By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Over the past two decades, China has gone to great lengths to seize as much territory in the South China Sea. Beijing has been rather vociferous in their regional claims making their activities in the sea unsurprising in many respects. While China has increased their naval capabilities, they are still largely bottled up in the East China Sea and the South China, and thus far have been unable to either break out reliably or stop the U.S. Navy from entering the area.
For the part of the U.S., the freedom of navigation is critical to U.S. strategy, and though the U.S. Navy is still the most capable naval force in the world, it still feels an emerging threat from China. The crowed South China Sea recently saw tensions increase as the U.S. sent a U2 reconnaissance aircraft over mainland China while China was engaged in multiple military exercises. In response to the overflight, China launched several missiles into the sea as a warning to the U.S.
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This demonstration of military capabilities came just one day after the U.S. and China held a phone call reaffirming the commitment of both governments to the trade deal signed earlier this year. That same day, the U.S. imposed sanctions on 24 defense contract entities in China aiding in the development of military capabilities utilized in the South China Sea. Despite the best intentions, tensions between the two nations continue to rise.
In the discussion over rising tensions between the U.S. and China, other players, unfortunately, are not often enough considered in the conversation. For instance, China and India are still locked in a standoff on the Doklam plateau, China’s neighbors in the South China sea are still battling Beijing over territorial disputes, and Japan and Australia are grappling with their respective interests vis-à-vis China.
This essentially means that any flame up in tensions will invariably affect other regional players and we cannot always consider these issues separately. As an example, India does not limit its options in the standoff with China to the contested border region. Indian senior military leaders suggest that closing the Malacca Strait would be one area of focus in any conflict with China.
The Strait of Malacca is a 550-mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra connecting the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. It is the most important shipping lane in the world with nearly 94,000 ships and approximately 25 percent of internationally traded products transiting the Strait each year. However, energy is the topic of most interest – and concern – to military planners. China is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and any disruption to that supply would certainly affect its military capabilities.
India knows this quite well and is upgrading its airstrips in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to support fighter aircraft, but India would do well to support anti-submarine aircraft from this location as well. The addition of air assets in the region would improve the ability of the Indian navy to threaten the Malacca Strait and disrupt China’s naval access to the Indian Ocean and its energy supply.
Writing in the Interpreter, Sudarshan Y. Shrikhande states, “degrading an enemy’s shipping always takes a long time and a lot of resources – the outcomes are not pre-ordained and could have unforeseen consequences. These realities are not unique to maritime trade warfare, and similar issues have been repeatedly encountered in the use of airpower in bombing campaigns. Economic warfare waged through sanctions is similarly bedeviled.”
Shrikhande continues to explain why ship interdiction is also difficult and can be countered by China’s PLA marines. Shrikhande is correct in his assessment, but interdiction or completely shutting down the Malacca Strait might not be necessary. In many ways, disruption is the better approach. This means that threatening the functioning of the Strait, or perhaps mining the area, may be the better approach. This, too, is not without pitfalls.
Disrupting the most important shipping route in the world would certainly affect China, but it would also affect regional partners like Japan with whom India has warm relations. There are also other nations in the South China Sea region that rely on the Strait as an economic lifeline to the wider world and disrupting this access would not win Delhi many friends.
One other consideration worth mentioning might play into Indian military planning – drawing in outside powers either to intervene in a potential conflict or to arbitrate. In other words, such a drastic move could actually work to shorten a conflict. Nations such as the U.S., Russia, or supranational institutions like the E.U., would feel the impact of any such conflict and move to stop such hostilities, but with differing motivations. Russia has cooperative relations with both india and China, while the E.U. would face economic strain. For its part, the U.S. has its own issues with China and any conflict Sino-Indian conflict would challenge U.S. interests.
The U.S., Japan, Australia, and India are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, a semi-formal defense forum. Though not a formal alliance network by itself, each player has an interest in preventing China from seizing the entirety of the South China Sea.
If China were to control that body of water, it would affect in the interests of the Quad members, but for different reasons. With this in mind, any potential disruption to the Strait would draw in other major players with a mind towards stopping hostilities any quickly as possible. Though India has the capabilities to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Malacca, it should not do so unilaterally, or in response to a minor threat. There are far too many nations with region interests, and cooperation is the better approach to deterring China in the area.