In 2010 the first edition of Red Star Over the Pacific – China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy by Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes was published and left me mildly concerned about the ability of the United States to defend our position and allies in the Western Pacific, a region we have essentially governed at sea since the Second World War.
Now in December 2018 the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific has been published and leaves any complacency behind. The reader is stunned by the rapid growth of Chinese power in the region and recognizes that our ability to withstand their dominance in what they call their near seas, bordered by a “first island chain,” may have evaporated.
First island chain has many definitions but generally starts at the southern tip of Japan, runs through the Ryukyu islands then south to Taiwan. From that island the line runs south through the Philippines where the “nine dash line,” as China has defined its holdings there, is picked up such that it swallows the whole of the South China sea.
Of course, China’s dream is to achieve hegemony over a second island chain as well, starting at the eastern tip of Japan, running through Guam, a possession of the United States since the Spanish-American War (with a brief occupation by Japanese forces 1941-1944), then through the Marshall Islands and around the tip of Papua New Guinea.
In 2010 it was thought the Chinese possessed a ballistic anti-ship missile which by its nature fell from the sky after a guided arc flight from the Chinese mainland. The United States Navy had no defense to this sort of weapon.
In 2018 this weapon is confirmed to exist, and at the last military parade in Beijing an improved model was displayed, one with a longer range to reach out beyond the first island chain. Their missiles are transported and fired from trucks, so finding them in any kind of preventive airstrike in the Asian landmass is likely impossible. The United States Navy has been testing a counter-measure projectile and has reportedly had some success.
Also developed are hypersonic weapons which likely will give about 10 minutes warning of their approach as cruise missiles.
The Second Edition of Red Star Over the Pacific concludes with these new weapons. It is likely that any effort by the Untied States to interfere with whatever military action the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is going to take in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or the Yellow Sea would meet with stiff, and likely fatal, resistance. It is not too much to say that in a conflict over say, Taiwan, the Americans and their allies would be largely held at bay.
While we possess considerable offensive punch and our allies – the Australians, South Koreans, and Japanese – have or are constructing larger navies, the aircraft carrier-centered strategy may be flawed when faced with this “fortress navy” defense the Chinese possess inside this island chain. Their land-based rocket force is substantial, and could quite conceivably rule that portion of what they earlier agreed were international waters in the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNLOS). As British Admiral Horatio Nelson said during the Napoleonic wars, “A ship is foolish to fight a fort.” This is where we are today, but on a much grander scale. The Chinese choose to ignore or redefine the UNLOS. They behaved as the injured party when they lost on all points at the 2013 United Nations arbitration panel convened at the request of the Philippines concerning their conduct in the South China Sea. It gives one pause to question whether international law exists only for those not strong enough to ignore it.
Barely stopping long enough to write a dissent to the United Nations decision, China went on building islands out of mere rock outcroppings and shoals in the South China Sea, then putting airstrips on the end product. As a matter of law these are not islands, and not afforded territorial protections under the UNLOS. The U.S. exercises its rights by flying over them but more importantly steaming past in freedom-of-navigation operations such that those rights do not atrophy and disappear from lack of use. China protests, claiming we have transgressed their territory.
China is remarkably adept at presenting themselves as the victim. The Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia policy included rebalancing the U.S. Navy in a 60/40 distribution favoring the Pacific as a response to China’s rise. Yet China told the world in their 2015 military strategy they needed to build a “powerful navy” to assure retention of their “maritime rights.” This sounds like something any country would do, except that thus far these rights have been defined by China to be in excess of the UNLOS.
One has to hand it to China for its thrift and imagination. Any vessel setting out from China is an intelligence gathering asset, even the smallest fisherman. Warships which would qualify perhaps as a frigate or a corvette in our navy are painted white with the words “China Coast Guard” written on the side in English and Chinese. This implies a constabulary function on a settled matter as to their territorial possessions, when in fact these are offensive warships pursuing their hegemony.
The authors spend considerable effort explaining the motivation to build such a fleet and defensive perimeter. They note the one-party authoritarian regime that is modern China can and has moved as quickly as a motivated, non-rights-based polity can to create a vast infrastructure geared for wealth production and trade, then sets about implementing the theories of the American Alfred Thayer Mahan in creating a fleet which can protect and secure its commerce.
This may sound passive, yet given their conduct concerning other international rules, it appears the regime is bent on setting its own rules. Perhaps when and if those seas inside that first island chain are completely controlled by the PLAN, we may see impairment of the rights of navigation of other countries, similarly disposed to trade, facing and unable to compromise or defend against their larger neighbor’s unilaterally imposed conditions of transit.
This book is entirely readable. Only occasionally do the authors make references to nouns or events which are not part of common knowledge. They also do not abandon hope or declare we must abandon the Western Pacific. It is not too late.
This is good to hear, as a gong has been sounded in so much other literature predating the book’s second edition. It is hard to watch America continue to talk about a larger navy with upgraded weapons and tactics but generally fail to act, falling further behind. That gong includes a 2015 novel called Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole (2016), describing a Chinese invasion of Hawaii and illustrating the shortcomings of so many of our weapons systems. What Red Star Over the Pacific describes is not fiction. It is quite possible that a destroyer or cruiser in the China Sea, equipped with the advanced Aegis weapons system, may find itself overwhelmed by Maoist doctrine swarm tactics, with several missiles and torpedoes focused on one vessel of the fleet, unable to defend against all.
In addition to the books listed in the extensive bibliography of Red Star Over the Pacific, we are regularly treated to titles by this same publisher- Untied States Naval Institute – such as China’s Quest for Great Power, Bernard D. Cole (2016), describing their advances and our complacency, our lack of imagination, our overworked navy and the reality that maintenance of the fleet tends to lag behind what would otherwise be a reasonable amount of time. The Institute recently reported that several attack submarines have been sitting in dry dock awaiting maintenance for so long they have lost their dive certifications. We do not need another U.S. Navy collision at sea to underscore how overworked our vessels and sailors are in that region. Note, almost always these collisions occur in or near China’s first island chain.
About the same time as Red Star Over the Pacific was published (December 2018) the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission, formed in 2016, rendered its report. Essentially, they condemn the political dysfunction and poor budget decisions by both parties, leading us toward a crisis of national security.
As we double down on the weaknesses of democracy, fighting for bits and pieces of money for pet projects while failing to come to terms with our decaying position in defense, a less democratic society plays to their strengths, rising to the occasion to eclipse our role in the Western Pacific.
A generation ago another book was published, about the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. It was entitled At Dawn We Slept. It appears that American habit has again taken hold.
(Cover photo: Littoral combat ships USS Independence and USS Coronado, courtesy US Navy.)