U.S. Partnership Options in the South China Sea

Brett Wessley is an officer in the U.S. Navy, currently assigned to U.S. Pacific Command.  The contents of this paper reflect his own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by U.S. Pacific Command, Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.  Connect with him on Twitter @Brett_Wessley.  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:  Conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  January 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a U.S. Naval Officer serving on staff duty at U.S. Pacific Command.  The article is written from the point of view of U.S. policymakers weighing options in Southeast Asia and the SCS.

Background:  Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to table the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration June 2016 ruling was a strategic setback for the U.S.[1].  While the Hague’s ruling legally invalidated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “Nine Dash Line” under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), Duterte’s increased ties to the PRC and deteriorating relationship with the U.S. have led to a potential “fait accompli” in the SCS.  Instead of pressing their claims through international engagement, the Philippines has decided to engage the PRC solely through bilateral forums, and the status quo of the PRC occupying and building islands in the SCS will continue unopposed by the principal aggrieved party.

Significance:  The SCS represents a strategic point of friction between the PRC and the international community, particularly with the U.S.  While territorial disputes in the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan involve major military powers and treaty alliances with the U.S., the international environment in the SCS is more permissive to incremental PRC actions to acquire territory (aka “salami slicing”)[2].  The Philippines is the only regional treaty ally to the U.S., and Duterte’s sidelining of the Hague’s ruling imperils regional neighbors like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – all of whom have territorial disputes with the PRC’s Nine Dash Line.  The danger for the U.S. is that the PRC may militarize its expansive holdings in the SCS and expand the People’s Liberation Army’s defensive perimeter to the south, thus reinforcing the PRC’s counter-intervention capabilities.

Option #1:  The U.S. repairs relations with Duterte and restore the alliance with the Philippines.

Risk:  Duterte has pushed numerous controversial policies within the Philippines during his short tenure as President, namely the extrajudicial killings of drug-related criminals[3].  Duterte’s rhetoric has been alienating and crude, particularly when involving the U.S. and the previous Obama Administration.  Duterte’s strong feelings about the U.S. are deeply rooted within his personal life and Philippine history, and this bias may be insurmountable through diplomacy.  Furthermore, the PRC has offered Duterte significant economic development and loans, all of which were aimed at dissuading him from aggressively pursuing the Hague’s ruling and improving relations with the U.S.

Even if the U.S. was successful in repairing the relationship with Duterte and the Philippines, doing so may create a perception that the U.S. will accept undermining the rule of law in return for strategic concessions.  This messaging is contrary to the U.S.’ position on the SCS and territorial disputes, in addition to open governance and a rules-based international system.  The greatest risk is that in persuading Duterte to move forward with the Philippine’s legal case against the PRC, the U.S. may be forced to abandon the international principles driving its foreign policy.

Gain:  Improved relations with Duterte and the Philippines would restore the U.S.’ foothold in the SCS for promoting a rules-based international system.  The Philippines is a treaty ally and historical partner of the U.S., and it is unlikely that a closer relationship could be formed with other SCS nations.  Additionally, the Philippines successful legal case against the PRC provides legitimacy to its territorial claims – namely against the illegal PRC seizures of several reefs and fishing grounds in the SCS[4].  Although the weakness of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard has prevented aggressive patrols of its territorial waters, partnership with the U.S. would provide avenues for equipment and training, in addition to opportunities for intelligence sharing and improved maritime domain awareness.

Option #2:  The U.S. pivots diplomatic and military engagement to Vietnam in the SCS.

Risk:  Although the PRC more recently fought Vietnam during the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the bitter history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War will complicate relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.  The nominally communist government of Vietnam, and its rejection of democratic governance in favor of one party rule, will likely be domestically unpopular in the U.S. compared to partnership with the Philippines.  Additionally, Vietnam’s historical partnership with Russia may impede meaningful intelligence sharing with the U.S.

Gain:  When compared to the other SCS claimants competing with the PRC, Vietnam’s investment in maritime defensive capabilities is outstanding.  The legacy of Soviet sea-denial strategies has led to Vietnamese investment in coastal defense cruise missiles, integrated air defense systems, submarines, and patrol craft to defend its SCS territories.  Vietnam has militarized its holdings in the SCS in ways the Philippines and other claimants have been unable or unwilling to do. Vietnam’s geography near the major PRC naval bases on Hainan Island, and its holdings throughout the Spratley Islands, would put PRC military assets at asymmetric risk in any regional conflict [5].

If the U.S. was able to gain basing rights from Vietnam, its ability to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations would be assisted by a Vietnamese Navy and Coast Guard capable of maintaining a presence in contested waters.  As a military partner to the U.S., the deterrent value of Vietnamese military capabilities in the SCS would be a credible improvement over the status quo.  U.S. pursuit of imposing cost on aggressive PRC expansion in the SCS would be uniquely complimented by Vietnamese military capabilities.

Other Comments:  It is important that the U.S. maintains a regional ally in the SCS with territorial holdings.  As an outside power, the U.S.’ goal of maintaining freedom of navigation in international waters can only be supported by partnership with a legitimate claimant.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Ben Blanchard and Reuters, “Duterte says U.S. has lost, aligns Philippines with China,” CNN Philippines, October 21, 2017.  http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/10/20/duterte-cuts-us-ties-aligns-with-china.html

[2]  Robert Haddick, “America Has No Answer to China’s Salami-Slicing,” War on the Rocks, February 06, 2014.  https://warontherocks.com/2014/02/america-has-no-answer-to-chinas-salami-slicing/

[3]  James Hookway, “Rodrigo Duterte Ushers Manila Into a New Era,” The Wallstreet Journal, January 16, 2017.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/outsider-ushers-manila-into-new-era-1484560813

[4]  Jaime Laude, “China takes Philippine atoll,” The Philippine Star, March 02, 2016.  http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2016/03/02/1558682/china-takes-philippine-atoll

[5]  Shang-su Wu, “The Development of Vietnam’s Sea-Denial Strategy,” The Naval War College Review, Winter 2017. https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/8756f6bf-78d0-4955-b1c6-ce8ee678f5c0/The-Development-of-Vietnams-Sea-Denial-Strategy.aspx

Allies & Partners Brett Wessley China (People's Republic of China) Option Papers Philippines South China Sea United States Vietnam

Options for the Philippines in the South China Sea

Joshua Urness is an officer in the United States Army who has served both in combat and strategic studies roles.  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:  Sovereign Rights of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ)[1] in the South China Sea (SCS) and the legitimacy of the international system to enforce them.

Date Originally Written:  January 18, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 23, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an active duty officer in the U.S. Army.  This article is written from the point of view of the U.S. towards the Philippines, with a desire to ensure the legitimacy of the international system.

Background:  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is occupying and developing islands in the SCS based on the historical claim of its nine-dashed line.  These occupations have resulted in the direct challenge of the Philippine EEZ, an internationally recognized right of sovereignty, which fully includes the disputed Spratly Islands (Mischief Reef).  In 2016, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled that the Spratly Islands are technically rocks, and upheld that they are wholly within the Filipino EEZ.  Therefore, the PRC is in a “state of unlawful occupation[2].”  Countries especially impacted by the PRC’s expansion in the SCS, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam, do not currently possess the military or political capability to challenge the PRC’s actions independently.

Significance:  The stability of security and diplomatic relations in the SCS is important because of the economic trade routes which pass through the waterway, and the potential value of natural resources in the region.  The PRC’s willingness to ignore the UNCLOS ruling on the sovereignty of the Filipino EEZ is an affront to the legitimacy and credibility of the international system and the security status quo.  Further unchecked aggression by the PRC could embolden other states, creating further instability in other parts of the world.  The PRC’s disregard for the ruling, along with their military modernization and investment in power projection capabilities, will enable them to continue to challenge the sovereignty of EEZs throughout the first island chain.  Because the international system cannot enforce its decision, and the Philippines cannot enforce its own EEZ, the credibility of both international and state authorities will be questioned.

Option #1:  The U.S. facilitates Filipino acquisition of low-cost defensive capabilities which will enable them to enforce their own EEZ.  Examples of low-cost defensive capabilities include anti-ship missiles such as the RBS-16 which has a 100-200 nm range, coast guard equipment, and sensors.

Risk:  If the U.S. is not directly involved in the continued procurement and operations of the weapons given to the Filipinos, there may be an increased risk of mistakes or miscalculations being made by untrained and inexperienced Filipino weapons operators.  This includes the integration of sensors and shooters into an organized system in which commanders, with the authority to decide whether or not to fire a system, have enough information and time to make a good decision.  Because of the potential presence of Filipino Islamist or communist insurgents in areas likely to be chosen for weapon system employment, the security of the weapon sites must be emphasized.  If weapons are stolen or obtained by such actors with malign interests, this could destabilize the regions crucial shipping lanes and local maritime economies.  Additionally, inability or lack of political will on the part of the Philippines to use the capability to protect its citizens, or enforce EEZ claims, may perpetuate internal destabilization of the state.  Also, given the PRC’s positioning of military forces on these islands, the provision of weapons to the Philippines risks war over sea lanes through which 25% of global trade passes.

Gain:  Enforcement of the EEZ would enhance the legitimacy of the international system, even if the Filipinos themselves enforced it, as opposed to an internationally sanctioned coalition.  Option #1 would change the cost/risk calculation for the burgeoning PRC navy that may result in a deterrent effect.  Such a capability may also enable the Filipino government to protect its fishermen and economic interests in the EEZ from harassment from the PRC’s maritime militia.  This option would allow the Filipinos to demonstrate resolve, garnering regional and internal credibility, if they decisively utilize these capabilities to deter or defend.  Land based anti-ship missiles are easily maneuverable and concealable, therefore adding to the survivability and resilience of a force that could be in place for a long time.

Option #2:  A U.S.-led coalition defense strategy composed of states surrounding the SCS that is supported by U.S. foreign military funding centered on facilitating procurement, training and information sharing.

Risk:  A U.S. led coalition of SCS states could polarize the region and lead to a less effective Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN).  This coalition may also stimulate a regional arms race that would be expensive over time for the U.S., despite the somewhat low-cost of capabilities involved.  The cost of building partner capacity could also be expensive over time where countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, not accustomed to working with the U.S., would require courtship.  Direct U.S. involvement and partnership in mission command and the integration of sensors and shooters into an organized system would require increases in the forward presence of U.S. forces.  This would expose the U.S. to a higher diplomatic commitment than previously held.  This higher level of presence would be necessary to mitigate the risk of mistakes in the use of the capability, as well as the security and posture of the systems.

Gain:  The primary advantages of a U.S.-led coalition are two-fold; it would ensure the credibility of the international system to assist in the enforcement of edicts (though the U.S. is not a signatory of UNCLOS, it does have a vested interest in the stability of the international system), and it would build a broader foundation of deterrence against further PRC expansion in the SCS.  If the U.S. used a strategy similar to the one for which the RAND Corporation advocates, in their report titled Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific[3], coalition states could work towards building the capacity for a “far blockade” of the first island chain.  This would significantly increase the PRC’s naval risk when operating within firing range of any coalition state, challenging the cost imposition and aggression paradigm, while also building capacity and knowledge that may be useful in future conflict.  Similarly, the U.S. could use such partnerships to develop its own capacity and institutional knowledge in land-based maritime denial systems.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:  

[1]  China and the Philippines have both signed and ratified the UNCLOS. Part five of the convention, article 55 through 75, cover economic exclusion zones. UNCLOS Part V, Article 56, which can be found at http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf, states that; ” In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds;

(b) Jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) The establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures;

(ii) Marine scientific research;

(iii) The protection and preservation of the marine environment;

[2]  Graham, E. (2016, August 18). The Hague Tribunal’s South China Sea Ruling: Empty Provocation or Slow-Burning Influence? Retrieved January 07, 2017, from http://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global_memos/p38227

[3]  Kelly, T., Atler, A., Nichols, T., & Thrall, L. (2013). Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific. Retrieved January 07, 2017, from http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR1321.html

Allies & Partners China (People's Republic of China) Joshua Urness Maritime Option Papers Philippines South China Sea