Since China undertook a massive artificial island building program in 2013 with the intention of militarizing the islands, the U.S. has grown increasingly worried about freedom of navigation through this economically important waterway. The Cipher Brief spoke to Admiral Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, to understand how the U.S. can properly signal its intentions and goals in the South China Sea to allies and adversaries without escalating to a conflict.
The Cipher Brief: If you had to brief the incoming Trump Administration on U.S. maritime interests in Asia, and specifically the South China Sea, what would you highlight as the most critical variables on which to focus?
Jonathan Greenert: The South China Sea (SCS) has received a lot of media coverage. Consequently, it is viewed by many as the most likely potential flash point. I think the East China Sea (ECS) is (and has been) the most volatile maritime area in the region. This was validated in my discussions with Japanese military and defense policy officials last month. They are increasingly concerned. Sovereignty disputes between Japan and China regarding natural gas and mineral rights in the Senkaku Islands have been festering. Naval, coast guard, and military air patrols, by each, in a relatively small geographical area have steadily increased. Their history of deep and sensitive cultural issues is well known.
There are few bilateral mechanisms to resolve emerging sea and air disputes due to their strained relations, although some engagement in this area is underway. Both navies have agreed to implement CUES (Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea), a protocol (air and maritime) for professional behavior in international waters and airspace, designed to preclude miscalculation. However, this protocol has not yet been agreed to by their respective coast guards. Chinese-Japanese coast guard ships and aircraft are the predominant platforms currently interacting in the ECS. Regionally, this deserves more vigilance and dialogue to sustain stability.
My counsel to Trump Administration representatives regarding the Indo-Pacific would be: Draft and articulate a coherent, unambiguous, and cogent security and defense strategy; assure allies, friends, and potential partners; warn adversaries and potential adversaries; retain all options to act in the United States’ best interests. Specifically:
- Determine U.S. security goals for the Indo-Pacific region. Publish.
- Task DoD to assess the current security situation vs. U.S. goals and propose a defense strategy, with a campaign plan for each key player in the region. Produce an unclassified and classified strategy. Revisit (and revise) associated war plans.
- The strategy would describe the desired “ends” and the “ways” to attain them, and provide the “means (resources).” Campaign plans(s) would do likewise.
- Given the significance and diversity of the region, a Diplomatic-Information-Military-Economic (DIME) approach should be mandated. Therefore, strategy would require interagency collaboration and cooperation.
- Address “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.” Endorse, replace, revise, or terminate it.
- The ECS and SCS should be part of a People’s Republic of China (PRC) campaign plan. Develop and implement a proactive approach to these areas. There appears to be a semblance of strategic equilibrium in the SCS at this point. Do not wait for “another shoe to drop” via People’s Liberation Army (PLA)/People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) activity. Be proactive, holistic and think about “and then… what?” before acting.
- As part of a maritime element of a campaign plan, the message should be:
- ECS and SCS are international waters; sovereignty claims to shoals/rocks are illegitimate
- Freedom of Navigation (by all) is an imperative
- U.S. will be tangibly present at an appropriate level in the SCS and ECS
- Sovereignty disputes must be addressed peacefully, and resolved through international forums and norms
- United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) should be delegated authority and responsibility to carry out the elements of the Indo-Pacific strategy and campaign plans. Delegate.
- Endorse our current treaty obligations with allies; reassure them of U.S. commitment.
TCB: How has the U.S. – China relationship evolved over the last few years in terms of the South China Sea?
JG: It would appear we were distracted with other global security issues while the PLA increased its presence in the SCS and built facilities on former shoals and rocks. Engagement with PRC leadership was too late to reverse this process. My interface with PLAN leadership in December 2015 indicates that most of their goals (regarding naval facilities in SCS) were met by early 2015. Despite assurances by President Xi (“no militarization”…a vague term), it appears clear that the logistic and defensive military capabilities of the SCS sites are in place.
In my opinion, it is too late to reverse or undo occupancy, without risking a conflict. Our future strategy should assume these facilities are in place and active, and pursue limiting their use.
Recently, PLAN-United States Navy (USN) relations have been strained due to the SCS issues. Focused American media attention and micro-management of USN Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) led the PLAN to interpret an increased USN presence (threat) in the Western Pacific and SCS. This was reconciled after a meeting between the Chief of PLAN and Chief of Naval Operations in 2016: USN presence was acknowledged; our presence levels in the SCS had not changed; FONOPS (track or location) had not changed. Actually, PLA had paid little attention to a continuing and historical FONOPS program in the SCS until recently. CUES protocols remain in place and effective; engagement and dialogue by PLAN-USN has been restored, but not at previous levels. I perceive a low likelihood of miscalculation or conflict between PLAN and USN in the SCS.
TCB: What is the value of FONOPS for furthering U.S. goals?
JG: FONOPS has been in place for decades. It is a global program, managed and authorized by Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCCs), designed to assert free and innocent maritime (and air) passage in internationally recognized waterways and airways. It has been a good tool, when used in conjunction with exercises, dialogue, and military-to-military engagement, for theater messaging and shaping. FONOPS is less effective when executed inconsistently, managed from D.C., and used as a singular messaging tool. Recent management of FONOPS’ episodes in the SCS interrupted the consistency of the program, confused some in the region with regard to intent, and instigated a perception that the program’s principles (freedom of navigation) are negotiable.
FONOPS should be a tool in a regional tool bag, but not the only tool in the regional tool bag. When that happens, the program’s purpose and intent become corrupted.
TCB: U.S. naval operations have been used in tandem with diplomacy in the South China Sea. Do you think there are other ways to reinforce U.S. interests in the region?
JG: Yes. My view is that the U.S. has been too light on some elements of DIME (diplomacy and other options), and too heavy on military (naval) operations in this regard. Use of the military (solely or primarily), without clear perspective, can send an unintended message. My interface with colleagues in the region indicates it has created an image that is reactionary and unidimensional. Again, use all elements of DIME.
First, provide a clear and coherent strategy with a campaign plan defining our ends, ways, and means. Publish it. Regional allies, friends, and adversaries should all understand our ends and therefore our intentions.
Second, engage and act, and not react, on behalf of the elements of the strategy and in our best interest (e.g. international waters, sovereignty, etc.).
Third, delegate execution of a strategy and associated campaign plans to the GCC.
TCB: How important are relationships between the U.S. and other countries with claims in the South China Sea? Has the U.S. done enough to maintain and grow relationships?
JG: The sovereignty claims in the SCS are: multilateral, disparate, varied regarding basis, deep in history and culture, and evolving. I believe having a claim (or not) should hold little significance in influencing U.S. relationships.
A consistent and transparent relationship with each regional nation in ASEAN and the SCS is important. We should work harder to remove the stigma that the U.S. is losing interest or leaving the area. In fact, our maritime (naval) presence has been steadily increasing (albeit modestly). However, our interest in other elements of DIME (based on personal interface with counterparts and former colleagues in the area, and media) has appeared to wane.