Shifting Tides of Military Power in the South China Sea

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Shifting Tides of Military Power in the South China Sea

Is U.S. naval power in the South China Sea the unstoppable force it once was?

Thirsting for the oil in the waters that break upon China’s shores, Beijing has recently intensified its claim to the entire 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea. Since China’s assertion competes with claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, it has prompted a pledge from the U.S. for increased involvement in the disputes to guarantee free trade and navigation throughout the region. But a Wall Street Journal article about recent military trends in the South Pacific region suggests that Washington’s pledge is insufficiently backed, and more so every month.

In his August 15 article, “Hollow Talk in the South China Sea,” Mark Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, makes the case that defense spending is not the only yardstick by which to measure a nation’s military might in a given conflict. The U.S. military is, by a great stretch, the most powerful in the world, spending more on defense than the next 14 nations combined. But this astronomical defense budget is irrelevant to such factors as the scope of the nation’s commitments, the reliability of its allies, geography and, above all, its will to use its power. Military spending is not the only factor to consider in gauging a country’s true influence.

Helprin brings out an important lesson which flies in the face of the argument that, because of its massive defense budget, the United States does not face legitimate threats from rising powers. While analysts will concede that the balance of power between the U.S. and China is shifting, they repeatedly cite the still-vast discrepancy between U.S. military spending and that of China as proof that America could not be defeated.

A Recent History of the U.S. Military in China’s Backyard

A look at America’s 20th-century military interaction with China reveals a steady restraint in Washington’s dealings with Beijing.

In Korea, more than 50 years ago, China and the Soviet Union fought America to a stalemate.

In the Vietnam War, Washington restrained its force to avoid drawing China into the conflict, even though Beijing’s navy was less than a tenth the size of Washington’s, it had no tactical nuclear weapons, and the Western Pacific was peppered with U.S. military installations.

More recently, during the 1996 Taiwan crisis, then President Bill Clinton gingerly heeded Beijing’s warning, and held all U.S. naval forces east of Taiwan.

Present-Day Shifting Power

In the South China Sea today, the odds are evening. And Washington’s light-footed military dealings with China in the 20th century bode poorly for its approach to Beijing in this age of shifting power balances. As China constructs aircraft carriers, practices cyberattacks, modernizes and multiplies aircraft and submarine fleets, demonstrates the ability to shoot down satellites, and develops new cruise and intermediate-range missiles, the U.S. scales back its defense spending.

Recent decades have seen the U.S. abandon numerous military installations throughout the Pacific, and the Defense Department has recently announced plans to cut $100 billion of its total budget over the next five years. Other U.S. policymakers are pushing for a reduction of $1 trillion in defense spending.

Meanwhile, China’s soft-power diplomacy steadily expands Beijing’s reach. Through investment and diplomacy, China has simultaneously diminished Western influence and boosted its own presence in East Timor, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Stratfor analyst Rodger Baker points out the strategic location of Chinese presence in many of these nations explaining that, by providing China with fuel resupply options for long-distance maritime operations, it could greatly extend Beijing’s naval capabilities. Baker says the real concern for the West will be if the locations become stationary bases for Chinese anti-ship missiles.

The proximity of China’s land-based air and naval power greatly multiplies its strength in the South China Sea. The opposite is true for the U.S., where distance from land-based installations shrinks Washington’s strength. Helprin makes the case that, in the event of a South China Sea conflict between the U.S. and China, the absence of facilities and fully developed expeditionary rights in surrounding nations would mean the U.S. would have to strike ports and airfields in China itself, equating to full-scale war. The other option would be a war of attrition against legions of Chinese submarines and aircraft.

The U.S.’s militarily weak allies in the South Pacific tremble at Beijing’s rising power and may be hesitant to host land-based American aircraft in the event of an altercation. So, a conflict would require Washington to deploy the bulk of its diminishing aircraft carrier fleet in order to mobilize around 350 American attack and fighter planes. But these would be up against the colossal and unsinkable aircraft carrier that is China itself, which would have 1,400 or more aircraft.

U.S. submarines could annihilate China’s fleet, but not necessarily before China sank America’s aircraft carriers.

Helprin emphasizes that, in such a conflict, resupply and distances would be decisive:

The Paracel Islands, a likely flash point, are 14,000 miles from Norfolk, 8,000 from San Diego, 6,000 from Pearl Harbor, and 2,300 from Guam, but only 200 from the Chinese base at Yu-Lin. China’s Guangzhou military region is rich in dispersed bases that if they are vulnerable to attack are no more so than our far fewer and more remote bases in the Western Pacific.

Helprin also points out that if the U.S. began to prevail in a war against China, Beijing could command North Korea to invade the South, forcing Washington to tend to the fate of millions of Koreans and the 27,000 U.S. soldiers stationed there.

China’s formerly primitive nuclear weaponry is also now a sophisticated arsenal. Beijing’s nuclear deterrent now renders nukes irrelevant to such a confrontation.

The relative force is steadily shifting to China’s advantage. And the same shift is mirrored in the two nations’ will to fight, but on a far greater scale. Following President Clinton’s footsteps, President Obama has so far refrained from sending a carrier strike group into the Yellow Sea, despite Washington’s declaration to conduct military drills near the location where recent North Korean provocation occurred.

At present, the U.S. has its workable “Air-Sea Battle” strategy to bring it through a conflict with China, but this plan cannot succeed if the defense reduction continues at its current pace. The U.S. is stripping itself of the means to support its words, and irking China’s growing sensitivity to “paper-tigerism.”

In Helprin’s estimation, the home-court advantage in a conflict between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea would be so significant that China could check America’s mighty power. Gone are the days when an American victory against any foe was a foregone conclusion.

As China’s military rise continues, America’s influence in the South Pacific will wane. But, in the longer term, China’s ascendancy points to the approach of the most hope-filled event in history! Jesus Christ will return to put an end to the conflict between East and West, and between all other peoples on the planet. He will usher in an age of rulership that will bring peace and abundance to all of mankind. Hope placed in the U.S. military will soon be revealed to be grossly misplaced, but that certainly does not mean there is no cause for hope. To understand more about China’s rise and its connection to the only sure hope, read Russia and China in Prophecy.