Ryan Kort is a Strategic Plans and Policy Officer (Functional Area 59) in the U.S. Army.  He currently serves as the Chief of the Strategy Branch at U.S. Army Africa / Southern European Task Force in Vicenza Italy.  He is on Twitter @kort_ryan36.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) creation of islands and militarization of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  February 9, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 9, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:   This article, written from the point of view of a U.S. national security staffer, aims to provide both a collective security and an Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) deterrent option to the U.S. National Security Advisor.

Background:   The PRC adopted a policy of island building over shallow shoals in the SCS.  The PRC forcibly evicted and continues to harass commercial and naval vessels from other SCS claimants such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia through use of fisherman ‘militias’ as naval proxies and other means of gray-zone or ‘hybrid’ warfare[1].  The PRC continues the rapid transformation of many of these semi-submerged reefs into islands replete with hard surface runways for strike aircraft and long-range air defense and fires (both tube and missile) capabilities, which pose an A2/AD threat to any actors the PRC may seek to keep out of its claimed ‘9 dash line’ area[2].  

Significance:  Other nations that border the SCS view the PRC’s actions as destabilizing, illegitimate, and threatening to their important national security and economic interests.  Several reclaimed islands are within the Exclusive Economic Zones recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas[3].  The SCS is a critical economic transit route, which approximately 30 percent of all annual maritime trade passes through, including $1.2 Trillion worth of goods destined for U.S. markets[4].  In times of crisis, the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Airforce could disrupt the free movement of commerce through the area and coerce other nations in the region to recognize PRC dominion over the SCS.

Option #1:  Utilize diplomatic efforts to contain the PRC through the creation of a collective security organization, similar to the now defunct Southeast Asian Treaty Organization also known as SEATO.  This treaty organization would provide a deterrent option aimed at containing PRC adventurism and change PRC strategic calculation on future island building.  

Risk:  The PRC will view this diplomatic effort to isolate their nation as overt containment and respond in a variety of ways with multiple means[5].  At the greatest risk will be those nations the PRC deems vulnerable to coercion that it could peel away from the organization and undermine U.S. legitimacy.  Additionally, this option risks immediate failure if those partners critical to the success of the collective security organization do not join- specifically Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia.  This option also may become obsolete if the PRC completes the construction and garrisoning of the islands it needs to assert complete dominance over the SCS before an alliance to balance against it is in place[6].  

Gain:  The U.S. checks the rise of a regional and potential global peer competitor.  The U.S. stands to gain increased security cooperation and economic ties with the nations in the collective security organization.   

Option #2:  Utilizing a multi-domain concept, the U.S. and select allies create an A2AD challenge for the PRC along both the ‘first’ and ‘second’ island chains in order to negate some of the operational and tactical advantages of PRC bases in the region.  The entire coastline of the PRC is vulnerable to area denial.  A strong foundation of U.S. Army maneuver, fires, and sustainment capabilities would enable the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force to operate more effectively within the region, while presenting the additional dilemma of embarked U.S. Marine Expeditionary Forces capable of striking critical facilities.  An archipelagic defense through deterrence by denial would need expanded access to existing bases in Japan, with new footprints in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia[7].  The U.S. could employ a mixture of permanent or rotational forces in the region to demonstrate U.S. capability and resolve.  Additionally, the U.S. must have sufficient forces in the region capable of blockading PRC transit through the Strait of Malacca if required.

Risk:  The key risk associated with this option is vertical and horizontal escalation.  A minor incident could intensify quickly and impact other theaters in the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility, such as Korea.  Another risk is loss of or initial refusal to allow access to bases in the nations mentioned earlier, which would unhinge this option.  Additionally, resourcing this A2/AD effort with sufficient forces would commit limited U.S. resources, such as air defense and long-range joint fires, to this single problem set.

Gain:  The U.S. deters conflict through placing PRC assets at risk in both the SCS and across the majority of the Chinese seaboard.  Additionally, this option presents the PRC with a dilemma if it should attempt to utilize hybrid or militia forces due to the increased presence of U.S. and allied forces capable of deterring such ‘hybrid’ aggression at the tactical and operational level.     

Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.  


[1]  De Luce, Dan and McLeary, Paul, In South China Sea, a Tougher U.S. Stance, Foreign Policy, 02 October, 2015, accessed 09 February, 2017  http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/02/in-south-china-sea-a-tougher-u-s-stance/

[2]   Kennedy, Connor and Erickson, Andrew, (21 April 2016). Model Maritime Militia- Tanmen’s leading role in the Scarborough Shoal Incident,  Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), accessed 06 January, 2017, http://www.andrewerickson.com/2016/04/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-in-the-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/

[3]  Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2016;  page 7

[4]  Corr, Anders, How the US can help the Philippines Counter China’s occupation of Mischief Reef, Forbes Magazine Online, 28 January 2017, accessed 09 February 2017. http://www.forbes.com/sites/anderscorr/2017/01/28/is-war-against-china-justified/#5066ccc774fb

[5]  Lieberthal, Kenneth and Jisi, Wang, Addressing U.S- China Strategic Distrust, March 2012, Brookings Institute.  Washington’s security ties with other nations in the region and other actions viewed by China as efforts to constrain China.

[6]  Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2016;  Page i

[7]  Krepinevich, Andrew, Foreign Affairs, Volume 94, Number 2,  How to Deter China- The Case for Archipelagic Defense, pp 78-86, March/April 2015