Defense Treaties- who holds what wild cards?
The Unites States has defense treaties with numerous nations with SCS interests: Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia and Thailand. We also have a loose quazi-treaty with Taiwan. The common thread is that the US will help defend these nations if they are attacked. For the SCS the Philippines and to a less extent Japan are the principle concerns. As the maps show the Phils will be hugely impacted by the PRC’s claims. In 2016 the Chinese lost in international arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has since stated that it doesn’t recognize the decision and continues to claim the Nine Dash areas.
If a defense treaty nation is attacked the US has obligated itself to defend them with the US military. That means China possesses the means to determine the timing and size of any first blow.
In one example of the continuing tensions, the Phils and PRC have nearly started shooting at each other over the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratley Islands. The shoal is within 200 miles of Palawan Island but well inside the Nine-dash Line so both countries consider the area within their respective economic zones. The Phils intentionally grounded a WWII era ship in 1999 and have kept it manned with a detachment of soldiers since then. Resupply and repair operations are routinely contested by the SCP and PAFMM. Neither side has shot (yet) but the two sides play cat and mouse as the PRC tries to starve out the soldiers while waiting for the collapse of the ship.
Other Situational Considerations
Western analysts often examine security environments using DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic) considerations. How does the SCS stack up? Let’s start with the “M”.
Military Aspects. The PLA as an institution remembers fighting the Americans in Korea. During the Korean War the PLA suffered around 1,000,000 casualties (~400,000 KIA) and so realizes the cost of fighting a western power. The PLA has long been the “first among equals” within the PRC’s military hierarchy but the current reforms significantly cut army end strength while expanding the PLAN and PLAAF. The PLAN and PLAAF have no institutional memories of fighting the west and like all the world’s navies and air forces focus on their technological capabilities. The PLARF is counting not just on the technological capabilities of their missiles but on the fact they are largely located on the Chinese mainland. They can strike US forces without hitting the US homeland while knowing a counter strike means a homeland attack with the inherent strategic issues for the US.
Neither country has lost a major warship in the memory of the sailors and civil leaders. The US last lost major surface ships during the WWII. During that war the US lost 466 major combat warships and since the Okinawa Campaign (Spring 1945) has lost zero large warships in combat. The PLAN hasn’t even possessed major combat vessels until recently. Modern weaponry will cause large material and personnel losses that neither country has had to deal with within memory. How this will impact tactical and strategic decision making is unknown.
The surface combat ships and aircraft for a US Carrier Group costs $20B to $30B to build and equip and has around 8000 sailors. This does not count the costs and personnel of the CAG’s submarines or logistics ships. As the US moves to F-35’s the costs of the aircraft alone could run up to $120B per CAG. Unclassified estimates are that it takes $400,000,000 annually to operate the carrier and aircraft during a peacetime training pace. This does not include the operating costs of the other 7-10 warships and multiple support ships that make up a CAG. The costs of the Chinese vessels and aircraft is unknown but is significant as well.
China is not yet a peer competitor but it is rapidly developing the naval and aerial skills to be a peer. Their missile forces are massive and as some point out “quantity has a quality all its own.” RAND concluded that in 2017 “China possessed 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles (600-800 km range), 108 to 274 medium-range ballistic missiles (1000 to 1500+ km), an unknown number of conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles (5,000 km), and 450-1,250 land attack cruise missiles (1500+ km). RAND also estimated that improvements in the accuracy of China’s ballistic missiles may allow them to strike fixed targets in a matter of minutes with an accuracy of a few meters. RAND assesses that key U.S. facilities throughout Japan could already be within range of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.” Even US bases on Guam are now at risk from the DF-26 missile force.
It is important to remind yourself that the US (and Russian) non-ICBM’s are limited to an effective range of 500km for air and ground launched systems. Neither party can possess missiles that range 500-5,500km. China never signed the Intermediate Missile Treaty (aka INF) so they are free to build systems that are not in compliance with INF limitations. For the US to design and build missiles to meet the Chinese threat is “problematic” because of Russian concerns. These concerns, and accusations of Russian non-compliance, are why the US is discussing withdrawing from the INF Treaty.
Aircraft are no longer quick and relatively inexpensive to build. In WWII the US produced ~300,000 aircraft (including 59,000 lend lease) and lost 53,000 in combat (95,000 losses in total). Even in Vietnam, the US lost 2,197 fixed wing and 5,607 helicopters. Since then fixed wing losses in combat have been very light and since 9/11 only 70 helicopter have been shot down and 305 lost from mechanical problems or accidents. The issue with modern aircraft, especially modern fixed wing fighters, is there are few in service, production rates are slooooow and unit costs are high. The US is buying F-35’s at around $85M per copy and the full production rate is ~100/yr. (Some production is for allies and not US) While the numbers vary as aircraft are replaced with newer models it is safe to say that the entire inventory of combat fixed wing aircraft for the USAF, USN, and USMC is less than the number of fixed wing aircraft lost in Vietnam. China is aggressively purchasing modern fighters and bombers and want to have 200 of their new J-20 fighters in place for the SCS facing commands by 2025 which they believe will give them at least regional parity.
The US has almost no ability to rapidly replace sunk/badly damaged shipping or warships. The great industrial might we had in the Second World War has been outsourced or dissipated. As a Nation we have moved to other economic drivers, but in the event of a protracted conflict with a peer competitor this lack of building capacity will be a factor.
Diplomatic impacts of a fight within the SCS will roil the region. A minor military incident could be initiated by China in the belief that if they just cut off this one piece of salami from a minor country , quickly announce they are done and thereby prevent a major escalation. This might be accurate, or it might not be. Other nations have tried this approach recently (e.g. Russia) and have not found the “fuck it, we are fighting” response from the West, But attacking a defense treaty nation is different from grabbing Crimea or parts of Georgia (the nation and not the state).
Obama SecDef Ashton Carter was very critical of Obama ceding the initiative in the SCS to the Chinese. Carter has stated “recommendations from me and others to more aggressively challenge China’s excessive maritime claims and other counterproductive behaviors’.” Carter further stated “Obama even bought into China’s vision of a G2-style arrangement with the US.” This leaves the current and succeeding Administration’s in a difficult diplomatic position since the ASEAN and other regional nations saw the US inaction during the period before the military infrastructure was in place.
Never has a permanent UN Security Council member directly attacked another SC member in a known, public and major way. Even during the Cold War 1.0 the USSR and US/GB/FR used proxy conflicts. The best known case of a potential direct challenge, the Cuban Missile Crises, had all sides trying to defuse conflict. The impacts of a Chinese missile strike on a single US cruiser are unknown. If the Chinese were attack a Carrier Group in a systematic way the stakes would be exponentially higher. Presumably the entire diplomatic world would try to turn off the conflict as quickly as possible to spare a possible nuclear exchange. If the US went along with a cease fire without imposing major losses on the Chinese the diplomatic costs throughout the region would be immense.
Informational impacts of a crises could be stark as well. The Chinese again would hold the initiative and you can expect them to start coercive diplomacy via public media well before any military action. After the start of conflict the world information environment would be loaded with Chinese and China proxies’ messaging. One can consider that the “Great Firewall of China” would be expanded to limit internal knowledge of the conflict. The US response would probably be muddled, slow and largely ineffective in the short-term. This would largely be due to the overly bureaucratic “Whole of Government” interagency process combined with a very loose definition of “the truth” in Chinese messaging.
Economic impacts of any China/US conflict would be huge and felt worldwide. The economies of the SCS neighboring and ASEAN countries would tumble. If the conflict went for any time the worldwide impact of just changing shipping patterns would jar economies throughout the world far beyond the indo-pacific region. If blockades were established by either or both major combatant the cost of almost everything would rise. Markets throughout the Western World would soon face shortages of every product that either originated or passed through China. China’s “One Road” trade system would make up for some shortages, to those countries that the PRC chose to continue doing trade with. This in turn will build diplomatic pressures from both the US and China on nations to side with them for economic reasons.
“Experience differential” China’s armed forces are not experienced in actual combat operations, are still developing how to fight carrier groups, and their training environment does not routinely conduct Joint or realistic exercises. However the various parts of the Chinese military have taken efforts to increase the realism of training and introduce Joint operations.
The US Army, and USMC, are both extremely experienced at conducting company to brigade sized combat operations. The US armed forces are very experienced at conducting Joint operations to support disbursed small unit operations in a low threat combat environments, and are really the only nation able to routinely conduct extended carrier group operations. Bottom line, the US military is damn good at what they do.
The problem for the US is that a generation of service members have not seriously exercised how to conduct high end combat operations against a peer competitor. The US is trying to re-learn how to fight outnumbered and win an extended fight. So at the ground tactical level the US probably would curb stomp the PLA. However a fight over the SCS would be air and maritime dominated while fighting outnumbered against a foe fighting on short interior lines of communication. In addition the foe would be fighting over an issue considered close to existential for the China’s ruling class while being perceived as minor long term issue for the US home front.
WAR! The details are hazy. But in short, re-watch the series “Victory at Sea” and imagine it in color and high definition. The biggest question will be what happens after the first shots are fired. Will the two sides act like they touched a hot stove, pull back and spend more time blustering at each other? Or will the remorseless calculus of combat assert itself and both sides get drawn more deeply in as subsequent losses make it increasingly difficult to stop without losing too much face? (In respect to Xi and his cabal. Lose their foreheads to exit wounds?)
Okay, so what? All this wordiness might be interesting (or merely depressing) but why should I worry about my monocle mining orphans, pot and Mexican ass sex?
This is the big question. The accommodation of the rise of Germany in Europe bothered Russia, France and England and didn’t go very well in most people’s opinions. The rise of the US was accommodated by England to the world’s betterment; and the fall of the USSR went better than most people feared. The rise of China is presenting the world with a similar challenge.
China is an illiberal socialist nation whose ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders need to keep the economy growing to stave off revolt and their own executions. While the economy was growing at double digit annual rates, the CCP could keep the new internal “middle class” content enough. Now that the economy has cooled (a discussion of that would be several books of material) the CCP is looking at how to re-spark growth and finding external enemies to distract the populace. Xi as the “Authoritarian in Chief” stresses that by 2049 China will emerge from the “100 years of humiliation” as a recognized world power. Xi is looking at Taiwan but recognizes that fighting for Taiwan may involve more risk to the ruling CCP powers than they are willing to accept at this time. The SCS may offer a chance to throw off “humiliation” at much less risk and before 2049.
Why less risk? The SCS is close to the mainland and very far from the US mainland. The Chinese would operate on shorter lines of communication and present the US with multiple dilemmas. The Chinese see opportunities to consolidate their gains with smaller and quickly completed military operations directed at the edges of US interests. These operations present US and regional decision makers with having to respond fait accompli to CCP gains. If the Chinese can keep away from direct PI and Japanese interventions then they steer clear of US treaty obligations. It would be hard to mobilize the American people to support the claims of Vietnam, Malaysia or Brunei. If China directly assails the PI and then coerce or bribe the Philippine government into disavowing combat or recognize the Chinese claims hoping to sate the dragon’s hunger then US reactions are massively limited. The payoff for China for consolidating their claims in the SCS would be huge if they can do so without triggering a very destructive war with the US. The map shows the scale of the economic benefit that would result from capturing the exclusive use of those resources and being able to restrict free trade.
The military advantage gained would be huge as well. China would gain unobstructed access to the Central Pacific and hold every regional economy at risk. The diplomatic impact of success would demonstrate to the region and world that China must be accounted for and that their approval would be vital for local regime stability.
So what are some options for the US concerning the SCS?
The options presented to the US all have downsides because of baked in prior treaties and policy decisions. The choices the US faces also involve multiple secondary and tertiary impacts that cannot be fully known at almost any point of decision. A well-known truism of strategic decision making is: decisions made concerning one issue never completely solve that issue, they just help define the next issues that will need to be dealt with.
Renouncing or changing defense alliances and treaties is always a possibility. These changes come with known and unknown risks as all parties relook their internal and external calculus. For example: The PRC and the PI are both confident that a major military action against the Philippines will bring the US into the conflict. Any change to the US/PI defense treaty will be quickly known by all three countries and will change the decision calculus. The PRC may take a more aggressive step and seize a PI claimed SCS feature confident that the US would not become involved. But even under the new treaty, the US may still enter the conflict for its own reasons using the old, or revised, treaty as a public rational. Strong defense treaties are made to reduce confusion on the part of potential adversaries, so any changes the US seeks will need to be carefully thought out.
The US can withdraw from the SCS area and explicitly or implicitly recognize the PRC’s claims. The US stepping away from the current global hegemon role in respect to the western Pacific Region could save us in current military related expenses (Carrier Groups are not cheap to own or operate) but again this COA will have second and third order impacts. Except for the PRC’s designs on Taiwan, the modern history of China rarely features major grasps for territorial expansionism. Besides the current SCS efforts the PRC has demonstrated expansionism in the past in regards to Vietnam and the 1950 invasion of Tibet. Xi and the CCP would most probably grab their entire SCS claims quickly filling any perceived vacuum left by the US. The next steps are more a mystery but the economic impacts of preventing or regulating and taxing maritime and aerial transit of the SCS would rapidly roil the global economy.
The US loss of access to the western Pacific will have diplomatic and defense impacts as well. The US currently is seen as the “cop on the beat” by nations all over the world. If the US is seen voluntarily taking a major step away from that role in the SCS it will cause the rest of the world to relook all aspects of America’s role in defense. As a matter of public debate leaving the SCS would quickly eclipse the worthwhile exit from Syria and drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would pulling back from the SCS embolden Russia, Iran, or others in making additional extraterritorial grabs of terrain or establishing “satellite states” and thereby create new defense issues?
The PRC already is attempting to establish their currency as an international benchmark and pulling away from a long term defense commitment would influence many nations to replace dollars for yuan in part or in whole. This would impact interest rates and the relative strength of the dollar for us to buy Romanian wine, Japanese noodles or German hops.
The US can maintain the status quo in the SCS. The current US policy is that the SCS issues must be handled peacefully by the various claimants. The US also supports the international tribunal findings between the PRC and PI mentioned above. The US has stated that we regard the SCS as non-territorial waters and not part of the territorial waters or EEZ by any claimant, but especially China. The US deciding to continue maritime and aerial operations backing free navigation through the SCS waters and air will keep potential adversaries internal calculus including the question of “What if…?” around the world.
The US can work with ASEAN and interested nations to draw a new path for the SCS which reduces US open ended commitments while securing the vital SCS transportation lines of communication and economic assets for all parties. China will continue to oppose this COA and will regard this COA as a way to “fence in” proper Chinese aspirations and the US attempting to influence other states to gang up on China. China dislikes any multilateral agreement unless they feel comfortable with their ability to ignore the agreement without serious repercussions. (See the Paris Accords, MTO and IMF agreements.) Despite the difficulties with this COA, it is probably the best way, over (significant) time to reduce the threat of war while maintaining economic progress. Just don’t think that this way will be quick or easy.