Beijing’s Dangerous Game

Admiral warns of growing threat of conflict with China over territorial claims


China’s broad territorial claims to international waters in Asia, along with U.S. defense cuts, are increasing the risk of a conflict in Asia, according to the recently retired commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

“Since there are no conventional arms-control regimes, or pre-established frameworks designed to manage escalation, the real possibility exists for conflict within the maritime domain that is not at the time, the place, or for the duration for our choosing,” said retired Adm. Patrick Walsh, who left his job as Pacific Fleet commander two months ago.

“The absence of a regime or framework to de-tension the area also creates equal probability for conflict that is regional in context, extending beyond the borders of the Taiwan Strait involving U.S. treaty allies, regional partners as well as multinational commercial interests.”

Walsh, speaking on Capitol Hill at the Asia Security Initiative conference, said an example of the difficulty in dealing with Chinese territorial claims was Beijing’s 2010 declaration that most of the resource-rich South China Sea is under Chinese control.

What China calls the Nine-Dash Line is a demarcation line that includes waters in the Sea claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia.

Walsh said there is a presumption that as China rises, “we will maintain the status quo, that our understanding of norms of acceptable behavior will remain in place.”

“And I think the introduction of the Nine-Dash Line is an excellent example of how the Chinese would like to change the norms of acceptable behavior and the standards by which we operate,” he said.

Several years ago, China used its ships to engage in a series of provocative harassment activities against U.S. Navy surveillance vessels in the South China Sea.

The harassment stopped after the U.S. government said it has a direct interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the waters.

Walsh said the Chinese are using the line to establish control over 1,600 nautical miles of water that conforms to the South China coastline. Beijing also has asserted that the line is legal under Chinese domestic law.

“So when pressed on this point, and [the Chinese are] asked, ‘How do we characterize this? Is this a sovereign claim? Is it historic interest? Is it a tributary system? Is it a permission slip?’ You don’t get a uniform answer,” Walsh said.

The U.S. can play a role in the competing claims by forcing China to the negotiating table to discuss the demarcation line and, specifically, how they see the world operating under this concept of operations, Walsh said.

“I think what we will find is that China is less interested in having this in the public domain,” he said. “And I think that as long as we’re willing to speak up, that is the best way to help shape an emerging China.”

Walsh said the Chinese are using a strategy best understood by the ancient game of Go.

The retired four-star admiral said China’s Go strategy is: “I’m going to put pressure on you from as many different angles as I can, and from as many different perspectives as I can, from as many different geographical locations as I can … all you have to do is yield and your life with get better. That’s the world that we’re stepping into here. That’s what we’re certainly witnessing.”

Walsh said the Navy is facing a major challenge in balancing budget cuts with maintaining “sufficient power to deter armed conflict and suppress threats to the commons in the maritime domain.”

“Nations in the region are watching with keen interest the affect of U.S. economic challenges and the strain of more than a decade of war,” he said.

One Asia leader told him that U.S. economic problems have called into question the decades-long role of the United States in Asia as a “balancer and protector” in the region.

Walsh said the reality for the 21st century is that maritime power is essential to protecting peace and promoting free trade.

As a result, the United States must continue to invest in weapons, including integrated air and missile defenses, continued development of long-range surface-to-surface strike weapons, and continued procurement of air-to-air weapons that must survive complex electro-magnetic countermeasures.

The source of conflict in the Asia-Pacific region will not come from ideology, Walsh said, but “the nation-state concept coming into direct contact and collision with a country that views itself as a civilization.”

China’s past conflicts with neighbors arose over disputes about national integrity, he said, noting the Nine-Dash Line as the most recent example.

Walsh warned that the United States risks getting its strategic assessments of China wrong, as occurred in the 1980s.

“If you go back to the intel records, go back to Jane’s, you go back to the public documents that were available to us then and now, you’ll see in our words we described the PLA as doomed to obsolescence because they failed to invest in research and development,” Walsh said.

“You look at China today: They invested in research and development.”

Walsh said U.S. China hands misread China decades ago based on what they thought was taking place in the country.

“We’ve made this mistake before. And it’s important to understand and to calibrate our own assessments because it’s easy to rationalize something as being too far in the future to be worried about,” he said.

Asked about the Pentagon’s new Air Sea Battle Concept, designed to counter China’s advanced missiles and other weaponry, Walsh said, “The Air Sea Battle as a concept makes a lot of sense. And I think its time is well overdue. … All the indications are that this is a recognition that the traditional approach that we’ve taken in the past with regard to how a single service would approach procurement of certain platforms as well as development is lacking.”

Walsh said the concept document represents the current reality: unless a more coherent approach to war fighting is developed, “We run the risk of falling behind technology.”

He noted that the concept is not just for China because “we live in a proliferated world.”

“My experience in the Middle East in 2006 was that technology that was developed in Asia Pacific, then shipped to Iran, and then passed to Hezbollah, modified on the back of a truck, nearly sank an Israeli frigate, and sank an Egyptian freighter. And that’s the world that we’re in today.”

He was referring to China’s sale of C-802 anti-ship missiles that were sold to Iran in the 1990s and passed to Hezbollah, which used them against Israel in the 2006 summer war.

“So, as developments take place today, whether it’s a DF-21 [missile], or it’s an aircraft sophistication, or it’s the compromise of what had been a sanctuary, the electromagnetic spectrum, it is a technology that we have to keep pace with. Otherwise we run the risk of failing to deter and in fact inviting attacks,” Walsh said.

Get the news that matters most to you, delivered straight to your inbox daily.

Register today!