China’s Pre-emption Trap

**This is provided to Jamestown subscribers to share the private views of a member of The Jamestown Foundation’s Board of Directors. This is not an official Jamestown publication and the views contained herein may not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.**

Why has the pace of military activity in the South China Sea accelerated so dramatically in recent weeks, to the point at which some Chinese media go so far as to speak of “inevitable” war?[ii] Briefly, the reason is that Beijing is struggling to salvage a deliberated strategy that has gone disastrously wrong, leading China to a frantic attempt to somehow prevail nevertheless, by tactical pre-emption and a raising of military threats. Yet, as will be shown, this is unlikely to succeed, though it could well lead to disaster for Asia.

To understand the current situation in the South China Sea, we must assess China’s policy objectives, and the means she envisaged to attain them—what is called her “theory of victory.”

In 2010, now five years ago, Beijing disclosed her non-negotiable claim to sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea (1,423,000 square miles, one and a half times larger than the Mediterranean) along with all reefs, rocks, islands and so forth contained therein, even though many of these were within the territorial waters of other countries, in some cases garrisoned by them.[iii] She also re-asserted her claim to Arunachal Pradesh, northeastern India, one third of which has been Chinese controlled since her crushing defeat of New Delhi in 1962, and which she calls “South Tibet.” [iv] In 2013, China unilaterally proclaimed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that pushed her claims east, to cover some South Korean as well as Japanese claimed territory to within a few dozen miles of Taiwan.[v] She is now proposing one covering the South China Sea.[vi] Understanding the role these claims may play in regional politics, including peace and war, is not straightforward. First, we must answer the question: how could China possibly imagine she could somehow impose geographical and political change, on a scale normally only possible by war, at an acceptable cost? Or even at all? We should note that U.S. Secretary of Defense has stated flatly that “The United States will go wherever global law permits.”[vii]

What, in other words, was China’s “theory of victory”—the script she had written or the story she has told herself and believed about the future, explaining how certain actions and reactions would bring her success?

A clear window was provided by the behavior of China’s then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the 2010 meeting in Hanoi of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a strong speech upholding freedom of navigation, thus by implication dissenting from China’s claims. Yang accused Secretary Clinton of an “attack on China.” Then he reportedly took a substantial break, from which he returned to admonish the other ministers, confronting them with the assertion, made in the face of Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” extravagantly insulting behavior to all, and Minister Yeo is particular.[viii]

China intended to win by intimidation: by flaunting her “awesomeness” or 威 wei, an ancient concept, to push her neighbors back into a hierarchical relationship with Beijing reminiscent of the mostly-mythical “tributary system” imagined to have existed in the past. Military operations would be exemplary and limited, perhaps to only the weakest adversary by far, the Philippines. As the Philippines yielded—what other choice would they have?—others would draw the lesson and move accordingly. Success would be relatively quick and smooth, based as much on psychology as on actual military operations.

That the Philippines would not play the role assigned them in Beijing’s script became gradually apparent. China had successfully occupied Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the winter season of 1994, when the area was not patrolled, to a complete lack of international reaction. In 2012, she took Scarborough Shoal as well, violating a U.S.-brokered agreement for mutual withdrawal. Today she is reportedly fortifying seven other Philippine-claimed territories.[ix]

If these actions had led the Philippines simply to give up, Beijing’s strategy might have begun to work. Slowly, though, Manila reacted. She began contesting Chinese moves, skillfully resupplying her scattered troops by using small fast boats that could elude the larger Chinese warships standing watch, and upgrading her military: a slow process, aided much by Japanese provision of modern patrol ships and potentially other hardware.[x] Most damagingly, the Philippines took the case to the International Permanent Court of Arbitration on January 22 2013, alleging violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982), which other states have joined. China has refused to recognize or participate in these proceedings, but should Beijing lose, as seems likely, that will be a major blow to her legitimacy, diplomatic standing and international prestige—and of course to her larger “theory of victory.”[xi]

One may speculate that Beijing believed that cowing the Philippines would be relatively easy, a cake-walk. Instead, 21 years after Mischief Reef and now three after Scarborough Shoal, Manila is becoming an unexpectedly difficult problem for China, for which no solution short of all-out war looks potentially successful. She is a bit like a small, troublesome terrier dog with her teeth sunk into China’s heel. Manila alone is not going to bring China down. But she seems already to have caused the failure of the initial Chinese strategy or theory of victory.

Here the Chinese might usefully have consulted German history. The famous Schlieffen Plan, unleashed in 1914, envisaged a rapid march through Belgium, a quick envelopment of Paris and a knock-out of France. In their planning, the German General Staff never considered that tiny Belgium (11,672 square miles, smaller even than Taiwan) might actually resist. Their assumption was symbolic resistance at most: a few shots fired (defensive action is required to maintain neutrality under attack) and a show of disapproval as Belgian troops, weapons at their chests, lined the roads as the German steamroller passed on its way to Paris.

That assumption proved completely wrong. After an all-night cabinet meeting, Brussels decided on all-out military resistance. The country, precipitous at Liege where the Germans had great difficulty securing the single railway that connected Berlin to Paris, swampy and crisscrossed by streams and canals, was heavy going for the German army. Enraged, they took revenge by burning the irreplaceable library of medieval manuscripts at the University in Leuven (then called Louvain) but that was of no strategic use. Weakened and slowed by several weeks of fighting in Belgium and the unanticipated need thoroughly to secure their rear lines of communication, the Germans arrived at Paris late and under-strength. In autumn 1914, they lost the First Battle of the Marne, which is to say, the ball game. Their theory of victory had been shredded by a tiny obstacle scarcely considered in planning.

At that point, the German strategy had failed close to irretrievably. It took, however, millions more casualties and the failure of the Ludendorff Offensive in 1918 to lead Berlin to seek an armistice. Thereafter, mutiny in the fleet, revolution in the capital and the flight of the Kaiser to the Netherlands brought an end to the whole Reich. Thus, even when strategy had failed and victory was effectively impossible, the Germans relied on escalation, tactical brilliance and sheer determination to carry on a futile fight until Europe was in ruins and well-nigh the last drop of blood had been shed.

Belgium’s role in World War I is a useful parallel to that of the Philippines in the present conflict. First, aggression was in both cases illegal. Belgium’s neutrality was guaranteed by the 1839 Treaty of London. Philippine claims are supported by UNCLOS, to which China is also a signatory. Second, in both cases, the attacker over-estimated its ability to intimidate smaller players: King Albert of the Belgians showed no lack or resolution; in fact he managed to remain throughout the war with his family on a sliver of Belgian territory at the French frontier, secured by an immense artificial lake created by opening dykes. Third, Belgian resistance was not futile. Passing the choke point between forts at Liege and Antwerp was not easy. The consequent delay and casualties actually helped cost Germany the whole war, though no German would admit that at the time. Finally, the vengeful “rape of Belgium” by atrocities against civilians for the rest of the war gave a clear warning to other states of what was in store for them if they did not look to their defenses, thus strengthening and solidifying the Entente (anti-German) coalition. [xii]

Unless China somehow defeats Manila, which is hard to imagine without a full-scale war most emphatically not in her interest, she will face a “Philippine Ulcer” from now on, as Napoleon did a “Spanish Ulcer,” after unwisely making his brother Jerome king of Spain in 1808. This provoked the national guerrilla uprising, immortalized by Goya, and provided Wellington with the first stepping stone to the complete defeat of Napoleon. The ulcer alone was not enough to defeat France, but its opening was a steady drain on that country: an operational and strategic turning point, as well as a source of encouragement to her enemies.[xiii]

Not only that, an undefeated Manila will grow slowly but steadily stronger and more militarily capable, which will render increasingly difficult the Chinese task of holding jerry-built military installations resting on piles above minor islets and rocks. The Philippines are more than a thousand miles from Beijing, though closer to the southern Chinese coast. However, how does one defend scattered and isolated garrisons from destruction by explosive, air attack or naval bombardment? As the number of such installations created by Beijing increases, so too will the need to divide her forces to fight far from their bases and near to land-based, air and other forces, which the Philippines are now working, slowly, to create. Such vulnerable installations are, furthermore, of little strategic value, not worth the cost of defense.

The Philippine story is simply a miniature version of the tale of the Chinese theory of victory as a whole. With her bold claims, Beijing has shown her cards clearly—and too soon. Nearly every country potentially threatened is now building up forces specifically configured to counter a Chinese threat. These countries include South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia (which has just demonstratively blown up a large Chinese fishing vessel along with 40 others of differing nationalities) as well as India.

When the story began, these other states were relatively somnolent. Now they are alert, which means that with every passing day the overall military balance shifts against China. Nor can China credibly employ nuclear blackmail: India has nuclear weapons sufficient to inflict massive destruction on China, while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are nuclear threshold states. (Sources say Taiwan, for instance, could have nuclear weapons in less than a year based on work already completed.)[xiv] Beijing’s targets, however, have been prudent in the measures they have taken. States such as Japan have shown great military insight by strengthening their defenses in a non-provocative way that, nevertheless, vitiates Beijing’s strategy. Thus, Japan is reinforcing the chain of small islands, from Kyushu to tiny Yonaguni, sixty miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Tokyo is deploying fighter jets on Miyako (the most crucial, for she lies just south of the most convenient bit of international water permitting passage from the South China Sea to the Pacific); anti-ship missiles on Amami-Oshima and possibly Ishigaki islands, similarly strategic; and a small new military base on Yonaguni.[xv] To the south lie only two more usable exits, which, along with the Straits of Malacca, would be unusable in a conflict.

What this means is that, in time of war, Japan alone could bottle up the entire Chinese fleet in the South China Sea, probably sinking a great deal of it as well with her superb submarine force. Pushed further, moreover, Tokyo will almost certainly re-arm even more. Japan, which potentially has the means to overshadow China as a military power, is unlikely to permit the occupation of so much as one square inch of the territory she claims.

Finally, the United States: Beijing has, since the 1970s, interpreted U.S. gestures of friendship as signs of weakness, thus learning exactly the wrong lessons. Now, she imagines, with the leadership deeply invested in this belief, that Washington is a power in terminal decline, that will gradually slip out of Asia due to her own weakness, making way for Chinese dominance, perhaps with the camouflage of some nice words in communiqués.

This, too, has proven a dangerously erroneous miscalculation: Washington is speaking with some clarity, reasserting her security alliances. U.S. forces are moving into the region, and while diplomacy is still under way, U.S. reconnaissance planes are overflying the various islands in the midst of the South China Sea where China is attempting, ‘round the clock, to build airfields and military facilities where weapons are now being placed. Australia, the United States and others, are now planning fly-overs and fly-throughs to demonstrate non-recognition of these installations.[xvi] Will China simply tolerate such activities? Or will they attempt to interfere with them, as they already do from time to time along their coast? Suppose such harassment or even an interception of a foreign aircraft escalated into conflict.? None of the islands could possibly resist a sustained attack. Suppose China then turned to broader escalation? What would that gain her? Certainly not victory—rather, a growing and disastrous war for her and her neighbors.

The Chinese government, moreover, is brittle and faction-ridden. A “splendid little war,” such as John Hay spoke of in 1898, might serve her well but is not on call. Instead, the prospect is indefinite and is increasing hostility with all of China’s neighbors, with the military balance steadily turning unfavorable. Even Russia is not a certain ally: Moscow and Beijing have never gotten along. Moreover, Russia has Asian territories China could claim. Finally, Moscow would like to improve relations with Tokyo.

China has not yet come to terms with the fact that the seemingly puny Philippines (in fact 115,000 square miles) have already sunk the vaunted “nine dash line” map[xvii] of asserted Chinese terra irredenta. Who would have thought this possible? Certainly Beijing does not believe it.

Therefore, still imagining that she holds some advantage, Beijing is now trying to escalate threats and potential military actions so as to win pre-emptively, before the resistance of the other states becomes clearly insurmountable. This attempt may do great damage, but it will accomplish nothing. Downing a U.S. plane will make things far worse and render any success more distant—likewise a Japanese or even a Philippine one. For the sake of her country and her regime, then, strategic analysis indicates that China must exit as rapidly as possible. For, as with Germany’s in World War I, her ambitious plan for regional conquest has been defeated strategically in the very first summer—which, it must be noted, does not mean that fighting will stop, rather only that, even if hideously destructive, such fighting cannot achieve its goal. Chinese military thought, however, likes quick and easy victories, set up ahead of time, not long pounding. So perhaps confronted with hostility of effectively all her neighbors, and no end in sight, she will reconsider.

If wise, China will gradually “walk back” this whole confrontation, an immense loss of face no matter how it is handled, as well as an acute embarrassment just ahead of the planned military parade in her capital later this year, celebrating what Beijing calls her defeat of Japan (it was no such thing). Such reversal of course is the only way to avoid catastrophe, not only for China but also for her government, which clearly has planned and is thus responsible for the whole misguided undertaking.

Needless to say we should seek to provide Beijing with as attractive a ladder to climb down as possible: a xiataijie (下台階)—with the clear proviso that this will be for a withdrawal tout simple accompanied by no balancing concessions, emollient language, or grand Munich-style bargains. Certainly we must not, as some Americans are already advocating, attempt to balance our “equities” in China with those elsewhere by walking a fine line between China and those she is intimidating. That would likely lead to regional rearmament without an American alliance, a very dangerous combination. While Chinese victory is already impossible, a pointless and destructive war throughout the region—hunzhan (混戰) as the Chinese call it—is a real and alarming possibility.

Arthur Waldron, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, is a member of Jamestown’s Board of Directors.


[i] On this topic see also two articles by the present author: “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ Encounters Turbulence” Orbis 58.2(2014): 164–181, and “The Asia Mess: How Things Did Not Turn Out As Planned” Orbis 59.2 (2015): 143-166.

[ii] Beijing Global Times editorial, May 25, 2015. The down-market and sometimes sensationalist tabloid Global Times is wholly owned by the Party’s authoritative People’s Daily. Analysts are divided as to how accurately some Global Times articles represent official policy.

[iii] M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33.3 (2011), pp. 292–319 esp. 293–295 http://taylorfravel.com/documents/research/fravel.2011.CSA.china.strategy.scs.pdf; Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: A Commons for China Only? China Rejects UN Treaty by Asserting Sovereignty Over South China Sea”YaleGlobal 7 July 2011. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/south-china-sea-commons-china-only.

[iv] Press Trust of India, “Ahead of Modi’s visit, China says ‘huge dispute’ with India over Arunachal Pradesh an ‘undeniable fact’ China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of southern Tibet.” Indian Express, April 9, 2015. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/dispute-with-india-over-arunachal-an-undeniable-fact-china/#sthash.4bDD6ps4.dpuf.

[v] Rick Gladstone and Gerald W. Wald, “China’s Move Puts Airspace in Spotlight” New York Times November 27, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/world/asia/chinas-move-puts-airspace-in-spotlight.html?_r=0.

[vi] Charles Clover, “China raises prospect of South China Sea air defence zone,” Financial Times May 27 , 2015. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/bd40ff7a-0447-11e5-a5c3-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3bMrV1JuV

[vii] Lily Guo “China warns of ‘inevitable’ war with the United States over South China Sea,” Quartz, May, 26 2015 http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2015/05/china-warns-inevitable-war-us-over-south-china-sea/113680/.

[viii] John Pomfret, “US takes a tougher tone with China” Washington Post, July 30, 2010: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072906416.html.

[ix] Ely Ratner, “Learning the Lessons of Scarborough Reef,” The National Interest, November 21, 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/learning-the-lessons-scarborough-reef-9442.

[x] Agence France Presse “Japan to give patrol boats to Philippines among China Tensions,” South China Morning Post, August 23, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1147876/japan-give-patrol-boats-manila-amid-china-tensions; Associated Press, “Philippine supply ship evades Chinese vessel” Daily Mail, March 29, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-2592155/Philippine-supply-ship-evades-Chinese-vessel.html#ixzz3bMvGaS1q.

[xi] Permanent Court of Arbitration “Republic of the Philippines v. People’s Republic of China” http://www.pca-cpa.org/showpage.asp?ac=print&pag_id=1529

[xii] S. L. A. Marshall, World War I (1964. Reprint ed. New York, N.Y.: Mariner Books, 2001) p. 52 and passim.

[xiii] David Gates, The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War (1986: Reprint ed. New York, N.Y.: DaCapo Press, 2001).

[xiv] Author’s personal information.

[xv] Yomiuri Shimbun, “Defenses Bolstered Across Nansei Islands,” Japan News, May 28, 2015, http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0002173416.

[xvi] John Garnaut, “China puts weapons on its new artificial islands,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 27, 2015.

[xvii] See note 4 above. The “nine dash line” refers to the imprecise borders of Chinese claims to the south, indicated by dashes, first found on some maps as early as the 1930s; adopted generally by the People’s Republic (1949–present).