Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen

From the islands of the South China Sea to Korea's DMZ, the tribes of Arabia across Africa and throughout Europe, red lines have been setting agendas and changing history for centuries.

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Chapter 4: China, By the Beautiful Sea

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Chapter 4: China, By the Beautiful Sea

In Episode 4 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman explores the red lines in the South China Sea - those built up by China, its neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines, and Western powers like the US who fear losing naval passage.

In recent decades, China has increasingly become a world power, but it needs a world-class navy and sea-based control to truly claim its hold. And to do that, it needs indisputable power over the South China Sea.

David Andelman: In April 2017, Donald Trump bragged that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its strike group were en route to the Sea of Japan off the coast of North Korea. They were on their way to send a message to Kim Jong-un.

Donald Trump: We are sending an armada, very powerful, and submarines, very powerful. We have the best military people on Earth. And I will say this: He is doing the wrong thing.

DA: But this wasn’t exactly true. He was sending an armada, but it wasn’t actually intended for North Korea. The USS Carl Vinson was on its way to take part in long-planned military exercises with the Australian navy. And the target of those exercises was not North Korea, but China. And particularly its watery front yard.

I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.

Today, in episode 4, we’re in the South China Sea, China’s watery front yard.

This front yard consists of at least 32 islands, 117 reefs, and most recently at least 10 artificial islands. Each is highly fortified and surrounded by its own red line, where the next intense naval showdown could be waged.

In recent decades, China has come to consider itself a world power, certainly on par with the United States or Russia. To claim a solid hold though, China realized it needs a world-class navy. First, it needs to cement its hold over its backyard—the South China Sea. A solid hold over the South China Sea would be the first step to controlling the part of the Pacific that China considers its front yard.

The South China Sea connects China with the Pacific and serves as a crossroads between the Americas and the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and Europe. It is the weakest link of this string. For this very reason, red lines criss-cross its sea routes, forming a network of barriers to free movement of goods and people. This network of red lines should be profoundly disturbing not only to the other nations that border it, but to western powers like the United States, whose own ability to move freely may be perpetually challenged. As China develops increasingly sophisticated weapons, its grip over the South China Sea and this web of barriers will become increasingly disturbing.

China has been quite honest about why it's setting up these red lines. It has a large population, but a weak economic base. It has to feed almost 20% of the world's population with 8% of the world's farmland and 6% of its fresh water. So China believes that not only is it entitled to all of the sea in its back yard, but it needs it for its very survival.

To cement its dominance of the South China Sea, China needs desperately to assert its control over the islands that dot it. China also feels like it needs to establish a network of red lines surrounding each island that are utterly pernicious to the other nations sharing the sea’s borders and transiting its waters. And the stakes are very large indeed.

At least a third of all the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea. That’s more than $3 trillion every year. Germany, France, and the U.S. each ships billions of dollars in goods each year on these routes. Each of these three countries played a central role in establishing the earliest red lines in the sea’s tapestry.

For at least 4,000 years, there have been people on the islands and through the waters of the South China Sea. Chinese records mention early seafarers from the mainland who traced their travels through this region as early as the first two centuries of the common era. A vigorous sea trade sprung up for the next couple of centuries. By the ninth century, in the middle of the Tang Dynasty, there was a flourishing trade between China and the Arab world. Commerce between Tang merchants and their counterparts in Persia, Armenia and India continued to thrive well into the Song Dynasty. Eventually, the entire South China Sea was caught up in this trade, including Sumatra, Java, Bali, Borneo and the Philippines.

But this came to an abrupt halt when the Mongols invaded China from the north. In the centuries that followed, through the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Chinese ships barely existed on the area’s waters. There was no sense of ownership.

It was common territory for all who dared venture through the hazardous waters littered with reefs and other obstacles. The Portuguese and their daring merchant fleets mostly held sway, operating without maps and calling on Chinese ports for lucrative trade. Eventually, other great world sea powers found their way east, particularly the Dutch who set up shop in Indonesia. It was then that the first red lines began to appear.

The Portuguese said that right-of-first-arrival gave them exclusivity and meant they could use force to protect “their” territory. Eventually, accommodations were reached, allowing ships of all nations to pass through international waters. International waters were considered to be anything beyond a cannon shot from the shoreline. Since cannons in those days could rarely pass three miles, the three-mile territorial limit became a recognized standard for the next five centuries.

Today, China uses a parallel argument to that of the Portuguese— it has acquired sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea by right of discovery, occupation or construction.

In the interim, however, a new doctrine of international law arrived with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought an end to Europe’s Thirty Years War. The doctrine said that each state had exclusive sovereignty over its own territory - and could establish its own red lines. But the doctrine failed to delineate what it meant by territory. On the high seas everything remained, well, fluid.

It was only in the last 200 years that Westphalian-style borders came to exist in much of Asia. Spain and Portugal had already divided up the region. It would take three more centuries for Britain to weigh in. Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States and Spain fixed the boundaries of the Philippines. In none of these cases did China have any voice. The Western powers simply took it on themselves to set boundaries and red lines they would expect to be respected by all.

The first map published by China noting its territory in the South China Sea dates back to 1760. Today, Chinese officials cite maps from even further back into the Qing Dynasty to buttress their territorial claims. But a host of maps showed that the southern tip of China was really Hainan Island, 10 miles off the mainland and nearly 200 miles northeast of the Paracel island group. It was not until 1909 that a Chinese flotilla was dispatched to the Paracels to chart this scattered archipelago. China dates its possession of other islands back to 1279 when a Chinese astronomer surveyed the seas around China for Kublai Khan.

Discovery of the Scarborough atoll dates to 1789 when the British East India Company boat Scarborough went aground on a rock before pushing on to China. The ship's captain found that the top of the archipelago was hardly visible above the waves, but it broadened vastly beneath the surface. That's one of the core components of the Spratlys, which sprawl across hundreds of square miles in the South China Sea. This was called simply “dangerous ground” on the naval charts.

During World War II, the entire South China Sea became, effectively, a Japanese lake. No western warships dared venture into these waters that were heavily patrolled by the Imperial Japanese Navy. But after the war, there were new sheriffs in town—China on the north, and several newly independent nations (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam), as well as a newly victorious American navy. By 1946, the Chinese navy dispatched ships to the Paracels and the Spratlys, erecting stone markers to stake their claims.

The Paracels and the Spratlys are the territories in greatest contention in the South China Sea. None of their land is naturally inhabited. They have no arable land and only a few have any potable water. The largest islands are little more than sand grafted onto submerged, often degrading, coral reefs.

This is not to say they lack value. Large flocks of seabirds have deposited vast quantities of guano, or bird poop. Guano is an incredibly valuable agricultural fertilizer.

Then there's some 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of crude oil that lie beneath. That’s more natural gas and oil than in all of mainland China.

But there are even more reasons beyond oil and natural gas and guano for building the complex web of red lines that snake around the rock and coral. These red lines are directly linked to geopolitical hegemony, national pride and the ability to command strategically vital waterways. Now, with the United States and China locked in a bitter trade battle and with scores of companies fleeing China to Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, the stakes in the South China Sea are becoming even higher.

1948 was the first time any country had the nerve to claim vast territories of open seas as its own. China laid claim to every possible island or rock—nearly 2 million square miles of ocean—a third of the total mainland territory of China.

Take the Paracels—130 coral island and reefs, 200 miles off the southernmost point of China’s mainland. The Paracels were first discovered in 1698 by the same French ship that laid claim to Vietnam. So it's hardly surprising that leaders in Hanoi believed the Paracels were theirs after the Vietnam War. But at the end of World War II, skirmishes between French and Chinese forces had left the main island in the hands of China, mining guano to fertilize their rice paddies.

As for the Spratlys, the Philippines were quick to claim them as their own after World War II, especially when it became clear they might hold spectacular oil and gas fields. Occupying nine islands and reefs, Filipino troops cemented the red line they had drawn around the region.

Oil and gas were also powerful reasons for Vietnam to draw its own red lines around the Paracels. When the Vietnamese decided to force the issue of who owned the Paracels, they found some determined Chinese forces in their way, proclaiming, “These islands belong to China since the Ming Dynasty. That cannot be denied.” This triggered some substantial exchanges of fire, which disabled virtually the entire Vietnamese fleet. But Kissinger and Nixon—pursuing an opening to China—did not like any lines that threatened that opening. The United States said it would recognize a 12-mile territorial limit, rather than the standard three-mile limit and went no further in challenging China’s activities.

Three miles, 12 miles or 200 miles as a definition of a nation’s territorial waters would also become units of measure in dealing with sea-born red lines. For China, the matter was simple. Where the 200-mile limit failed to protect its claims, China just ignored international law entirely and reverted to Ming Dynasty maps. China’s ultimate goal is transparent: To eliminate all red lines, and recognize that China controls all of the South China Sea—rocks, islands, all the mineral and fish wealth that lies beneath and in skies above.

Many nations—particularly the United States—are determined to prevent that from happening at all costs. Sadly, the way red lines are constructed and managed by China will hardly make them either defensible or manageable by any other nation with a claim on portions of the South China Sea.

Most of these nations have demanded that all foreign warships passing through their 200-mile offshore zone seek permission for transit. Such a requirement would force American warships to avoid the South China Sea entirely. Instead, they would have to circle the southern reaches of Australia, adding thousands of miles, precious days and prohibitive fuel costs. The ability of the United States to assist allies around the South China Sea would be seriously compromised, forcing many of these nations to bend to China’s will or face a cutoff of trade and assistance, even military action. Consequently, American fleets have ignored all such red lines, often showing up simply to prove that they can.

China began its campaign to claim the South China Sea closest to home in the Paracels, building a military grade runway on the largest island. By the mid-1980s, China had also surveyed much of the Spratlys. They were claimed by both the Philippines and Malaysia, but China began to build. Take Fiery Cross reef, for example. Claimed by both the Philippines and Vietnam, Fiery Cross reef was just a few small rocks poking out of the waves. To claim it as Chinese territory, Beijing implanted a blockhouse and observation post on one 3-foot rock. Then, Chinese workers blasted through sharp coral and dredged up enough debris to build an artificial island of more than 80,000 square feet. Fiery Cross used to be just a few rocks above water. China turned it into one of the most advanced artificial islands in the world, boasting a military-grade runway, radar, underground storage facilities and at least four shelters for missile launchers.

On Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels, is a 9,000 foot runway and missile launch sites. At least a thousand Chinese people live on the island.

A recent Pentagon report identified at least eight “Chinese-occupied outposts” with sixty other potential outposts in the Spratlys alone. And each is surrounded by a red line China is prepared to defend. Their neighbors—the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have become furious.

The only power laying claim to any part of the Spratlys that might actually be able to challenge China is Vietnam. It's taken a leaf from China's playbook. Vietnam took over one islet whose highest natural point was barely 8 feet above the waves- it now has a concrete wall topped by floodlights, windmills and satellite dishes. The islet is serviced by a military-grade runway able to receive flights from the mainland some 300 miles away. There’s even a Buddhist pagoda. Its small community must bring in food from Vietnam by ship or plane. But there is also a formidable military presence with long-range guns and a substantial garrison. What Vietnam wants are the oil and gas that lie below.

The Philippines has taken over at least seven natural islands plus dozens of reefs and shoals, some with just a handful of settlers or defenders. None could really withstand a determined Chinese effort to expel them and seize control.

China has threatened to burn every such construction to the ground should a military conflict break out.

As for America’s role in the region... as one Chinese officer shrugged, “US pressure in the South China Sea should not be taken seriously, at least for now."

All of China's islands—natural or manmade—are meant to withstand military attack, and especially to control the sea and shipping lanes that surround them. They all come with red lines.

Hu Jintao, China’s president in the 2000s, said in his farewell address, that China’s number one priority was to “improve development of China’s geographical space.” Met with applause, this speech set the stage for an acceleration of Chinese efforts to claim the South China Sea.

[Archival Tape, Hu Jintao’s farewell address]

DA: As Hu Jintao said farewell in 2012, Xi Jinping was elected as incoming president. His term would ultimately morph into “president for life.” There was no one more determined to turn the South China Sea into his nation’s backyard than Xi.

In March 2017, the Changle Princess set sail on its maiden voyage. On board the luxury cruise ship were 300 passengers, supplied with entertainment, shopping, medical and postal services. They were headed to three disputed islands in the Paracels. It was all part of a master plan that included hotels, villas and shops, even a string of resorts. On a neighboring island, a heavily armed Chinese military camp stood guard.

Eventually, the Philippines took their case to Washington and found a receptive audience in Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. As Philippine foreign minister Albert del Rosario put it:

Secretary Albert del Rosario: We reaffirmed our common interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce and transit of peoples in maritime areas well as a multilateral peaceful approach in resolving competing claims within the framework of international laws.

DA: Panetta responded:

Secretary Leon Panetta: The United States is committed to a rule-based regional order that promotes viable and vibrant trade and the freedom of navigation. We are enhancing our defense cooperation and expanding security partnerships throughout the region in order to sustain peace and stability, and we are committed to continuing our robust, stabilizing presence in that region.

DA: And Philippines Defense Secretary GAZMIN concluded:

Secretary Voltaire Gazmin: We need to intensify our mutual trust to uphold maritime security and the freedom of navigation and thereby contribute to the peace and stability of the region.

DA: Meanwhile, there was a bright red line around the Scarborough atoll too. This began in earnest in 2012, when a Filipino surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels circling around a Scarborough reef. The Phillipines dispatched a ship to the reef and found a huge haul of illegal and endangered giant clams, corals and live sharks on board. Chinese naval ships descended on the scene to prevent the arrest of the fishermen. The warships from the two nations squared off. The small Philippine contingent was quickly outnumbered by the vast number of Chinese Coast Guard military vessels.

Main force ships of the Chinese Navy hovered just beyond the horizon. Philippine President Benigno Aquino was enraged. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?” Aquino asked. “Remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II,” he added. Yet again, Neville Chamberlain’s red line with Hitler is invoked in desperate circumstances.

The Philippines brought their case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Unsurprisingly, China refused to participate. The proceedings dragged on for more than three years. Finally, in July 2016, came the ruling—a blistering condemnation of China’s activities across the region. The international court went far beyond the immediate case of Scarborough and was devastating in its effort to dismantle every Chinese red line in the South China Sea. Not surprisingly, China rejected the tribune’s findings. They clung to the claim that the South China Sea had been their property “since ancient times.”

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And now, we’re back….

China is investing in the kinds of resources that would give it an important advantage in any challenges to its red lines. The Chinese military budget has more than doubled in a decade. It is now $240 billion a year, 60 times that of Vietnam and 75 times that of the Philippines. China spends twice as much on defense as all its South China Sea neighbors combined.

With some of this massive budget, China has quietly assembled the world’s largest navy. Its Coast Guard is the world’s largest too—more than a thousand ships. Japan has just 80.

So just what does this Chinese armada patrolling its network of redlines look like?

In 2014, Vietnam challenged Chinese efforts to implant a major oil rig in the Paracels. Though Vietnam claimed the island, a flotilla of 140 Chinese ships surrounded the oil rig. They formed a ten-mile wide circle, with water cannons sending high powered jets in all directions.

And the day-to-day enforcement is equally intimidating. The so-called maritime militia is made up of thousands of reinforced fishing boats. These are the trip-wire of China’s network of watery red lines. As Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College told a congressional hearing:

Andrew Erickson: China uses three sea forces. Each is the largest such force in the world in terms of numbers of ships. China is working to go further afield in projecting influence and ability to secure its interests in selected cases. This is very much an ambitious work in progress.

DA: For the first time in its history, China’s navy was a true blue-water adversary, with powerful cruise and ballistic missiles. Then, there are outer-space and cyber capabilities which China is mastering. Even Chinese fishing boats are being equipped with satellite communications equipment.

China has been eager to make use of these resources, often in violation of international treaties. Coast Guard and militia ships have been involved in cases of bumping and ramming other ships, even turning water cannons on neighbors crossing their red lines.

For years, the U.S. Navy has examined potential responses to these challenges. As Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said:

Gregory Poling: What is needed is vigilance. And so far we have been vigilant in responding to Chinese inroads. I just worry that our interest in the Pacific islands is always so episodic. That there's always the risk that we look away. And Beijing is waiting to take advantage if we do.

DA: In other words, China is eager to cross America's red lines before we've even realized they've done so and it's too late. Already, the U.S. has lost credibility throughout the region for its failure to stand up to China’s claims in the South China Sea.

China's naval vessels are well-equipped to pursue any vessel crossing a red line. In 2015, a Chinese official pointed to 200 still unoccupied land features. “We could seize them all,” he pointed out. “And we could build on them in 18 months.”

In the meantime, the United States is continuing its surveillance over the entire South China Sea and monitoring Chinese progress there. US Navy surveillance planes make regular passes over these islands. They’ll often find voices blaring over their radios: "This is the Chinese Navy….Please leave immediately to avoid misunderstanding.” The American pilot responds that he was traversing international airspace over international waters. The energy of the Chinese voice begins to rise, ending in a screeched, “You go!” It was a warning repeated eight times until a nearby Delta Airlines pilot on the same frequency broke in to ask what was going on. At times, the Chinese air force has even launched fighter jets.

Another central question is just how large China will see its global ambitions and how far it'll extend its red line networks. Increasingly, China expects to be seen as a major power. This means it can establish red lines wherever it wants, expecting they'll be respected unquestionably.

There are already Chinese deployments as far away as the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf. These are part of China’s efforts to build military facilities along the entire periphery of the Indian Ocean. Already, it’s financed shipping facilities in Sri Lanka and a deep water port in Pakistan. Sri Lanka had little choice. It had racked up more than $8 billion in debt to China that it was unable to repay. So it signed over to China a 70 percent stake in the port with a 99-year lease.

There have also been Chinese inroads in Djibouti. Djibouti overlooks the Gulf of Aden, through which some 20 percent of global trade passes each year, much of it onward to the South China Sea. The US had already built Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti with 4,000 military personnel. But in 2017, armed Djibouti troops seized a private port facility right next door. They quickly turned it over to Beijing. It would become China's first overseas military base. 85% of Djibouti's GDP was committed to repaying its debt to China. Like Sri Lanka, it had little choice. And as soon as China implanted itself, a sharp red line went up around the facility.

To challenge a red line regime such as China’s, America must first determine how far it’s willing to go to guard against China’s aggressive maritime network. Today, it seems like the United States too often hesitates before escalating. They’re reluctant to challenge a simple water cannon attack by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, if delicate trade talks might be at risk.

Certainly, as we have seen in this series already, China’s red line network is not unprecedented. In his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State in 2017, Rex Tillerson compared China in the South China Sea to Russia in Crimea.

Rex Tillerson: The island-building in the South China Sea itself in many respects, in my view, building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea. They're taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China's.

DA: The only difference is that Vladimir Putin and his forces were hardly as subtle. While Russia seized Crimea outright, China has assembled a powerful fortress, one small atoll at a time.

Thanks for listening. Next week we will journey from the Soviet Union to the Russian Empire and beyond and examine red line contrasts there.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."

If you’re enjoying the show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.

Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.

Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show.

Subscribe to the podcast to see the next episode in your feed the moment it’s published. See you next week!

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