In his book On China, Henry Kissinger mentioned something very revealing. According to him, the usual translation of China as the “Middle Kingdom” misses out on an importance nuance; so he suggests a more accurate rendering is “Central Kingdom,” as it reveals the Chinese conception of their nation’s place in the world —as its hub. The ambitions, then, of Xi Jinping, of China’s Rejuvenation, go far beyond the ASEAN region or even East Asia, but spans the globe, to return the nation to where it was, (historically, the planet’s largest economy before its decline in the 18th Century). In Rewiring the global order, Daniel Tobin argues,
In the next three decades, Beijing aims to rewire the global order into one where its socialist dictatorship occupies “the centre of the world stage”, not only in terms of the institutions and standards underpinning globalisation, but also in terms of values and moral authority. A twofold logic drives these ambitions, and it is not unique to Chinese president Xi Jinping, nor would it vanish should he depart the scene.
Back in 2016 my team put together an Inquirer Briefing on China’s 21st Century Dream, which included this map:
It contains two things (our definitions are in the infographic; the links that follow are additional readings): the “New Silk Road,” and the “String of Pearls.” Anyone who has even a merely nodding acquaintance with Philippine history will find an echo of these concepts in the wartime Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere of Japan (see Historian Jeremy Yellen on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere for an interesting look-see).
The illustration above, on the other hand, shows the architecture of American security in the region, based on treaties and alliances.
The Philippine Interest
With Americans and the Chinese apparently embarked on a collision course, the question that inevitably comes up is whether the Philippines ought to choose sides. We often look at our past history as a cautionary tale: of the Philippines being caught between the United States and Japan during World War II. This was certainly a strong sentiment among Filipino leaders of that generation. If only the Philippines had been independent, the argument goes, it might have had an opportunity not to get dragged into the war.
Overlooked is the case of Thailand, the only country in our region that wasn’t a colony. This is as good a summary as any of the absence of choice for Thailand:
Japan coordinated its invasion of Thailand to coincide with the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour. Small and with little choice, Thailand quickly joined the Axis. Despite this capitulation, Japanese occupation brought substantial economic loss and widespread social disruption. GDP contracted by a fifth. Japanese finance required that Thailand pay the costs of occupation and ship goods, mostly rice, to Japan while receiving little in return. Resulting shortages of consumer goods, swift money supply expansion and high inflation cut living standards, necessitated rationing and led to social unrest. One main aim of my dissertation is to analyse the costs to Thailand of Japanese occupation. The dissertation’s other main objective is to examine the longer-term impact of occupation. Alone in Southeast Asia, post-World War II Thailand avoided revolution or civil war. The advantages of administrative continuity through occupation, buoyant rice exports and a non-strategic geographical location largely explain post-war stability. Furthermore, the wartime alliance with Japan avoided Thailand’s population being taken as comfort women or as forced labour on the Thailand-Burma railway. Wartime macro-economic shocks helped to shape Thailand’s post-1945 economic development. Efforts towards industrialisation and import substitution were a response to wartime setbacks: the government directed resources towards producing goods which were scarce during the occupation. In reaction to wartime fiscal dislocation, the state strengthened its control of financial institutions, budgets, and currency.
Because there was a faction that sided with the Allies, the story concluded less traumatically for the Thais:
Unlike its neighbours in Southeast Asia, Thailand emerged from theravages of World War II relatively unscathed. Although the government ofthen-Prime Minister P. Phibunsongkram (henceforth Phibun) officiallysided with Japan and exploited irredentist claims of territories in Malaya,Laos and Cambodia from Great Britain and France, Thailand was forcedto pay only minimal war indemnities. Owing to an influential anti-Japanese Seri Thai [Free Thai] underground movement, led by PridiBhanomyong, Thai leaders at war’s end were able to secure Americansupport in the face of British reparatory, punitive demands for Thailand’swartime efforts against the Allies. Spectacularly victorious after the war,the United States government persuaded its British counterpart to softenits stand on Thailand. The leaders of Seri Thai were also able to negotiatethe release of financial assets in Japan and the United Kingdom fordomestic economic recovery and revitalization. Notwithstanding therelatively favourable post-war settlement, the domestic political scene inthe wake of the war was tumultuous, fragmented and fractious…
After the War, the clear Allied victory led to a resumption of the Philippine consensus before and since: that Philippine interests were best served by being under the American security umbrella. Not least because the eventual rise of China to dominance in the region was clearly forseeen even in the midst of World War 2.
To be sure there were contrary voices, whether in the establishment (particularly from embittered veterans of the Japanese Occupation government who had to suffer the indignity of being accused of collaboration after the War) or radicals. They pointed, at the time, to the Nonaligned Movement as an alternative to alignment with the United States.
While the Nonaligned Movement of the 1950s and 1960s which aimed to chart a path not exclusively aligned with either Moscow or Washington still exists, it is difficult to see how countries can realistically aspire to be independent of either the West or the challenge to led by China and Russia. Even the fate of the Nonaligned Movement provides a cautionary tale as this 2021 article observed:
The actual relevance of NAM continues to be heavily debated. NAM is probably the largest non-Western institution, with 120 members and an increasing number of observer countries and other delegations. Serbia’s foreign minister’s description of NAM as “fresher and younger than before” is likely an exaggeration, yet it is increasingly attracting interest of many non-Western countries – especially from Central Asia – as a platform for discussing economic and other types of cooperation, but one that excludes the West.
Russia’s formal acceptance into NAM as an observer state in July 2021 invited questions as to where the organisation is headed. For Russia, NAM represents an opportunity for enhanced bilateralism in a multilateral forum setting, especially since Russia is no longer invited to many international meetings including G7 (formerly G8). Russian vaccines were also a topic of discussion at the Belgrade summit, with Serbia already producing several components for Sputnik V. Russian diplomats made a point to blast EU energy policy, “Western vaccine nationalism”, and promote Russian coal ahead of the upcoming Glasgow climate talks.
The Philippine Consensus
Then it seemed the Philippines was poised to make a radical shift away from the West.
For the duration of the Duterte administration, the Philippines’ firm location in the American camp became much less so —at least for a time. Then it became clear that the defense and diplomatic establishments were capable of a surprising resilience and in a sense, forced even Dutere to “snap to grid.”
There was an initial assumption in some quarters that Marcos Jr. would toe the Duterte line, but instead, what has been taking place isn’t even a rebalancing but an actual pivot back to the West: with additional emphasis on other partners such as Australia and Japan.
My personal belief is that a confluence of factors resulted in this pivot. The first is, as I pointed out, the resilience of our military and diplomatic establishments. The second is what I suspect to be the conservatism of President Marcos Jr.: he is a product of the Cold War (some might go further and say, the fate of his family has underscored, in his mind, the importance of seeking, and maintaining, American support in the Philippines) and of the milieu in which he was raised, which to me suggests he is appreciative of signs of being accorded status and importance (hence the relatively-high-ranking American, Australian, and Japanese delegations to his inaugural, which crowded out the Chinese representative).
A fifth factor is China’s behavior itself, as undiplomatically (and unwittingly) exposed by the Senate President and which one might infer might have antagonized the President, too; for the regional impact of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” see China’s Indo-Pacific Folly: Beijing’s Belligerence Is Revitalizing U.S. Alliances:
Nowhere has China’s pursuit of territorial advantage more clearly undermined its efforts to weaken U.S. alliances than in the South China Sea. In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte’s election as president of the Philippines gave Beijing a prime opportunity to pick off a long-standing U.S. ally. After months of expressing hostility toward the United States and admiration for China, Duterte declared a “separation” from Washington and an intention to “realign” the country. China moved to capitalize, reducing trade barriers with the Philippines and pledging large amounts of investment in the country. Beijing also initially sought to reduce friction over disputed territories in the South China Sea, the most combustible issue in its relationship with the Philippines. And in early 2020, China seemed on the verge of a major diplomatic win when Duterte announced his intention to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which facilitates the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines.
But in the lead-up to the agreement’s official termination, China proved unwilling to restrain itself in the South China Sea. Among other provocations, Beijing publicly reasserted its authority to administer the contested areas, and one of its naval vessels threatened a Philippine ship. Such conduct irked Duterte and generated discord at precisely the moment that China should have sought to smooth over these disputes. And Beijing paid a price for its actions. In June 2020, Manila initiated the first of three suspensions of the process for terminating the U.S. agreement, and the following year, Duterte fully restored it. Beijing gained nothing of significance in the South China Sea through its provocations, but it squandered a golden opportunity to dismantle a central element of the U.S.-Philippine alliance….
There was a sixth factor hardly anyone has factored in: POGOs. All politics being local, last October I summed up the futility of Beijing’s hopes (if they’d survived this long): What can Manila really offer Beijing?
Back to the immediate past, and present, administrations, China, and America: in November, this is how I laid it out in my column:
For all his cunning, former president Rodrigo Duterte found himself hemmed in, and eventually relatively tamed, by what are perhaps the two most institutionally oriented portions of the government: the military and our diplomatic service. For all his zigging and zagging, by the end of his term, Duterte had reinstated the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Americans and left the VFA with the Australians untouched. Under Mr. Marcos, the defense establishment has come out in favor of a third VFA, with Japan, while fences with Washington were rapidly mended: it helped that both Canberra and Washington were attuned to the Marcoses hankering for signs of being accorded the status they believe is theirs (and the nation’s) due; Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo all took pains to send ranking representatives, which in a sense crowded out the equally high-ranking Chinese representative to the inaugural.
For its part, Beijing has achieved the status of being the first major global capital to welcome Mr. Marcos for a state visit. To be sure, Washington is reportedly actively exploring one, too: but Beijing will retain bragging rights, so to speak, ahead of Washington, or Canberra, or Tokyo. By the time Mr. Marcos does go to Beijing, however, his signal—working trip to New York earlier this year, and the US vice president’s recent visit to Manila and Palawan will—in some ways, have already circumscribed whatever it is the People’s Republic of China will want. As will recent statements by the President, which directly contradict the Chinese preference for matters to be sorted out country-to-country and not by Asean working together as a bloc.
Mr. Marcos has repeatedly restated a preference for collective bargaining—and expanding the collective fold. As he put it, “It is us in Asean, it is us in Asia who should decide. [Including] Australia because they really consider themselves part of Asia.” Elsewhere, he’s suggested he views the world in the same manner politicians consider domestic politics: as a relationship between blocs: “Remember that our foreign policy is an extension of our domestic policy. And I think this cooperation that we’re having right now with China, and not only with China but even with the US, with Asean, with Apec and other regional blocs in the world.”
The President, in fact, has provided an opening for eventually merging, whether informally or formally, Asean and Oceania (where China has been rather successful building up bilateral ties with the various island federations there). Consider China’s recent agreement with the Solomon Islands, which signed a security agreement with China authorizing it to stockpile logistics, make ship visits, and, if necessary, send troops to protect Chinese nationals. A total of eight countries in the South Pacific have been declared comprehensive strategic partners of China, the highest category of diplomatic partnership. China’s interests during peacetime are said to be focused on the region’s importance for its Air Silk Road, a component of its broader Belt and Road Initiative. The Air Silk Road is the romantic name for China’s logistical connection with Central and South America, where it, too, is actively pursuing expanding its ties and influence on a part of the world exclusively reserved for the US’ dominance since the Monroe Doctrine was enunciated in 1823.
Here, the President wasn’t being disingenuous when he tried to reassure Chinese President Xi Jinping that the Philippines had no intention of being drawn into a Cold War revival. He can point to the opening of diplomatic ties with China under his father; but the unwillingness of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to undercut the gains (under international law) from its successful arbitration, is suggested by the revival of terminology from the second Aquino administration. Responding to the Xi-Marcos meet and greet, the DFA blandly stated the West Philippine Sea issue “[does] not define the totality of Philippines-China relations.” This may explain the rather frosty official Chinese statement, reiterating that the Philippines “must stick to friendly consultation and handle differences and disputes properly.”
Back in the day when policymakers and academics, stunned by the brutality and unabashed uncouthness of Duterte, fell over themselves to try to not only justify it but give it a kind of magnified coherence, every demonstration of the national ID (and not just ego) was met with suggestions it was all part of some cunning plan, some new, fresh strategy. The manner in which it was tamed, and the manner in which it reveals its limits (warming to Beijing proved temporary when international relations were trumped by the extortionist pleasures of Pogo-centric domestic interests) proved it was no more than the local out of its depths in the national.
The endurance then of a Philippine consensus points to that rare thing —precisely, a point of agreement among responsible institutions. A return to the traditional consensus should also be taken in the context of the region.
Just this weekend came an interesting article in The Guardian: The tiny Philippine island on the frontline of the US-China battle for supremacy.
[H]owever, things are changing on Fuga Island. These days a detachment of marines watches its coastline closely. The coast guard also regularly patrols the area, and might soon build a station there. They could soon be joined by US troops, too.
To understand why requires only a brief look at the map. Fuga lies less than 400km (250 miles) from Taiwan and is situated in waters connecting the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean, an area that is critical to the defence of the Philippines itself.
As tensions rise in the region, its location means Fuga Island is in demand. The land mass is part of Cagayan, one of the provinces identified as a potential site to host the US military under a deal called the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows joint training, construction of temporary facilities, and storage of equipment and supplies…
While the likelihood of China’s military invading Taiwan remains a point of debate, the fear that Chinese forces would one day occupy Fuga is very real to its residents. “We are part of the Philippines. Where do we run? We will die if we are going to fight them ourselves,” says Marlon Erice, 46, a resident. “We will be safe here [with the security forces].”
China wanted Fuga first
It was Beijing, not Washington, that first saw Fuga’s potential. In 2019, Chinese company Fong Zhi Enterprise Corporation entered into an agreement with the private company that holds the title to the island, Fuga Island Holdings Inc, to build a “smart city” there as part of a $2bn project.
However, the plan caused uproar in the Philippines security establishment, which was concerned about giving the Chinese an observation post within the country’s borders. The military quickly reached an agreement with regional leaders to establish a navy base on Fuga.
The smart city project did not materialise, but several other China-funded projects were planned for the province, including manufacturing facilities, a high-tech industrial park, and an airport expansion, among others.
Four years later, it may be the US’s turn to have a presence on the island. Fuga Island has undoubted strategic value to either superpower, as well as the Philippines. It is adjacent to two key passages – the Luzon Strait and the Bashi Channel – which provide access to the South China Sea and the Pacific…
Alex Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, says a location in the northern Phillipines would give the US access to Taiwan and the South China Sea, “two major places on the lifeline of Asia and the frontier of the great power competition of our time”.
The article has two interesting maps. The first illustrates the topic of the article —Fuga Island— and its location relarive to the area’s hot spots.
The second is labeled “The five Philippines air bases the US military can access.”
Let me dispense with, in Part II, the Bashi Channel as the first map reminded me of something I mentioned in my old show.
Then, the air bases, why they’re of interest to America, is covered in parts II, III, and IV.
I. A Bashi Note
Some years back, in 2008, I did an episode of The Explainer in which I mentioned a lingering problem with Taiwan:
Going back to the Treaty of Paris, the territory ceded by Spain became the working definition for our country, as it prepared for the restoration of independence by 1946. However, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that drafted our 1935 Constitution noticed some problems.
This slim volume, part of the Constitutional Convention’s published records, includes a report signed by Nicolas Buendia, former Senator (and yes, of Buendia Avenue fame), who was Chairman of the Committee on Territorial Delimitation. He said that if you look at the Batanes Islands, the limit of our territory in that area should be the Bashi Channel.
But the Treaty of Paris, according to Buendia’s committee report, was based on erroneous Spanish maps used in an 1895 agreement between Spain and Japan, which then owned Tiawan, and so the quoted lines of latitude and longitude in Spain’s agreement with the USA placed the border at the Balintang Channel.
Here’s a nifty old map from Wikepedia, to show you what Buendia meant:
Buendia recommended that the Philippines, in its new Constitution, fix the error so as to remove all room for doubt.
But it seems the report wasn’t adopted in full, because instead of adopting the technically-complete list of revised latitudes and longitudes, the 1935 Constitution was quite brief:
The National Territory
Section 1. The Philippines comprises all the territory ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris concluded between the United States and Spain on the tenth day of December, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, the limits which are set forth in Article III of said treaty, together with all the islands embraced in the treaty concluded at Washington between the United States and Spain on the seventh day of November, nineteen hundred, and the treaty concluded between the United States and Great Britain on the second day of January, nineteen hundred and thirty, and all territory over which the present Government of the Philippine Islands exercises jurisdiction.
The result is that, to this day, Taiwan questions our border with it in the Bashi Channel, as this article from the Taipei Times in 2004 shows.
However, to their credit, what the Taiwanese want is an international agreement to settle the border question.
At least the question of the Turtle Islands was explicitly referred to in the 1935 Charter.
This serves as a reminder that the present tensions are the latest in a messy situation dating back to the colonial era. The infamous nine-dash line was a product of the Chiang Kai Shek Nationalist regime and inherited by the People’s Republic of China.
II. The “Yellow Peril” and the “American Noose”: Delving into Doctrine
This World War II map richly illustrates, to my mind, both the current American and Chinese attitudes to each other. One of the first columns I ever wrote delved into the “The Yellow Peril,” a term made notorious by Wilhelm II of Germany.
A. China’s “Defensive Layers”
The STRATFOR illustration above from last year clearly shows how China could be contained by American security arrangements. It suggests that the number of American partners has a strong potential to grow.
But what about China’s response to this? Unconstrained by policy shifts due to democratic elections, China’s leaders are credited with being able to maintain long-term consistency in thinking. Even if things have ramped up in this current era of Rejuvenation, it has its origins in events from two decades ago.
The seminal event, as I mentioned in my article WW III in the West Philippine Sea, was this:
In the 1990s, tensions arose in the Taiwan Strait as Beijing angrily reacted to a visit to the U.S.A. by the President of Taiwan. From August 1995 to March 1996, China conducted live-fire exercises, ballistic missile tests, and war games. In response, America dispatched an aircraft carrier group and China found itself impotent in the face of the American fleet. So Beijing vowed it would never face such a humiliation again. The result of this “Third Taiwan Straits Crisis” was a crash course, with unlimited funding, to build up China’s missile, submarine, and aircraft capabilities, followed by a crash course involving buying a mothballed Russian aircraft carrier to study it and duplicate, then surpass it.
The idea being that any American technological superiority could be swarmed to death with a barrage of land, sea, and air-launched missiles, and eventually with a carrier battlegroup (or two, or three) of its own by Beijing. In the two decades since, we’ve seen this come to pass, including Chinese construction on sandbars and atolls to create the Chinese version of what the Americans once did in Manila Bay: turning islands into, essentially, concrete battleships—or today, concrete aircraft carriers or missile launcher bases—in the South China Sea to swarm any hostile American fleet.
In the same article, a paragraph that takes us to our next topic:
In 2017 Hugh White came out with an essay any Filipino, and not just Australian or American, interested in the South China sea and our future, should read. Its provocative title was “Without America.” He’d previously argued that America needed to share power with China in the Pacific. America, he argued, could no longer insist on being the supreme power in the region, a fact of life which had enabled the countries in Southeast Asia to focus on their own economic development since security was guaranteed by the American security umbrella from the end of World War II until the turn of the 21st Century. Instead, White argued in his 2017 paper, seeing how things had turned out, he now believed “America will lose, and China will win.” It is an intricate, utterly interesting exercise but for our purposes, what’s relevant here is something White describes: the result of not just one, but many, wargames conducted by the Americans, on a potential conflict in the South China Sea.
In another article whose title says it all (“Let’s be clear: China would call America’s bluff in the South China Sea”) White boiled down the situation in our part of the world to the following: “This brings us to the heart of America’s policy problem in the SCS. To understand that problem we have to be clear about nature of the contest there. Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia. It hopes to use the SCS dispute to do that by demonstrating there that America is no longer willing to risk a military confrontation with China to sustain its own leading position in the Asian strategic order, and thereby concede that leadership to China.”
White pointed out that “It [China] has done that with a series of overt military moves which directly challenge the interests of U.S. friends and allies, to which Washington has made no effective response. So far that has worked very well for Beijing, and that has reinforced their confidence in America’s loss of resolve.” For Filipinos, this might ring a bell: in recent weeks there’s been a debate about the standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships under the previous administration, in which Washington brokered an agreement for both sides to withdraw; the Filipinos did, the Chinese didn’t; the finger-pointing among Filipinos continues, with some Filipinos having no faith in America as a result.
This 2012 article (Building an Active, Layered Defense: Chinese Naval and Air Force Advancement) explains the map that follows. It’s an interview of Andrew Erickson:
Today, China’s naval and air forces are finally on the verge of giving the country’s leaders reliable instruments of national power. This includes army aviation, which is now a solid piece of the ground force’s foundation. Though aviation in particular has long been a tool of national consolidation and development, the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) started from virtually nothing, and they have played minimal to nonexistent roles in most of China’s twentieth-century military campaigns. That may now be changing as investments, access to foreign technology, and development of the domestic defense industry—all of which have grown markedly since the 1990s—yield increasingly modern forces.
Like many nations, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long sought to maintain domestic order and defend itself against external threats. More exceptionally, it seeks to regain its historical status as a preeminent great power, as well as territories that it lost during an aberrant period of weakness. The end of the Cold War and China’s rapid economic growth enabled the PRC to move from focusing almost exclusively on homeland defense to developing a second layer of advanced capabilities for the “near seas” or “three seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China seas). Demarcated by the first island chain, the near seas are home to all of China’s unresolved territorial and maritime claims—save for disputes over remote areas with India and a limited dispute with Bhutan. By far the most important of Beijing’s outstanding political and geostrategic disputes is the status of Taiwan. The island has long been the impetus behind PLA development and planning—particularly in the maritime and aerospace dimensions.
Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, a nascent third layer of out-of-area nontraditional security operations has been added to China’s naval and air force development as part of a set of “new historic missions.”
Here is a map, and what follows takes us from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. It’s from Potential Chinese Anti-Ship Capabilities Between the First and Second Island Chains by Jon Solomon (in 2016)
CIMSEC in 2016 described this map as follows:
Note that the range lines reflect where PLA aircraft and submarines might be expected to operate in wartime based on evidence to date. While PLA aircraft would be unlikely to fly further east from the second layer’s line if U.S. and allied air coverage from bases along the Second Island Chain was strong, the same might not be true for PLAN SSNs. Also note that the maritime approaches to Luzon and the northern/central Ryukyus fall within the PLA’s middle layer, and Taiwan and the southern Ryukyus within the inner layer.
To understand this map further, see James Holmes’s 2018 article, Visualize Chinese Sea Power, in which he writes,
The PLA has devised a Maoist “active defense” strategy—rebranded “offshore waters defense” in recent years—that alloys these sea- and land-based elements of sea power into a single sharp weapon to defend Fortress China and offshore waters against the United States and its allies. How will they unlimber that weapon? East Asia and the western Pacific come first for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. Strategy is the art of setting priorities while marshalling the gumption to enforce them. It would make little sense to place the primary theater—the homeland and adjoining waters—in jeopardy for the sake of secondary enterprises in faraway seas. Access starts at home for China.
But if PLA commanders could defend the homeland and China’s Pacific interests with ground-based weaponry, diesel submarines, and fast-attack craft, the CCP leadership could spare a sizable fraction of the PLA Navy surface fleet for ventures beyond China’s geographic environs. Over time it could evolve into an expeditionary fleet, the bearer of Beijing’s foreign policy in far-flung seas. As political leaders gain confidence in offshore-waters defense, they increasingly will turn their attention and energies to expeditionary pursuits. They can detach naval forces for “open-seas protection” and kindred missions without running undue risk at home.
And indeed, China’s leaders are laying both the intellectual and material groundwork for out-of-area ventures. This is noteworthy. After all, open-seas protection and other expeditionary ventures are missions navies undertake once they command the waters strategists and their political masters care most about. That Beijing feels comfortable inaugurating a turn to the Indian Ocean and other seaways thus speaks volumes about the leadership’s confidence in the capacity of joint naval, air, and missile forces to execute an active defense close to home.
Let’s return to 2012, in the China Sign Post: Near Seas “Anti-Navy” Capabilities, not Nascent Blue Water Fleet, Constitute China’s Core Challenge to U.S. and Regional Militaries
It contains this interesting illustration:
The illustration is explained as follows, which is a crash course in understanding the reason for tensions in the South China Sea (including the West Philippine Sea):
For all their potential progress elsewhere, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. and China are unlikely to reach a mutually acceptable understanding over the status of, and norms within, the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China seas). This maritime area contains the vast majority of China’s outstanding territorial claims, as well as all its disputed maritime claims. The Sinocentric concept of Near Seas (??)—like Middle (??) and Far Seas (??), as depicted in the map above—was defined by Admiral Liu Huaqing, who modernized China’s Navy as its Commander from 1982-88.[i]
Contested islands claimed by China include Taiwan (first and foremost), the Senkakus/Diaoyus in the East China Sea, and the Spratlys and Paracels and other islands and reefs in the South China Sea. China cites the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and typically claims a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around these islands. UNCLOS has been ratified by 161 states and the European Union but not by the U.S., which is only a signatory—greatly limiting its ability to lead and influence in the critical international maritime law arena.
China’s claims are often contested or overlap with those of its neighbors, and it promotes revisionist and inconsistent interpretations of what activities are legally permissible in the EEZ. For instance, China leads a 23 state group of the 192 UN member states who seek a minority interpretation of UNCLOS that would restrict foreign military access within China’s claimed EEZ and the airspace above it.[ii] If this approach were adopted, China could prohibit foreign military operations in major swaths of South China Sea, thereby threatening freedom of navigation in some of the world’s most important shipping and energy lanes. Accepting the minority view on EEZ access would also set a precedent for the 38% of the world’s ocean area potentially claimed as EEZ to be similarly restricted—even by states such as Somalia that utterly lacks the capacity to maintain order in the face of sub-state threats.
Beijing opposes foreign military involvement in the Near Seas, fearing that it could affect the disposition of Chinese maritime claims, and limit China’s growing influence as a regional power. As part of this policy, China objects to U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance (SRO) activities in international waters and airspace within and over its claimed EEZ. To assert its displeasure and to apply political pressure, China regularly intercepts aerial SRO missions.
China also increasingly uses civil maritime enforcement vessels and government-controlled fishing vessels to pressure U.S. ships engaged in SRO. Chinese tactics have been quite aggressive… Meanwhile, China is developing, deploying, and displaying military platforms and weapons systems potentially capable of threatening, rendering inoperable, or even destroying U.S., allied, and friendly platforms that attempted to intervene in the unfortunate event of conflict. These capabilities are termed “counter-intervention” by Chinese sources and “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) by the U.S. military. While some substantive nuances are alleged to exist between these concepts, the difference is fundamentally one of perspective as they are two sides of the same coin. Chu Shulong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management, encapsulates Beijing’s motives in this regard: “China is aiming to deny the capability of possible American intervention in the western Pacific. That has been clear since 1996.”
This Chinese determination to establish a maritime buffer zone chafes increasingly against U.S. efforts to defend open access to the global commons, public zones in the seas, air, space, and cyberspace that are used by all nations but owned by none. Of particular concern for Washington, and many of China’s neighbors, is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which carries a substantial portion of global commerce and seaborne energy flows.
From the same article, we move on to the instrument that more easily, because cheaply, started to show China’s resolve never to undergo a 1990s-style humiliation at the hands of the Americans again:
The development of China’s ballistic missile capabilities in turn, have influenced the development of America’s military. It’s interesting comparing that 2012 illustration with more recent ones reflecting American thinking.
B. America’s “First and Second Island Chains”
If China’s imperative is Anti-Access Area Denial, for the Americans, in turn, the name of the game is deterrence. As one 2022 article bluntly prescribes it. To Deter China, the U.S. Navy Must Build a Connected Fleet at a Faster Pace:
In 10 years, a quarter of the Navy’s warships will reach the end of service life, presenting both a risk and an opportunity to build a new fleet—but it must act now.
Long-range missile threats are dispersing naval operations over great distances, while combat effectiveness requires a high degree of operational networking.
New ship designs must be informed by shipyard limitations and encourage diversification of where the Navy builds its fleet in order to scale up quickly in wartime.
The article above includes the illustration below, serving as a distillation and review of the implications of China’s achievement in building up its missile forces.
Back in 2015, I read a Foreign Affairs article which basically argued the United States was being ill-served by congressional requirements and thus, limits (generally related to human rights) to arms sales to allies. Echoing observations on how strict rules governing foreign aid was driving developing nations into China’s orbit, as China didn’t make tough conditions for lending money, the article said the U.S. should make armaments, missile systems in particular, more available to allies because of the deterrent factor on China that would result.
Since then, the expiration of some treaties has allowed the United States to pursue what had up to then, been forbidden (See this 2020 story, U.S. rearms to nullify China’s missile supremacy).
CIMSEC, popularization of a paper, Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific which outlines a four-part strategy. First, “Sea denial”; second, “Air denial”; third, “Information denial”; and finally, “Land attack.”
The article succinctly describes how the situation has changed for America (and its allies) since the 1990s:
The U.S. military has a problem in the Western Pacific: the tyranny of distance and time. Delivering military force across the vast Pacific Ocean has never been easy, even for a country as blessed in resources and ingenuity as the United States. The problem has worsened as America’s chief regional rival, China, has improved its ability to harm American interests quickly and with limited forewarning. Seventy years after Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, China’s military capabilities have matured to the point where, if directed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could launch a rapid attack to change the status quo, including territorial seizure, before the United States could meaningfully respond, thus presenting Washington with a fait accompli. American forces located outside the conflict area would have to penetrate China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) network to restore the status quo ex-ante, a daunting proposition. Under these circumstances, Washington might face the unenviable choice of doing nothing or escalating to higher levels of violence. Either way, the national interests of both the United States and its closest allies would suffer dramatically.
The same article spells out the reasons for the recent American “wish list” of additional/different facilities in the Philippines:
Since U.S. forces cannot perfectly hide or defend against China’s planned precision strikes, they must withstand the initial salvo. Hardening key nodes such as communications hubs, fuel stores, and aircraft shelters would help improve resiliency and increase the number of Chinese munitions required to suppress targets. Dispersal of ground and air forces to numerous locations along the First and Second Island Chains would minimize the loss of any large single location. Properly networked, these positions would be mutually reinforcing.
III. Wargaming: Simulating the Unthinkable
“Kriegspiel” or wargaming is an essential element of military planning; it’s also gaining prominence as a tool for both policymaking and for influencing public opinion.
I first encountered the regional impact of wargaming reading Hugh White, so let’s take my digest of his argument from one of my 2020 columns, Tough from a distance:
[A]n Australian defense analyst, Hugh White, wrote a fascinating article (“Without America: Australia in the New Asia”) on the inevitability of China’s dominance in the region. Repeated attempts to war-game a confrontation between the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy, he wrote, showed American leaders were unprepared to call China’s bluff if it deliberately invited, or accidentally triggered, an armed confrontation in our region. There was simply no political math to justify risking a world war or American lives for Asia. He suggested that Japan and South Korea would have to go nuclear to create a regional deterrent to China, but that neither country could be expected to have the appropriate appetite for risk; perhaps India, with its own history of uneasy relations with China, would take up the mantle of regional leadership and push back (it has begun to do so, focusing on regional bases to counter China’s).
The only unforeseen thing, White wrote, was that America’s expected retreat from Southeast Asia should have taken a generation but accelerated under Donald Trump.
More recently, a flurry of articles have come out challenging the premise of a Chinese victory in a Sino-American confrontation. Here is the summary of the wargame: Dangerous Straits: Wargaming a Future Conflict over Taiwan:
Gaming Lab at CNAS, in partnership with NBC’s Meet the Press, conducted a high-level strategic-operational wargame exploring a fictional war over Taiwan, set in 2027. The wargame sought to illuminate the dilemmas that U.S. and Chinese policymakers might face in such a conflict, along with the strategies they might adopt to achieve their overarching objectives. The game was intended to produce insights as to how the United States and its allies and partners could deter the PRC from invading Taiwan and could better position themselves to defend Taiwan and defeat such aggression should deterrence fail.
The wargame indicated there is no quick victory for either side if China decides to invade Taiwan. Neither side felt as though it had lost the fight over Taiwan, and even though China hoped to achieve a swift and decisive victory, it was prepared for a long fight. Beijing was faced with a dilemma: whether to keep the war limited and hope the United States did not become involved, or to preemptively strike U.S. targets to improve Chinese probability of success, but at the high cost of prolonging the conflict. In such a scenario, neither Beijing nor Washington is likely to have the upper hand after the first week of the conflict, which suggests a protracted conflict.
Moreover, a conflict over Taiwan may quickly lead to consequences far beyond what Beijing and Washington intend. The wargame demonstrated how quickly a conflict could escalate, with both China and the United States crossing red lines. There is a high risk that deterrent signals may be misread in a potential future fight due to differences in military strengths and weaknesses, and these shape the types of escalation Beijing and Washington are likely to select. As the wargame illustrated, despite its declared policy of no first use, China may be willing to brandish nuclear weapons or conduct a limited demonstration of its nuclear capability in an effort to prevent or end U.S. involvement in a conflict with Taiwan.
The unofficial what-if game is being conducted on the fifth floor of an office building not far from the White House, and it posits a US military response to a Chinese invasion in 2026. Even though the participants bring a US perspective, they are finding that a US-Taiwan victory, if there is one, could come at a huge cost.
“The results are showing that under most — though not all — scenarios, Taiwan can repel an invasion,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where the war games are being held. “However, the cost will be very high to the Taiwanese infrastructure and economy and to US forces in the Pacific.”…
The not-necessarily-so assumption used in most of the scenarios: China invades Taiwan to force unification, and the US decides to intervene heavily with its military. Also assumed but far from certain: Japan grants expanded rights to use US bases on its territory, while stopping short of intervening directly unless Japanese land is attacked.
Nuclear weapons are not used in the scenarios, and the weapons available are based on capabilities the nations have demonstrated or have concrete plans to deploy by 2026.
In 18 of the 22 rounds of the game played to this point, Chinese missiles sink a large part of the US and Japanese surface fleet and destroy “hundreds of aircraft on the ground,” said Cancian, a former White House defense budget analyst and retired US Marine. “However, allied air and naval counterattacks hammer the exposed Chinese amphibious and surface fleet, eventually sinking about 150 ships.”
“The reason for the high US losses is that the United States cannot conduct a systematic campaign to take down Chinese defenses before moving in close,” he said.
“The United States must send forces to attack the Chinese fleet, especially the amphibious ships, before establishing air or maritime superiority,” he said.
“To get a sense of the scale of the losses, in our last game iteration, the United States lost over 900 fighter/attack aircraft in a four-week conflict. That’s about half the [US] Navy and Air Force inventory,” he said.
Returning to Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific, there’s this stipulation of the strategic challenge:
The United States faces a geographic asymmetry in the Western Pacific. China’s primary territorial concerns—Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea—are far closer to its mainland than they are to the United States. In contrast, the United States has territory, allies, and interests in the Western Pacific but must traverse the expanse of the Pacific Ocean to defend them. At the same time, the PLA has developed a counter-intervention doctrine and supporting A2/AD capabilities to stifle the U.S. military’s ability to project power rapidly into, or operate effectively within, the Western Pacific during a conflict. Given these challenges, the United States would be hard-pressed to overcome the tyranny of distance and Chinese A2/AD capabilities quickly enough to deny a Chinese fait accompli.
For example, in the direst scenario involving an all-out PLA attack on Taiwan, U.S. and allied military forces would have to respond in force quickly, within hours or days, to thwart a Chinese fait accompli attempt. U.S. and allied forces would not have weeks or months to concentrate in mass near the theater of operations and then counterattack before China seizes control of Taiwan or forces the Taiwanese government into submission. Nor would friendly forces have time to fight their way to decisive points in the battlespace if they begin the conflict outside China’s A2/AD bubble. Moreover, attempting to rollback Chinese gains and liberate Taiwan after the fact would be difficult, costly, and potentially escalatory.
Two infographics, one on the defense of Taiwan:
The other, on a potential offensive against Taiwan.
How do these come together? An exciting read is a 2021 exercise, 337. “No Option is Excluded” — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan, with this premise:
Mr. Ian Sullivan, who converges the power of wargaming with narrative to compellingly imagine the unthinkable — China defeating the US in large scale combat operations! Over the past 30+ years, U.S. battlefield dominance has been sustained by three heretofore unchallenged pillars: 1) We have the best equipped Army in the world; 2) We have the best trained Soldiers and the most dynamic leaders; and 3) Our ability to conduct maneuver warfare is unmatched. But will our battlefield acumen even matter when engaging an adversary who enjoys the advantage of time and space, possesses significant A2/AD and cyber capabilities that can disrupt our homeland and the timely flow of Soldiers and materiel to the fight, and whom has “stolen a leaf from our playbook” and comprehensively modernized their military forces across the DOTMLPF-P capabilities spectrum?
The game above was written up a year before the more formal one reported in the news, but from what I’ve seen of the reports, the scenarios seem to have rolled out similarly, so this is as good a place as any to zero in on the part of greatest interest to us: the Philippines.
As Sullivan wrote, his scenarios unfolded as follows:
Prior to the actual invasion of Taiwan, the PLA conducted a series of rapid, near simultaneous amphibious operations across the theater. The first occurred on D-6 and D-5, respectively, involving the occupation of contested islands in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. These were followed on D-2 with an occupation of the Ryukyu Islands. Finally, on D-1, the PLA struck against Taiwanese occupied Penghu Island, defeating the Republic of China (ROC) Brigade defending it in a lightning amphibious assault.
China initiated broader hostilities 24 hours after the assault on Penghu. Its initial operations at H-Hour were aimed at setting the conditions for a successful invasion. These attacks involved kinetic and non-kinetic attacks against US forces in Japan, the Philippines, Guam, and at sea, as well as a series of strikes against targets across the ROC with ballistic and cruise missiles. The attacks on Taiwan largely were accomplished with cruise missiles, and they targeted airbases at Zuoying and Hualien, as well as the port of Keelung. These attacks inflicted only moderate damage to the bases and the aircraft they housed. Much more successfully for the PLA were their strikes on Japan and Guam.
The attacks on Japan were conducted with DF-17 ballistic missiles carrying hypersonic glide vehicle warheads. They were very effective in damaging several bases housing US and Japanese aircraft, which prevented the use of the runways for several days.
Guam was struck with DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missiles. Efforts by the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) to mitigate early warning of the attack proved successful, and the missile attack destroyed the U.S. forward deployed B-2s on the ground at Andersen Air Force Base. These initial attacks were followed by a second wave of missile strikes which continued through D+2, targeting airbases across Taiwan and Japan. Additionally, the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) launched a barrage of DF-21C ballistic missiles against the REAGAN Carrier Battle Group operating off the Philippines, although it was able to successfully defend itself against the strike.
These attacks created confusion and significant damage to the US and Allies’ ability to employ air power to stop the initial invasion. III. Arms Race
IV. Arms Race
Deutsche Welle: China has the world’s largest navy — what now?
An interesting RAND Corporation presentation: Chinese Attacks on U.S. Air Bases in Asia: An Assessment of Relative Capabilities, 1996–2017:
China’s missile program is arguably the most active in the world and has provided the PLA with the ability to launch hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles at air bases and other critical targets in Taiwan, Japan, or the Philippines. The PLA is also able to strike targets as distant as Guam with air-launched cruise missiles. In a conflict, these capabilities would challenge the U.S. ability to operate safely or efficiently from forward air bases and would have major spillover effects on other parts of the battle. To mitigate this threat, the United States should pursue a combination of measures to improve operational resilience, including dispersed basing, base hardening, missile defenses, and new operating techniques that limit the impact of attacks on flight operations.
For close to a quarter century, China has inexorably pursued the ramping-up of its military capacity. This goes beyond missiles. This illustration (graphic from Asia Rising: China ’s Global Naval Strategy and Expanding Force Structure, 2019) from roughly the same period as the RAND study above, reveals this transformation in stark terms:
A list of assets is also sobering (and it doesn’t even include aircraft carriers):
By the way this paper, Military Build-up in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea: How Relevant Are the Disputes with China? by Bruno Hendler André Luiz Cançado Motta has a thorough review of Philippine security concerns vis-a-vis-China and military spending:
In a democratic regime, as in the Philippines, the alternation of governments has a significant impact on the country’s foreign policy. As argued elsewhere, Sino-Philippine relations alternated from cordiality and cooperation with President Gloria Arroyo (2001- 2010) to escalating tensions with President Benigno Aquino (2010-2016) and returning to cordiality with Duterte (since 2016) (Hendler 2019). SCS frictions have been frequent over the past two decades, depending on political alternation…
Like Vietnam, the Philippines show a recurrence of disputes with China in the SCS, an increase in gross military spending, but not in relation to GDP, and a qualitative attribute of maritime-oriented armaments. However, the existence of domestic conflicts reduces the weight of the Chinese factor in the outcome.
It’s worth reading in full.