- - Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Beijing’s desire to turn the South China Sea into a personal lake for President Xi Jinping is getting pushback from an unexpected source, the United State Marine Corps. When people think of the Marines, they generally think of assault troops and aggressive attacks on fortified positions, so sea control might seem a stretch for the Corps.

But Marines are adaptive. Actually, the Marines are going back to the future. The seizure and defense of advanced naval bases has been a major part of the Marine Corps’ mission for over a century; but since World War II, the seizure portion — better known as amphibious warfare — has overshadowed the defensive mission. The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. David Berger, is rebalancing the Marine Corps for a closer integration with the Navy after the two sea services had drifted apart for several decades.

To understand this, we need to understand the threat posed by Chinese build-up in the Indo-Pacific Region.

For three decades, Chinese military planners have worked on an access denial — sometimes known as an anti-navy — strategy designed to control areas that they want to influence by keeping the superior U.S. fleet and associated airpower away; from their perspective, it makes sense. Chinese strategists watched the former Soviet Union bankrupt itself trying to build a blue water navy to compete with the United States.

They also studied how mobilized U.S. industrial might built a fleet quickly to overwhelm the excellent Japanese navy during World War II. The Chinese planners surmised that they could impose their will on their neighbors — which they traditionally have viewed as tributaries — not by destroying U.S. military power in the region, but by making it too expensive to operate there.

Since World War II, American sea power has been built around a combination of large aircraft carriers and submarines backed up by the threat of amphibious landing ships — also large and vulnerable. Chinese leaders believe that they can leverage modern overhead reconnaissance to target America’s relatively small number of large vessels and negate huge U.S. airbases in places like Japan, South Korea and Guam.

Then, they can gain regional air and sea control without having to build an expensive blue water fleet. A combination of relatively cheap, unmanned aircraft, anti-ship missiles, diesel submarines, and maned bombers is seen by Beijing as good strategic investment. China — like the United States — is a nation of businesspeople. A navy that breaks the bank is seen as a poor investment. 

For years, the Marine Corps — along with the other services — has been doing war games looking at the access denial problem. One of the best answers has been to make the force more distributed and to systematically degrade the enemy’s integrated access-denial system to a point where freedom of the seas in the disputed region can be ensured.

The Marines can greatly assist in this by putting small forces ashore to defend disputed islets and choke points, putting long-range offensive rocket artillery aboard distributed amphibious shipping, and beefing up anti-air and anti-missile defenses as well as being prepared to quickly retake strategic islets seized by Chinese forces.

Up until about a decade or so ago, many American strategic thinkers assumed that China’s anti-navy preparations were largely defensive. However, President Xi has made it clear that he intends to expel America from the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. The Trump administration has made it equally clear that it will not permit Chinese regional hegemony to happen. President XI must know that we aren’t abandoning the region.

Gen. Berger’s Marines are prudent to support that strategic outlook. In tough financial times — and times are getting tough suddenly via COVID-19 — when the government looks to save money, the question of the Marine Corps as a “second land army” invariably arises. 

Strategically strengthening the Marine Corps’ partnership with the Navy makes good sense, but it is not without risks. In order to afford the anti-aircraft systems and long-range artillery needed for the new strategic approach, the Marines will have to divest themselves of tanks and heavy engineer equipment that has long been a staple of the combat kit. Change is always painful. My dad was a proud World War II Marine tanker; and is probably turning over in his grave, but he was smart enough to realize that the Corps has to adapt.

President Xi obviously believes that he has seized on a strategic advantage. The Marines are wise to help develop a force structure to disabuse him of that notion.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. 

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide

Sponsored Stories