China’s Blue Water Navy…Embrace It

Academy Securities Geopolitical Research Series: Today we are providing analysis by Major General James A. “Spider” Marks (Ret.) on the expansion of the Chinese military presence in the Spratly Island archipelago in the South China Sea. Major General Marks is a member of The Advisory Board at Academy Securities and a CNN national security and military analyst.

Before our commitment to the “Great War” in Europe, the United States purchased the Danish West Indies (today known as the U.S. Virgin Islands) from Demark in 1916. German submarines had been freely patrolling the transatlantic shipping lines and declared the north Atlantic a war zone, sinking the British liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915 and killing over a thousand passengers. Additional Atlantic bases would have strengthened Germany’s hand, violated the Monroe Doctrine, and created an untenable position for the U.S.A.

At the time, Germany was a powerful “blue water navy” with global reach, capable of operating beyond its territorial waters. With the attack on the Lusitania, Germany had already demonstrated its willingness and capacity to exercise their influence against commercial ocean traffic. Albeit overtly aggressive and illegal, Germany had seized the strategic momentum.

Establishing a German submarine base in the Virgin Islands was a real option and hugely threatening to the United States. Germany would have been able to expand its submarine campaign against all ocean traffic in the Atlantic and attack America’s burgeoning war efforts as well as its ongoing commercial trade.

Anticipating this move by Germany, America purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark, “stealing a march” on Germany and reducing the German admiralty’s ability to strategically interdict commercial trade and military support to open ocean shipments. Strategically, the United States outmaneuvered Germany. America retained a freedom of movement that was not only critical to its ability to support war efforts in Europe but also to ensure an historical right to regional influence in the delicate balance of politics among nations.

Fast forward a hundred years and to the other side of the globe: China has undertaken a similar strategic move. Specifically, China is in the midst of a robust construction effort on the contested Spratly Island archipelago in the South China Sea. Albeit not transactional between a buyer and a seller and arguably in violation of several international treaties, China has “stolen a march” on all claimants to this heavily trafficked sea line.

First confirmed by satellite imagery in 2014, China’s efforts are indeed impressive. In order to create permanent sea and air bases from which to project power, these efforts include expansion of airfield capabilities, improvement in port capacity, and quality of life improvements to include basketball courts and soccer fields on several of the Spratly islands. Nice digs for those deployed to these isolated outposts. When basketball crazy China builds basketball courts, they are “in it to win it”; they are sticking around for the long haul.

Claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, the Spratlys have in many ways characterized the regional tension and competition in the broader South China Sea region. Arguments of “historical rights and sovereign territory” by all claimants for these islands are not practically relevant. China is winning the battle of influence. They have taken ownership and are spreading out.

Although subject to scrutiny and debate over the actual value, roughly $5 trillion in commercial traffic transits the South China Sea annually. Even if you were to reduce the total by half, the South China Sea is an indispensable artery of commercial shipping as well as a focal point of the world’s attention. It is therefore no surprise that China wants to assert claim over these islands but, more importantly, to strategically influence what flows through the South China Sea. This is not unlike what the U.S. did in 1916 in the Atlantic. The question the U.S. and China must answer is what should each country do about it? Compete or cooperate?

Today, the U.S. Navy provides free and open access to the world’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) among its many tasks. These tasks include maintaining a continuous global forward presence, safeguarding one third of the U.S. nuclear triad, and fighting terrorism and piracy…just to mention a few. All commercial traffic, under any nation’s flag, enjoys the safety provided by the U.S. Navy and pays nothing for the privilege.

Simultaneously, China is modernizing its navy at an unprecedented pace. By 2020, it will have approximately 350 ships, more than the U.S. Navy’s current total. This blue water navy, one with a global reach capable of striking over-the-horizon targets, will have increased influence and capabilities that have not been witnessed in China’s military history.

In response, Congress wants to increase U.S. military presence in the Pacific with approximately 60% of the total U.S. Navy assigned to the Pacific Fleet and based in the region. This is the correct policy decision but the U.S. may not have fully contemplated the strategic imperatives. With this capability, will the U.S. compete or cooperate with China? The strength and readiness of the U.S. military will provide options.

China is a global economic power but has never been more than a second-tier military power. It has a military nuclear capability but it has not been capable of influencing actions at the tactical level of engagement outside of China’s immediate geographical region. China is an historic land power, suspicious of its neighbors, regionally hegemonic, defensively focused, builder of great walls, and protector of its borders. China uses economic power to exert influence internationally and soon they will do so militarily.

In the coming years, certainly during the first year of the next president’s administration, the U.S. must rebuild its withered and weakened capacity and willingness to lead and influence actions internationally. It must decide where and how it will engage and use all elements of power in an orchestrated manner. Competition or cooperation with China starts with a strong U.S. military but does not end there. It must include diplomatic and economic levers.

The U.S. has a choice. America’s strength is the example it sets and the predictability of those actions to both friends and enemies. There is, however, a cost to predictability. Should America share the burden of the open access to the SLOCs or continue to provide it alone? In the South China Sea, America’s relationship with China should be the model for how this decision is reached and should facilitate the transition into a more cooperative arrangement.

This dialogue must start now. It’s obvious that the U.S. is willing to have the conversation internally and with potential international partners. Its actions send a clear message that U.S. regional military preparedness in the Pacific is non-negotiable. The U.S. must get the Chinese to the table and share with them its view of regional cooperation. The Chinese have a choice as well. They can use the leverage that they have built and enjoy a prominent and profitable “seat at the table” or they can force their hand in unilateral fashion. The perception of China considering the latter option has already resulted in continuously stronger ties between the U.S. and China’s local Spratly rivals.

A hundred years ago, the position of the U.S. was very clear; it was ready to compete with anyone who challenged or threatened its regional sovereignty. The U.S. did something very public in response to German aggression. They took action, bought the Virgin Islands, and erected a sign…”We’re here. Stay Out.”

Today, things are different. In the South China Sea, the Chinese need to be equally clear but erect a different sign, one stating “We’re here. Let’s cooperate.” Personally, I’m certain China will choose to cooperate in the South China Sea. They may however, continue to improve their port facilities and airfields as well as build more basketball courts and air conditioned barracks in the Spratlys. The U.S. and China will expand tactical military-to-military cooperation, strengthening the foundation of trust building measures.

However, without a welcome sign in the Spratlys erected by China, the U.S. and China should agree not to “steal a march” on the other. The only march they should take is a march together. Jump ball.