After five months of almost visible equivocation, on Oct. 27 the Obama administration allowed the destroyer USS Lassen to patrol within 12 nautical miles of China’s newly built and illegal island military bases in the South China Sea.
Over the past two years, China has literally created 3,000 acres of new “territory,” turning seven reefs into military bases, three of which will have airstrips large enough for all types of China’s military aircraft. With these bases, China can better impose control over the vital air and sea lanes through which transits $5 trillion worth of commerce, including $1.5 trillion in U.S. commerce.
From these islands, China could also better mount military operations to take control of nearby islands in the Spratly Group occupied by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China could then build larger bases on those islands, which combined, would provide China with considerable acreage from which to launch raids or even invade the island of Palawan in the Philippines — a Mutual Defense Treaty ally of the United States since 1951.
China has long claimed for itself most of the South China Sea as marked by its undefined “Nine-Dash Line.” Beijing wants to impose military control over this region in order to better protect its nuclear ballistic missile submarines. It also wants to ensure that Hainan Island will become a secure base for future global military power projection, for aircraft carrier and amphibious forces, and for a new space launch base for future moon and deep space missions.
From these new bases, Chinese 2,500-mile range DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missiles could handily reach Darwin, Australia, where the U.S. Marines are stationed, or the larger U.S. air and naval bases on Guam.
China’s island construction follows nearly 15 years of failed efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to get China to agree to a code of conduct for the region that could have prevented China’s recent actions. Obama administration protests of China’s construction has had no impact; at a London conference on Sept. 14, Chinese Adm. Yuan Yubai stated, “The South China Sea is a sea area that belongs to China.”
While the Department of Defense wanted to sail near these island bases much earlier this year, they received White House approval in October for a Freedom of Navigation Operation. One important factor may have been the availability of the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt to provide cover in the region. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy’s move was well telegraphed and has been repeatedly explained as an affirmation of “innocent passage.”
A dramatic buildup to the Freedom of Navigation Operation, however, allowed China to conduct a political and psychological warfare exercise portraying the United States as an invader violating China’s sovereignty, justifying threatening suggestions of military action, including the use of China’s new long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles. Washington states that there will be future operations and allies such as Australia may follow suit.
China suggests future threats. On Oct. 28, the hardline, state-controlled Global Times stated China “is not frightened to fight a war with the U.S. in the region.” Then on Oct. 30, right after a video conference with U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Chinese Navy Commander Adm. Wu Shengli said, “If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war.”
China likely did not take action against the USS Lassen because of the proximity of U.S. Navy strike aircraft on the USS Roosevelt, but the Navy does not have enough carriers to station in that region. Perhaps it is time to build an “arsenal ship” as proposed by shipbuilder Huntington-Ingalls, which would convert a large amphibious assault ship to carry long-range radar, hundreds of missiles and defensive rail guns.
It is also imperative that Washington accelerate military cooperation with the Philippines by offering Manila a substantial military aid package, including combat aircraft, ships, and short-range ballistic missiles that can strike China’s new island bases if they are used against the Philippines. Washington should also work to accelerate intentions to station U.S. aircraft and ships at Philippine bases. In addition, fifth-generation fighters should be sold to Taiwan.
Washington should also encourage the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam to elevate public diplomacy by using their islands for safety and rescue cooperation, activities China could join if it dismantles its new islands. But since China now wants to threaten war in the South China Sea, it is necessary for Washington to create the basis for a new armed peace that deters Beijing.
• James A. Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral, is a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.