Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageOp-Ed: Brinkmanship in the South China Sea as U.S. carrier group arrives

By Paul Wallis     Mar 4, 2016 in World
Sydney - The war of words is getting more physical in the South China Sea. The U.S. has sent a “small armada” to the area. China, meanwhile, protests the U.S. presence, rejects freedom of navigation accusations, and accuses the U.S. of raising tensions.
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, has an article condemning the U.S. “freedom of navigation” stance. The commentary says China has no interest in creating problems for the “valuable peace” on this major trade route. The commentator points out there’s no problem with free navigation, so what are the warships doing there?
USS John C. Stennis
USS John C. Stennis
The U.S. view is that China’s creation of new territory, unrecognized by international law, and the presence of SAM missiles and other hardware, makes a very different statement. The US “small armada” in the region, aka a significant portion of the Pacific Fleet, now includes a nuclear-powered carrier, the USS John C. Stennis. This is a Nimitz class fleet carrier, with significant combat capability, usually part of a battle group. It’s no minor statement in itself. On its own, this carrier could take out most of the regional navies.
The South China Sea islands and atolls have been part of many territorial claims by nations in the region. It’s a regular flashpoint, and at one time involved actual combat between the Chinese and Vietnamese some years ago. Eighteen Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and the Chinese took over the Paracel Islands in 1974.
China, meanwhile, says island building has been going on for years in the South China Sea, and that it’s a latecomer to the “frenzy.” The sheer scale of Chinese building, however, has eclipsed anything else in the region. The smaller countries in the region aren’t economic super powers; they couldn’t build on that scale, even if they wanted to.
The Chinese, and everyone else, have pointed out that the South China Sea also just happens to contain 50 percent of the world’s shipping trade, worth about $5 trillion. Many countries are seriously worried about the possibility of the area turning in to a combat zone, with good reason. Clashes between Chinese units and American units routinely tend to be pretty aggressive. Just one person hitting one button could start a major incident.
Simultaneously China has announced a major upgrade to its defence budget. Some of this reflects an ongoing modernization program which has been in place for years. The numbers of service personnel are going down, but the hardware is upgrading, hence the cost.
The timing of this increase, however, has been related by critics as being directly tied in to China’s new territorial perspective. That’s probably not the case, at least at the macro level. China’s modernization program has also spent a lot of time in retiring antiquated tanks, planes and building a navy, which until relatively recently was basically a coastal defence force of varying levels of capability. China’s defence budget is barely a third of the U.S. budget.
This rationale, not surprisingly, hasn’t reassured China’s neighbors regarding the South China Sea. China is a giant blue whale among the goldfish militarily. The only nations in Asia with comparable conventional military capabilities are Japan, India, and at a local level, South Korea. China at one time or other has been at war with all its neighbors except the Philippines and Malaysia. Memories are long in Asia, and can’t be discounted in any sort of diplomacy. Those memories, in fact, are invariably serious road blocks to negotiations of any kind. Don’t expect this mess to clear up quickly, or on an amicable basis.
The U.S. view, which is partly supporting allies, partly distrust of China’s motives, and to a considerable extent protecting regional U.S. interests, has almost no direct point of contact with the Chinese views. The two countries are comparing apples and oranges, and finding a lot of lemons. It’s like they’re talking about totally different issues, in many ways.
The military perspective
In a purely military perspective, China’s sudden interest in building small static targets far from mainland support is just plain strange from a Western military viewpoint. Whatever they put on those islands couldn’t begin to withstand a serious assault by heavy duty combat units. One smart cluster bomb or a few cruise missiles could take out most of an island and whatever’s put on it.
Chinese Navy helicopters fly over a People's Liberation Army Navy warship on April 23  2009 off...
Chinese Navy helicopters fly over a People's Liberation Army Navy warship on April 23, 2009 off Qingdao in Shandong Province
Guang Niu, POOL/AFP/File
Nor is the Chinese navy any great threat; it doesn’t have the capacity to take serious losses, simply because there’s very little depth to replace the relatively small number of front line effective modern combat units. These units are of very high value to the Chinese navy, and certainly not to be frittered away on some futile cosmetic exercise.
A few SAMs and anti-shipping missiles do not really constitute a serious threat, either. They could be annoying and knock down a few pesky overflying planes and ships, perhaps, if they got lucky, but would be simply overwhelmed by the kind of standoff firepower in a carrier group. (It should also be noted that these SAMs miraculously appeared after the first flyovers. No coincidence possible.)
Ironically, that very lack of realistic combat viability "sort of" supports the Chinese claim that they’re not really militarizing the region, albeit in an extremely convoluted way. The SAMs may be there to make a point, but definitely not to fight a real war on even a small scale. It makes no tactical or strategic sense at all to commit major combat resources to an indefensible, scattered range of locations.
The U.S. should also remember China is enforcing its claims in the face of hostile neighbors. This is a fait accompli, and China apparently wants that fact to be very visible. These islands may be pushovers to U.S. carrier groups, but other countries in the region don’t have anything like that sort of combat capability. Local navies couldn’t take on China’s frontline naval capacity with any real confidence of success. Nor do they have the depth to take serious casualties for any length of time. The Chinese have stacked the deck very effectively in that regard.
Economics – The bottom line, with a sting
If anything shuts down the South China Sea for trade, it would be an instant, expensive, economic hiatus hernia for the world. US/China trade is actually symbiotic – What hurts one hurts the other, and that pain will be measured in real dollars. The US and China are major trade partners in just about every sector of business. Even if America reverted to protectionism, local US production, and trade embargos against China, it’d take many years to get production back to anything like normal, at astronomical costs.
Another economic point to be considered is that world markets have had enough crises for a long time to come. A major trade disruption would cost both China and the US incalculable amounts of lost revenue, lost trade, lost incomes and lost jobs.
Economically, there’s absolutely nothing to be said in favor of turning the South China Sea in to an “everybody loses” scenario. Maybe there’s oil in the region, maybe other things of economic value, but definitely nothing on the scale of the kind of damage a major US/China confrontation would cause.
In Australia, we support freedom of navigation. We do not support stupidity or massive disruption to trade in our region. This particular storm needs to find a teacup and stay in it, for everyone’s sake.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about South china sea, China, Us navy, uss john c stennis, Nimitz class carriers
More news from Show all 8
Latest News
Top News