When the next U.S. president takes office in 11 months he or she will be confronted with China’s four stationary and one mobile aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. As the Obama administration is likely to continue its failed legal and diplomatic strategy for responding to China, it is necessary for the next president to now consider a far more robust strategy.
In about a year China will be ready to deploy significant air, naval and missile forces to its collective newly reclaimed 14.5 square kilometers of stationary island “aircraft carriers” in the South China Sea. These will include a 2.13 square kilometer base on Woody Island in the Northern Paracel Island Group, and the Southern Spratly Island Group bases on Fiery Cross Reef (2.74 sq/km), Subi Reef (3.95 sq/km), and Mischief Reef (5.58 sq/km).
Each of these bases will soon be able to support at least 24 combat aircraft, associated radar and refueling aircraft, and a range of 6 warships at Fiery Cross to 50 or more at Mischief Reef. China will also deploy scores of anti-aircraft missiles like the 200km range HQ-9, and anti-ship missiles like the 400km range YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile, or the 4,000km range DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile which can reach U.S. forces on Guam.
In addition, by the early 2020s one more aircraft carrier could join the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, in supporting combat operations in the South China Sea. Even today, China could mobilize hundreds of large civil roll-on-roll-off barges and ferries to support invasion operations, as it has while building its Spratly Island bases.
Chinese diplomats already brag about their “restraint” in not using their superior naval and marine forces to capture the other islands in the Spratly Group occupied by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Capturing and building up these islands will handily position China’s naval and air forces to complete its control of the South China Sea by invading the island of Palawan, which belongs to U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty ally the Philippines.
Having secured control of the South China Sea, China would then be free to threaten anybody’s portion of the $5.3 trillion in annual commerce that transits this region. It will also secure the South China Sea as its “lake” to operate its nuclear submarines armed with nuclear missiles aimed at the United States, and ensure its global projection of naval, air, amphibious and space power.
If China is allowed to consolidate control over the South China Sea uncontested, that will mark the abandonment by the United States of its dominant strategic position in Asia to a dictatorship arguably more evil than which 120,000 Americans died to defeat in World War II. China does not fear other Asian states acquiring nuclear weapons, as it has enabled North Korea to become a nuclear missile state, and likely calculates it will always have more nuclear weapons than Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Given the potential for such a horrific reversal of the Asian peace that generations of Americans have sacrificed for, its incomprehensible that the Obama administration would remain committed to a strategy of delimited legal demonstrations and diplomacy to convince China to reverse its near consolidation of control of the South China Sea. China is already justifying its deployment of HQ-9 missiles to Woody Island as a defensive response to the administration’s very carefully calibrated “Freedom of Navigation Operations” intended to assert the legal right of U.S. Navy ships to operate in areas illegally claimed by China.
China’s military consolidation will only continue until Washington decides to deploy superior force to that region sufficient to destroy China’s new bases, thus deterring Beijing from using them to attack America’s allies and friends. The Philippines should be offered 200 of the 300+km range ATACMS short range ballistic missile as an initial move to deter China. This should be followed by offering Manila squadrons of F-16 or F/A-18 fighters and several frigate-size combat ships, and the stationing of U.S. fighter wings and combat ships in Philippine bases.
For its part, the United States should build and deploy new arsenal ships and arsenal submarines, equipped with hundreds of offensive and defensive missiles, and railguns which can defeat China’s latest anti-ship ballistic missiles. There should also be consideration of a super large amphibious assault ship based on our nuclear powered aircraft carriers, but armed with multiple railguns and future laser weapons to defeat all Chinese missiles.
China will not be deterred from imposing increasing control over the South China Sea until Washington and its allies deploy forces sufficient to eliminate China’s new island aircraft carriers.
• James A. Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral was commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.