Reports are percolating that the Obama Administration has finally given the Navy a green light to conduct some sort of freedom of navigation exercise, somewhere near the archipelago of instant islands Beijing is constructing in the South China Sea, sometime in the near future. As in the case of the very public debates it had with itself over surging troops to Afghanistan, supporting autocracy or democracy in Egypt, enforcing the President’s red-line warning in Syria, and responding to the Islamic State’s dismembering of Iraq, President Obama’s hesitant response to China may be too little too late.
Regardless of when or where he allows the Navy to act, what the President doesn’t seem to understand is that there’s nothing new, let alone provocative, about the U.S. Navy challenging the sort of mischief that Beijing has been engaged in. America has been keeping the open seas, well, open for 215 years.
Before digging into some of that history, we need to understand what China is doing today.
China is laying claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea based on a map drawn by Chinese cartographers in 1947, ignoring international borders, flouting international norms, and turning tiny atolls hundreds of miles from its territorial waters into military outposts. Beijing’s goal: to control the resource-rich South China Sea and muscle the United States out of the Western Pacific.
Beijing’s new military strategy offers some of the details of how China aims to achieve this goal. The document vows to “accelerate the modernization of national defense and armed forces [and] resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.”
China is certainly succeeding at the former: Its military spending mushroomed 170 percent between 2004 and 2013. Beijing increased military spending by 10 percent in 2015 and 12.2 percent in 2014.
As to the latter, Beijing’s notion of sovereignty differs radically from that of its neighbors. By international convention, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles from its coastline. Beyond that, nations observe an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 miles off a country’s coastline and allows for privileged exploration rights. Not only does Beijing expect others to observe its EEZ and the airspace above as sovereign Chinese territory, not only does Beijing refuse to respect the EEZs of its neighbors, but Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the Chinese mainland.
Bolstered by its instant islands, China is asserting these claims in fait accompli fashion. Satellite images detail Beijing’s brazen island-construction operations. These instant islands have obvious military applications. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks—on some of the man-made islands.” One of the islands has a 10,000-foot airstrip—big enough for bombers and fighter-interceptors. Recall that MacArthur described Taiwan as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” These islands could become China’s unsinkable aircraft carriers.
True, Beijing is not trying to lop off part of Venezuela (like Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902), annexing the Sudeten in the heart of Europe (like Adolf Hitler in 1938), or declaring a sovereign Kuwait “Province 19” (like Saddam Hussein in 1990). But the principle is the same. As they bully weaker neighbors and dot international seaspace with man-made islands, China’s leaders are trying to take what’s not theirs. Munich reminds us it’s better to confront such aggression than to appease it.
That brings us to America’s enduring role in defending freedom of the seas.
At the time of George Washington’s inauguration, Americans were being held hostage by Barbary pirates. The U.S. paid huge sums to win release of those being held—and to appease further piracy. Thomas Jefferson opposed this policy, and he overturned it once he became President. He initially proposed an anti-piracy coalition with Europe “to compel the piratical states to perpetual peace.” But as Gerard Gawalt of the Library of Congress explains, “Jefferson’s plan for an international coalition foundered on the shoals of indifference.” So, Jefferson launched a war on piracy, famously concluding, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.” Naval battles and invasions followed, until the Barbary States finally ended decades of attacks against U.S. shipping.
But piracy wasn’t confined to the Barbary Coast. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The U.S. Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida, and Mexico. All told, between 1801 and 1870, as CRS details, U.S. forces waged a far-flung war against piracy—and for freedom of the seas—in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong, Sumatra, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Of the hundreds of instances of U.S. military intervention tallied by CRS, dozens are related to piracy, freedom of the seas, freedom of transit, and maritime poaching. So, it should come as no surprise that President Wilson’s Fourteen Points called for “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.” FDR and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter envisioned a postwar peace allowing “all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” FDR bluntly called “freedom of the seas” an “American policy.”
Since 1979, U.S. forces have challenged excessive airspace and coastal claims around the world under the Freedom of Navigation program. The program began under President Carter to “demonstrate a non-acquiescence to excessive maritime claims asserted by coastal states.”
When Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi declared the Gulf of Sidra as his own, the Carter Administration ordered U.S. forces into the area from time to time, although it suspended the exercises during the Iranian hostage crisis “because of a desire not to cause unnecessary agitation in the region,” the New York Times reported at the time.
President Reagan revived the program and ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet to resume exercises throughout the Mediterranean. When the exercises recommenced in 1981, Qaddafi sent warplanes into international airspace to challenge the Americans. Authorized, in Reagan’s words, to pursue attacking Libyan warplanes “all the way into the hangar,” U.S. Naval airpower responded with deadly force and made it clear to Qaddafi that there would be no payoff for disregarding international norms—only costs.
But Reagan wasn’t finished defending freedom of the seas. When Iran began attacking commercial ships in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, Reagan ordered Kuwaiti ships reflagged with the Stars and Stripes and had U.S. warships escort Kuwaiti vessels. After an Iranian mine ripped through a U.S. ship in international waters, Reagan launched a series of punishing military strikes against Iran. While most Americans forget this war on the Gulf, Tehran doesn’t. On a single day in 1988, the U.S. crippled Iran’s outlaw navy. “By the end of the operation, U.S. air and surface units had sunk or severely damaged half of Iran’s operational fleet,” a Navy report recalls.
Today, 90 percent of global trade, equaling more than $14 trillion, travels by sea. It doesn’t happen by accident or by magic. The burden of keeping the sea lanes open—discouraging encroachment, deterring bad actors, fighting piracy, clearing vital waterways and chokepoints—falls on the U.S. Navy, which is why the Freedom of Navigation Program continues. In fact, the U.S. military directly challenged dubious maritime claims of 19 countries last year. Related, the Obama Administration sent a flight of B-52s into China’s unilaterally declared “air-defense identification zone” in late 2013 to enforce freedom of the skies. So it’s difficult to understand why Obama has been so slow to enforce freedom of the seas in this instance.
In reaction to Beijing’s behavior, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter began declaring in May that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Yet the Navy has avoided sailing or flying near the disputed territories claimed by China since 2012—no doubt under orders from the White House. This summer, the White House reportedly blocked PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris from sending ships into the area.
The administration needs to answer a threshold question: Is maintaining an international system that has kept the Pacific peaceful, prosperous, and open in the national interest? If so—and it’s difficult to argue otherwise—then Washington should move on four fronts.
First, Obama should order the Navy to defend freedom of the seas by routinely steaming ships through the international waters China is trying to poach. Equally important, these exercises should not be pre-announced. Just as I need not notify my neighbors about where, when, or why I will be traveling the city streets, Washington is under no obligation to forewarn Beijing about plans to deploy U.S. assets in international seaspace or airspace. In fact, doing so implies that China is owed such a forewarning, which in turn implies that China has a special prerogative over the areas it claims.
Second, the administration needs to internationalize the problem. In what Jane’s Defense called “unusually forceful language,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has issued a declaration endorsing “freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea.” Washington should put muscle behind those words by organizing a standing multinational maritime taskforce to turn back China’s claims.
Washington also should call on international organizations to deal with China’s provocations. Manila has offered a roadmap by taking its behemoth neighbor to court, appealing to a UN tribunal to keep China out of Philippine waters. That’s a lot to ask of the often-feckless UN, but Manila’s decision exposes Beijing to the glare of international attention. Other nations whose maritime rights have been infringed by China should follow suit. Washington can help by offering technical assistance, diplomatic support, and satellite and reconnaissance evidence.
Third, Washington should play the asymmetric card. Beijing fancies itself a master of asymmetry, but asymmetric warfare cuts both ways.
Consider the anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2AD) Beijing is employing. Researchers at RAND propose “using ground-based anti-ship missiles (ASM) as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy” by linking several strategically located partner nations in a regional ASM coalition. As former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested last year, the Army could begin “leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery, and air-defense systems” with an eye toward “helping ensure the free flow of commerce.”
Fourth, Washington should end the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration. The defense budget has fallen from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent today—headed for just 2.8 percent by 2018. The last time America invested less than 3 percent of GDP in defense was 1940. As China builds up and builds out, this is the best way to invite the worst of possibilities: what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
Given the reservoir of U.S. military capacity, the White House seems to argue, the balance of power will still favor the United States, even after sequestration takes its toll. That may appear to be true—but only until one considers that America’s military assets and security priorities are spread around the globe, while China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood.
At the height of Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Even the post-Cold War Navy of the 1990s totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 284 ships. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
It’s a matter of simple arithmetic: The U.S military cannot carry out an ever-growing number of missions—deterring China in the Pacific and Russia in the Baltics, fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda, protecting North America, NATO, South Korea, and Japan, defending freedom of the seas—with an ever-shrinking number of resources.