Normandy, Argonne Forest, Anzio, and Iwo Jima are all names that many Americans recognize as American military campaigns. 

Lesser known campaigns are recognized in the names Peleliu, Biak, and Khe Sahn.  There is an unfortunate possibility that the names Mischief Reef, Parcells and Woody Reef might enter the American lexicon of battlefields.  The last three names are all within the South China Sea (SCS), a Mediterranean sized body of water bounded by China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.  Why might the US and China fight over a body of water far, far away?  (Except for our Japanese and Korean bridgeheads.) The SCS is a hot topic.  Recently “Foreign Policy” and “Foreign Affairs” have both weighed in, as well as many other authors.  So what the heck, here is a primer from me. This little bit of writing will hopefully help the Glibertariat to understand some of the issues and to be able to engage with others on what the US’s policy options are.


So who are the players on this game board? 

The biggest by far is China and primarily the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), Chinese Sea Police (aka Coast Guard), the People’s Armed Force Maritime Militia (PAFMM) and the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF).  China is also has one of the world’s largest merchant marine fleets and uses the SCS to bring and send resources and products to every continent.

The PLAN is executing the world’s most extensive and aggressive fleet expansion and modernization campaigns.  It is estimated that by 2020 the PLAN will be the 2d largest navy in the world as counted by tonnage and frigate and larger warships. The PLAN will exceed the USN in the number of combatants. The PLAN is beginning to execute extended blue water operations, determining how to make carrier groups effective warfighting tools, and executing submarine operations well beyond their coastal water.  Their stated goal is to be capable of conducting “regional offensive operations” and they currently are part of the combined anti-piracy effort off of Somalia.  The PLAN also has two brigades of Marines, with a third being formed.  All these units are on Hainan Island or the adjacent mainland coastal region.

The PLAAF is fielding large numbers of modern 4th generation aircraft that can go toe to toe with many US aircraft and outperform Taiwanese aircraft. The PLAAF is preparing to field significant numbers of 5th generation aircraft as well.  Like the PLAN they are expanding and modernizing faster than any other nation.  It appears that they are also loosening combat control of their formations to enable pilots to use more initiative.  The PLAAF is already large and still growing under recent PRC military reorganization.

The CSP is really a second navy but painted white instead of gray. The Chinese recently transferred control of the CSP from the police to the military.  The CSP is by far the largest coast guard on the planet and its largest ships are the size of US guided missile cruisers.  The CSP operates throughout the SCS and not just around Chinese made features conducting both traditional coast guard missions and para-military operations.

The PAFMM is a newer and less understood military component. They are almost unique in the world with the primary mission to engage in gray zone operations to frustrate effective response by the other parties involved. These vessels can be purpose built or much more frequently are reconfigured otherwise “civil” vessels. The PAFMM are widely seen participating in low-intensity coercion during maritime disputes including harassing or ramming vessels from other nations and even occupying disputed maritime features.

The PLARF controls Chinese tactical to strategic, conventional and nuclear, rockets and missiles. Doctrinally the PLARF conducts deterrence, compellence, and coercive operations. In the event that deterrence fails, the missions of a conventional missile strike campaign could include “launching firepower strikes against important targets in the enemy’s campaign and strategic deep areas.” including command centers, communications hubs, radar stations, guided missile positions, air force and naval facilities, transport and logistical facilities, fuel depots, electrical power centers, and aircraft carrier strike groups. Writers also stress that, “In all, Chinese military writings on conventional missile campaigns stress the importance of surprise and suggest a preference for preemptive strikes.” Preemptive missile strikes to initiate active hostilities are also consistent with China’s overall military strategy of “active defense.”   Leaving aside strategic nuclear weapons, China has more conventional missiles than any other nation and is not signatory to the IMF. By being free of the IMF China is not constrained to distances and methods like the US (and Russia).  The PLARF like the rest of the PLA believes that “quantity is a quality itself” and so their missiles are in greater numbers, shoot longer distances and with bigger warheads than other nations.  Recently they have started fielding the DF-26 which can range Guam from the Chinese mainland with both conventional and nuclear warheads.  The PLARF makes no bones about their possible targets since their interior China test range uses model US airfields, ships and ports for targeting.

It is useful to remember that the term “deterrence” is used differently by the US/West and China.  To us “deterrence” means taking actions to prevent another party from taking an action. So actions taken to keep the peace.  To the Chinese “deterrence” means the use of force to stop another party from continuing an action. This mismatch in definitions could lead to a dangerous situation.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a relatively minor player in the SCS.  They are undergoing a large scale modernization campaign.  The PLA is also reducing in size as the other components are growing. Ground pounders are less of a player

The second player in the SCS is the Republic of China (aka Taiwan). Their armed forces are small in number and nowhere as modern as the PRC’s new equipment.  Taiwan’s F-16’s are capable, but there are too few of them to make much difference.  The Taiwanese most likely would try to sit out any SCS brouhaha that does not directly impact them since any active participation would invite a major PRC attack or an invasion of Taiwan.

The third major players are the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.  They have smaller militaries than China, but have intense economic interests in the SCS. None of them has the mass or modern enough equipment to take on a concerted PRC effort in the SCS. Vietnam has demonstrated a long history of challenging the PRC while the PI has weakened their opposition under Duerte.  Despite winning their legal challenge the PI’s President has been very friendly with Xi and the PRC.

The fourth major player is the United States.  Since our founding the United States has fought multiple wars over freedom of the seas, both declared and undeclared.  We have naval forces and aircraft that operate within the SCS for freedom of navigation (FONOPS) and intelligence reasons.  While we have no permanent military installations within the Philippines we do have Special Operations, Ground, Air and Maritime forces operating throughout the country on a regular basis. Our attack submarine force is very advanced, but the SCS is not a great operating area.  We, and several other countries, conduct FONOPS around the multiple features and we have been known to send one or more complete Carrier Groups through the Formosa Strait to deliver a point.

These operations are not without risk.  During the early days of the Bush the Younger administration, a P-3 and a Chinese J-8 bumped over the SCS.  The J-8 was destroyed (the pilot died) and the P-3 made an emergency landing in the PRC on Hainan Island.  After much brouhaha we got the crew back and eventually most of the P-3 shipped back in crates. More recently we had military aircraft, surface combat ships and support ships repeatedly harassed and threatened with unsafe maneuvers by Chinese aircraft and vessels. The latest that made the news was in October and involved the USS Decatur and a PLAN destroyer near Gaven Reefs which are claimed by Vietnam, China and the Philippines and are located approximately 1000km from China’s Hainan Island.


Gaven Reefs 2014 Construction


Gaven Reefs Recent


FONOPS also cause debate within the international defense community.  Some regard FONOPS as too provocative, while others regard them as too timid.  The two camps arguments can be summarized.  The provocative camp says why twist the dragon’s tail and ruin negotiations? The too timid camp’s thrust is that 12 mile nautical free passage FONOPS are granting recognition for rights that don’t exist under international law. Therefore FONOPS undercut the correct legal position that the features are not islands so have no exclusionary or economic zones. Under this viewpoint we could sail as close as we want while conducting military operations and be fully lawful.

Other regional nations with a considerable interest in the SCS are Japan, Republic of Korea and Australia because of the importance of the SCS in trade and seaborne transportation. Japan is more concerned with their disputes with China over the East China Seas and islands.  While the Japanese does have a Self Defense Force with modern equipment, the SCS is only a secondary issue until the Chinese shut free transit of vessels.  The ROK concentrates on the Norks and their view of the SCS mirror Japans concerns.  Australia sits outside the island chains and has more concern over free access and Chinese interests in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.  (Say hello to the Guadalcanal Campaign V2.0?)


What does SCS playing board look like?

The SCS is a salt water sea bounded at the north by Taiwan, the south by the Strait of Malacca area the east by the “first island chain and on the west by mainland Asia.  For an idea of scale the SCS, less the Gulf of Thailand, is roughly 1.4 times the size of the Mediterranean with China claiming sovereignty over almost the entire space.  They are doing this through the “nine dash line” and construction.  “The nine dash line” is the PRC’s claimed area of sovereignty and reaches throughout the SCS, at times encroaching on the 12 mile limits of the various states.

“The first island chain” stretches from the Japanese home islands, through the Ryukus (home of US military bases on Okinawa), Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo and closing at the Strait of Malacca. The Chinese view this as “their” lake and their military publications stress the first island chain as the area it must secure and disable from American bases, aircraft and aircraft carrier groups.  The PLA states that within this area it must be prepared to tactically unleash pre-emptive strikes against an enemy with the aim of sealing off the SCS and ECS.

“The second island chain” stretches through the Japanese home islands, the US territory of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This is the area that the PRC wants to achieve maritime and air dominance over to provide a buffer zone for the SCS and mainland.



Sea lanes, fish and oil.  These three things are a large part of the why the PRC and the neighboring nations are squabbling about the SCS.  Fifty percent of all the oil shipped in the world transits the SCS; the bulk of the rest of the world’s maritime traffic moves through the SCS (the America’s), or the SCS and the Strait of Malacca to get to/from, India, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.  Over half of the planet’s population lives in nations near or adjacent to the SCS.  The SCS is one of the last great fishing grounds so everybody is interested in this source of protein.  And that brings us to oil.  There are large known or suspected oil fields in the SCS and the nation that controls them will gain a regional advantage. By not having to bring oil from the far side of the planet makes this resource cheaper to use or sell.


SCS maritime trade routes and densities


The fisheries in the SCS provide ~12-14% of all the commercially caught fish on the planet.  China harvests ~73% of all the fish they consume or sell from the SCS.  If you buy Chinese seafood you have most probably consumed animals harvested from the SCS. While there is some oil production in the SCS the fisheries are the here and now reason why the Nations surrounding the SCS all are concerned about China’s claims.


Claimant EEZ 200 miles boundaries (blue) and Nine Hash Line (red)


Twelve and 200 nautical miles.  International law states that a nation has sovereignty over large bodies of water out to 12 nautical miles.  That means that they can regulate “innocent passage” and in some cases prohibit transit of vessels and aircraft which are not registered to that nation out to that distance.  After that distance the water (and air above it) is open for the transit of any user, and for nation permitted commercial uses.  So a Russian or Chinese “oceanic research vessel” with a forest of antennas can hover 13 miles off of Cape Cod or Los Angeles with no legal objection.  By the same token a US Navy carrier strike group can transit the Formosa Strait between the PRC mainland coast and Taiwan.  Commercial aviation also makes use of this legal principle all over the world.  So a Singapore Air flight from Singapore to Tokyo can overflight the SCS seeking without permission of anybody except for Japan.  There are some exceptions to this law.  Where there is less than 12 nautical miles the border is equidistant.  For bays and gulfs the rules are a bit more convoluted.  Ronald Reagan and Qudafi famously disagreed about this point in the Gulf of Sidra.

Why do we care about 200 nautical miles?  This is the exclusive economic zone for a country over salty water. Within that space a nation controls the use of natural resources above, in, and below the water.  They may reserve it for their exclusive use or set up means to regulate persons from other nations to use it.  This is why both the UK and Norway control only parts of the North Sea oil fields and there are no French platforms.  Like the 12 mile limit, if there isn’t 200 miles between nations the zone boundaries meet at the midline.

Shoals, Rocks, Islands and manmade features.  See the illustration.  The key point being that features must be naturally occurring and not manmade. Manmade features receive no mileage around them.  China is taking shoals and rocks and constructing large manmade features within the SCS then claiming the features as islands and hence that the 12 and 200 miles laws apply.  The map shows China is claiming all the oil and fish within the Nine Dash Line in the SCS.  China’s opinion is that has exclusive use to the natural resources and it can close the SCS to maritime and aerial traffic. This has gotten the neighbors, and others like the USA, concerned because of the economic and free trade impacts.  To be clear the Chinese have not announced any maritime exclusion or air defense zones, yet.  They have claimed an air defense identification zone a bit farther north over the East China Sea which the US ignores and has stated it will not comply with.



The Chinese efforts are not small scale.  They have created multiple square miles of “land” replete with jet capable runways, multiple military radars, missile farms and supporting structures.  More worrisome is that over the last half decade the pace and scope on construction steadily increases.

Mischief Reef


At first the Chinese claimed the features were to aid navigation and search and rescue, now they openly fly modern fighters in and out of them and increase their arming of the features by adding modern radar systems, as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft weaponry.


SCS Spratly outposts and Slightly old Claimant EEZ 200 miles boundaries (blue) and Nine Hash Line (red)


The Chinese actions in the SCS started in 1974 when it seized the Vietnamese claimed Parcell Islands.  This led to a long term feud which culminated in 1988 when the Chinese machine gunned and killed 72 Viet fisherman and sunk two boats at South Johnson Reef.  China continues to dispute Vietnamese claims and has multiple steps top block fishing and drilling.  The PRC has carefully watched the international scene and in 2012 started making their move.  First they seized Scarborough Shoal from the PI. They watched what the US would do and when they saw acquiescence from the Obama administration they moved to the next phase to construct new features.  Their main dredger (the Tianjing) can dredge and hose out 4,530 cubic meters of soil per hour.  They first used it at South Johnson Reef where it created an 11 hectare “island” in less than four months.  Again the US, ASEAN and the West took no action.  The Chinese started building at an ever increasing pace and now have seven features in the SCS.

Now these features have port facilities, military buildings, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, logistical warehouses for fuel, water and ammunition. Most tellingly these features now have heavy transport and military jet capable runways and airstrips and the PRC has landed these aircraft on them. The international tribunal ruled against China actions in 2016 and China ignored the ruling, again without any cost.  Now the PRC has expanded their control further by strong-arming the other SCS nations into suspending the exploitation of natural resources within their own 200 mile exclusive economic zones.  The new USINDOPACOM Commander during his confirmation hearings told the US Senate that for all practical purposes the PRC had won the race to develop a military capacity on these features in the SCS and now the US needs to determine the next steps to take.

Fiery Cross Reef construction and recent



Stay tuned for Part 2.