It’s official: America has a China-containment policy

Actually, that was a title of a piece I wrote in July 2010, before island-building, before the Senkaku crises, before the rare earths brouhaha, even before Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at the 2010 ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference in Hanoi and formally kicked off the “pivot.”

I offer it as a reminder to the indignant commentators who declare we’re just out in the South China Sea responding to the PRC threat, a theme sounded in an op-ed in The Australian by the Lowy Institute’s Alan Dupont:

Fairfax columnist Hugh White, for example, believes US policy makers have long believed that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a strategic opportunity rather than a problem for the US, allowing them to “cast Beijing as a bullying and aggressive rising power and themselves as the indispensable guardians of regional order and international law”.

These portrayals misrepresent the main causes of the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the issues at stake for Australia and the region.

The genesis of the current imbroglio was Beijing’s 2012 decision to prioritise the South China Sea and initiate an extensive, unprecedented land reclamation program on disputed islands that it occupied or planned to occupy.

That’s leaving out a big chunk of history, much of the stuff Hillary Clinton was involved in before she left office.  I think history will judge Hugh White’s focus on US maneuvers to exploit the PRC vulnerability in the South China Sea as the driver of the crisis more favorably than Dupont’s “everything was going great until those darn Chinese starting kicking up trouble.”

But a key element of escalation—and make no mistake, the SCS crisis is undergoing a major escalation right now—is blaming the other guy.  Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…

A more alarming piece of opinion management than Dupont’s measured op-ed appeared courtesy of  Yomiuri Shimbun.  It includes this map

yomiuri map

Security experts believe that China’s “covert purpose” is to be able to advance its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) from the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean in the future.

At its underground base in Sanya, Hainan Island, China deploys at least two Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines carrying JL-2 ballistic missiles, according to Kaneda. Washington analysis suggests that China will launch patrol activities using these submarines before the end of this year.

The JL-2’s firing range is said to be about 7,000 kilometers at present, so it would be unable to reach the U.S. mainland if fired from the South China Sea. But a Chinese submarine with JL-2 ballistic missiles mobilized in the Central Pacific or the Sea of Okhotsk, or the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle after passing through the Bashi Channel, would be able to reach targets as distant as the U.S. East Coast.

Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of the MSDF fleet, said: “China would be able to make nuclear attacks on the US mainland from two or more directions with considerable ease. The United States, which cannot allow this to happen, will try to contain Chinese SSBNs within the South China Sea like a ‘birdcage.’ This is how the two countries are confronting each other.”

Then, under the heading helpfully titled Need for containment:

If the South China Sea comes under Chinese control, it will change the military balance in the area dramatically, making it certain to worsen the security environment surrounding Japan.

The new guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation have incorporated the joint activities of intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, with the current South China Sea situation in mind. But concrete measures for implementation remain to be examined.

For the Self-Defense Forces to cooperate in these activities, it is essential to strengthen capabilities in terms of patrol planes and other equipment. The government must explore ways of cooperating within the constraints of security legislation. At the same time, it needs to exert influence on China by strengthening its cooperation with the relevant countries around China

A few observations:

First, the “sea lane vital to Japan” (white line through Malacca Strait up through South China Sea) is BS.   I’ve debunked this ad nauseum but instead of relating my arguments in detail I will lean on the authority of Prime Minister Abe, who recently told the Diet that minesweeping in the Malacca Strait could not be covered by the new defense guidelines (which permit joint ops beyond Japan’s territorial waters to protect vital national interests) because other routes existed and the Strait is simply “not vital.”

Second, the possibility that hardline Japanese analysts are amplifying US talking points in part is supported both by the Malacca non sequitur and the close affinity this strategic perspective has to AirSea Battle, the notorious US megawar scenario that posits a massive war to beat back a PRC campaign to evict the United States from the western Pacific.

Third, trying to bottle up the PLAN subs in the South China Sea is a rather destabilizing proposition.  The PRC still operates under a no-first-use doctrine and its nuclear arsenal is meant to survive a US first strike and retaliate.  Strategic missile subs is one way to do this.  But if that option is foreclosed, the PRC’s alternative is muscling up the inventory of land-based ICBMs, either by adding missiles or MIRVing the ones they’ve already got.

In fact, the Pentagon claimed the PRC started testing MIRVed ballistic missiles last December.  Maybe we can score another point for SCS pivot blowback!

Fourth, the PRC’s new land-based, MIRV capable DF-41 ICBM to be deployed “as early as 2015” has the capability to reach the entire continental United States, so encouraging the PRC to make more of them by hobbling the submarine part of the deterrent triad doesn’t exactly make the US homeland much safer.

Fifth, a cause of concern for Japan has always been that the PRC would target US bases in Japan in a US-China war.  Signing on to the US SCS containment strategy that undercuts the PRC deterrent as part of the new defense cooperation means that the PRC may target Japanese DF installations as well as US ones.  And there is no practical guarantee, I would imagine, that an ABM system will catch every PRC missile launched under the quantity-not-quality/MIRV/countermeasures/overwhelming barrage of dummy warheads doctrine to provide a 100% impenetrable shield to the Japanese homeland.

Which means that by signing on the defense guidelines and joining the SCS nuclear sub containment party, the Japanese military has to consider signing on to a proactive AirSea Battle II, which is predicated on massive early-and-often air strikes deep within the PRC to negate its nuclear as well as conventional missile superiority.   And maybe it’s time to build that Japanese nuke!

Sixth, given the issues raised by the Yomiuri article, one has to wonder: Is this supremely unattractive scenario meant to corral the backing of hesitant Japanese voters for the new security legislation?  Is it simply a signal to the United States of Japan’s enthusiasm, at the military level at least, for its enhanced responsibilities under the new defense guidelines?  Or is it a rather bald play of the threat card meant to shake loose defense funding to make sure Japan is Armageddon-ready, at least on the war-fighting side?  I tend to the last explanation.  We’ll see.

Seventh, isn’t it interesting how the US has converted a PRC “core interest” in its vital near beyond sea lanes in the South China Sea into a US “core interest” in securing the South China Sea 8000 miles away against unrestricted PRC submarine traffic?

In any case, a remarkably brazen show of the cloven hoof of containment even while the US still spins the rather unconvincing “we’re just here to ensure freedom of navigation” canard.  But maybe FoN will soon get to take its much deserved dirt nap.

The United States’ real concern has always been military freedom of the seas, not civilian freedom of navigation.  “FoS” involves more than sailing through somebody else’s EEZ in transit; it involves conducting purely military operations that have no commercial or scientific dimension (which would invoke the economic rights of the EEZ claimant): shooting off guns for practice, conducting training maneuvers and, most importantly, conducting surveillance, maybe mapping the sea floor for classified military charts and maybe tracking the PRC’s submarine strategic deterrent.

When the PRC was not obviously strong & aggressive, the “Freedom of Navigation” handwaving was needed to provide a benign civilian overlay to the whole military FoS.

In contrast to the insistence of the United States on absolute, undiluted FoS, key US allies in the region, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam all seek to impose limits on military FoS in a variety of matters relating to transit or exercises within their EEZs, in a position that is arguably closer to the PRC than the US; and even the Philippines has expressed reservations.

And, for that matter, the navy second most likely after the United States to exercise its FoS rights to operate inside the EEZs of suspicious and aggrieved nations surrounding the South China Sea is the PLA Navy; so it is perhaps understandable that “Freedom of the Seas” for military vessels was not a surefire propaganda point.

Now that the PRC is big & scary and the United States looks ready to overtly challenge the PRC in the SCS as a matter of military national security, maybe FoN and FoS can be discarded in favor of a straight “resisting Chinese aggression” play.

China hawks in the US Navy have been itching for such a policy for some while, and I would say their opportunity is at hand.

Now, of course, the DoD has a new boss—Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; and PACCOM has a new commander—Admiral Sam Harris, and the general consensus is that the muscular defense sector has wrestled China policy away from the milquetoastian White House.  Interestingly, Admiral Harris was previously the Pentagon’s liaison to to the State Department under Hillary Clinton as well as John Kerry, which reinforces my impression that Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy advisors have pre-loaded China policy with her supporters, and I expect things to get ugly quickly so that the nasty and awkward business of starting the confrontation can be done under Obama before Clinton enters office.

As I put it elsewhere: Hillary wants to inherit her China crisis from Obama, not foment it herself.

It may give heartache to the “Chinese aggression is the root of all evil” crowd but anybody who doesn’t see a crash US program to escalate what the PRC would like to limit to a contained and manageable local friction in the SCS simply isn’t paying attention.

Right now, I would say the goal is to escalate the crisis steeply enough to stampede Japanese public opinion to support the enabling legislation for the new defense guidelines, which is now struggling in the legislature; and lock in the civilian leadership of our Australian and Philippine allies, especially in anticipation of important elections looming in the Philippines and Taiwan.  The barrage of leaks and bellicose declarations from the military quadrant in Australia, the Philippines, and Japan (typified by the Yomiuri article) with the apparent objective of bucking up or boxing in the civilian leadership is a sight to behold.

My apparently distinctly marginal view is that this policy is not going to work very well (though its difficulties will be the source of much occupation and profit for the milsec fixer-uppers and explainers).

As I see the problem, America is not striving for the goal of regional security; it is chasing the chimera of continued American leadership even as the strength of all the Asian powers—Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well as the PRC—grow, and US relative strength declines.

In other words, China will spend the next ten years grabbing what it can; and the United States will be struggling to keep what it can’t.

But US PRC policy is in the hands of men and women determined to try.  It’s up to the American people just to hold on to our hats—and pay the bills, which I expect will be considerable.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of U.S. policy with Asian and world affairs.

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  • China Lee
    “By the twelfth century, names for the South China Sea islands began to appear. The Paracels and the Spratlys were referred to more consistently as Changsha and Shitang. By the mid-fourteenth century, Shitang could be accurately identified as the Spratlys. There is also evidence of Chinese naval control over some areas of the South China Sea, which resulted in complete Chinese dominion of the South China Sea in the late thirteenth century. Finally, in the fifteenth century, Zheng He’s seven voyages placed the South China Sea islands on the official navigational charts. In this map, the Xisha Islands are called Shitang, and the Nansha Islands are referred to as Wansheng Shitang Yu.”

  • Jack Temujin

    The teams are set and both sides are waiting to see who will fire the first shot to usher in WW3. To me, WW3 has already begun in cyber space or on 9/11, and it will eventually escalate into shooting war. All out nuke war is not out of the question.

    “World war 4 will be fought with sticks and stones”. Albert Einstein

  • staad

    stuypid to believe this crap. history and maps are fakes in china. all this “ancient claim” only fools the chinese in the mainland. communist will do anything to justify whatever warmongering they have in plan to steal – the only thing they are known for.

  • staad

    communist maderfackers are like the borg of startrek. eating , stealing , killing just about anything they can get their hands on.

  • China Lee

    Source (GlobalSecurity):

    Chinese claims are based on a number of historical events, including the naval expeditions to the Spratly Islands by the Han Dynasty in 110 AD and the Ming Dynasty from 1403-1433 AD. Chinese fishermen and merchants have worked the region over time, and China is using archaeological evidence to bolster its claims of sovereignty.” (See graphical citation below, second paragraph about “China”)

  • Peter_T

    Eisenstein is known for his scientific prowess but history is not his forte nor his logic on that World War 4 phrase. There will be no World War if all we have left are sticks and stones. You ever heard any evidences of stone age humans waging a World War?

  • Vexxed

    China’s claims may very well be legit but territory is not about who had it first but who has it last. Its why they should arbitrate this according to international law. Their outright refusal to do so is what has created this crisis or opportunity, depending on your point of view

  • China Lee

    Who had it last? That’s easy to answer. It’s China.

    The Paracel Islands, Huangyan Island/Scarborough Shoal, and most of the major South China Sea islands are all in China’s possession.
    For your information, the United States, Russia, and China do not recognize the ICJ or the ICC. Also, the United States is not part of UNCLOS. Russia completely ignore the UNCLOS/ITLOS ruling in the Arctic Sunrise case in November of 2013. China has exempted its territorial boundaries from UNCLOS in writing.

    Thus, the ICJ, ICC, and UNCLOS are all off-limits. There is nothing to arbitrate.

  • rtnguy

    there is no way america will committ strategic suicide by giving up south china sea. A war is coming in west pac and it will be very bloody.

  • Paul

    Typical Chinese crap. They want a free run everywhere and expect others not to defend their interests. The SCS conflict is a creation of the Chinese Communist Party to divert attention from its failures at home and to keep the Chinese jingoistic pot boiling to ensure they remain in power and control.

  • James Jerome

    I say lets have a simultaneous war with Russia and China against the US, I’m sure the US will win after its glorius victory in the Middle East against Jihadist’s with AK-47’s, IED’s, RPG’s only, that has created Jeffersonian democracies in all Middle East countries and they are all stable and pledging allegiance to the US flag.

  • These islands appeared in chinese navigational map with chinese name didn’t mean they are belong to china. The natives to the area like Polynesian, Champa (Vietnam), Khmers (Cambodia) used these islands to shelter from storm for thousands of years before china ever existed!

  • China aggressive rise deserve to be contain and china threat will be eliminate!

  • mulga mumblebrain

    US policy is to destroy China, break it into pieces and continue the God-ordained 500 year rule of the racially and civilizationally superior Western ubermenschen over the various untermenschen aka in Yankee lingo, the various ‘niggers’. To ignore the racist and supremacist rage of Western elites at China’s rise and their decline is madness. Western ruling elites comprise almost entirely psychopaths of one type or another, the sort of people who destroy Iraq and kill two million civilians and poison the country forever with depleted uranium, in a naked aggression based on known lies, then call it ‘nation-building’.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Slavering for a really big blood-letting, are you?

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Paul, the SCS is the contiguous waters of the PRC. It’s like the Caribbean for the USA, or the North Atlantic. I suggest China sends its navy to patrol those waters to protect ‘Freedom of Navigation’.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Facts, China-mere facts. They won’t hinder the racist and xenophobic Sinophobes one bit.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Is that you Donald?Love the comb forward, amigo.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    I really loved his Battleship Potemkin.

  • Samb Trishul

    mongolia control most of Ching. Even tibet controlled bit of ching. China must be upto the big wall which was built around their border which is the real border of ching. By hook and crook they spread their legs. the occupied territory must be given back. In reality tibet should rule ching/s. everything comes round. it might hard to believe but tibetan/s would rise again to tame ching/s.

  • China Lee

    No. The primitive natives didn’t know how to build galleons. Rafts don’t survive for very long on the South China Sea ocean.

  • China Lee

    Chinese sovereignty over Tibet is a settled issue.
    “Historically, the United States has acknowledged Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Since at least 1966, U.S. policy has explicitly recognized the Tibetan Autonomous Region…as part of the People’s Republic of China.”

    Department of State, Relations of the United States with Tibet, 1995.

  • octo9er

    You got control of those areas by trickeryand brute force – in short, as a bully.

    US and China might not recognize UNCLOS but the difference is China is a signatory and not the US. So why sign and not honor it? No honor. I thought so.

  • Geschlossenes Konto

    When the Chinese institutions announce that the building of its artificial islands are about to be FINISHED, the USA propaganda machine says that is about a HALT which was imposed by the US government. Here’s the US China-containment policy. This kind of willful misinterpreting by the American propaganda (neocon media and similar) means as well as they were the USA the WW II’s big and only winner to the detriment of USSR. And everybody believes it.

  • Geschlossenes Konto

    You forgot his big victory in Vietnam.

  • tinhatter

    Bonkers, absolutely bonkers. Been in the Qld sun too long, mulga ?

  • mulga mumblebrain


  • mulga mumblebrain

    Grenada! Took days to defeat a few dozen Cuban airfield workers, then trashed the Cuban Embassy, smearing the walls with their Yankee Doodle faeces and awarded themselves bucket-loads of medals for their martial valour.

  • teddyfromcd

    AND LET US hope that the USA continues to LOSE what it has no right to grab.

    get out of asia, get out of the rest of the world. the world and its countries and people’s are NOT american ‘property’ to play with.
    asia does not need the usa – not even in economic terms…never did..and was already doing fine for thousands of years long before america was ‘born’ through thievery and landgrab by europeans.
    and asia can go on just fine without america and long after the empire of chaos is dust in history.

  • teddyfromcd


  • teddyfromcd

    please don’t forget Haiti and grenada…the americans did it all so courageously….

  • teddyfromcd

    i am a filipino — i can tell you one thing :

    china’s presence in those rocks are easy to understand as stopping points since long ago …

    the old city – the main city — of the philippines — MANILA — has a very, very deep and old influence from the chinese as traders and merchants…and that is one reason why many filipinos have some chinese blood for centuries .

    if anything — the chinese maritime ‘silk road’ merchants and vessels already helped established a lot of centers in the philippines that helped give the philippines – before the westerners came — its early commercial and cultural traits.

    china’s claims are historically based. and , perhaps a minority among filipinos of today who are servile to american imperial interests – i consider china’s claims as very understandable.

    HAD china wanted — as a powerful maritime power long ago they could easily have conquered the philippines’ main islands.

    it is a testament to china’s maturity that , instead, they chose to establish commerce rather than conquest.

    MANILA and many other philippine centers are testament to that early chinese influence of which their claims to the rocks are just a small evidence of how FAR china had explored.

    it is the USA that has NO BUSINESS MEDDLING IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA and in the relations between china and her neighbor and fellow asians, regardless of what their disagreements might be.

  • teddyfromcd

    thank you —

    i have always respected the HISTORICAL FACTS — of china’s influence in MY home country, philippines – and i consider it A DONE thing.

    There is a reason why many filipinos are mixed chinese, malay, spanish. etc…

    even our NATIONAL HERO — Jose Rizal – of mixed blood – was part chinese.

    and these things only show that the chinese people had — LONG AGO — already established their presence and cultural influence . and there is NO sense for the philippines today to continue or try to challenge china’s many well-reasoned claims

    except that the philippine leadership is ‘OCCUPIED COUNTRY’ —

    occupied by the USA that has no business poking its nose in ASIAN AFFAIRS, PERIOD!

  • teddyfromcd

    WHATEVER the claims are – whatever the outcome are —

    the BIG QUESTION is — what is it the business of the USA THERE ?

    china and other claimants are talking about hundreds of miles between each other…….

    the USA — IS OVER 8,000 miles away…what is it the business of the USA — foreigners from asia — to meddle in affairs that have nothing to do with USA’S borders or maritime concerns?

    unless of course because the USA — like in eastern europe – is hiding behind its ‘allies’ who behave more like SLAVES — IN order to make trouble FOR CHINA becuase china – with russia —

    are the authors of the SECURITY AND INTEGRATION AND RISE OF EURASIA — which the USA dreams of conquering!

    don’t ASIANS — all asians — see that the GREATEST THREAT TO ALL ASIANS —

    is NOT china — but the FOREIGNERS AND ALIENS from across the pacific calling themselves


    EXACTLY what business is if of IRISH/AMERICANS like kerry, clinton, obama (his mother was irish and he is related to cheney) —

    bush. etc…

    to ”lead” in asia or EVEN BE a part of ANY CONVERSATION in asia among asians?

  • James Jerome

    mulga you are exactly right, and they are going to get a horrific blowback from this, and they are going out of their mind with what to do about it. They are going to die the Death of a Thousand Razor Cuts, just like the Roman Empire. This is going to be a glorius victory over the great Satan.

  • James Jerome

    I agree 100%. the world would be a better place without the US, the world do not need them for anything at all. The world do not need their religion which they use to exploit, manipulate and subjugate people. Everybody in the world must do their part to get rid of this Cancer of History, by any means necessary.

  • Jeremy Loonysquirrel

    Obama’s mother was of jewish descent.

  • Ken5745

    The natives could not possibly sail in the open seas as they did not have a magnetic compass to navigate in the open seas. Only China had them at the material time because it was an Chinese invention.

    Admiral Zheng He was the first to set sail in the open seas in 1403 with 315 ships and 22,000 men and that was nearly 90 years before Columbus stumbled his way to the new world with 3 small boats, using a Chinese compass he bought from the Arabs.

  • Ken5745

    This is the history of the causes of the disputes in the South China Sea:

    In 1937 Japan invaded China and in 1939 Japan invaded the Spratly and Paracels and colonized them. Japan committed unspeakable war crimes in China, HK (British colony) Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and Singapore.

    After two atom bombs dropped in Japan and following Japan’s unconditional surrender, under the Potsdam Declaration, Japan had to give up all the territories it stole from China ‘by violence and greed’. That was done with US compliance in the 1951 Peace Treaty with the ROC, which the US recognized as the legitimate Govt of China then before Nixon reversed that in Feb 1972.

    The Spratly (Nansha) and the Paracel (Xisha) were returned to China in that Treaty.

    The disputes in the SCS today are therefore caused by Vietnam and the Philippines annexing China’s territories in the South China Sea after 1951.

    The PRC, which became the de jure state of China, declared in 1958 that its territorial waters shall be 12nm, including those of the Spratly (Nansha) and the Paracel (Xisha).

    North Vietnam’s Prime Minister Mr Pham Van Dong wrote to Premier Zhou Enlai to state that “the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam recognizes and supports the declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s territorial sea made on 4 September 1958.”

    After North Vietnam won the Vietnam War with China’s help, it was reunited with the South in 1976. The ungrateful Vietnam stole 48 features in the Spartlys (Nansha) and claimed the Paracel (Xisha).

    The Philippines only had its independence from the US in 1946 after its colonization by first the Spaniard and after Spain lost the Spanish-American war in 1898, it became a colony of the US.
    In 1946 the United States never handed to the Philippines any islands in the South China Sea.
    But President Marcos issued a presidential decree in 1978 and illegally annexed 12 features in the SCS and renamed them the “Kalayaan” or Freedom islands.

    In 1979 Malaysia annexed 6 features, one year after its independence from the British who never handed them any such features in the South China Sea, because the British knew they belong to China.

    Brunei only claim the Louisa reef, which is also contested by Malaysia and China.

    The rest is history and the US is now fishing in troubled waters.