The South China and East China Seas present flashpoints for maritime conflict, though the assembled experts at The Cipher Brief’s Georgetown Salon Series could not agree which was a more pressing issue for the United States. Retired Admiral John Greenert was joined by Greg Poling Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS and Tim Heath, a senior researcher at RAND, for a discussion on China’s goals for the two seas and what is at stake for the U.S. and its regional allies.
China’s growing military capabilities have enabled it to expand its territorial claims in both seas. In the South China Sea, it has reclaimed over 3,000 acres of land masses and shoals in order to build military bases. In the East China Sea, China has increased the activity of military ships and aircraft that often enter the air and sea space of South Korea and Japan. China’s conflicting claims of sovereignty with other nations in the region, challenges the U.S. who has alliances with neighboring countries and is bound to upholding the international law of the sea.
Greenert, a former Chief of Naval Operations and Shali Chair in National Security at the National Bureau of Asian Research, is more concerned about the East China Sea. “The bigger issue frankly, if you want to talk about volatility is the East China Sea, where Japan and China do not like each other,” said Greenert. China and Japan lay claim to the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands, and the U.S. has sworn to defend them alongside Japan. The increasing presence of Chinese coast guard vessels in this area raises the likelihood of miscalculation or an accident. “We don’t want a conflict to start because a Chinese coast guard ship shot up a Japanese Destroyer. You have grey and white mixing around. It’s a bad cocktail. And that I would tell you, ladies and gentlemen, is where the story might be more than the South China Sea.”
Poling acknowledged the immediate danger of conflict in the East China Sea, but argued the implications for the rules based international order made China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea a more important issue for the United States. “The acceptance of the nine-dash line and China’s conception of it fundamentally undermines 75 years of U.S. policy and the entire order we built,” Poling said, “because what it basically does is say, ‘If you have a big enough navy and the political will, the rules don’t apply to you.’” The nine-dash line dates to a long standing claim by China over the entirety of the South China Sea that predates international law of the sea and is not recognized by any international body.
Heath explained China’s militarization of the South China Sea is linked to its drive for a greater leadership role in Asia. “This problem is nested in a bigger problem for China, and that is competition for leadership in Asia.” Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China is more willing to be assertive and take larger risks, and Beijing believes “…if the region is going to be increasingly integrated under Chinese economic leadership, it needs to be integrated under Chinese security leadership as well. So there is a bigger problem here as well.”
Greenert argued that U.S. ends, ways, and means were not clearly defined, and this gave China a foothold in the South China Sea that may be permanent. “It is what it is now, we’re not going to get them out of there, but we’ve got to get out ahead of this issue.”
He also shared his views on the new reality of the relative decline in U.S. military dominance in the region as China has developed its own cutting edge weaponry over the last two decades. “People say, you can no longer do what you did in 1996 and send two carriers into the Straits of Taiwan and show up the Chinese. You’re right we can’t do that…. Can we come in in a certain manner, jam some of their systems for a period of time to send in strike missions if we wanted? Yes. we can. But we can’t move in there and loiter and give them the finger and say ‘Come on’ Those days have been over for longer than we admit.”
Chinese ballistic missile capabilities pose a real threat to surface vessels, but as a former submariner, Greenert was more optimistic about U.S. undersea capabilities. “I’ll leave you with this: we own the undersea domain. Anything below the surface, we can go anywhere we want, and that’s a key issue, to keep it that way.”
But it’s not just about military capabilities. Greenert stressed the importance of non-military measures and expressed regret over the Trump Administration’s decision to shelve the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade agreement. Greenert maintains the United States’ policy should employ Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economics (DIME) and said, “[TPP] was a grand example of finally, if you will, of leading and bringing all of [Asia] together…. That was going to be a big “E” in the broader rebalance to the Asia Pacific. And now [we’re] out.”
Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.