Small Wars

Salami Slicing in the South China Sea

China's slow, patient approach to dominating Asia.

The Pentagon recently commissioned recommendations from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on its military basing plans in the Pacific. CSIS's June 27 report recommended that the Pentagon reallocate forces away from Northeast Asia and toward the South China Sea. Specifically, CSIS called on the Pentagon to base more attack submarines in Guam, beef up the Marine Corps' presence in the region, and study the possibility of basing an aircraft carrier strike group in Western Australia.

The South China Sea is undoubtedly heating up as a potential flashpoint. Disputes over territory, fishing rights, and oil leases have accelerated this year. A recent ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, aimed at making progress on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, collapsed in acrimony and failed, for the first time in 45 years, to agree on a concluding joint statement. Vietnam and the Philippines were particularly upset that their Southeast Asian neighbors made no progress on a unified stance against Chinese encroachments in the sea.

The increase in U.S. military power in the region, called for by both the CSIS report and by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a June speech in Singapore, is designed in part to deter overt aggression, such as a sudden restart of the Korean War or a Chinese blitzkrieg against Taiwan. To the extent such scenarios are now considered highly remote, the U.S. military presence in the region is doing its job. But what about an adversary that uses "salami-slicing," the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change? U.S. policymakers and military planners should consider the possibility that China is pursuing a salami-slicing strategy in the South China Sea, something that could confound Washington's military plans.

Appendix 4 of this year's annual Pentagon report on China's military power displays China's South China Sea claim, the so-called "nine-dash line," along with the smaller claims made by other countries surrounding the sea. A recent BBC piece shows China's territorial claim compared to the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has granted to the countries around the sea. The goal of Beijing's salami-slicing would be to gradually accumulate, through small but persistent acts, evidence of China's enduring presence in its claimed territory, with the intention of having that claim smudge out the economic rights granted by UNCLOS and perhaps even the right of ships and aircraft to transit what are now considered to be global commons. With new "facts on the ground" slowly but cumulatively established, China would hope to establish de facto and de jure settlements of its claims.

In April, a naval standoff between China and the Philippines occurred when Chinese fishing vessels were caught inside the Philippines EEZ near Scarborough Shoal. The standoff broke up after several weeks without a resolution of the underlying legal issues. Separately, the Philippines now intends to begin drilling for natural gas in the Reed Bank near its Palawan Island, a program to which China objects. A Chinese naval frigate recently ran aground 90 miles off Palawan; last year, Chinese warships threatened to ram a Philippine survey ship near Reed Bank.

Across the sea, and on the eve of the ill-fated Phnom Penh summit, the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), a state-owned oil developer, put out a list of offshore blocks for bidding by foreign oil exploration companies. In this case, the blocks were within Vietnam's EEZ -- in fact, parts of some of these blocks had already been leased by Vietnam for exploration and development. Few analysts expect a foreign developer such as Exxon Mobil to legitimize China's over-the-top grab of Vietnam's economic rights. But CNOOC's leasing gambit is another assertion of China's South China Sea claims, in opposition to UNCLOS EEZ boundaries most observers thought were settled.

Finally, in June, the Chinese government established "Sansha City" on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, which China seized from South Vietnam in 1974. Sansha will be the administrative center for China's claims in the South China Sea, to include the Spratly Islands near Reed Bank and Palawan, and Scarborough Shoal. China also announced plans to send a military garrison to the area.

China's actions look like an attempt to gradually and systematically establish legitimacy for its claims in the region. It has stood up a local civilian government, which will command a permanent military garrison. It is asserting its economic claims by leasing oil and fishing blocks inside other countries' EEZs, and is sending its navy to thwart development approved by other countries in the area. At the end of this road lie two prizes: potentially enough oil under the South China Sea to supply China for 60 years, and the possible neutering of the U.S. military alliance system in the region.

The collapse of ASEAN's attempt to establish a code of conduct for settling disputes in the sea benefits China's salami-slicing strategy. A multilateral code of conduct would have created a legitimate framework for dispute resolution and would have placed all claimant countries on an equal footing. Without such a code, China can now use its power advantage to dominate bilateral disputes with its small neighbors and do so without the political consequences of acting outside an agreed set of rules.

Meanwhile, The Pentagon intends to send military reinforcements to the region and is establishing new tactical doctrines for their employment against China's growing military power. But policymakers in Washington will be caught in a bind attempting to apply this military power against an accomplished salami-slicer. If sliced thinly enough, no one action will be dramatic enough to justify starting a war. How will a policymaker in Washington justify drawing a red line in front of a CNOOC oil rig anchoring inside Vietnam's EEZ, or a Chinese frigate chasing off a Philippines survey ship over Reed Bank, or a Chinese infantry platoon appearing on a pile of rocks near the Spratly Islands? When contemplating a grievously costly war with a major power, such minor events will appear ridiculous as casus belli. Yet when accumulated over time and space, they could add up to a fundamental change in the region.

Although seemingly a distant player in the drama, the stakes for the United States are high. Both the global and U.S. economies depend on freedom of navigation through the sea; $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of which passes through U.S. ports. Second, the United States has a strong interest in preventing any power from unilaterally rewriting well-established international maritime law to its liking. Finally, the credibility of the U.S. alliance system and its reliability as a security partner will be at stake.

A salami-slicer puts the burden of disruptive action on his adversary. That adversary will be in the uncomfortable position of drawing seemingly unjustifiable red lines and engaging in indefensible brinkmanship. For China, that would mean simply ignoring America's Pacific fleet and carrying on with its slicing, under the reasonable assumption that it will be unthinkable for the United States to threaten major-power war over a trivial incident in a distant sea.

But what may appear trivial from a U.S. perspective could be vital to players like the Philippines and Vietnam, who are attempting to defend their territory and economic rights from an outright power grab. This fact may give these countries a greater incentive to be more aggressive than the United States in defending against China's encroachments. And should shooting break out between China and one of these small countries, policymakers in Beijing will have to consider the reputational and strategic consequences of blasting away at a weaker neighbor.

Both the United States and ASEAN members would greatly prefer a negotiated code of conduct for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. But should China opt to pursue a salami-slicing strategy instead, policymakers in Washington may conclude that the only politically viable response is to encourage the small countries to more vigorously defend their rights, even if its risks conflict, with the promise of U.S. military backup. This would mean a reversal of current U.S. policy, which has declared neutrality over the sea's boundary disputes.

The United States has stayed neutral because it doesn't want to pre-commit itself to a sequence of events over which it may have no control. That approach is understandable but will increasingly conflict with security promises it has made to friends in the region and to the goal of preserving the global commons. Policymakers and strategists in Washington will have to ponder what, if anything, they can do against a such a sharp salami-slicer.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: If You Build Up, Who Will Come?

The Pentagon may not have the resources to deter Iran and pivot to Asia at the same time.

Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, is accelerating a military buildup around the Persian Gulf, with new provisions added to parry possible Iranian military moves and to strike at targets inside Iran if necessary. This buildup comes just as a suicide bomb attack in Bulgaria on July 18 killed five Israeli tourists. In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it." Whether this bombing will result in Israeli military action against Iran remains to be seen. What is clear is that Mattis wants his forces in the region ready for that event.

Military planners at the Pentagon seem to be granting Mattis most, but not all, of his requests for reinforcements. Giving the general what he wants right now is not cost-free, however, and comes with its own set of risks. Now that the Pentagon has agreed to step up its commitment of air and naval power to deter Iran, the question becomes whether planners will be able to sustain such a commitment to an open-ended problem while the Pacific is making its own growing demands for U.S. air and naval assets. If not, the Pentagon will have to come up with alternate ways of sustaining Mattis's requirements while meeting growing demands for ships and aircraft in Asia. If the tensions in the Gulf continue to mount, the planned "pivot" to the Pacific may have to be indefinitely postponed.

The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf took on a new dimension in late April when the U.S. Air Force revealed the arrival of an undisclosed number of F-22 stealth fighters at the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. On June 23, four U.S. Navy minesweeping ships arrived in the Persian Gulf, doubling the Navy's minesweeping force there. To support the beefed-up minesweeping squadron, and to support maritime special operations missions, the Navy has positioned USS Ponce in the Gulf, an amphibious assault ship now reconfigured as an "afloat forward staging base." In September, the Navy and about 20 other countries will conduct an 11-day minesweeping exercise near the Gulf, a display no doubt aimed at deterring the military decision-makers in Tehran from any thought of trying to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Missile defense is also receiving stepped-up attention. Qatar has agreed to host a long-range X-band missile defense radar site, adding to similar sites the United States already operates in Israel and Turkey. The radar in Qatar will peer deep into Iran and will give the U.S. missile defense command network an earlier alert of possible Iranian missile launches. The missile defense command system will share the data received from the Qatar radar with missile interceptors based on Navy ships and with land-based interceptor batteries around the region.

Finally, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta personally approved Mattis's request for an early deployment of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group. The Stennis group returned to Bremerton, Washington in March from a long Middle East deployment. Panetta's order will send the group back in late summer and will cut four months off the time the crews expected to be back home. The Stennis was supposed to sail this winter for service in the Pacific Command region. Instead, it will replace USS Enterprise (which is heading for retirement) on station in the Arabian Sea and will provide Mattis with the uninterrupted presence of two aircraft carriers in his region.

The rapid turnaround of the Stennis group shows the Navy's ability to respond to urgent requests. However, neither the Navy's ships nor its crews can maintain this operational tempo as a routine practice. The Stennis and her escort vessels will not receive all of the between-deployment maintenance they require and sending the crews back out on another long deployment after only five months back will be demoralizing.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the Stennis's accelerated deployment is not aimed at any specific threat nor is it a direct response to tensions with Iran. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have reached an undeclared impasse, raising the likelihood that Israel will see the need for a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear complex -- a long-standing concern that the Bulgaria attack may aggravate. If war breaks out over Iran sometime during the remainder of 2012, Mattis wants Iran's leaders to know that he has his own forces in position to both parry possible retaliation and to retaliate inside Iran if necessary.

Mattis is making prudent preparations for a possible contingency. But conflict remains hypothetical, which leaves Iran as an open-ended problem that Mattis and his successors at Central Command will have to manage for some undefined period. In that case, instituting what are essentially wartime deployment practices, such as Panetta's early deployment order to the Stennis group, for the management of an open-ended problem is convincing evidence that the Navy is too small for the responsibilities policymakers are heaping on it.

Maintaining a continuous deployment of two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, in a manner that won't ruin the ships or drive sailors out of the Navy, requires committing six to seven carriers to the task. Such an allocation is required in order to establish a sustainable rotation schedule. With Enterprise's retirement, the Navy will have only 10 carriers until the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford arrives in service in 2015. Under the current shipbuilding plan, the carrier fleet will then stay at 11 ships thereafter.

This will leave four to five carriers for all other responsibilities, including the Pacific Command area, which is universally considered to be the theater most suited for air and naval power -- and the region where the demand for U.S. forces is certainly headed higher.

Mattis's requirements reveal some surprising observations. The first surprise is the enduring utility of the aircraft carrier, at least in the eyes of commanders such as Mattis. Carrier critics point to their extravagant cost and the fact that adversary navies possess no similar capability and won't for the foreseeable future. But the flattops remain critical to field commanders because of the risks and limitations associated with positioning comparable land-based air power at forward bases. Such deployments are often politically untenable and forward air bases are increasingly vulnerable to missile attack, problems U.S. commanders face in both the Middle East and in the Pacific. In addition to being a strong diplomatic signal, aircraft carrier deployments are frequently the only way to position reliable striking power in unstable regions.

Second, a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has conditioned observers to view the Central Command area as a region for ground forces. According to the Pentagon, 6,524 U.S. service members have been killed in the wars since 2001, almost all of them Army and Marines. Central Command was and is a ground force theater but won't be much longer. Although infantrymen shouldered the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan, deterring and containing Iran is a job for the Navy, Air Force, and the Army's air and missile defense units. Like the Pacific, the Central Command area is quickly turning into an air and sea power theater.

Third, Central Command's demand for air and naval power is causing the pivot to Asia to stumble out of the starting blocks. The Obama administration's strategic vision foresaw the Asia-Pacific as the "center of action." For military planners, the Pacific would eventually become the main effort, with all other areas relegated to a secondary "economy of force" status. Indeed, only last month, Panetta boasted in Singapore that the Pacific would get 60 percent of the Navy's ships. But for now, it is Iran that seems to be absorbing 60 percent of the Navy's aircraft carriers and causing Panetta to issue unsustainable deployment orders. Far from being the main effort, it is the Pacific that is the economy-of-force region. It will remain so as long as deterring Iran remains an open-ended commitment.

If we can assume a fleet of 14-15 aircraft carriers is out of the question, the Pentagon will have to find ways to get the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Army to share the burden of deterring Iran. Beyond that, the Sunni Arab countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council will have to become a more effective military alliance in order to balance Iranian power across the Persian Gulf. Until U.S. planners and diplomats get those tasks accomplished, the Pentagon will find itself propping up an overstretched and unsustainable military strategy in the Middle East and Pacific.

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