At its root it is all about resources — protein to supplement meager domestic harvests and oil to drive economies that governments push to unnatural and unsustainable annual growth. It is about an emergent regional power, poised on the brink of asserting itself as something more, flexing new found muscle in new domains and deepening suspicion of others in the region. . . “It” is a body of water, bounded to the west by Indochina, to the south by Indonesia and the east by the Philippine Islands. A marginal sea, it is the largest body of water after the world’s five oceans, measuring some 3.5 million square kilometers. Bordered by nearby home for over 270 million people.

Through its passages at Malacca and Taiwan, pass great streams of commerce — more than half the world’s supertankers and almost half of the world’s tonnage by most counts. Outward-bound to distant lands with finished products, inbound with the raw wealth drilled, mined, scraped and otherwise pulled from the earth, grist for the shore-bound industries. From crowded, stinking cities and wave-swept shore, fishermen set to sea to bring its bounty back to a waiting family, village or hungry nation. They set sail in everything from small boat to vast maritime industrial fleets, so efficient at harvesting but with so little thought of sustainment. At day’s end, visitor and native alike pause to consider the marvels of a watercolor sky, brushed in deep shades of vermilion and azure from above met by molten gold and dark sapphire from below – merging on the horizon.

Marvelous beauty, marvelous bounty – but alas, one that has seen mighty conflict in its time. From the early days of vessels powered by muscles and fear, to sail and later, plied by great grey hulking beasts that sought out like kind for battle or hurl anger ashore, it has seen war in all its stark, naked rage.

The South China Sea. Nán Hǎi. Dagat Timog Tsina. Laut China Selatan. Biển Đông.

Click on image to expand

The resources – living and mineral, have been a source of strife among the major regional actors and a look at the multitude of claim/counter-claim lines drawn on a chart, of overlapping claimed sovereignty is to behold a modern Gordian-knot. The modern day Alexander in the region, China, has sought to quietly, relentlessly snip away at that knot through bi-lateral negotiations, playing nations off one another and using new found bluster to attempt to quash any semblance of emergent multi-lateral dialogue. A 2002 declaration of conduct between ASEAN nations and China wherein all would exercise restraint over claims in the region has begun to unravel. ASEAN members claim it is meaningless in the face of Chinese naval assertiveness in the region and growing conflicts between fishing fleets and naval forces. The US, no stranger to these waters from the late-19th century forward, is still a relative new comer but underscoring its resurgent presence in SE Asia, asserted through SecState Clinton’s surprising (to the Chinese) statement last month at a forum on maritime matters hosted in Hanoi, that a leading diplomatic priority for the US would be a multilateral approach to resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea while challenging China’s claims to the entirety of the sea.

China’s response wasn’t long in coming.

The Chinese military declared Friday that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea but insisted it would continue to allow others to freely navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world.

The statement by the People’s Liberation Army seemed designed to reiterate China’s claims to the entire 1.3 million-square-mile waterway while calming concerns in Washington and Asian capitals that its policy toward the region had suddenly become significantly more aggressive.

“China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to support its claims, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, told reporters Friday during a visit to an engineering unit on the outskirts of Beijing.

But he added, “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries.”

Coming on the heels of competing naval exercises off the Korean peninsula and in the Yellow Sea in July by China (which also began a major round of air exercises today), the US remarks raised hopes of nations in the region who have expressed increasing concern over China’s growing naval presence. At home, the Chinese press whipped itself into a veritable froth, taking every opportunity to highlight the naval exercises and declare China’s emergence, something the MoD spokesman quoted above noted later in the same press conference as “not helpful.”

Make no mistake about it — if the US chooses to press ahead in the region militarily and diplomatically there will be substantive challenges and an increased likelihood of a confrontation on the high seas. China has made no bones about using sharp elbows where it feels its sovereignty is being impinged and with increased capacity and capabilities, will undoubtedly feel it is in a position of greater strength to exercise the same. On the part of the US, it is the opening act of what a number of writers and strategists are coming to see as at least one major feature of a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world – one that requires a naval presence for persistent presence, able to flow forces on short notice that are able to conduct sustained operations from the seabase. It is the core of the maritime strategy and naval operations concept.

It is also one that demands a navy with wide-ranging capabilities across the spectrum of war and which will not be found in a dwindling force of undermanned ships, aging aircraft and neglected weapons systems. It will require small combatants, big-deck amphibs, multi-mission destroyers and cruisers, submarines for hunting and deterrence and carriers that bring a revitalized mission of sea control back into a portfolio too-long dominated by strike warfare. Grey hulls, white hulls. Sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman. The need is there — the question – can we afford to build and sustain the necessary force structure to put “paid” to the diplomatic checks being written?

Can we afford not to?

The guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) maneuvers with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy Luyang-class destroyer Guangzhou (DDGHM 168) off the coast of North Sulawesi, Indonesia

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  • Total

    The Chinese military declared Friday that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea but insisted it would continue to allow others to freely navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world.

    We could call this the “Monroe Doctrine.”

    Or was that name already taken?

  • KhakiPants


    I do not concur. The Monroe Doctrine was put in place to prevent the European powers from trading colonies amongst themselves as many of these colonies claimed independence. However, the Monroe Doctrine specifically states that the United States would not interfere in European territory, even colonies that it recognised to belong to the European countries.This is certainly not the case in Asia today, and in fact, we have legitimate, recognised territory in Asia ourselves. I don’t see breakaway regions of world superpowers (outside of China itself!) needing or demanding protection of a fairly powerful regional actor.

    I do not see how this is a “Chinese” version of the Monroe Doctrine.

  • Paul

    So, going with the idea that the PLAN intends on throwing a hissy fit every time the US has an exercise in the South China Sea– how deep is the water there?

    My concern has two angles– blue water submarine operations (ok for nuke boats to move hither and yon) and mines. Could the SCS be mined to either restrict or deny passage for USN vessels?

    This looks like the place where things may happen. Be nice to have some friends in the region– how are the smaller countries (Malaysia, Philippines, etc, etc) taking this claim of the PLAN’s or are they too intimidated by them?

    Any word on the Varyag?

  • Byron

    Varyag= something to let water into from the bottom.

  • Derrick

    China does throw an awful lot of hissy fits (in my opinion anyway)…but they don’t really take action, nor will they have the means to take action for at least a few more decades, so I don’t see a big rush to increase the US military presence in the Pacific as of yet. I interpreted the quoted statement from the Chinese military as “we don’t want to reverse our position in public because we’re afraid of looking stupid, but we are not stupid and won’t provoke a war either”.

    Also, the US navy is not the only thing deterring China…there is also the US air force and the US army, in Japan, South Korea and Afghanistan. In short, the US has China contained/surrounded.

    Isn’t mining of water an act of war? I think China (and every other nation for that matter) would be afraid to do any mining because it would provoke other nations into bombing them.

  • “but they don’t really take action, nor will they have the means to take action for at least a few more decades, so I don’t see a big rush to increase the US military presence in the Pacific as of yet.”

    I know an EP-3 crew that would beg to differ. We have also seen a significant rise in aggressive shiphandling in close proximity to research/aux vessels conducting survey work in international waters. Take another look at friday’s declaration – both in terms of what was said and who was delivering it — MoD spokesman, not foreign affairs…and if you think the old Soviet-style contanment will work, think again. They studied that model just as cosely as we have (had) in the West and beginning in the 90’s, worked to offset attempts to reprise that model.
    w/r, SJS

  • Derrick

    What was the experience of the EP-3 crew? What are some examples of aggressive shiphandling?

    What has China done to offset attempts of Soviet-style containment?

  • Byron

    Uh, EP-3 forced to land on Hainan Island? US survey boat boarded in international waters?

  • Derrick

    Thanks for jogging my memory…but have there been more incidents than just those 2?

    I find the EP-3 incident interesting, since China lost a fighter jet in that incident. Does that imply the Chinese fighter pilots need more training?

    As for the South China Sea incident of 2009, why was the surveillance ship alone? Is it not standard policy to send them with escorts?

  • Chuck Hill

    The confrontation in 2009 wasn’t just one incident, it was a series involving both USNS Impeccable and USNS Victorious.

    The Chinese have had a number of incidences with other nations as well, including particularly the Japanese.

    No we don’t escort our, essentially unarmed, intelligence gathering ships, and it could have been a lot worse. Pueblo and Liberty come to mind. Isn’t it about time we did our overt intelligence collection with properly armed warships? We have every right.

    In the long run, good intelligence can work to build confidence between nations, if their intentions are truly not hostile.

    I did notice that when the Chinese sent a task force near Japan, but still in international waters, the Japanese thought it was provocative, so it cuts both ways.

  • Derrick

    Then perhaps the simplest response is to send escorts with surveillance ships/planes…those surveillance missions must continue and having them accompanied by armed warships or jets would discourage silly behavior.

    I guess China behaves this way probably due to an inferiority complex since they cannot afford a blue water navy that could conduct operations such as overt intelligence gathering in international waters nearby the US coastline.

    Out of curiosity, does the Chinese government have full control of its military? I ask because the Chinese military has an awful lot of people to manage, so it’s conceivable regional commanders are making decisions without guidance/approval from Beijing…

  • Chuck Hill

    The Japanese certainly had problems controlling their military prior to WWII, there may be some of that.

    This sort of thing and the recent statements about having “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea may be simply hard bargaining tactics, or, unfortunately, they may actually believe it.

  • Pete Speer

    With the construction of the submarine base on Hainan Island, it is easily understood why the PRC desire control of every island chain in the South China Sea.

    It goes well beyond mineral resources. The sea lanes to the open ocean must pass by one or more of these island groups. Should an opposing nation lay sonic detection equipment in that Sea, the undetected movement of of the nuclear submarines are enfaangered. Similar PRC installations on the other hand give early warning of lurkers…

    In addition, PRC efforts to date have effectively called — in the north — the Yellow Sea a Chinese Lake.. In the East China Sea we now have slant drilling into the oil reserves west of the Okinawa trench. The ROK is just coming alive to notice the value of these reserves.

    Further south, the PRC is interested to establish te Taiwan Straits as other Inland Sea and deny access to U.S. forces protrvting that island. And in the south we have the South China Sea. It is not just minerals any more.

  • Couple of points – no particular order:

    – indeed there have been numerous other “1v1” encoutners between the Chinese and other nations’ forces and fishing fleets in the area. The trend seems to be increasing too over the last few years. Just look here to see what a tangled mess claims over just the islands in the SCS presents…

    – Intelligence collection comes from any one of a number of overt and covert sources. One may not have the resources for big, blue water ‘-int’ collection vessels, but if you are comercially placed at strategic choke points around the globe, if you have a fisheries fleet that numbers in the hundreds and operates globally, you have a defacto collection apparatus…

    – I think the government has complete control over the military which makes the message as well as the messenger that delivered the response noteworthy.

    – regional partnerships are built on more than just intelligence collection and sharing – they are built on enduring relationships founded on a sustained presence and bi- and multi-lateral operations. They also require a long-view — beyond the next budget or even FYDP to build and sustain.

    w/r, SJS

  • Derrick

    Does China have a fisheries fleet that numbers in the hundreds and can operate globally?

  • Chuck Hill

    Yes and one of the features of the Impeccable incident was that fishing vessels were involved, making it appear that the fishing vessels were defacto government controlled vessels.

  • Derrick

    Ahh…now I understand…in essence, China is “cheating” as they are using civilian vessels for military purposes…

    Then again, I would imagine every nation probably does the same.

    Well…I don’t know what to suggest at this point. Is it possible to assign another carrier battle group to the Pacific specifically for patrolling the South China Sea? What would be a ballpark estimate for the extra operational costs? I suppose instead of retiring the USS Enterprise, just send that carrier over to the South China Sea…should be cheaper than buying another CVN-78 (

    I small gesture like assigning a few more ships or a few more jets to the South China Sea probably won’t upset China much, but at least it will make them aware of the US commitment to freedom of the seas. I’m just concerned about the cost, that’s all.

    Am I making a feasible/realistic suggestion? Please help me understand these military affairs stuff more…

  • Byron

    Well, Derrick, I guess you could say that the US does the same thing. In time of war, the government has the power to nationalize all US flagged merchant ships…and airliners. Bet you didn’t know that one…

    I’m just curious as to how long before the Philipines start begging us to open Subic again… at their cost.

  • Byron:

    I’m betting Cam Ranh Bay before Subic…
    w/r, SJS

  • Paul

    Steel Jaw

    Wow! That would be the ironies of ironies!

    My earlier comments about mines was more theoretical– as in war scenario with China vs________. My sub question was directed more towards operations/intelligence gathering, shadowing and generally being not heard or seen, but there.

    Derrick– you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, plus the closest bases are are either Japan or Pearl to maintain that carrier deck. Carriers like a lot of sea room around them and there isn’t much in the SCS. Hard to hide in that space as there are natural choke points where eventually the CBG would have to transit, or the support ships for that battle group. There’s an axiom from the US military– “If you can see it, you can hit it, if you can hit it, you can kill it…” that would apply. If the PLAN can see either the carrier or the support ships, then they can kill them.


    Had to do a project on this when I attended the Australian Command and Staff College (Canberra, AU). A lot of the neighboring countries take this pretty personally. There is a lot of resources to be found below the sea too.

    This link provides a few tables, two of the more contentious are; “Military clashes in the South China Sea over the last two decades” and “Disputes over drilling and exploration”.,%20South%20China%20Sea%20Tables%20and%20Maps.htm


  • Byron

    SJS, not taking that bet 😉

  • Derrick

    If the SCS is too small for a carrier, perhaps a small squadron of frigates and destroyers? If Canada and the US each contributed ships to a squadron that would patrol the SCS then it would help bring China to the negotiation table.

  • Nick

    Japan is building up it’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, including adding new submarines. South Korea is beefing up it’s navy and developing new surface warships.

    The US Navy doesn’t need to consider itself the sole keeper of the peace. So long as we are smart about maintaining our existing alliances (ROK, Japan, Australia) and bulding new ones (India), there are many ways to contain China.

    In terms of expanding the Seventh Fleet, what is the status on beefing up Guam’s capabilities? If the USN decides to station another Carrier Strike Group in the Western Pacific, I say station it at Guam. For starters, it is farther out than our bases in Japan. Secondly, it helps us avoid putting “all our eggs in one basket”, so to speak.

    As to the USS Enterprise, whether it is CVN-65 (unlikely) or a future Ford-class (God willing), any student of US naval history knows that the proper place for the Big E is the Pacific.

  • Derrick

    Including Japan in patrolling the SCS may not be the most diplomatic approach in dealing with China. Probably too many of the Chinese leadership still remembers the suffering the Imperial Japanese military put them through during World War 2…involving Japan in the situation may have the Chinese leadership jump to paranoid conclusions that the US is trying to turn the world against them and invade them.

    All the US needs to do is let China know its commitment to freedom of seas…so if extra ships are required other than what ROK and Australia can provide, perhaps the US can look to Canada for assistance?

    However, if the US takes a staunch anti-China position of treating China as the enemy that must be contained, it may cause concerns in other parts of the world, especially since the US is currently the unchallenged world superpower that cannot be contained. In fact, the US empire is expanding by militarily occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Nick

    If anyone is “turning the world” against them, it is China itself. China is alienating it’s neighbors. Japan and South Korea would not be beefing up their respective navies if they did not feel threatened by China.

    Regarding Canada, I value and respect our neighbor to the north and the sacrifices their military has made in Afghanistan, but their navy is woefully unequipped for duty in WESTPAC. Their three destroyers are over 40 years old. The dozen Halifax-class frigates are fine ships, but I doubt they could field more than one or two to the SCS for any length of time, if at all.

    US empire? Other than rolling my eyes, I have nothing to say to that.

  • Derrick

    All I’m suggesting is to try to see things from the other nations’ perspectives, but not let them threaten US interests either. A very difficult line to walk…

    What does the Royal Canadian Navy need to do to assist the US in WESTPAC?

  • Nick

    The Canadian Navy would need to develop true blue-water capabilities. Other than the USN, the only other nations with this capability are the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. (Other countries have limited blue-water capabilities, but not to the level of these four countries)

    Given the distance that the WESTPAC is from our traditional NATO allies in Europe, any coalition force that was assembled in the SCS would be composed of the US, Japanese, South Korea, and Australian units.

  • “It is also one that demands a navy with wide-ranging capabilities across the spectrum of war and which will not be found in a dwindling force of undermanned ships, aging aircraft and neglected weapons systems.”

    That quote of yours SJS should be the #1 focus of our uniformed leadership and brought up constantly in discussions internally, externally, and with resource providers, but sadly it isn’t.

    BTW – your post is a perfect source document for this Sunday’s Midrats. Perfect.

  • I don’t really feel it matters what a nation claims. The South China Sea is basically a land locked lake. The only way a conflict may come about is if China broke International Law and attempted to stop navigation of the sea by other nations. Japan, Korea, Phillipines, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Malaya which are our allies can all be reached via the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Sea of Japan.

    Seizing a territory is different than holding a territory, so in a total war or even a major naval war, the US and its allies enforce a distant blockade preventing all Chinese shipping from leaving or entering the South China Sea. Subs wreak havoc within. This forces a brown water navy to fight a blue water fight. China’s economy would be wrecked. Not to mention through air power we can destroy her ports and her ability to support any navy. There is no need to send in surface ships immediately plus to truly control the South China Sea you must take control of the other oceans that join with it. China simply does not have the geography to ever become a great naval power. Land power yes, naval power no.

    In short despite the bellowing which is more for her own people, China has no interest in a major naval conflict. I am sure she could cause a lot of pain in the short term (and this would be tragic) but really has no capability to maintain it for very long which is the typical miss-calculation of exercising sea power in that it is staying power that is the true measure not the sexy initial combat power expressed in a combatant ship. It is the huge capability of the US and her allies to maintain logistical support of her naval forces and China has no real capability to slow that unless she resorts to nuclear weapons and again in this case she still loses.

    China of course does not like this limitation and is very threatened by it, after all her mainland can be directly attacked from the sea. But must come to grips she will have to live with it, because of her geography. Better to be friends with the US then get into any conflict. Hopefully her leaders will understand this, though history is full of examples of where it was not. The US needs to be aware of China’s insecurity, but at the same time let China know International Law must be maintained and respected for the good of all nations. In addition we must let China know we have no interest in getting into a conflict with China and also express other nations insecurities (such as these comments made by China do more harm than good) within the region such as Japan’s and South Korea’s. It would benifit both nations to work together to stabalize North Korea and Tiawan seems stable for the moment.

    In my personal opinion we did not need to send a carrier off the coast of North Korea as it really does no good.

    One-North Korea knows fully well what we can do.

    Two-Sailing some ships around but taking no action does nothing to deter North Korea’s decision making process and gives North Korea more propaganda which she will exploit.

    Three- Far better to stay quiet and build up South Korean defences in real terms to show such acts of aggression have a an undesirable affect in strengthing South Korea.

    Four- It fanned the flames of China’s insecurity and prevents her to work behind the scenes to help influence North Korea to stop such acts of war as sinking a South Korean ship and if she continues she will lose support from China or so inflame her neighbors such as Japan to start an arms race or even a real war. But now publicly she can no longer do or say this. This results in more bellowing of unnessasary comments that change nothing in the end, since within the comment International Law will be respected.

  • Derrick

    A little off-topic, but I thought the US Navy is the most advanced and largest blue water navy in the world? How old is the oldest ship in service? It cannot be more than 20 years, can it? What is the age of the oldest in service naval aircraft?

    And didn’t the US Navy just complete a successful test of using lasers to shoot down unmanned drones?

    It doesn’t seem to me that the US Navy is neglecting its weapons systems, so what is it that I am not aware of?

  • Byron

    Well, the oldest commissioned ship in the fleet had her keel laid back in around 1795 or so…USS Constitution. CVN-65, the Enterprise, had her keel laid in 1958. USS McInerny, FFG 8 had her keel laid in 1976.

    Need I go on?

  • Aubrey


    The problem with the USN ships and weapon systems is that we have a few Rolls-Royces to run around in and look spiffy, but are fast running out of Ford F-150’s to do the dirty work…

  • Nick


    Well, in the case of the Enterprise, she was designed for 50 years of service. Our Navy is ageing, but it is not quite as bad as some people make it out to be. The majority of our Arleigh Burke-class DDG’s are still fairly new, as are some of our Wasp-class amphibious assault ships. Hell, the Reagan and George HW Bush are young carriers.

    In reality, the fleet is always a mix of brand new hulls, mid-life hulls, and older hulls. We are currently fielding a larger number of mid life hulls than is desirable, but the fleet is far from being outdated. There is no navy in the world that can take on the combined might of the USN.

    Let’s just hope that the Congress finds a way to secure the funding needed to maintain the Navy we need. That is always the multi-billion dollar question.

  • Byron

    Aubrey: especially if we keep investing in white elephants like LPD-17 and LCS (take your pick). That, and smart manning has caused a maintainence train wreck which is ongoing and will for the foreseeable future.

  • Paul

    I don’t think Congress finding money is the problem– it’s how that money is spent. It’s a lot more sexy to sell a new weapons system with all the bells and whistles then to say “I want ____ billion for maintenance and upkeep…”

    When I used to take long walks in the woods with my trusty M-249, every step I took reminded me that a) my boots were made by the lowest bidder, b) my pack was the flower of 1960’s hiking technology and c) my commercial civvie boots and pack were 30 years ahead of what I was wearing. But, because boots and packs weren’t as sexy as a MBT an IFV or the Commanche no money was really allocated in peace time for such mundane things.

    Congress and the government in general needs to go back to school and read a bit of history with discussion questions afterwards to remind them of the dangers of ill-equipping the military in a time of war, and this will be a long period of instability no matter what goes on in Iraq or the ‘stan. China and NK’s recent tiffs show that when it settles down in the Near East, look to the Far East for more trouble.

  • eastriver

    SJS, thanks for the spot-on post with your usual clarity. As to the “white-hull” inclusion in your force structure: we cannot — or will not — currently “afford to build and sustain the necessary force structure” for the current set of white-hull missions. If such functions are necessary, they should either be built into the Navy, as advocated elsewhere in this blog, or fold the CG into the Department of the Navy with appropriate funding.

    Former Assistant SecDef Lawrence Korb lays it out pretty well here:

  • Steeljawscribe


    Roger all, but would submit that there are times and locales where a white hull/racing stripe works better than a grey hull cousin. And WWII experience notwithstanding, not sure DoN today would be a good place for USCG…
    W/r, SJS

  • Chuck Hill

    What we do need is a good way for the Navy Dept to make their desires for Coast Guard cooperation clear to both the Coast Guard and the Congress and then pay the incremental cost of upgrades to meet Navy tasking.

  • eastriver

    Agreed with SJS that a white hull is, maybe, “friendlier” in some situations. Take CG vessel age into account though, and the grey hulls are more like grandchildren than cousins. Tough to cooperate when MEs are down, sweeps no longer standard issue and use of same provide bad optics.

    Chuck, that looks like a massive political food fight to me. Ideal, but tough to achieve.

    Integration of CG into Navy is no panacea, to be sure, but probably better than competing with Customs for funding. E.g. as of April, CBP operates 284 aircraft, CG about 211. What’s wrong with this picture?