China’s Twin Strategies to Control the South China Sea: Missiles at Sea and Lawfare on Land

On August 5th, the Associated Press ran an article with the worrying title “Chinese missile could shift Pacific power balance,” referring to the new Dong Fen 21D, a missile that “that could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).” As the article went on to note, “Beijing has grown increasingly vocal in its demands for the U.S. to stay away from the wide swaths of ocean — covering much of the Yellow, East and South China seas — where it claims exclusivity.”

However, China is hardly likely to rely on military activity alone to achieve its goals. In fact, China has been setting the ground for a lawfare offensive designed at rewriting the international law of the sea to achieve its goal of dominance in the Pacific. A June 2010 article in Asia Times Online quoted Raul Pedrozo, associate professor of International Law in the US Naval War College’s International Law Department, who said that “China is currently attempting to fabricate an incident between a commercial vessel, preferably a fishing vessel, and a US Special Mission Ship as part of its lawfare campaign in order to bolster its claim in the eyes of the international community” against US military ‘interference.’ As the article’s author Peter J. Brown warned, “Throw in a few ship-mounted lasers and a few surveillance planes or helicopters, and a recipe for rapid escalation appears.”

While much remains to be seen before one can fully analyze China’s twin strategies and how they interact on an operational level, there is little doubt that China will continue to actively pursue both strategies simultaneously. After all, Mao Tse-tung pointed out that, “Military action is a method used to attain a political goal. While military affairs and political affairs are not identical, it is impossible to isolate one from the other.”[1] The same holds true for lawfare.

[1] Mao Tse-tung on Guerilla Warfare, translated and edited by Samuel B. Griffith II, Anchor Press/Doubleday Garden City NY 1978, p. 80