A History of US Strategies in South China Sea

We often hear of the accusations of China’s ambitions and designs in the South China Sea.

Some of it is undoubtedly true and expected, China has claims in the area for a long time now.  It’s not new claims.  So, certainly China would have ambitions to meet its claims.

However, rarely discussed is the US ambitions in the SCS.  When it has no claims in the area, it trumps up its “interests in freedom of navigation”.  That’s akin to a tourist getting into a local land dispute.  So, there must be more to it.

There is.  And the history of SCS demonstrates US’s strategy and ambitions, when analyzed in clarity and details.

What we know as fact is, even today, the Spratley Islands are largely occupied by Vietnamese forces.  Some 20 or so islands.  How did it get to this way?  US was largely responsible for that situation.

In the 1960’s, US and its South Vietnamese ally were losing the Vietnam War.  US was looking for a way out, but US was also increasingly concerned about the SCS, which served as US navy’s backyard.  From there, US navy could easily transit from Philippines and South Vietnam to freely bombard North Vietnamese shores.  (Gulf of Tonkin would not have been possible, if US navy didn’t have free access to SCS).

North Vietnam, with the aid from USSR, was building up its naval forces, but still behind.

To secure SCS, US embarked on a rapid modernization program on the South Vietnamese navy.  From 22 ships in 1955, South Vietnamese navy grew to astonishing size of 639 ships in 1967, and 1400 ships in 1973, MOSTLY with US built ships of older generations, but included some large sized frigates that outclassed navies of the region.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_Vietnam_Navy

To further that mission, US turned over coastal and river patrols to the South Vietnamese navy in 1969.  While the official stated goal was to “prevent North Vietnamese incursions by sea”, the larger ships of the South Vietnamese navy primarily turned to SCS, and began to occupy various islands Paracel and Spratley.  For the 1st time in Vietnamese history, in 1969, South Vietnamese navy and marine stationed troops on western islands of Paracel (no coincidence of time).  At that time, China already occupied northwestern islands of Paracel.

In the 1960’s, South Vietnamese navy attacked several Chinese fishing boats in the area.  PRC was not able to respond because of the large US naval and air support in the area.

By 1974, PRC again sent fishing boats into Paracel.  South Vietnamese navy with US observers spotted them and decided to interdict.  South Vietnam had 3 frigates in the area, largest ships in their navy, and a corvette by Jan. 18.  China had only 4 old corvettes.

Vietnam fired 1st.  On Jan. 19, the South Vietnamese commandos attempted a landing, firing upon Chinese troops first.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Paracel_Islands

“In the early morning of January 19, 1974, Vietnamese troops from the HQ-5 landed on Duncan Island and came under fire from Chinese troops after opening fire first on the Chinese while advancing toward the shores.”

They were driven back and forced to retreat.  Then, the South Vietnamese naval ships fired upon the Chinese ships.

“At 10:24 a.m., Vietnamese warships HQ-16 and HQ-10 opened fire against the Chinese warships. Then, HQ-4 and HQ-5 did the same.”

“In comparison, the total displacements and weapons of Vietnamese were remarkably more than those of China.”

But after 40 minutes of firefight, the Chinese ships managed to gain the upper hand by maneuvering into blindspots of the main guns of the South Vietnamese ships, which sustained heavy damage.

South Vietnamese forces began to receive reports from US forces that Chinese reinforcement of additional ships and aircrafts were on their way.  At this point, South Vietnamese requested US support, but was rejected.  Then, the South Vietnamese forces had no choice but to withdraw from Paracel.  (US had already struck bargains with China, to recognized PRC in UN, and was not able to get into a tussle with PRC in 1974).

*What is also relatively unknown is the 1975 conflict in SCS, between South Vietnam and Philippines.  Where 2 US allies apparently conflicted against each other for control of Southwest Cay.   (although no fighting actually took place).  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southwest_Cay#Captured_by_Vietnam

The story goes, a Filipino commander was having a birthday party.  So Filipino guards on Southwest Cay left to attend the birthday party on a nearby island.  When they returned the next day, they found South Vietnamese troops had occupied the island.

If South Vietnamese forces were actually losing the overall Vietnamese War, they didn’t pay much attention to that in the SCS, where they continued to expand their occupation, all the way until 1975, the end of Vietnam War.

Philippines didn’t protest against South Vietnam for this action.  However, why?  Why didn’t US intervene on behalf of its ally?  When both allies were helping US fight against Communists?

Perhaps it was an overall unacknowledged US strategy to gradually allow South Vietnam to take over the entire SCS.  Otherwise, how could South Vietnam so brazenly attach Philippines, an ally??

In any case, South Vietnam with the aid of US, was hardly a lamb in SCS.  It was aggressively expanding in SCS, with tacit approval and active aid of US forces in the 1960’s and 1970’s, until the very end.

**

What came next was the end of South Vietnam.  North Vietnam invariably took over many of the islands occupied by South Vietnam.  South Vietnamese navy fled to Philippines with some 30,000 refugees.  But it was too late for Philippines to try to take back Southwest Cay, which North Vietnamese troops had taken over and built fortifications on.

US often describe China’s current strategy in the SCS as “slicing the salami”.  Well, perhaps we should say accurately that that was actually US’s strategy in the SCS, which it tried to implement via South Vietnam for many years, only barely failing on the count of losing Vietnam.

**

The current US strategy is perhaps a throwback to the “slicing the salami”.  US is not happy to lose SCS as the backyard, which is now teeming with Chinese and Vietnamese patrol ships.

US wants/wishes Philippines to be more aggressive, but Philippines is plagued by decades of government corruption which has seen its navy fall into disrepair.

So, perhaps the next best bet is to bet a “winner”, or to play all sides against each other.

The most recent spat between Vietnam, China and Philippines actually came about the time when the 3 nations just struck a deal, the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) that was agreed upon in 2004 and came into effect in 2005.

Everything seemingly went normal, until an Australian journalist, Barry Wain, published an article in Far Eastern Economic Review, to denounce the agreement, claiming that the government of Philippines had “sold out”.

While the claims were never substantiated or proven in any manner, it generated enough public outrage of yet another corruption scandal in Philippines that the public in Philippines began to worry about the specter of China (and Vietnam to some extent).

Who was Barry Wain?  He claims to have extensive contacts in Chinese military circles.  What’s interesting is, before he went to Asia, he was a “defence reporter” in Australia.  Meaning, he had extensive contacts in Australian defence circles.

Now, it’s hard to see how 1 man’s speculative theories could completely derail a 3 nation treaty, but it seemed that it was enough to push xenophobia in Philippines.  But it would have required some help from the West (media), and perhaps some coordination.

Undoubtedly, that 1 theory was thoroughly entertained and pushed and PR’ed into the front line in Philippines, to the maximum effect of building up the hysteria.

But that clearly demonstrates the intent and strategy of US, which had more than 1 government official echoing the hysteria of the story.

 

 

3 thoughts on “A History of US Strategies in South China Sea

  1. ersim

    The U.S. interest in the South China Sea reminds me of the U.S imperialist “president” Theodore Roosevelt’s obession in controlling the Caribbean Sea. After the war with Spain and “acquiring” Cuba and Puerto Rico, his ambitions went full steam ahead. Establishing a puppet government( new colony) in the guise of a “sovereign nation” calling itself “Panama” to able to build and have total control over the canal. The rest is history.

  2. Black Pheonix Post author

    1 aspect of the future US strategy is fairly clear:

    US is no longer in the position to simply give to any nation 1400 ships to beef up their navy, to contest their SCS claims.

    And US knows that. Rather it is simply hoping to play the “weapons dealer” role to play the various parties against each other, to sell US weapons and to maintain US access to SCS.

    But even that goal may be beyond US’s reach for several reasons:

    (1) US weapons (even old ones) are horrendously expensive. For example, Philippines recently aired request to buy 2 ships from US, hoping to pay for them by $40 million that US promised as military aid. But the US inventory of old ships are far more expensive than mere $40 million. A 1970’s frigate would cost $100 million per ship alone for refit! Additionally, $60 million per ship per year for cost of running. If Philippines is hoping to get something for nothing, it’s dreaming. US is just handing out coupons hoping Philippines will buy more.

    Vietnam is not exactly that excited about buying US weapons, not that US is even considering selling to Communist Vietnam. Vietnam much more prefer the cheaper Russian weapons, announcing recently delivery of 1 of 6 “blackhole submarines”, known for their extreme silence. However, even that purchase is deeply flawed. SCS is extremely shallow in many areas. Submarines can patrol some parts of deep water north of SCS, but can’t get to the reefs. China already has significant number of submarines in SCS, and some 100 Sea Cat littoral class patrol ships.

    In sum, US is treating SCS as a weapons market, but not many can buy from US in the neighborhood.

    Naturally, US is hoping to fan up anti-China paranoia in the neighborhood to entire purchases. Afterall, even if the real threat to Philippines is Vietnam (and vice versa), you can’t sell fear of Vietnam better than selling fear of China.

    The wiser strategy for China at this point would be hold down in SCS, and don’t make much moves.

    Sooner or later, inevitably, Philippines will run head on with Vietnam (and vice versa), and eventually exhaust themselves. Then, China can mediate peaceful solutions.

  3. raffiaflower

    As the author Sterling Seagrave has noted, there was nothing that happened of consequence in 19th century that wasn’t due to British meddling, eg, the overthrow of the isolationist shogun system in Japan supported by British merchants, or the hijacking of the Chinese revolution by Yuan Shikai who made himself emperor.
    Likewise, the hand of American political/financial elite has been stoking divisive issues from dividing Korea to the Vietnam war to the Diaoyu islands dispute in the 20/21st centuries. So, no surprise, if temperatures have really been rising in SCS as a result of Washington’s fire-fanning.

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