignificant island in the South China Sea.
This is the realm of strategy. Equally important is a basic understanding of capability, which is a reflection of strategy. There are thousands of pages of open-source and classified information on the relative naval and military capabilities of each of these powers. The United States, both in terms of capability and raw numbers, is the dominant naval power in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy is a well-trained and experienced force, comprising roughly 286 ships and submarines, 3,700 aircraft and 320,000 active duty personnel, according to a report produced by the Carnegie Endowment in 2013. U.S. and Japanese air capabilities also far outpace China’s. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is smaller, with about 107 ships in operation, but its forces are both capable and experienced.
On the surface, China would seem to be a worthy challenger, at least on the seas, since it has over 450 ships listed in active duty. However, none of these ships are nuclear-powered submarines or aircraft carriers, which represent a significant portion of the U.S. Navy. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated in 2010 that only 26 percent of China’s ships – around 120 – were of modern design and capability. The Office of Naval Intelligence projected in 2013 that China would have roughly 80 frigates and destroyers in 2015, and the Department of Defense considered that a little less than half were highly capable. The PLAN is also relatively inexperienced when it comes to naval warfare, and training the admirals capable of managing wars involving aircraft carriers takes time.
China is rapidly modernizing and improving its naval capabilities. But its goal is not to engage the U.S. Navy in battle to win. It does not have the capability to do so, especially if the JMSDF supported the U.S., but it also is not interested in dominating the Pacific. In the words of noted Chinese foreign policy leader Dai Bingguo, the idea that China wants to replace the United States is “a myth.” Rather, China wants to be more influential regionally and to make the U.S. think twice about potentially blocking China’s access should a significant disagreement arise between Beijing and Washington. China is investing in anti-ship missiles and underwater mines to reduce the potential effectiveness of U.S. forces, if not completely deter the U.S. from intervening in conflicts in the South and East China seas. Here China has made significant progress, but still not enough to prevent the U.S. from exerting its will.
The world has finally begun to realize that the Chinese economic miracle is faltering. Our geopolitical model of the world tells us that China is entering a dangerous era, one in which the government in Beijing will struggle to maintain centralized control over the entire country. From 2011 to 2014, China spent more money on internal security than on its military budget, and the only reason we can’t say the same for 2015 is because the Chinese stopped making those figures available. Assuming China continued to grow and modernize at its current pace and the U.S. did nothing in response, perhaps China and the U.S. would be on the path to substantial military conflict. But China’s serious internal issues will limit its interest in challenging the U.S. to become the dominant maritime power in the region. However, appearing to challenge the U.S. can stoke nationalist sentiments, which are useful in maintaining social cohesion.
The point is not to dismiss developments in the South China Sea out of hand, especially in the long term. When the Philippines approved the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allowing the U.S. to use Philippine naval bases again, we noted how important this move was to overall U.S. naval strategy in the region. Furthermore, the western Pacific is an incredibly dynamic economic environment and the potential for conflict certainly exists on a time horizon of 20 to 40 years. However, developments today move so slowly that very few are of real consequence. The center of gravity currently lies not in the western Pacific but rather within China and to a lesser extent Japan. Can the Communist Party maintain control? If it can, will Japan feel sufficiently threatened to develop its own forces in response? If it can’t, will Japan develop its own forces anyway to fill the vacuum?
Naval activities in the Pacific could again become globally significant, as they were before and after World War I and World War II. But it will be many years before that is true. In the interim, a great deal must play out in China first. President Xi Jinping is attempting to bring the military to heel. He is overseeing purges of those in the Communist Party not loyal to him and centralizing control of the economy under his aegis. Meanwhile, according to official data, public security incidents increased every year from 1993 to 2009, and according to the China Labor Bulletin, December 2015 saw more incidents of protests and strikes than any month since it began reporting in 2011. These incidents are the truly significant headlines.