War and Counterwar: The Present Dynamics in the South China Sea

The reality of naval struggle is different now compared to when British and German navies clashed in the Battle of Jutland, one of the largest naval engagements in history involving a static standoff between naval fortresses (battleships) that are reminiscent of 19th century traditional warfare.

To commemorate the Battle of Jutland, we will look into a new strategic chess board, the South China Sea, and by extension, the Pacific region.

 

The Island Chain Strategy began as the Pacific equivalent of containment first applied against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.   It involved a series of alliances across the Pacific to limit and deter Chinese expansion.

The strategy involved three levels or island chains of containment.  The First Island Chain included the Paracels, the Spratlys, and the waters directly bordering Chinese waters.  The Second Island Chain included the Philippines and Taiwan, and the Third Island Chain stretched across the Pacific islands and included Guam where strategic bombers still had considerable reach in the region.

While the Americans maintained bases in the Philippines, which was key to the maintaining of the First Island Chain, the Chinese were deterred from expanding.  But after their historic withdrawal in 1991 the Chinese suddenly had the opportunity to exploit and expand to the South China Sea. This began little by little, while the Philippines tried to compensate the loss of a permanent American presence by justifying a rotating American force through the Visiting Forces Agreement, Balikatan, and recently the EDCA.

 

Fast forward to 2016, and tensions were at their highest.  The Americans were posturing to counter further Chinese aggression, with the Chinese having successfully seized Scarborough a few years back after a series of maneuvers and counter maneuvers.   The Philippines had also won a symbolic victory when the United Nations ruled in their favor on the country’s legitimate rights in the contested waters.

Both sides were preparing for war.  China could, in theory, send an invasion force to occupy Manila and the outlying islands in the Spratlys, but how far could it sustain the ground war?  At the same time, while China can gain substantial ground, can the United States and its allies provide a formidable force to prevent occupation, when Manila is within striking distance from China?  It was a dangeous impasse.

That soon changed when the Philippines elected a pro-China leader, who was vocally against the country’s traditional ally, and who at one point declared his realignment to Chinese interests.  While the institutions of the country, especially the military, remain supportive of American alliance, the leadership was staunchly dependent on Beijing. The Philippines therefore took a pro-China diplomacy but a neutral military alignment.

Now while it would be a bonus for China to have a Philippine ally, it is not significant.  What is significant is that with a neutral center, the Chinese can further extend and project their defensive range across Philippine airspace, provided the Philippine leadership rein in the country’s air force.  A neutral Philippines would also turn a blind eye to Chinese ships maneuvering in Philippine waters, and from there China could strike at various points in the American string of alliances: west to Vietnam, east to cut off US ships from Taiwan and South Korea, and provide a screen to contain the American force south in Indonesia and Malaysia.

 

Against this backdrop, Vietnam is cut off from the rest of the American alliance.   It has had to rely on its traditional alliance with Russia for modern naval equipment, and the reorientation of its strategy towards a closer ally, India.  The new reality on the ground has also reoriented American strategy, changing its Asia Pacific strategy to an Indo Pacific one. With the cushion of the Indian Ocean and the support of Indian ships, Vietnamese forces could be more comfortable in a guerilla form of engagement, hitting at Chinese positions in sporadic bursts then retreating to a solid defensive position.

It is already assumed that China has broken through the First and Second Island Chains, and that the United States and its allies are now forced back on a broken Second Island Chain and the range of the Third Island Chain.   But America is relying on China overextending itself, and while creating a defensive wall south in Indonesia and Australia and east in Japan and South Korea (with a forward outpost in Taiwan), America is hoping to create a negative front to hit at the supply lines of China and provide a different type of deterrence against Chinese expansion.

 

This is a complicated, asymmetrical Chess game of maneuvers and counter manuevers, and the boundaries of both sides remain dynamic and flexible.   There is as yet no definitive line that has been set, so there is still much to change in the Pacific region.