[DISPATCH] Conflict Trends in the South China Sea

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

According to Congressional testimony, the United States has vital interests in the protection of Taiwan, international law, security of US allies, freedom of navigation, and an estimated $5 trillion of international trade that passes through the South China Sea each year.  Congressional and military leaders have expressed that China’s strategy to supplant US presence in the South China Sea and the greater South Pacific puts at risk the national security of the United States.

[wcm_nonmember]In this Dispatch…

  • What’s at stake in the South China Sea?
  • What are the current trends in Beijing’s build up in the South China Sea?
  • How close is China to achieving a regional military balance with the US?
  • And more…

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The Trump administration is inheriting an increasingly risky proposition in the South China Sea: how does the US protect its interests, ensure freedom of navigation, and outlast a growing challenger while avoiding war?  Taking it a step further, President-elect Trump during his campaign toed the line on marking China as a currency manipulator and was consistent about his desire to end China’s unfair trade practices with the US.  History shows a high likelihood of conflict when a status-quo power is challenged by a revisionist power seeking to up-end the current world order, and China will force a Trump administration to navigate those waters.  Our concern continues to be that either a trade war or actual hot war with China could induce a number of conditions, especially economic and financial, that could degrade domestic stability and/or lead to an SHTF event.

 

Current Trends in the US-China Conflict

China’s strategic and military powers are increasing in the South China Sea.  There are three major Chinese forces in the South China Sea: China’s maritime militia, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and the Chinese Coast Guard.  Each plays a role in furthering Chinese foreign policy and enforcing centralized strategic decision-making.  Beijing’s strategy in the South China Sea is to consolidate disputed territorial claims where it can, or delay resolution of issues where they cannot consolidate. To those ends, China’s maritime militia — a collection of fishing boats and other small water craft — are tasked with encroaching into foreign waters and advancing disputed maritime claims by their presence.  China’s aims are to win the fight without fighting and expand its maritime claims to exercise greater control over international trade in the region.

Although President-elect Trump has signaled that he will grow the US Navy to around 350 ships, there are currently around 272 ships in the US fleet.  By 2020, China is expected to have 100 attack submarines under way in the region.  In addition to growing sea power, China’s J-20 stealth fighters will receive engine upgrades enabling them to target US mid-air refueling aircraft, which likely represents the Achilles Heel of US air power in the region.  Within the next few years China could achieve a balance of military power with the US in the South Pacific, which we feel makes conflict more likely.

 

South China Sea disputes pose risks vital to the current international order.  A broad theme outlined in the Executive Intelligence Summaries is that the world is slowly shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar world.  A tenet of the Obama Doctrine was disengagement from its strategic imperatives abroad, bringing about an end to Pax Americana.  As such, nations like Russia, China, and Iran have adopted the goal of ejecting US influence from around the world.  One effect of the Obama Doctrine is a growing number of disputes in Southeast Asia, specifically where it concerns maritime claims.  In July 2016, a UN arbitration court ruled against China in its territorial dispute with the Philippines — a ruling that had no teeth outside of US enforcement (which is to say, no effect at all under the Obama Doctrine).  The net result is that Beijing seeks to punish US-aligned nations in the region, and increase its long-standing opposition to U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program (FONOPS).  A reversal in the course of Southeast Asian policy under a Trump administration could absolutely lead to a conflict, especially if Chinese leaders grow more aggressive due to military and technological achievements.

 

The South China Sea presents vital issues that pose a national security threat to the United States.  Strategic risk, military threat, and political challenge are a few threats to the national security of the United States. The South China Sea is a major waterway through which more than $5 trillion of world trade and energy is shipped annually.  Unabated, Beijing is expected to control regional trade routes in a manner advantageous to China, which includes punishing US-aligned trade nations by blocking trade.  Congressional leaders have identified the South China Sea as a vital commerce interest, which we feel increases the likelihood of continued US intervention and potentially regional conflict.

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OSINT Analyst-1 mines open sources, and produces timely and relevant intelligence reporting.

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