Spratly hold ‘em

Spratly hold ‘em

The most popular variation of poker today is called “Texas hold ‘em.” Whoever shows the best hand wins the game, except where players fold their hands. “Texas hold ‘em” is not a game of chance or luck, it’s a game of strategy – and deception — where a player’s goal is to turn a weak and losing hand into a winner.

The beauty of this game is that it can be used in any situation including politics, business, and geopolitics. Indeed, its strategic orientation is akin to Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” which Chinese military strategists have been using for the past 2,500 years.

Today, what we’re seeing in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea is the real-life geopolitical variation of “Texas hold ‘em.” Let’s call it, “Spratly hold ‘em.”

Unsinkable aircraft carrier

About two years ago, China started building artificial islands in seven coral reefs in the Spratly archipelago. Using huge dredging equipment, sand and rocks were scooped up and dumped on the coral reefs to form artificial islands. One of these “islands” – Fiery Cross Reef – which is 1,400 miles from China’s coast and only less than 200 miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, is turning out to be a military outpost consisting of a long runway and deep harbor to accommodate China’s most advanced aircraft and warships. Some observers call it an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

A few days ago, China broke ground for the construction of two “multi-functional lighthouses” on two reclaimed reefs. To date, China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres, the equivalent of 1,500 football fields. And when the work is completed, China would become the dominant superpower in the Asia-Pacific region where she can project power all the way to the Second Island Chain.

With China claiming sovereignty over 90% of the South China Sea, she would be in a position to control the trade lanes in the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca where 17 million and 15.2 million barrels of oil pass through, respectively, each day. About 80% of China’s foreign oil travels the strait. The region generates more than $5 trillion a year in trade.

Malacca dilemma

Should hostility erupt between U.S. and China, all the U.S. had to do to defeat China was to block the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, which would stop oil from reaching China. It wouldn’t take long before China drained her strategic oil reserves and her economic and military engines would then come to a screeching halt. Kaput!

Needless to say, China’s leaders know their weakness. And it would be foolhardy for China to do nothing to fix the problem. Since going to war against the U.S. is not a winnable option, China’s solution to her “Malacca dilemma” is to remove her dependence on the Strait of Malacca to transport her oil home. But how?

China had several plans to bypass the Strait of Malacca including building pipelines from Russia, Pakistan, and Myanmar. The China-Myanmar pipeline is the only one that is operational today; however, its transmission capacity is only 22 million tons per year. The Russian and Pakistan pipelines have yet to be built.

A canal has been proposed to be built across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, which China could use to transport oil; thus, avoiding the Strait of Malacca. But the Kra canal project is still in its conceptual stage and would take at least 10 years to build.

So the next best thing for China to do is claim the oil-rich South China Sea. If she succeeds in doing that, her dependence on Middle East oil would drastically be reduced… or, perhaps, eliminated. She’d have most of the oil she needs right in her own “backyard.”
World War III

Recently, the U.S., alarmed by the massive Chinese military build-up in the Spratlys, sent a P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane over the artificial islands. China immediately denounced it. The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, said that “China is a major world power with nuclear weapons” and warned the U.S. that World War III is inevitable if the U.S. persisted in meddling in China’s right to do anything within her territory. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who was on an important trip to the Asia-Pacific region, warned China: “There should be no mistake: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”

Last May 28, it was reported that China had deployed weapons to the artificial islands. Yep, China had just upped the ante by militarizing the reclaimed islands. The U.S. could call the bet, raise it or fold her hand.

While the U.S. wouldn’t resort – not at this time — to armed attack against the Chinese forces on the reclaimed islands, she can continue flying surveillance planes over the islands and send warships to within 12 miles of the islands, which she had implied earlier.


How China is going to react to such incursion is anybody’s guess. But for sure China would lose face if she doesn’t repel the “invading” Americans. And “losing face” is a big thing in Oriental cultures, which leaves China with only one option – attack the “invading” Americans. But how can China fight the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which has around 60 warships, 350 aircraft, 38,000 naval personnel, and 22,000 marines deployed to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region?

But the U.S. Navy’s ace in the hole is her fleet of 14 nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Known as “boomers,” each submarine carries 14 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Each MIRV is a ballistic missile payload containing 24 nuclear warheads, each of which is capable of being aimed independently to hit a target. With 336 individual warheads in each “boomer,” they add up to a total of four megatons – the equivalent of more than 2,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. At least four SSBNs (the actual number is classified) are on “red alert” 24/7, which means that they can fire their MIRVs when ordered by the Commander-in-Chief.

On the other hand, China’s offshore combat capabilities are limited. She has one aircraft carrier, which has yet to be operational. At this time, China has about 100 land-based DF-5 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which are capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. They have a range of 8,000 miles. The only problem with the liquid-fueled DF-5 missiles is that it will take at least two hours to fire them, which means that the MIRVs from the American “boomers” could wipe them out before they’re launched.

In a nuclear war, a second-strike capability is a country’s nuclear deterrence from a first-strike attack. And the key to nuclear deterrence is to make sure that your enemy knows that you could survive a first-strike attack and have the ability to retaliate with a devastating second-strike counter-attack, which begs the question: Is China bluffing and pretending that she has the means to destroy the U.S. in a first-strike attack?

In poker, the number one rule is: “Bluff only if you have the best hand.” That’s true in a game of “Texas hold ‘em.” It should also be true in “Spratly hold ‘em.”