Posted: April 20, 2017 5:02 PM

Experts Argue U.S. Lacks Clarity in South China Sea Goals, Strategy

By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The U.S. efforts to keep tensions in the South China Sea from growing into a conflict are handicapped by the fact that China has a clear understanding of the region’s importance and has committed the commensurate level of maritime resources, while the United States has neither a similar clarity of view on its value nor the necessary naval strength, a panel of experts at a Heritage Foundation forum contended April 20.

Among some of the other key observations they presented at the forum, were:

■ China sees the contested ocean area as a vital factor in its economic growth and has an intense sensitivity over sovereignty, stemming from the “100 years of humiliation” at the hands of the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

■ It also views its claims to the South China Sea as part of its demand for recognition as a global power equal to the United States and as a part of its drive to challenge the U.S.-led alliances in the region.

■ The United States, however, views its operations in the sea as part of its global commitment to freedom of the seas and peaceful resolution of disputes, and supportive of its treaty obligations to regional allies.

■ To support its goals and associated strategy, China can employ its rapidly expanding and modernizing Peoples’ Republic Army Navy (PLAN), the world’s largest Coast Guard and a tightly controlled “maritime militia.”

■ The U.S. Navy, which is less than half as large as it was during the Cold War, has divided its limited fleet among its other international commitments, and the U.S. Coast Guard is even more resource constrained.

Alice Ekman, head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations, said China’s approach to the South China Sea “may be principally a sovereignty issue,” but there also are “broader strategic and geographic interests at play there.” 

Its strategy also reflects “China’s hierarchal approach to the region,” in which it sees itself “at the same level of the U.S.” and insists that the relationship should reflect that status, Ekman said.

While the issues of energy reserves and fisheries “are extremely important to China, the issue of nationalism and sovereignty” are particularly important, said Bernard Cole, a retired Navy surface warfare officer and now the senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis. He recalled the frequent references to the “100 years of humiliation” he heard from senior civilian and military Chinese officials during a recent meeting.

Cole said that while there are different views on how important the South China Sea is for resources and shipping lanes, if China and the other nations in the region “believe the South China Sea is crucial to their continued economic growth, which I think they do, perception may be more important than reality.”

He also noted the wide disparity between the strong and modernizing PLAN, its huge Coast Guard and the maritime militia and the diminished U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, and the relatively small regional navies.

Cole and Ekman both said they did not expect the growth of China’s maritime forces to stop, despite the slowdown in its previously soaring economy.

Ronald O’Rourke, the naval affairs analyst at the Congressional Research Service, contrasted China’s “clarity in their own minds about what are their central goals in the region,” to the “lack of clarity on U.S. goals and strategy for the region.”

That “confusion between actions and goals” is reflected in the uncertainty over what the United States is trying to achieve with its so-called “freedom of navigation” (FoN) operations around the artificial islands China has created over a number of shoals and rocks in the South China Sea, O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke did not dispute the point made by a member of the audience that the U.S. FoN operations really were only instances of “innocent passage” because the Navy ships conducted no military activities within 12 miles of the man-made island. That concedes China’s claim of territorial sovereignty and are “counter-productive,” the questioner said.

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