Saving Ourselves from Water Torture in the South China Sea

February 23, 2016

Recent revelations demonstrate that U.S. efforts to prevent “reclamation, construction, and militarization” in the South China Sea have failed. The United States may “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” but doing so will not deter China from altering the status quo. The current administration appears unwilling to accept the degree of risk required to deter Chinese revisionism, so U.S. leaders must now decide whether to acknowledge the new status quo or maintain the increasingly untenable line that returning to the status quo ante is possible.

Beijing’s South China Sea activities continue to make headlines, but the trend of growing Chinese assertiveness in the region is old news to most observers. Although some experts believe that Beijing will shift course and adopt a more cooperative stance in the South China Sea, most think that absent a change in U.S. strategy, China will continue expanding its maritime operations and capabilities. This assumption is the result of China’s methodical creation of layered anti-access and power projection postures moving southward from the Paracel Islands to the Spratly Islands. For example, in just the last few months, imagery has shown surface-to-air missiles in the Paracels and airfield construction in both the Paracels and Spratlys.

Today, CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) is releasing new imagery showing what appears to be an advanced radar system atop reclaimed land on Cuarteron Reef (depicted in the image below). Cuarteron Reef is the southernmost of seven Chinese reclaimed features in the Spratlys, making it an ideal location for long-range sensors capable of monitoring traffic in China’s most distant South China Sea claims. The AMTI images appear to show a high-frequency (possibly over-the-horizon) radar, which, if confirmed, would likely permit China to surveil the southernmost portion of the Nine Dash Line.

Photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe

Placement of advanced radars in the Spratlys is another indication that Beijing intends to announce, and potentially enforce, a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). If this assessment is correct, steps leading to an ADIZ declaration could include placement of surface-to-air and anti-ship missile batteries in the Spratlys, public acknowledgement of military ship and aircraft visits to disputed South China Sea features, and formal demarcation of Beijing’s South China Sea claims through announcement of coastal baselines.

As the drip, drip, drip of Chinese activity continues in the South China Sea, Washington is slowly succumbing to a form of Chinese water torture. U.S. policymakers must come to terms with the reality that U.S. actions to date have not deterred China from changing the status quo. This is true in part because the administration has not fully embraced possible asymmetrical tools, such as legal appeals and financial sanctions. If senior U.S. leaders are unwilling to accept the level of risk (both to U.S. forces and to the U.S.–China relationship) that would be necessary to deter Beijing, then the administration should acknowledge and adapt to changing regional realities.

Credit: CSIS

Holding to the status quo ante highlights U.S. weaknesses and limitations, undermining U.S. efforts to deter China and reassure regional allies and partners. For example, the U.S. insistence that regional states avoid “reclamation, construction, and militarization” rings increasingly hollow. Moreover, although the United States maintains that it will “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” it has not done so within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, which would be the best target for a freedom of navigation operation challenging Chinese land reclamation on disputed South China Sea features.

The administration’s alternative is to acknowledge changes to the status quo and admit that the United States and its allies and partners have suffered a tactical setback. This is not to suggest that Chinese assertiveness will be successful in the long term. In fact, it seems that China’s actions are stimulating balancing behavior on the part of regional states. The United States should continue operations to maintain freedom of navigation and overflight, but admitting reality would shift the focus from U.S. tactical limitations to Chinese strategic shortsightedness.

If the administration acknowledges that the status quo has changed, it could then refocus on preventing the most serious changes to the status quo — those involving the use or threat of force. Chinese expansion and development of features already under their control is deeply troublesome, but largely unavoidable at this point. That ship has sailed. Washington should continue to use Beijing’s faits accompli to drive regional diplomatic efforts and military ties, but these efforts should not distract policymakers from deterring the most serious Chinese activities.

Deterring the use of force against the United States or its allies and partners represents a more realistic objective for the remainder of the Obama administration. If China attempts to push a regional claimant out of disputed territory (like it did at Scarborough Shoal in 2012), this should trigger a forceful U.S. response. For example, Washington should make clear that any Chinese interference with Philippine resupply efforts on Second Thomas Shoal would trigger direct U.S. military assistance. Similarly, confrontation of vessels or aircraft operating in international waters or airspace (such as the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident) must be met head on. For instance, U.S. leaders should communicate that confrontation of aircraft in a future South China Sea ADIZ would trigger a large, public, sustained, and integrated regional military response. Such deterrent actions can be highly effective against these types of activities, in part because Chinese leaders appear hesitant to directly confront the U.S. military.

Concentrating policymakers’ attention on deterring the use of force against the United States or regional allies or partners would allow the administration to focus on achievable objectives. Such a shift would acknowledge that the Obama administration has few tools with which to deter faits accompli on Chinese controlled features particularly if it is unwilling to accept increased tension in Sino-American relations.

It is time for Washington to face up to reality. Chinese water torture in the South China Sea is paralyzing U.S. leaders. Chinese revisionism is self-defeating in many ways, but until U.S. leaders are willing to acknowledge and respond to facts on the ground, they will weaken Washington’s ability to deter the most dangerous (and deterrable) changes to the status quo.


Zack Cooper is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. He previously worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


Cover photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe