Commentary

Excerpt from ‘A Red Line in the Sand’ on the challenges posed by China in the South China Sea and elsewhere

Excerpt from “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen,” David A. Andelman’s new book on the challenge of red lines around the world.

For years, the US Navy has been examining potential responses to any such challenges posed by China that reverberate especially around the red lines it has drawn in the South China Sea. At the Office of Net Assessment (the Pentagon’s internal think tank), the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and its China Maritime Studies Institute, the Navy has been examining just how to deal resolutely with these Chinese red lines that are all contrary to established international law. Many of the potential responses take into account new and ever more advanced weaponry, with increasing reliability and lethality, that is being fielded by the Chinese military.

One set of Pentagon answers is included in the classified and unclassified versions of a white paper from the Air-Sea Battle Office called “Air Sea-Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges.” It begins most straightforwardly: “The Department of Defense recognizes the need to explore and develop options that will preserve U.S. ability to project power and maintain freedom of action in the global commons.” Startlingly, the document contains not a single mention of “China,” though it gets quickly to the heart of the matter observing that “anti-access/area denial capabilities . . . challenge and threatened the ability for U.S. and allied forces to both get to the fight and to fight effectively while there.”

In a separate document, Andrew Erickson ties this theme more directly to the Chinese challenge: “The United States has effectively defended its rights as a seafaring state. It has done so by operating wherever international law allows and daring Beijing to stop it.” In short, the United States has refused to accept any of the red lines that China has erected outside the limits allowed under the UNCLOS convention. The question is how long the United States will be in a position to challenge these red lines in the face of an undeniable and explosive Chinese buildup. “U.S. policymakers should consider a more direct role for American sea power by empowering it to use nonlethal methods to defend allies’ rights to use and administer waters that fall unambiguously under their jurisdiction. Doing so would involve greater risk of tension with China, but the risk is manageable and ultimately is a necessary element of any effective response to China’s expansion.” Already, the United States has lost considerable credibility throughout the region for its failure to stand up to China’s bold, successful, and utterly determined efforts to implant itself firm on every likely or unlikely piece of real estate (even a rock, for that matter) in the South China Sea.

The Chinese have shown a most determined effort to enforce their red lines and their declared prerogatives across the region. Moreover, they have hardly been reluctant to employ any number of measures short of outright war in their efforts. China’s activities have been among the most adroit and effective in patrolling red lines and an object lesson of how to carefully straddle the fine divides between war and peace that are inherent in so many red line scenarios. Effectively, Chinese warships and closely linked civilian activity in the South China Sea have marginalized or neutralized virtually every player on the other side of their carefully calibrated red lines, while assuring their domination within the “blue territories” delineated by these often virtual but no less clearly understood barriers.

Thus far, China has not sought to enforce the entire area of the South China Sea as its own national territory, though its more advanced naval and coast guard vessels certainly have the ability to deal with any vessel engaged in any manner of “violations.” China has insisted in some international forums that it does believe in freedom of naval and air navigation across this territory. Blanket hegemony, however, does still hang like a sword of Damocles over the South China Sea, as it has hung inside each of the twelve-mile territorial limit red lines that China has established around each of its claimed islands, reefs, and atolls. In 2015, a Chinese official, speaking anonymously to a Newsweek reporter, singled out 209 land features that were still unoccupied in this region. “We could seize them all,” he pointed out. “And we could build on them in 18 months.”

In this April 21, 2017, file photo, Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef at the Spratlys group of islands are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane off the disputed South China Sea in western Philippines. (Francis Malasig/Pool Photo via AP)
In this April 21, 2017, file photo, Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef at the Spratlys group of islands are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane off the disputed South China Sea in western Philippines. (Francis Malasig/Pool Photo via AP)

The key question that remains is the viability of policing these red lines going forward. Clearly, China is moving rapidly to build a navy that is capable of enforcing its will virtually anywhere it wishes to establish it. In the meantime, the United States is continuing its regular surveillance missions over the entirety of the South China Sea and monitoring Chinese progress there. In May 2015, CNN’s Jim Sciutto went along on an overflight of the three Spratly reefs — Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross — in an advanced P-8A Poseidon electronic surveillance plane. Replete with antennas, cones, and camera wells, and capable of being armed with Harpoon all-weather, over-the-horizon, antiship missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, it was loaded for action. First pass was over Subi Reef, where more than two dozen Chinese dredges blanketed the internal lagoon, lifting huge plumes of sand from the ocean floor to build the artificial island that would hold an air field and a host of military installations. On the approach, a voice came over the radio relay, in Chinese-accented English proclaiming, “This is the Chinese Navy. This is the Chinese Navy. . . . Please leave immediately to avoid misunderstanding.” The American pilot recited from his carefully prepared script that the US plane was traversing international airspace over international waters. The energy of the Chinese voice began to rise, ending in a screeched, “You go!” It was a warning repeated eight times until finally a nearby Delta Airlines pilot on the same frequency broke in to ask what was going on, ratcheting down the tension. Over Fiery Cross and Mischief, the approach was at an even lower altitude, diving to 15,000 feet. At times, the Chinese air force has been known to scramble fighters, even approaching dangerously close to the Poseidons. The only known collision came in 2001, when a Chinese jet collided with a Poseidon precursor, an EP-3E, over Hainan Island, with the American plane barely able to limp to a landing on Chinese territory. In every case, however, China continues to insist “its” islands are sovereign territory, despite the United States maintaining they are international waters and airspace.

Another central question is just how large China will see its global ambitions and how far it is prepared to extend its red line networks. It is increasingly expecting to be regarded as a major power, with all the perquisites accompanying such status — especially the ability to establish any red lines where it sees its interests lying and expecting that these lines will be respected without question, allowing itself a veto over all external activity that threatens any breach of its sovereignty.

As for its reach, there are already a host of Chinese deployments as far as the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, operations in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, and even the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas — a couple of Chinese warships participating in a joint Chinese-Russian exercise in the Baltic Sea in 2017.

Sometimes known as the “string of pearls,” China has invested in multiple efforts to build port and basing facilities along the entire periphery of the Indian Ocean, much as the United States sought to do in and around the Caribbean, effectively since the time of the Monroe Doctrine, its own mare nostrum. Already, China has financed shipping facilities in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and a deep-water port in Gwadar, Pakistan, near the foot of the Persian Gulf. In Hambantota, Sri Lanka had little choice. It had racked up more than $8 billion worth of debts to China that it quickly found itself unable to service. So it signed over to China a 70 percent stake in the port on a ninety-nine year lease. Even more distant, China has established a base in Djibouti — a tiny nation barely the size of Vermont, but which occupies a strategic corner of Africa overlooking the Gulf of Aden, through which some 12.5 percent to 20 percent of global trade passes each year — much of it en route through the South China Sea. The United States military operates Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti with 4,000 personnel stationed in what the Navy describes as “the primary base of operations for US Africa Command in the Horn of Africa.” As it happens, Camp Lemonnier is located not far from a new, massive, billion-dollar Doraleh Container Terminal complex that also includes roads and a hotel, all built by Dubai-based DP World, the mammoth owner and operator of ports and related facilities in nearly fifty countries. In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base next door. Several months later, armed Djibouti troops, without any warning, seized control of the DP World facility and claimed it for Djibouti’s government, which quickly ceded it to Beijing. With 85 percent of its GDP committed to servicing its debt to China, there was little choice. And as soon as China implanted itself, a sharp red line went up around the facility.

Chinese People's Liberation Army personnel attending the opening ceremony of China's new military base in Djibouti on Aug. 1, 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)
Chinese People's Liberation Army personnel attending the opening ceremony of China's new military base in Djibouti on Aug. 1, 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)

China’s activities increasingly far from home are not unlike the behavior of the United States and the United Kingdom in previous decades and in much the same type of locations. The island of Diego Garcia is in the heart of the Indian Ocean, commanding sea lanes where global shipping and aircraft carrier groups can take the shortest route to and from Asia. The largest of sixty islands in the Chagos Archipelago, it was transferred to the British after the Napoleonic Wars — until 1965 when it became the heart of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The population then was barely nine hundred souls, mostly working coconut plantations — until they were summarily uprooted and moved to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

There, on Diego Garcia, Americans built their largest air and naval base east of Africa and west of Asia. In 1977, with a few colleagues, I became one of the few journalists to visit this facility barely a decade after it was opened. When I stepped off a C-135 transport after a ten-hour flight from Singapore, a very British officer with short khakis, a swagger stick, and an inkpad demanded my passport. He opened it, and promptly stamped it with the visa “BIOT — valid for one day.” It was quite a day. The base was preparing to receive an entire aircraft carrier battle group at the single longest docking facility I’d ever seen. The island teemed with antennae, radar domes and other 1970s-vintage equipment that I suspect has been updated today. Beyond the military personnel, the only other living creatures were a herd of Sicilian donkeys, the feral dogs that had roamed the island having been ordered exterminated some years earlier. Diego Garcia was, effectively, a South China Sea island writ large — a template for future efforts by China to protect its own red lines and the territories where they believed the future security of their nation was most in jeopardy. Indeed, in 2010, at the peak of China’s efforts to defend the entire South China Sea as its home waters, Britain established at Chagos a vast 210,000 square mile area, larger than the territory of the Spratlys and twice the size of the UK, enclosed by a red line — a Marine Protected Area (MPA), with Diego Garcia at its epicenter. Britain, on behalf of its American tenant, was asserting its sovereignty. The BBC observed at the time that “the conditions of the MPA are expected to be enforced by the territory’s patrol vessel.” Just like the Philippines, Mauritius took its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which duly ruled against Britain. Unlike the Chinese, Britain said it actually accepted the decision — but rarely respected it. British warships continued to intercept fishing boats that entered the zone. The difference? Neither Britain nor the United States has sought to extend its operations or influence beyond this zone, nor build, new or artificial islands within it.

David A. Andelman, a veteran New York Times and CBS News correspondent, is executive director of The Red Lines Project, and a “Voices” columnist for CNNOpinion. His next book, “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy Strategy, and the History of Wars That Still Could Happen,” will be published in January 2021. Andelman has written for Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Readers Digest, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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