Small Wars

This Week at War: China’s Foolish Fight Over the Yellow Sea

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Cherie Cullen/DOD via Getty Images
Cherie Cullen/DOD via Getty Images

China picks a foolish fight over the Yellow Sea

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in South Korea on July 21 to display their commitment to that country’s defense. In March, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Last month, South Korea took its case to the U.N. Security Council but was unable to get much satisfaction — China, with North Korea’s stability its paramount concern, blocked the Security Council from explicitly naming North Korea as the perpetrator.

China had hoped that the Cheonan incident would simply disappear, keeping the strategic situation in northeast Asia in the frozen state it prefers. After the Security Council’s non-action, Chinese leaders should have anticipated that the United States and South Korea would take their own actions to reinforce deterrence against the North. China’s handling of this affair will end up costing it and brings Beijing’s judgment into question.

With South Korea’s attempt at justice having come up short, the U.S. and South Korean governments have arranged for a showy two-part display of solidarity. Part one was the arrival of Clinton and Gates, with a photo-op at the demilitarized zone and a meeting with their South Korean counterparts. Part two will be a large U.S.-South Korea military training exercise, involving 8,000 troops, 100 aircraft (including the first deployment of F-22s to South Korea), and the USS George Washington carrier strike group.

Having dug itself into a hole by energizing the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, the Chinese government continued digging: On July 21 its Foreign Ministry spokesman warned, "We resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests."

The U.S. government has made no commitment to send the USS George Washington carrier strike group, the most ostentatious display of U.S. military power, to the Yellow Sea. But with the Chinese government now having thrown down the gauntlet over the U.S. Navy’s right to sail in international waters, the United States will have to respond with a significant display. Anything less than a transit of the Yellow Sea within the next few weeks by the George Washington and its escorts will come off as a loss of face by the United States.

This tussle between China and the United States over prestige is alarming. Why has China suddenly decided to pick a fight over the Yellow Sea? The George Washington carrier strike group last made a routine transit of the Yellow Sea in October, which few noticed or cared about. If the Chinese government is interested in stability in northeast Asia, it should have stayed quiet and allowed the Korean training exercises to proceed uneventfully as they have for many decades.

What is disturbing is the newfound lack of judgment by China’s decision-makers. China’s gauntlet-throwing has given a boost to the U.S. military alliances in the region. And China’s troubling misjudgment in this case does not bode well the next time a real crisis in the region occurs.

The Army’s next nightmare scenario

After the Cold War ended, Pentagon planners restructured the U.S. military’s ground forces to cope with what was considered at the time to be the worst-case scenario — simultaneous high-intensity wars in the Middle East and Korea. But recent Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) have drifted away from planning for traditional conventional combat. The 2010 QDR discussed the need for ground forces to prepare for conventional warfare, irregular warfare, stability operations, and disaster assistance. However, the review recommended few significant changes to the military’s force structure.

Did the 2010 QDR provide any useful planning guidance to the Army and Marine Corps? Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, says no. Writing at Small Wars Journal, Freier says the QDR’s "more of the same" conclusions failed to provide ground forces with either a long-term threat narrative or a vision about structure, operating concepts, or missions they need to prepare for the future.

What ground-force planning concept does Freier envision? In his essay, Freier describes a worst-case scenario demanding enough to prepare the Army and Marine Corps for a full range of comprehensive and lesser tasks. Freier calls his worst-case scenario "opposed stabilization" and imagines a nuclear-armed state that has collapsed into insurgency and civil war. Freier’s scenario portrays Hobbesian chaos with well-armed local, foreign, and criminal groups battling each other as well as outside intervention forces for control of territory and populations. In spite of the distasteful memories of the stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Freier’s scenario sees the United States drawn into this new opposed stabilization mission due the potential for nuclear proliferation, violent ethnosectarian contagion, threats to strategic resources, or the possibility of mass refugee migrations into key allies or the United States itself.

Freier adds to the difficulty by providing no outside or local U.S. allies and no nearby logistics base to support U.S. military operations. Intervention would require a forcible entry by U.S. expeditionary forces and the buildup of combat power and logistics support, presumably over long distances. The U.S. expeditionary force would then have to fight some combatant groups while attempting to form alliances with others. The campaign objective would be to establish minimum essential order with the goal of containing the proliferation, regional instability, ethnosectarian, and migration threats that sparked the intervention.

Freier asserts that if the Army and Marine Corps can prepare for all the tasks required to complete the opposed stabilization mission just described, these services would also be prepared for currently envisioned missions such as conventional combat, counterinsurgency, and security force assistance. It takes little imagination to pick out a few spots on the globe where Freier’s scary scenario seems plausible. One wonders whether his worst-case scenario is too demanding for Pentagon planners to care to think about. Alas, no one, least of all staff planners, gets to choose how history plays out.

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