Incoming: The Great Wall of Sand

July 1, 2015
By Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

China is flexing its muscles and expanding its reach, particularly in the maritime domain. As the United States tries to consolidate the so-called pivot to Asia by bringing 60 percent of the U.S. fleet to bear, leaders need to be thinking through all their other options to deal with the growing ambition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The challenges are evident, beginning with the PRC’s newly released white paper on grand strategy. Clearly, China’s aspirations increasingly run to a global approach to security. Several Western defense analysts have been struck by the forthright and forward-leaning tone. In addition, increases in China’s defense budget—more than 12 percent last year alone—have pushed its spending to greater than $150 billion, second globally only to the United States.

Most ominous has been the construction of what newly installed U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry Harris, USN, has aptly called “the Great Wall of sand.” This is now 2,000 acres of man-made islands, supported by huge barges that boast airstrips, weapons systems, barracks and roads and are in essence islands in the South China Sea. This is especially concerning as these strategic outposts have been placed to buttress China’s claims of nearly 90 percent of the oil- and natural gas-rich body of water. It is directly confrontational to the other nations that line the South China Sea, notably Vietnam and the Philippines.

From the perspective of either customary international law or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Chinese claims do not hold any merit. At his change of command ceremony recently, Adm. Harris correctly described them as “preposterous.” But to China’s neighbors, including Japan and Korea, this rattles old ghosts in an already volatile part of the world.

It also is worrying that China does not seem interested in checking the growing danger of North Korea, which I have described as the most dangerous nation in the world. North Korea could be controlled in many important ways by China. The road to managing the rogue nation runs through Beijing, not Pyongyang. But China continues to gloss over the reckless behavior of Kim Jong Un, the young, emotional, untested and medically challenged leader who already has nuclear weapons, seeks to miniaturize them and continues to improve his ballistic delivery systems. Taken together, these trends are troubling in the context of China’s actions both in the region and the potential for further global challenges.

What should the United States do? First, the United States must remain deeply engaged in Asia. The Pacific pivot must have more real teeth in it beyond the swing of a handful of U.S. ships to the Pacific Fleet and the emplacement of Marines in Darwin. The Pacific Command needs to create a powerful array of training and exercises, push for increased assets to deploy at least rotationally to the area and focus its military engagement on U.S. allies, both customary and emerging—with Vietnam, for example, falling in the latter category.

Second, economics matter deeply, and passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement would be very helpful geopolitically. The overall economic benefits can and should be debated elsewhere, but the agreement makes good sense to bind the United States to the region and focus U.S. economic and trade capabilities on one of the world’s fastest-growing areas.

Third, the United States should seek to create a loose maritime coalition of allies and friends in the region. No one ever will see another NATO-like treaty structure in Asia—or anywhere else in the world—but there is still a good group of both allies and friends with whom the United States can work consistently. These include Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and others. Perhaps the United States should explore creating a few “standing maritime action groups” such as those that exist in NATO. These could be focused on training and exercises, migrant operations, counternarcotics, disaster relief, humanitarian projects and environmental patrol, depending on the political desires of participating nations. The annual U.S.-sponsored Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise is a good building block.

Fourth, the United States should include cyber as an important part of all this. Given the expansion of Chinese capabilities in the cybersecurity realm, many partners and allies are seeking help and advice with this area. A U.S. Pacific cyber cooperation initiative could be co-sponsored by the U.S. Cyber Command and the Pacific Command.

Last, a wide variety of interagency projects in the soft power zone would be very helpful. Have the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Pacific region equivalents work together on responding to illegal migration, for example. Law enforcement cooperation in counternarcotics, working through the Joint Interagency Task Force structure, could help pull U.S. partners together. Building on shared desires to work on humanitarian projects among the U.S. Agency for International Development and its equivalent organizations would be beneficial. The Pacific pivot tends to be perceived as a U.S. military operation all about moving hardware—that is helpful, but not sufficient. It is the larger interagency approach that needs to be part of the pivot in very real ways.

Will all of this be enough to respond fully in the face of China’s expansion? Probably not. There is a certain inevitability to a major role for China in the world, and we ought to be working together to manage a peaceful and productive rise in China’s place in the world. China can and will do much that is positive globally as this century unfolds. But simply ceding the region to domination by China is not good for the United States, the region or ultimately for China itself. The United States long has been a Pacific power, and it needs to remain mindful that another Great Wall is rising in the region.

Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in international law, and he is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s board of directors.

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