A Falklands Strategy to Avoid War over Spratleys

China seeks to aggressively expand its territorial claims in the Spratley Islands. Despite being largely uninhabitable,  the Spratleys lay along a highly traversed sea-lane, with critical fisheries and possible petrochemical reserves. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia all lay claim to parts of the archipelago. The Spratleys are just one subset of a larger problem. The U.S. has developed the oft-debated AirSea Battle (ASB) concept to confront this and similar strategic challenges in its “Asia Pivot. Butto check perceived Chinese aggression and expansionism it should draw lessons from a similar crisis: The British experience in the Falklands. 

U.S. strategy to address Chinese expansionism remains murky. Deployments of Marines to Australia and a small Littoral Combat Ship squadron to Singapore demonstrate our interest, but have apparently done little to thwart Beijing. The most talked about American solution appears to be AirSea Battle: an operational concept that often waivers between a Chinese focus and a disavowal of Chinese specificity. While much of ASB is technically classified, there is much available in the open source that allows for a brief analysis of its relevance to the problem.

ASB is a highly technical and violent concept that many see as the U.S. security strategy. Offensive counter space, strikes on mainland China, attacks on Chinese shipping, and blockades supported by aggressive mining operations are the hinted-at baselines for ASB. Landpower, if it has any role, will be limited to guarding air bases against missile attacks. Essential to this concept is a robust inventory of stealthy aircraft such as the F35 and long-range bombers. Needless to say, any such implementation of ASB would involve a near total conventional war with China as a precursor to an occupation by Western aligned forces. What China would do with their robust nuclear capability in response is one area that ASB proponents have yet to address.

Explicit in the ASB planning assumptions is that the area of operations will be initially controlled by highly capable Chinese air, sea and land forces. That situation currently does not exist anywhere except for mainland China.  Unless current U.S. policy advocates for the overthrow of the Chinese government, ASB is, for now, a vision for the futurea future filled with thousands of F35s and hundreds of stealthy bombers where the U.S. and its allies have already surrendered the contested areas to China.

If we wish to deter China before they can establish de facto sovereignty in the Spratleys, Beijing must be presented with unacceptable risk by the nations whom they seek to disenfranchise.

Should China realize its territorial objectives and create a casus belli with the United States, it will seek to defend them against an anticipated American response. Beijing will try to deny access to American forces and then minimize their freedom of action. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments described these challenges as Anti-Access and Area Denial, or A2/AD, respectively. The A2/AD problem appears to drive the operational planning and procurement desires of the ASB proponents.

A2/AD is ultimately a defensive strategy to deny access to the presumably stronger expeditionary power. Now, in the Spratleys, that stronger expeditionary power is China.  A successful A2/AD campaign plan executed by the weaker powers in the Spratleys could avoid a full-scale war with China without requiring the assumed deterrence of thousands of stealth bombers.

What Would Thatcher Do?

The Falkland Islands, jointly claimed by Argentina and Britain, provide a quick case study in the dynamics of A2/AD. Recall that in 1982, Argentina launched a surprise invasion of the Falklands that met only token British resistance. The British efforts to reclaim the islands, which some claimed would be impossible, was a near-run thing that came at great expense in lives and material. The British Army had invested less than 50 men full time to the defense of the Falklands in 1982. No air defense, no aircraft and only hand-carried anti-tank munitions to attack the invading ships. The Argentinians faced a paltry A2/AD challenge in 1982. Today, despite having halved their overall military capability since 1982, Great Britain now has 1,500 troops, four strike aircraft, air-defense, and artillery batteries permanently on the Islands in addition to significant naval capabilities patrolling the near-by seas. The key to A2/AD, as Great Britain discovered, is to present your enemy the challenge rather than face it yourself.

The United States currently does not face an A2/AD challenge in the Spratleys, but this fortuitous situation is rapidly eroding. China is taking audacious steps to change the status quo in this disputed region that may give de facto sovereignty to China, a reward achieved through unchecked provocation. China is presenting facts on what ground is available through the creation of small, manned outposts on rocky shoals supported by the constant presence of small civilian boats and larger Peoples’ Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) warships. China calls this ever expanding presence its “Cabbage Strategy.”

The Scarborough Shoal, clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, was an early test-bed. The strategy, as laid out earlier this year by Chinese General Zhang Zhaozhong, consists of a few sequential steps. First comesa diplomatic declaration that a certain area is Chinese territory. Then a stealthy and quick occupation by a token land force on any available outcropping of land supported by sea based logistics. As the majority of the Spratleys cannot self-sustain human habitation and are too small for an airfield, naval logistics are required to maintain any land force. The Philippines failed to answer this invasion and occupation of its territory. The question for U.S. policymakers is: At what point does Washington unleash its ASB capabilities, while the victims of Chinese aggression sit on their hands and do nothing?

The Cabbage Strategy neatly fits China’s preferred strategic vision: a slow and deliberate advance with little risk. Retreats in the face of unacceptable risk is an accepted option, as loss of “national dignity” is seen as the equal of loss of sovereign territory in China.  The United States should predict that China will never take a single action so provocative that it would risk the mutually destructive war promised by ASB.  However, a patient and methodical campaign that ultimately achieves Chinese objectives without an overt coup de main is still an unquestioned strategic setback for the United States and its allies in the region. A fleet of stealth fighters and bombers are impotent in the absence of an internationally accepted casus belli, which China will deliberately never present.

How To Deter China

If we wish to deter China before they can establish de facto sovereignty in the Spratleys, Beijing must be presented with unacceptable risk by the nations whom they seek to disenfranchise. Their reliance upon naval assets to establish and maintain their currently fragile sovereign claims put them at the same A2/AD risk which currently pre-occupies US planners.

The basis of all sovereignty is land. Claims of owning the air and sea expand from the land occupied adjacent or below. International treaties all acknowledge this basis.  China is focused on taking the requisite land to claim sovereignty in the Spratleys. Land-based capabilities on sovereign territory are inherently defensive compared to those expeditionary assets on the sea and in the air. Not only do land-based capabilities present a political advantage, they also possess a cost advantage. If the Philippines and Vietnam wish to deter China, they must present a threat that is both militarily legitimate and diplomatically acceptable. If they can effectively threaten the essential naval assets which enable the Cabbage Strategy, they can possibly deter China’s expansionism.

One of the greatest risks faced by Great Britain in the Falklands campaign was Argentinian Exocet missiles. Despite an Argentinian inventory of only five, the Exocets sunk two ships. No other capability was so feared by the British commander. The Exocet, while earning an admirable combat record, is far outclassed by its modern successors. China and Russia have outstanding anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) designed to counter America’s dominant naval capability. Taiwan and Japan both have indigenous shore based ASCMs. The Taiwanese version is noted for its super-sonic speed and advanced capabilities whose focus is clearly to counter the Chinese navy. The threat of ASCMs from shore, sea or air occupies the concerns of ASB planners. China must be made to share those concerns as they confront their own A2/AD problem.

The United States Army should facilitate the sharing of shore-based ASCMs among those countries exposed to Chinese aggression. Russia’s unilateral abandonment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty presents an opportunity for the United States to develop and procure previously restricted ground-based cruise missiles both for naval and land based strike. An American desire to procure such systems will certainly gain the interest of other nations seeking effective and affordable defenses for their own defense.

If China is to be countered before its position in the Spratleys is effectively impregnable, those nations who wish to maintain a peaceful status quo need an affordable capability that is effective at challenging the People’s Liberation Army and Navy. Shore-based  anti-ship cruise missiles would be a strong first step to developing an inherently defensive, but very effective counter to China’s growing expeditionary capability. If those countries with the most to lose will not defend their sovereignty, the US cannot and should not be expected to do it for them and risk an all-out war with China over uninhabitable islands the Philippines and Vietnam would not themselves defend.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Darling is an Alaskan Army National Guardsman assigned to the National Guard Bureau Joint Staff as a strategist. The views presented here are his own and do not represent the views of the Alaska Army National Guard or the U.S. military.


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