The South China Sea on the “Day after Taiwan”
The South China Sea offers an ideal case study for future
conflict off Chinese shores. Chinese and Western strategists once forecast that
the Pacific Ocean constituted the most likely theater of twenty-first-century
maritime competition between the United States and China. Admiral Liu Huaqing,
the modern PLA Navy’s founding father, espoused an eastward-facing strategy,
perhaps stemming from China’s preoccupation with a possible Taiwan contingency.
Even Liu, however, included the South China Sea among the “near seas” where the
Chinese navy must gird itself to prosecute active-defense operations. And
indeed, the South China Sea is a more probable locus for contingencies pitting
the PLA against the U.S. Navy. Beijing’s claim to “indisputable” or
“irrefutable” sovereignty over most of that expanse, its construction and
arming of artificial islands, and its heavy-handed conduct toward Southeast
Asian neighbors have shifted the center of gravity for high-seas competition
The South China Sea is China’s crucial gateway to the Indian
Ocean. At least four strategic challenges beckon the attention of Chinese
strategists southward. First and foremost, Taiwan, at the northern edge of the
sea, continues to obsess China’s leadership. A formal declaration of
independence or a Taiwanese breach of a Chinese redline such as constitutional
reform remains the most likely casus belli for Beijing. But the cross-strait
dispute is no longer the all-consuming issue it once was. If it has not
already, China will soon gain the confidence to start looking past Taiwan to
other pursuits in Southeast and South Asia.
Satisfactory settlement of affairs in the Taiwan Strait will
free up Chinese resources and energies, advance the cause of national
unification, and break through Dean Acheson’s island-chain perimeter. To borrow
from General Douglas MacArthur, regaining the island would also give the PLA
its own offshore—and unsinkable (if also immobile)—aircraft carrier and
submarine tender. Moreover, if China occupies Taiwan, which Admiral Ernest King
called “the cork in the bottle of the South China Sea,” Chinese shipping bound
to or from the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or the Mediterranean Sea can
reach Chinese seaports unmolested.
The second strategic challenge perplexing Chinese scholars
and top officials is the “Malacca dilemma” or “Malacca predicament.” Former
president Hu Jintao first articulated this strategic problem, which entails an
attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to close the Malacca,
Lombok, or Sunda Strait to Chinese shipping as an indirect riposte during a
Taiwan conflict or some other Pacific imbroglio.
Assuring free passage through the sea lines of communication
linking the Persian Gulf region and Africa with Chinese seaports—in particular
through the Strait of Malacca—has thus taken on surpassing importance to
China’s communist regime. The uninterrupted flow of oil, natural gas, and other
raw materials across the bodies of water south and southwest of the
mainland—the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean—will occupy an increasingly
prominent place in China’s maritime calculus. This emerging energy security
imperative suggests that tracking longer-term Chinese intentions and grand
strategy in southern waters constitutes an urgent task for the United States.
Third, China has staked claim to the waters, air, and
islands of most of the South China Sea at its neighbors’ expense. Indeed, the
National People’s Congress in effect wrote China’s claims into domestic law in
1992. In 2009 the government submitted a map to the United Nations delineating
its claims. A “nine-dashed line” enclosing an estimated 80–90 percent of the
South China Sea bounds the area where China claims indisputable sovereignty. At
its most basic, sovereignty means physical control of space within an area on a
map. What the sovereign says there is the law, and others obey. Unsurprisingly,
China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and attempts to enforce those
claims have generated considerable tension.
Both national sentiment and the region’s value as a maritime
thoroughfare animate Beijing’s policy, as do the undersea resources said to be
found around the many islands to which China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and
Vietnam have lodged claims. The seas are also a growing source of nutrition as
a Chinese citizenry that enjoys rising disposable incomes turns its appetite to
seafood. Even cartographers have joined the fray. One laments that the landmass
of China resembles a rooster, an image unworthy of China’s majesty; but
including the sea areas China has claimed gives the nation an appealing shape
on the map—a torch. “Chinese map,” proclaims the mapmaker, “you are the
collected emotion and wisdom of the Chinese people, their coagulated blood and
raging fire, symbolic of their power and personality, the embodiment of their
worth and spirit.”
This conveys not only the region’s importance for Chinese
national dignity but also the interdependence between the sea and Chinese
economic development. Beijing has sought to give effect to domestic law as it
amasses dominant sea power, relying on a maritime militia and a modern coast
guard backed up by the PLA Navy. Southeast Asia’s coastal states have not yet
determined how to uphold their rights and privileges under the law of the sea
in the face of an increasingly bellicose China.
Fourth, it has become apparent that undersea warfare imparts
momentum to China’s southward maritime turn. In April 2008 Jane’s Intelligence
Review disclosed that the PLA had constructed an impressive naval base complete
with underground pens for fleet SSBNs, at Sanya on Hainan Island, in the
northern reaches of the South China Sea. The news prompted a flurry of
speculation among strategic thinkers in the West and Asia. “Must India be
anxious?” asked one Indian commentator.
Many countries should be. To borrow a metaphor Chinese
officials use, the Sanya base gives Beijing the first of China’s “two eyes” at
sea—Taiwan being the other. Metaphors aside, basing SSBNs in the South China
Sea would let the PLA Navy outflank U.S. and Japanese ASW efforts in northeast
Asia while enabling the Chinese submarine force to operate on exterior lines.
Sanya gives the navy a forward base not only for SSBNs but for attack
submarines, aircraft, and surface units as well, projecting China’s combat
reach outward in much the same way Taiwan would do in the Pacific Ocean. The
artificial island redoubts to Hainan’s south have helped Beijing consolidate
its control over this offshore preserve.
The South China Sea, in short, offers an ideal theater for
the PLA to fight on tactically exterior lines while the United States operates
along strategically exterior lines. The Luzon Strait, which separates Taiwan
from the Philippines, has taken on new prominence now that operational Chinese
units are stationed at Sanya. Regaining Taiwan would expedite Chinese military
access to the strait—its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. In a day-after-Taiwan
scenario, having emplaced PLA air and sea forces on the island, China would
extend its reach seaward while occupying a commanding position opposite Luzon.
This positioning would render China’s logic of dispersed
attack even more compelling. PLA forces could vector in attacks on U.S. Navy
task forces not only from PLAN units at sea but also from sites on the mainland
and, just as important, from Hainan and Taiwan—its twin offshore aircraft carriers
and submarine tenders, to borrow MacArthur’s metaphor. Once armed with antiship
missiles, the artificial islands could lend additional firepower to the mix,
further complicating the tactical picture for U.S. commanders. By forcing the
United States into perimeter defense, the PLA could open up promising tactical
vistas for itself. It could feint in the South China Sea, for instance,
stretching American defenses and situational awareness to the south while
staging a breakout to the north, through the narrow passages piercing the
Ryukyu Islands or the Japanese archipelago itself.
Taken together, this strategy adds up to an effort similar
to the one the United States mounted in Mahan’s day, when the U.S. Navy set out
to establish local ascendancy over superior European navies in the Caribbean
Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These were expanses of overriding economic and
military importance to a rising United States that had fixed its gaze on Asia
and Pacific markets and bases. Consequently, for U.S. naval commanders,
revisiting U.S. maritime history while monitoring how China manages its
“Caribbean” could supply a harbinger of future Chinese actions in the South
Strategic Preference #1: Dispersed Sea Denial
To return to Wayne Hughes’ analytical template, what are
China’s strategic preferences for naval warfare? How will China apply its
panoply of new hardware to achieve the goal of sea denial? Following Hughes’
three determinants of tactical effectiveness, Chinese defenders will attempt to
disrupt U.S. scouting, outrange U.S. weaponry, and exploit defects in U.S.
fleet tactics, keeping American commanders off balance. Consonant with Mao’s
injunction to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers rather than mash them all, PLA
defenders will concentrate on individual U.S. units or small formations that
find themselves remote from mutual support. They will operate along tactically
exterior lines, concentrating firepower in space and time at the last minute to
overpower American defenses. In short, they will fight according to the Maoist
way of war, defeating a stronger antagonist piecemeal.
By playing up tactical victories in the world press, Beijing
can hope to discourage the American people, peel off ambivalent U.S. allies
such as Japan or Australia, and collapse the overall U.S. effort. Western
analysts must monitor the PLA for inventive uses of China’s tactical and
geostrategic advantages. Some representative weapon systems useful for
dispersed but integrated attacks would include the following.
Antiship Cruise Missiles
The PLA has plowed major effort and resources into cruise
missile procurement and development. Antiship missiles can be fired from ships,
aircraft, and surface batteries, forcing U.S. Navy antiair defenders to cope
with multiple threat axes. For instance, the fast, agile SS-N-22 Moskit (known
in U.S. naval circles as the Sunburn) carried on board PLA Navy
Sovremennyy-class DDGs has excellent prospects even against the U.S. Navy’s
Aegis combat system, the latest in American technical wizardry and the system
it was designed to penetrate. A decade ago a RAND report situated SS-N-22 and
SS-N-27 antiship missiles at the heart of China’s strategy for a Taiwan
contingency, strongly suggesting that the United States would find itself on
the losing end of a cross-strait encounter in 2020. The YJ-18 missile now
entering service boasts a range of 290 nautical miles—about four times that of
the Harpoon, the standard antiship weapon in the U.S. Navy surface fleet for
now. Ships carrying the YJ-18 could get in their licks long before U.S.
warships could respond. Such weaponry, in short, makes an ideal candidate for
orthodox or unorthodox antiship attack.
Antiship Ballistic Missiles
In 2010 Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S.
Pacific Command, announced that the PLA’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile
(ASBM) had attained “initial operational capability,” meaning the ASBM had made
its operational debut while still undergoing testing and refinement. The DF-21D
boasts a range of 1,500–2,000 kilometers and can reportedly strike at moving
ships on the high seas. In a 2015 military parade in Beijing the PLA displayed
the DF-26, a ballistic missile with the range to strike Guam. The DF-26
reportedly has an ASBM variant, projecting the reach of Chinese anti-access
defenses 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers offshore. If they live up to their hype, the
DF-21D and DF-26 will expand the operating grounds for China’s fortress fleet
A China able to strike effectively beyond the second island
chain with sufficient numbers of ASBMs could hope to replicate Imperial Japan’s
strategy, which aimed at reducing the U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line far out in
the Pacific as a precursor to a decisive engagement in Asian waters. Unlike
Japanese forces, however, the PLA could mount such a strategy without bothering
to seize and fortify Pacific islands. A working ASBM capability would signal
that the PLA can act along exterior lines against U.S. naval forces across far
greater distances than once thought possible. It could execute a Maoist
strategy on a region-wide scale.
Stealth fighter/attack aircraft such as the PLA Air Force
J-20 would make an ideal implement for unorthodox attack against U.S.
airborne-early-warning and tanker aircraft. The J-20 sports a
two-thousand-kilometer combat radius. Flights of elusive J-20s could strike at
the U.S. Navy and Air Force surveillance and logistics capability, blinding
American aviators while denying warplanes the fuel they need to sustain flight
operations over the western Pacific. In short, PLA stealth aviators could
encumber U.S. air power without fighting a major air battle against
cutting-edge U.S. F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters. That is the very definition of
an unorthodox attack.
And it would be well aimed. Showcased in Afghanistan, in two
wars against Iraq, and in other conflicts of the past two decades, the modern
American way of war is premised on winning the contest for information
supremacy at the outbreak of war. U.S. forces have prevailed in large part
because superior technology has given them a “common operating picture” of
conditions in the battle space that no opponent can match. Airborne sensors
detect and target enemy aircraft, ships, or ground vehicles from afar. Jammers
and antiradiation missiles incapacitate enemy sensors attempting to gather data
on and target U.S. assets. These tactics effectively paralyze U.S. adversaries
during the opening phases of a military campaign, paving the way for an even
more important battlefield condition: air supremacy.
J-20 or J-31 stealth jets could seriously degrade U.S.
scouting effectiveness, one of Hughes’ chief determinants of tactical success.
Weapons range means little without the ability to find and target enemy forces
at long distances. Since the dawn of carrier warfare, U.S. maritime strategy
has seen command of the air as a prerequisite for surface fleet operations. An
operation near Chinese shores would be no different. If Chinese pilots struck
down Airborne Warning and Control System or E-2D early-warning planes, they
would wholly or partially nullify the U.S. edge in information warfare, slowing
down and complicating U.S. aviators’ efforts to command the skies. In doing so
they would blunt U.S. offensive action while exposing U.S. warships, including
aircraft carriers, to air and missile counterstrikes.
A robust Chinese stealth air fleet would oblige U.S.
commanders to devote energy and air assets to securing the skies. For instance,
commanders might find themselves forced to assign scarce fighters to escort
early-warning or tanker planes, taking the escorts out of the major fight and
thus diluting U.S. combat power. Even if PLA stealth aviation remains inferior
to its American counterpart it could open the way for PLA offensive-defensive
operations in Mao Zedong’s sense. Debilitating the foe would boost the PLA’s
chances of denying maritime command.
The PLAN submarine fleet has aroused growing concern in U.S.
defense circles, judging from scholarly commentary and the Pentagon’s annual
reports to Congress on Chinese military power. Lethal, stealthy diesel-electric
submarines such as Russian-built Kilos and indigenous Yuans or Songs can prowl
China’s offshore contested zone while nuclear boats range farther afield,
cueing PLA commanders as U.S. forces approach or launching nuisance attacks on
the high seas. Armed with wake-homing torpedoes, even diesel boats can compel
American ships to take radical evasive maneuvers. The torpedoes can distract
and hamper a ship’s combat team while the PLA bombards the fleet with antiship
ballistic or cruise missiles. Subsurface combat, in short, compounds an already
wicked tactical problem.64 It could help dishearten U.S. forces or impose such
costs that U.S. officials abjure the effort to pierce China’s contested zone,
brightening China’s prospects for successful sea denial.
To sum up, if the PLA manages to force U.S. forces to fixate
on any single domain—surface, subsurface, or aerial—it can then pose new
challenges from the other domains. Nuclear and diesel attack submarines,
missile-armed fast patrol craft such as the PLAN’s Type 022 Houbei, or
“assassin’s mace” systems like minefields make good adjuncts to more
traditional systems like ASBMs and shore-based aircraft. PLA commanders could
combine and recombine these systems to dizzy American defenders. In a sense,
then, we are witnessing a merger of time-honored strategic concepts: jeune
école–style combatants wage war aggressively against high-end intruders, shore
artillery lends fire support on a grand scale, and an ultramodern fortress
fleet prowls the sea within reach of these supporting arms. Strategies of the
weak are coming into their own.
A well-designed Chinese force package would impose a
three-dimensional threat on U.S. forces, launching unorthodox and orthodox
attacks along multiple vectors. The more stresses the Chinese can impose, the
less likely U.S. forces will be to venture landward of the island chains or
into the South China Sea. If China can even partially cancel out U.S.
technologies that manage the fog of war, it can severely curtail U.S. forces’
freedom of maneuver along Asian coastlines—access the U.S. Navy has long taken
for granted. In short, the combined effect of multiaxis assaults could induce
U.S. forces to operate farther from Chinese shores, helping China achieve its
goal of sea denial in the China seas.
One caveat is worth appending. Despite the bleak tenor of
our commentary, we are not maintaining that these capabilities, alone or
combined, will give China a decisive edge in littoral warfare, let alone
outright military superiority over the United States. The PLA Navy is not some
superhuman force. It remains a relative newcomer to naval warfare. While
Beijing divulges few details about budgets or weapons acquisitions, the PLAN is
not exempt from the cost constraints familiar to military services worldwide.
It must surmount technological hurdles after starting from behind. Officers and
sailors must take their ships to sea for sustained intervals to refine their
seamanship and tactical acumen. When the PLA Navy will equal the U.S. Navy in
material and human terms—if ever—remains an open question.
Moreover, the PLAN would have to coordinate closely with the
PLA Air Force and Rocket Force to prosecute the joint campaign we are
describing, so as to amplify the tactical effects of multidimensional attacks
against opponent forces. Interoperability and interservice cooperation—skills
that take years of practice to hone—would be at a premium. Whether PLA combat
arms are up to these and kindred challenges remains an open question.
Certainly the PLA will press the operational and tactical
advantages it possesses while striving to overcome its lingering shortcomings.
Beijing can hope to drive up the costs of entry into waters and skies it cares
about, deterring or hindering U.S. involvement in Asian conflicts. If
successful, it will have fulfilled its defensive strategic aims. If the PLA can
deny U.S. forces the ability to dictate events, it will have attained the most
important goal of sea denial: seizing local control of sea and sky long enough
to realize operational and strategic goals. The approach we have posited here
comports with the experiences of the past forty-plus years of naval war. From
Egypt’s sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx missiles in 1967, to
Argentina’s sinking of HMS Sheffield in 1982, to Iraq’s Exocet attack on USS
Stark in 1987, to Hezbollah’s crippling of the Israeli corvette Spear with a
C-802 surface-to-surface missile in 2006, experience demonstrates that an
inferior yet determined navy can hurt a superior one.
The Chinese have afforded these historical case studies
close scrutiny. They have learned that the weak can force the strong to change
their behavior even without winning outright. In each incident, a single
missile hit brought about major tactical effects. In the cases of Eilat and
Sheffield, a missile sank a ship altogether. Or missile strikes can score a
“mission kill,” putting a ship’s combat-systems suite out of action while
preventing its crew from accomplishing its mission. They can disable the
stricken vessel. Sometimes, though, a missile is not required. USS Samuel B.
Roberts, USS Princeton, and USS Tripoli suffered far-reaching damage from
crude, cheap Iraqi sea mines during the late 1980s and early 1990s, furnishing
an even more striking example of how sea denial works. Thus, tactics involving
dispersed, multifaceted attacks promise the PLA a handsome return on a modest
investment. Such tactics make sense according to sound principles of naval
warfare as elaborated by Wayne Hughes. And they fit with Chinese strategic and
operational traditions. If what comes natural works, it only makes sense for
China to do it.
Strategic Preference #2: Cut Off the U.S. Navy’s
“Fingers” One by One
PLA naval planners cannot count on defeating the United
States by crippling or sinking a small, though politically significant, portion
of the U.S. fleet. The strategy might work. It might elevate the costs of
fighting China above the value Washington assigns the object at stake. Or it
might not. America could prove less morally flabby than expected. Chinese
strategists may draw a lesson from the Pacific war, the Korean War, the first
Gulf War, and the 9/11 terror attacks: do not discount America’s will to fight.
Hideki Tojo’s Japan, Kim il-Sung’s North Korea, Mao Zedong’s China, Saddam
Hussein’s Iraq, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda all calculated that the
surprise, speed, and shock of initial successful campaigns would stun America
into submission. All were wrong.
Prudence thus demands that Beijing consider the what-ifs.
What should the PLA do if its sea-denial strategy fails to drive U.S. naval
forces from important sea areas? Its most obvious fallback would be to keep
doing what works. Picking off U.S. warships and formations piecemeal might
eventually create a favorable environment for sea denial—so long as U.S.
commanders kept playing into Chinese hands and presenting a “cooperative
Successive minor victories at sea would resemble the battles
Mao’s Red Army fought on strategically interior but tactically exterior lines
against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. Sequential-attack
tactics would let the PLA whittle the U.S. Navy down to size over time, perhaps
fulfilling its tactical and operational aims on the logic sketched previously.
At a minimum, the tactics would gradually tilt the military balance toward
China, enhancing the PLA’s prospects for a decisive counteroffensive—as Mao
foretold. To be sure, this presupposes that Beijing has great confidence in its
ability to manage escalation in nautical warfare. It behooves U.S. naval
planners to keep tabs on Chinese strategic discourses, gauging whether PLA
strategists entertain such confidence.
In short, Wayne Hughes’ second tactical scenario—sequential
attack—would likely rank second in China’s hierarchy of naval tactics. The PLA
may disperse offensive tactical strikes in time as well as space.