From salami-slice aggression to invasion by swarm, China continues its successful gray-zone expansionism in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
While modulating its activities to evade a significant Western response, Beijing is creating facts on the ground, on the ocean and in the air in each of the region’s hot spots — while encouraging Pyongyang to do the same on the Korean Peninsula.
Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) promise to the administration of former US president Barack Obama, the communist government continues to occupy territory it seized from the Philippines, a US treaty ally. Contrary to a sweeping repudiation by the UN arbitral tribunal, Beijing builds and militarizes artificial islands in the South China Sea that it falsely claims as part of its vast maritime domain.
The world was transfixed by the sheer audacity of the engineering feat and the unprecedented sea and land grab, but did nothing during this period of rapid expansionism. Even the ever-activist environmental community was largely silent about the wanton destruction of millennia-old coral reefs.
At his confirmation hearing, former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson described China’s actions as “extremely worrisome ... akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”
He faulted the Obama administration for not taking steps to address the situation.
“The failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this,” he said.
He pledged a bold new approach by the administration of former US president Donald Trump: “The way we’ve got to deal with this is, we’ve got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia. We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.”
However, in the early stage of his term, Trump opted instead for a mostly “America first,” trade-focused approach that excoriated US allies for not doing enough in their individual and collective defense.
There was no follow-up action to halt — let alone, reverse — China’s actions by the US, the UN or the international community. The then-commander of the US Pacific Fleet mockingly dismissed the island-building project as “the Great Wall of Sand.”
Instead, the US administration concentrated on denying Beijing the opportunity to exploit its illicit territorial claims by controlling the world’s access to the South China Sea. The US Navy undertook a campaign of robust freedom of navigation operations, greatly expanded over the pallid and erratic Obama administration efforts, to challenge Beijing’s maritime sovereignty claims and keep the sea lanes open.
The administration of US President Joe Biden started off by following the Trump administration’s approach, rather than returning to Obama’s.
In response, during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to the region last month, Beijing announced its largest-ever naval exercise, ostensibly designed to rival the biennial US Navy-led Rim of the Pacific drills.
China Central Television on March 15 reported that the northern, eastern and southern theater commands of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army organized “combat-oriented” exercises in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea respectively.
The Maritime Safety Administration in Beijing announced that the exercises in the South China Sea alone would run for the full month of March.
According to China’s quasi-official Global Times newspaper, China has held “several rounds of military drills” in the same general area over the past few months.
US Admiral Philip Davidson, retiring commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, last month told the US Senate Armed Services Committee: “The military balance in the Indo-Pacific is becoming more unfavorable for the United States and our allies. With this imbalance, we are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the ‘status quo’ before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response.”
China’s assertiveness is not confined to the maritime domain. In the past few years, it began an accelerating series of military flights straddling and crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, then extended into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The frequency and scope of the intrusions was methodically expanded and regularized. This made each overflight seem less remarkable or provocative, while at the same time drawing on Taiwan’s responsive resources in a relentless campaign of attrition.
To avoid exhausting its personnel and wearing down its equipment, Taiwan no longer scrambles its aircraft for each event and monitors the movements from the ground instead. Optically, it conveys the image of China acting routinely in its own airspace with Taiwan a mere observer of the scene.
The salami-slicing technique has gradually expanded into a kind of aerial swarming, as Chinese aircraft approach Taiwan simultaneously at different altitudes and from different directions, enveloping Taiwan in a diverse network of air operations simulating an actual Chinese attack.
US Admiral John Aquilino, the new Indo-Pacific commander, last month warned the US Senate Armed Services Committee that the threat to Taiwan is even “closer than many of us think.”
Beijing has been pursuing a similar swarming tactic on the water, to press its claim on Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), [also claimed by Taiwan]. It employs a fleet of fishing boats protected by China’s coast guard, which was recently granted new powers to use force to defend China’s claimed interests.
Chinese incursions into Japanese waters have gone on for years, but the increased volume and intensity of the activities reveal the potential for the swarming to be put to military purposes.
Massing of fishing and quasi-military vessels is also occurring in Philippine waters, putting that government in a quandary over how to respond.
At some point, the concentration of fishing fleets, exercising naval ships and quasi-military vessels in one or more of the region’s flashpoints could effectively constitute a blockade or quarantine and be a step away from landing an invasion force, depending upon the armed nature of the personnel manning the boats. Yet, the situation would be ambiguous enough to confuse authorities in the targeted countries and supporting nations.
What might start out as an apparent temporary or transitory situation could easily morph into a permanent Chinese presence that could be broken only by overt military action that would then trigger a full-fledged Chinese military response. Being labeled as the aggressor in such a gray-zone conflict scenario would significantly inhibit restorative action by other nations. As Sun Tzu (孫子) and communist doctrine instruct, China would then “win without fighting.”
To preclude such a result, Biden and his national security team must declare publicly that Washington will help defend Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines under any and all circumstances.
Joseph Bosco, who served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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