U.S. Gears Up to Challenge Beijing’s ‘Great Wall of Sand’

Washington has quietly avoided sending U.S. ships near China’s artificial islands. The Obama administration is now mulling a more muscular approach.


Almost 20 years ago, when China used missile tests to intimidate Taiwan ahead of key elections there, the United States responded by dispatching not one but two aircraft carrier strike groups to the area. The unabashed U.S. show of force set off howls of protest in Beijing, which deemed it a “hostile act,” yet America was able to respond with impunity to brazen Chinese behavior and act to buttress its allies in the region.

“Beijing should know,” then-Secretary of Defense William Perry said at the time, “[that] the premier, the strongest military power in the western Pacific is the United States.”

That may no longer be the case. For years, the Chinese have sought to deny U.S. forces the ability to operate with impunity in the western Pacific. Rather than a distant future hope, though, that Chinese dream may getting closer to realization as Beijing rolls out an array of potent new weapons, including missiles designed to sink aircraft carriers or hammer U.S. airfields in the middle of the Pacific. Chinese capabilities overall still lag far behind the American military, and likely will for years to come, but the advances they have made so far already give China the ability to punch above its weight in its own backyard. That could have big implications for the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific by making U.S. leaders think twice before dispatching ships and planes to the region.

“When I was there, the military chores we had to do, we could do without scratching the paint. We had that level of superiority,” said retired Adm. Dennis Blair, chief of U.S. Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002 and later the director of national intelligence. “Now, the paint would get scratched.”

China has infuriated Washington and many countries in the region by creating artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea and building airfields on them, an ongoing effort likely to be front and center when President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet later this week. The United States has publicly called out China, labeling the actions there “destabilizing” and a threat to regional stability. Top U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, publicly vow that America will “sail, fly, and operate anywhere that international law permits.”

In reality, though, the U.S. military has not sailed its ships or flown its planes quite everywhere. Defense officials acknowledged to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the United States has not conducted any “freedom of navigation” operations inside the 12-mile territorial boundary of China’s artificial islands since 2012. The U.S. Navy traditionally carries out dozens of such challenges to other countries’ efforts to fence off international waters every year. That apparent impotence has some leading lawmakers increasingly anxious.

The South China Sea “does not belong to China,” Sen. John McCain said at last week’s hearing, referencing a controversial remark made earlier this month in London by Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, the head of China’s North Sea fleet. The South China Sea, Yuan said, “belongs to China.”

“The best sign of respecting the freedom of the seas is not to de facto recognize a 12-mile limit,” McCain added, urging U.S. forces to sail right up to the disputed islands.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R.-Va.), an outspoken voice on sea power issues in the House, and 28 colleagues sent a letter to Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last week warning that U.S. passivity risks legitimizing China’s behavior.

“The longer the United States goes without challenging China’s unfounded claims to sovereignty over these artificial formations — and to territorial waters and exclusive economic rights in the surrounding water — the greater the consequences will be for regional security,” they wrote.

Administration officials are now seriously studying the option of sailing inside the 12-mile limit, a Pentagon official told Foreign Policy. Those deliberations come after the current and former heads of Pacific Command recommended resuming patrols inside the 12-mile boundary around key areas in the South China Sea.

Adm. Harry Harris, the current head of Pacific Command, who has described Beijing’s reclamation activities as the construction of a “great wall of sand,” said last week he favored patrolling within the 12-mile boundary in some cases, including around the Fiery Cross Reef, where the Chinese are constructing a runway. His remarks prompted the Chinese Foreign Ministry to say it was “serious concerned” about the remarks. A ministry spokesman warned the United States not to “challenge China’s territorial sovereignty and security under the pretext of safeguarding navigation freedom.”

Relations between the two biggest economies in the world have already been strained by differences over trade policy, human rights, and cyber-espionage, among other issues. But China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea stand out as a frontal challenge to the U.S. pivot to Asia, one of the stated foreign-policy cornerstones of Obama’s time in office.

“We’ve made it clear that we have serious concerns with several of the steps that China has taken, particularly in the last year with regard to the large-scale land reclamation it has carried out,” a senior administration official told FP. He predicted Obama and Xi would have a “very candid exchange” over the issue.

But despite a chorus of public and private protests from Washington, Manila, and other regional capitals, China has only increased the pace of its reclamation and construction activities over the past year. Most recently, China appears to have started work on an airfield on Mischief Reef, not far from the Philippines, despite Chinese promises that reclamation work was finished. That would be the third airfield China has built on artificial islands in just the past year.

“In my experience with the Chinese, you don’t convince them with the beauty of your debating points; you have to do something,” Blair said.

Privately, White House officials acknowledge that China has dug in its heels over the disputed islands and refuses to negotiate or entertain concessions. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, struck a defiant tone on the disputed islands in an otherwise conciliatory speech ahead of Xi’s visit.

U.S. difficulty in convincing China to reverse course on its island reclamation campaign mirrors a broader shift in the military balance between the two countries. Since China began modernizing its military, about the same time as the U.S. show of force over Taiwan, Beijing has made huge strides in both the quantity and quality of its hardware. The Chinese navy and missile forces, in particular, have grown in size and reach. On display earlier this month in Beijing’s World War II victory parade were a pair of advanced missiles — one designed to target vulnerable aircraft carriers far out at sea and another that can fly 3,500 kilometers and hit U.S. air bases as far away as Guam.

Rand Corp. just noted in an exhaustive study of U.S. and Chinese military power that Chinese advances are increasingly giving Beijing the ability to push the American military further away from its shores.

“If the United States and China remain on current trajectories, the frontier for U.S. dominance in Asia will progressively recede,” noted Eric Heginbotham, the lead author of the Rand study, in a blog.

Of course, China’s buildup and aggressive behavior in the region have sparked their own reaction — one that could eventually make it harder for Beijing to get its way.

Countries such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Australia have been increasingly spooked by Chinese claims and reclamation activities in the South and East China Seas. They, in turn, are bolstering their own militaries and deepening defense ties with Washington.

The United States, as part of the “pivot,” is deploying more aircraft and ships to the region and pouring money into developing robotic underwater vessels and other hi-tech weapons to try to undercut China’s advances with missiles. Washington is also sending new patrol boats to the Philippines, easing a 40-year arms embargo on Vietnam, discussing a return to Philippine air and naval bases, and expanding its defensive alliance with Japan, which just passed legislation making it easier to deploy the Japanese military.

“Whether China prevails in its efforts to exert regional military influence depends in large part on this regional balancing behavior, as well as on continued U.S. leadership,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“This story is just beginning,” she said.

Photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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