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Sophisticated Scaremongering Regarding US Vulnerabilities In The South China Sea – Analysis


In the wake of China’s recent aggressive actions and poor public diplomacy vis a vis its rival claimants in the South China Sea,  the hyping of the China threat to US interests there is ramping up again. But as usual, some analysts are jumping to unjustifed conclusions. The recent analysis by Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington’s esteemed Center for International and Strategic Studies is a case in point. 

It introduces a new angle on an old argument. He concludes that China’s intention in building and “militarizing” ‘islands’ in the South China Sea is to intimidate other claimants to the point that they will lose confidence that the U.S. can or will protect their interests and thus “undermine America’s role as a regional security provider”. The implication is that it is in the U.S. security interest to contain, constrain or even remove China’s military assets on these outposts. Poling also conflates rival claimant interests with those of the U.S. by arguing that with its artificial island bases, China “would control the sea and airspace of the South China Sea at the outbreak of [US-China] hostilities _ _ .”  However, the real purpose of the piece seems to be to support the author’s long standing push to convince the Philippines to allow more basing of US assets there.  ;

This argument is based on many flawed assumptions. Take the assertion that these island outposts will enable China to control the air and sea.  Poling allows that “conventional wisdom throughout Washington still seems to be that [these military outposts] can be safely dismissed as lacking strategic value”.  In his humble opinion “That’s wrong.”  But he dismisses good reasons why senior professional military strategists think Poling is wrong. 

While China might present a problem for the US Navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland,  the U.S. still has considerable military power available to it in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea.

Poling denies the vulnerability of China’s installations.  But several military strategists  think these facilities would be indefensible in the face of US long-range bunker-busting cruise missiles fired from destroyers and submarines –as well as missiles and glide bombs launched from aircraft and drones. 

According to retired Admiral Dennis Blair, “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us”. But apparently Poling thinks Blair—once the Director of National Intelligence with considerable experience and information on the subject available to him– is mistaken. This is a rather arrogant allegation.

Moreover the Trump administration has withdrawn from an agreement with Russia that banned land-based nuclear capable intermediate range missiles so that it could develop – – and deploy them in the region. The apparent US intent is to put Chinese warships in danger in the South China Sea just as a China’s “carrier killer”missile does for US warships

Poling also neglects the current US advantage in drones there. No other country can match the U.S.’s array of aerial, surface and subsurface maritime drones, particularly their range and advanced weapons and sensors, coupled with the necessary satellite and telecommunications support systems.  Indeed, China’s advances in the field –while considerable–are not a threat to U.S. drone superiority  in, over and under the South China Sea.

More than four years ago, then US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced from the deck of a US warship sailing in the South China Sea that the U.S. was deploying “new undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads that can, importantly, operate in shallow water where manned submersibles cannot.” .  The then recent Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert said simply that the undersea drones will enable the U.S. to retain “our edge” in that environment. US Poseidon-deployed sonobuoys also support the “US Navy Fish Hook Undersea Defense Line,” a seamless network of hydrophones, sensors and strategically positioned assets stretching offshore from northeastern China to Indonesia.{HYPERLINK}

The U.S. also flies hundreds of manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions every year along China’s coast and undertakes many on and under the sea as well. As Pacific Air Forces Commander General Charles Brown says “We’ve been flying in and around the South China Sea for really about the past 15 years and _ _ we’ve done some as recently as this week”. Moreover, due to the drawdown in Afghanistan and the U.S. ‘pivot’, the Navy has released more ISR assets for use in Asia.

As for China intimidating its rival claimants to induce their loss of confidence in the U.S. to defend them, this is probably true– either intentionally or as a byproduct of its attempt to backup its claims.  But the U.S. was never likely to go to war with China on behalf of Southeast Asian claimants regarding disputed flyspecks or their claims to resources in the South China Sea.  This is wishful thinking on the part of these claimants- – and militarists like Poling.  Moreover, there is no indication that the U.S. military is standing down or withdrawing from Southeast Asia.  In fact it seems to be doing the opposite. Perhaps Poling is unaware of the US Army’s intent to set up task forces in the region “with modernized weaponry, nestled alongside counterparts [to change] the calculus and create dilemmas for potential adversaries”.

Poling touts the findings of his AMTI and seems frustrated that strategic analysts and policy makers are not paying what he considers adequate attention to this ‘China threat’ based on these outposts. But it could be that they simply do not agree that they are a threat to the U.S. This is not the first time Polling and AMTI have engaged in exaggeration and scare mongering.  In March 2017, Poling famously warned ” _ _ _ look for deployment [of China’s jet fighters to the outposts] in the near future.” This is reminiscent of President Trump’s recent use of the concept of “imminent– as –maybe, some day.

Based on the same questionable assumptions, Poling makes a great deal out of the tyranny of distance working against U.S. military assets at the outbreak of hostilities in the South China. He argues that to change the “math” in the U.S. favor would require full implementation of the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Co-operation Agreement (EDCA) that would “allow rotational deployments of key U.S. capabilities in the Philippines.”  He says this “should include preparations to rapidly stand up U.S. fire bases _ _ to hold Chinese outposts and ships in the South China Sea at risk.”  He declares that without this, “U.S. forces would have little choice but to concede the waters and airspace of the South China Sea to China in the opening stage of a conflict.”

Objective readers should realize that Poling has been on a campaign for several years to make EDCA happen.  This piece seems to be part of this campaign.

 I am often a contrarian and I welcome contrarian views from fellow analysts.  But Poling’s analysis and conclusions seem based on flawed logic and should be dismissed as sophisticated scaremongering.  

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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