Sanctions and Grey on White: Raising the Stakes in the South China Sea

For years, there has been extensive talk of “managing” China’s rise, promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and lamenting Beijing’s encroachment in the South China Sea. The US has announced her “Pivot”, Japan has reinterpreted her constitution, the Philippines have initiated international arbitration proceedings, Vietnam has kept rearming, and Russia has kept including tactical nuclear weapons in her Far East “counter-terrorism” exercises, just to name some of the most relevant developments. To no avail, China has followed the same relentless path of territorial expansion, which reached a new plateau last year with the combined deployment of an oil rig supported by myriad fishing and state vessels near Vietnam, and the launch of a major reclamation drive, while naval construction continued apace, supported by the expansion of maritime militias. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, there is some evidence that analysts are ready to consider measures almost unthinkable of until recently. In her recent report titled “Conflict in the South China Sea”, Bonnie S. Glaser (Senior Advisor for Asia, Center for Strategic and International Studies) has sent two significant shots across China’s bow, suggesting sanctions against energy companies involved in the South China Sea, and the use of US Navy warships against Chinese coastguard and other state vessels.

These two proposals may just be suggestions, but they merit careful examination on at least two counts. First of all, because they suggest novel solutions to a long-recognized problem, which current policy does not seem to be having a significant impact on. Second, because they come as some other voices are suggesting withdrawing from the South China Sea, giving up the region and concentrating on the First Island Chain. Such move may prompt a miscalculation by Beijing, and unravel the web of alliances among maritime democracies in the Pacific, including extended deterrence.

Sanctions against Chinese energy corporations

China’s rise rests on a combination of integration into the world economic system and use of limited force to achieve foreign policy goals. While the latter is often lamented, until recently the former has not been questioned. Proposals to deal with China’s rise have failed to contemplate sanctions as a tool to constrict Beijing’s behavior. It is true that, to some extent, a move away from manufacturing in China is already apparent. This seems to be, though, mostly due to economic reasons like rising relative wages and a wish for diversification. However, perhaps some “hidden sanctions” are already in place in the case of, for example, Japan, with some actors understanding that in the current atmosphere it is unwise to keep transferring manufacturing capacity to her neighbor.

Before examining sanctions, perhaps we should ask ourselves some questions. Do we really need China that much? Have many countries become over reliant on the Chinese market and Chinese capital fluxes, prompting Beijing to believe that she is so essential as to be indispensable? Is this one of the underlying causes of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea? Does Beijing believe that economic factors guarantee a ceiling on any reaction by the maritime democracies, ruling out any meaningful response?

While we shall not try to answer them in detail, it seems clear that Beijing has indeed succeeded over the last three decades in becoming a pillar of the international economic system, as clear from, among others, the country’s significant portion of world manufacturing, her growing presence in many markets, the gradual internationalization of her currency, and her leading role as energy and commodities importer. Some voices doubt the sustainability of Chinese economic growth, but at least for the time being there is little doubt concerning its contribution to Chinese power and influence, as clear from Beijing’s latest move, setting up of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Thus sanctions, even if strictly limited and carefully targeted, should ideally be preceded by a debate on the above points. A debate bringing together specialists in economics and national security, two communities which do not always communicate that well.

Two important aspects of sanctions are their effective impact, and Beijing’s possible counter-sanctions. Concerning the former, it is unlikely at this stage that China would stop exploration and drilling in the South China Sea. Too much is at stake, in terms not only of national prestige and self-image, but also of economic development and national security. Furthermore, any suspicion of weakness in dealing with foreigners may be taken badly by citizens. Many observers stress how the Chinese regime is increasingly relying on nationalism to preserve its legitimacy, but a look at history shows how this has not just been one of the hallmarks of the CCP from day one, but how it runs deeper in contemporary Chinese history. The 100 anniversary of the Great War should serve as a reminder of how the May the 4th Movement erupted following the failure of the young republic to secure anything at Versailles, despite the contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps to the Allied victory. With regard to Chinese counter-sanctions, again this would be nothing new, since Beijing has never been shy over the last three decades in using her economic might to achieve foreign policy goals. Just to mention an example, forcing the Netherlands to stop submarine sales to Taiwan. Thus, any detailed proposal for sanctions should contemplate the different scenarios, their impact, and how to react to them. This does not mean that the shadow of Chinese reprisals should rule out any sanctions policy. This self-defeating view would only embolden Beijing. What it means is that we must recognize that playing the sanctions card demands a re-examination of economic relations with China, something perhaps necessary anyway, given the destabilizing impact of persistent trade surpluses and the accompanying capital flows. Thus, by upping the ante in the South China Sea the maritime democracies may be killing two birds with a stone, making it clear to Beijing that they are not surrendering, and bringing forward a very necessary but much long delayed debate on the place of the Chinese economy in the world.

Grey on white

Glaser argues that “The United States should be prepared to respond to future Chinese coercive acts including using U.S. naval forces to deter China’s continuing use of “white hulled” paramilitary vessels”. Concerning this, it is clear that Washington cannot stand idle as the South China Sea, not only because of its importance in terms of SLOCs (sea lines of communication), but because it would mean an open door to further acts of aggression, the loss of American credibility, and serious doubts about extended deterrence in the Pacific. It is also clear that, since the United States do not have coast guard or equivalent units deployed in theater, or large numbers of trawlers and merchantmen capable of being employed in a dual role, a symmetric national response to China’s tactics is not possible. Does this mean that the US Navy should be employed against Chinese coastguard and other state vessels? It is indeed a possibility, but it raises many questions, and ideally a discussion should be accompanied by a parallel examination of alternative options.

When discussing gray on white, natural caution and fears of escalation militate against this possibility. Yet, at the same time, the question arises why we should play by China’s rules. For years, the mantra that navies only confront navies, has mainly benefited China. There is no much point in reinforcing the US Navy in the Pacific if it is forced to contemplate, impotent, how Beijing achieves her goals using a mixture of other assets, from oil rigs to fishing vessels, including maritime militias and state vessels. Letting the other side lay down the rules is a sure way to defeat. A problem, though, is that conventional naval vessels are designed with lethal force in mind. Thus, other than ramming other ships or blocking their way, the other manners in which they may be employed would involve kinetic means leading to loss of life and a substantial escalation. Concerning ramming and blocking, the United States simply lacks the numbers to respond in this way. There is some quality to quantity, and Chinese numbers are simply impressive.

China knows that other countries do not want to be seen as having fired the first shot in what may soon turn into a regional conflagration. The challenge then is how to avoid firing that first shot, without losing the current limited conflict already taking place in the South China Sea. Escalation may not be an alternative option, but surrender is not either. Glaser’s suggestion should not be dismissed out of hand, and in doctrinal terms could be compared to Russia’s concept of “de-escalation”, raising a confrontation by one notch in order to bring it down. The problem is not doctrinal, but political, since it is doubtful whether maritime democracies are ready to follow this approach. However, there are other alternatives that merit some serious discussion. Just to mention one, a permanent land deployment in disputed islands, before China had the chance to seize them, could exert a stabilizing influence. Such deployments may be carried out by the countries involved, yet with a US rotational presence. This would not only aid in developing the necessary interoperability skills, but would send a powerful signal to Beijing, avoiding any perception that the South China Sea is just home to some far away rocks of little concern for Washington and thus ripe for the taking when the moment is right.

Conclusions: a first step in the right direction.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Contingency Planning Memorandum Update is a step in the right direction, putting on the table two options hitherto considered taboo in discussions on how to deal with the South China Sea conflict. At a time when some other observers are suggesting we scuttle the Pacific, using some to the same words (like “rocks” and “far away”) that history shows prompt miscalculations by would-be aggressors, they make it clear that the game is not over yet. Maritime democracies may lose it, but not without a fight.

Concerning sanctions, they would show Beijing that other countries mean business, and are ready to go beyond posturing. While unlikely, at least in the short term, to change Chinese behavior, their absence from the negotiating table weakens the maritime democracies’ case. Any detailed consideration of this weapon, however, requires not only an examination of the different retaliation scenarios, but a wider reflection of the Chinese economy’s place in the world financial system. An examination that is anyway necessary, and has been unduly delayed, and which is therefore an additional reason to seriously consider Glaser’s words.

With regard to gray on white, the current dogma that navies only fight navies is clearly benefiting Beijing and can no longer be merely repeated mantra-like, unless we are ready to lose the battle while some of the most powerful weapons simply look on. However, this does not mean that this is the only option, or that it is one politically acceptable. Thus, the time has come to examine the different possibilities, one being the permanent deployment of land forces on disputed islands, with a rotational US presence.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College,  23 December 2013, available at http://www.usnwc.edu/Publications/Working-Papers/Documents/WP1-Calvo.aspx,  can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo

CIMSEC DC April Meet-Up: Non-Linear Warfare and Vinyl Records: April 22nd

2013-09-12.gypsysallysJoin our DC chapter for its April DC-area informal meet-up/happy hour. Bret Perry will lead a discussion on non-linear (a.k.a. ‘Hybrid’) warfare and its maritime dimensions in the Ukraine crisis, while you’re invited to enjoy the conversation, drinks, and the company of interesting people at an interesting location

Time: Wednesday, 22 April 6:30-8:30pm
Place: Gypsy Sally’s (Vinyl Lounge – accessed via 34th St. Entrance)
3401 Water St NW
Washington, DC 20009

Read-aheads for those interested:
Crimea and Russia’s Strategic Overhaul
– Kristin Ven Buusgaard
Putin’s Next Objectives in the Ukraine Crisis
– Hugo Spaulding

All are welcome – RSVPs not required, but appreciated: director@cimsec.org

China’s Anti-Piracy Flotillas: By the Numbers

On April 3, the 20th anti-piracy flotilla of the People’s Liberation Army Navy got underway for operations off the Horn of Africa.  Since the arrival off Somalia of the first Chinese anti-piracy flotilla in January 2009, approximately three flotillas have successively served annually in that region.  Simple data compiled from open sources on the deployments of these flotillas is provided in the slides below.  Although these only represent anti-piracy flotillas, combined with other studies, they represent a broader pattern of global presence and increased capabilities of the PLA/N.  The following recent articles and studies are offered to provide readers with greater recognition of the issue:

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Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy. @cgberube

Capability and Intent in Developing Strategy

Robert Haddick argues early in his Fire on the Water that:

This book will make the case that with respect to China, U.S. policymakers will be wise to focus on China’s projected military capabilities and waste little effort attempting to discern the current or future intentions of China’s leaders. The reason is straightforward: intentions, and thus a country’s national security policies, can change suddenly. What matters for a leader’s calculations is whether the adversary has the instruments, including military capacity, to implement a revised policy. (p. 8)

This seems a reasonable proposition that simplifies the difficult problem of developing strategy. Intentions are fickle and subject to sudden change. Capabilities, by contrast, are relatively stable. They are the combined hardware, personnel, and doctrine that make up military forces. They have a substance to them which is countable and relatively certain. Defense analysts can be fairly certain that tanks will not suddenly transform into submarines. This stability makes it attractive to prioritize analyzing an opponent’s capabilities over identifying and analyzing their intent. It also tends towards the strategic shorthand of treating capability as intent. Unfortunately, ignoring intent or equating it with capability leads to flawed analysis for three reasons.

The first is that ignoring intent denies an opponent’s agency. War is a competitive endeavor between at least two opposing parties. If we are developing a strategy to achieve our goals it is because there is an opponent who would see our goals go unrealized. Our opponent can and will act in order to prevent us achieving our objectives. Our opponent will also act to achieve their own objectives, which are either diametrically opposed to ours, of a different nature, or somewhere in between. Ignoring intent is to argue that our opponent’s objectives are irrelevant to their behavior and that our opponent is simply an object to be acted upon. This never has and never will be the case in international relations. Opponents have the agency to act according to their own strategies in order to achieve their own objectives. To be clear, ignoring intent is not the same as saying an opponent’s intentions are difficult or impossible to comprehend. It is often difficult to identify an adversary’s true objectives, but it is always possible to propose a certain set of opponent intentions and assign a probability to each. It is also possible to discard a certain number of possible opponent goals, no matter how achievable. This thought experiment has the benefit of at least attempting to understand where our opponent is most likely to devote their finite resources and how they may develop their own strategy. Acknowledging an opponent’s agency ensures that we appreciate the inherently interactive nature of strategy as we seek to develop our own.

The second reason is that ignoring adversary intent prevents us from prioritizing our own limited resources. Looking at every enemy capability and asking how it will affect our strategy opens up a near infinite set of effects that must be considered and then countered if not moderated by a theory of most-likely adversary intentions. Take the following small example. Say Country A builds a squadron of advanced multi-role fighter aircraft capable of air defense, ground attack, and strike missions. Country B, a potential opponent, sees this and, ignoring Country A’s motives, determines these aircraft pose a threat to its own air, ground, and naval forces. It therefore develops countermeasures for its forces across all three domains, spending its resources to defeat Country A’s capability. Reasonable, no? But what if Country A had no intention of using these aircraft for the strike or ground attack roles? Country B wasted valuable, limited resources developing defenses against these capabilities. Or suppose Country A truly developed its military to defend against Country C. Country B’s resources were entirely wasted. A final case to consider is if Country B invested resources to build a military that never had any hope of matching Country A. In this case, assume that even if Country B devoted 100% of its gross domestic product to defense, Country A would still overmatch B’s military capabilities. Country B’s defense expenditure could be a total loss if the goal was to deter Country A. These are extremely simple examples, but history is rife with cases of wasted military expenditure designed to counter the wrong enemy or to deter the undeterrable. Focusing only on capabilities, the tendency is to expand threat horizons through well intentioned, but nearly infinite, what-ifs. These what-ifs demand answers, and answers cost money, time, and energy, all of which are limited. Again, strategy is interactive and we cannot consider opponent actions in a vacuum of their intentions.

The third reason is that even supposedly dispassionate capability analysis is subject to cognitive biases. The objects that define capabilities may be concrete, but that does not mean they are of necessity a firmer foundation for analysis. Ships are famously black boxes impervious to detailed peacetime analysis. Haze gray and underway, two nation’s destroyers appear roughly the same, and admirals assume they will operate the same way. But this may simply be mirror-imaging. Perhaps, unbounded by our mental shackles, our opponent has developed some new tactic, technique, or procedure or improved weapon system that generates new possibilities for employing their ship. Ignoring to what end our opponent would use their ships, we are left open to assuming our own tactical and operational art on our opponent. A focus on the technical aspects of adversary capabilities, often necessary in the naval context, can also hamper attempts to come to deeper understandings of operational employment. Mirror-imaging is also a criticism leveled at defense analysts attempting to understand Chinese strategy. The argument in the cited article is that American analysts believe China is pursuing an A2/AD strategy because that is what the U.S. would do if it was in the same position as China and had the same capabilities as the People’s Liberation Army. Ignoring Chinese intentions is exactly the logic that results in equating PLA military capability with Chinese national strategy. Continuing to foster analysis that does not engage with Beijing’s known or likely intentions is not likely to result in better analysis. Cognitive bias is possible in analyzing capabilities and in understanding adversary strategies more widely. Ignoring adversary intentions only serves to make the problem worse by discarding half the material available for understanding an opponent’s strategy.

Ultimately, strategy is competitive. It is crafted to deal with living, breathing, thinking opponents. In order to defeat an opponent we must understand them. This requires empathy, which means intimately understanding their thought processes, fears, and ultimately their intentions. If we focus only on their capabilities we run not only the risk of misunderstanding their capabilities, but also projecting our own intentions on our opponents, leading to incorrect strategic conclusions. Analyzing military capability is difficult, and adding intent to the mix only makes it more difficult to create sound strategy. But ignoring an opponent’s intentions in developing strategy is like navigating dangerous waters using a chart without soundings.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Department of Defense.

Sea Control 74: Falklands Series 5 – South Georgia Ops

seacontrol2This is the story of Christopher Nunn in his own words, the Captain in command of M Company 42 Commando, who was sent to South Georgia  as part of Operation Paraquet – the first stage of the Falklands and the opening salvo and statement of intent that would set the stage for all that was to come. It was also possibly the most risky operation of the war, as the British forces deployed were completely self-dependent with no possibility of support.

DOWNLOAD: Falklands South Georgia Ops

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Host: Alexander Clarke
Editing: Matthew Hipple
Music: Britain!

Members’ Roundup Part 18

Welcome back to another edition of the Roundup! After a brief hiatus we are back to share with you more of our members’ works. There are plenty of articles to share, ranging from maritime infrastructure development to thoughts on the new maritime strategy.

Back in February Miha Hribernik wrote a piece for The Diplomat regarding piracy in Southeast Asia. Although this presents a significant and worrying problem, it is manageable. Miha presents some suggestions for regional States on how to resolve this issue. You can access the article here. 

To surpass China in Sri Lanka, India needs to pursue proactive and dynamic diplomacy. Nilanthi Samaranayake explains, over at The Diplomat, that the key to reaffirming India’s presence in the region is through infrastructure investment. More specifically, the focus should be on public-private partnership and government to government investment in the maritime domain. You can access Nilanthi’s article here.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 1.53.03 pmJerry Hendrix, from the Center for a New American Security, published a report in February called ‘Avoiding Trivia: A Strategy for Sustainment and Fiscal Security’. In it, he argues that the United States has strayed from its historic and cultural approach to the world, leaving behind its traditional maritime-focused, technologically innovative, free-trade based strategy. The solution to this, according to Hendrix, is a more clear eyed strategy that seeks to avoid trivia and address the US’ current weaknesses in order to shore up its long term strategic position.

Over at War on the Rocks David Wise shares with us an article titled ‘Blowback as National Policy.’ Many of the current security threats that the Western world faces today are a result of those decisions made in years past. Before making the foray into the geostrategic game, which is more than just a big game of Risk, first have a look at David’s cogent words on what we face today.

Mira Rapp-Hooper writes on the Lawfare Institute’s blog a post examining the impact of China’s increased military spending (and the US’ relative decline in spending) on neighbouring countries. You can access her post here.

Following the trend of AMTI posts, Bryan McGrath shares his analysis on how China might view the United States’ revised Maritime Strategy. Given that Bryan was heavily involved in the development of the 2007 strategy, you will certainly find his views on the matter very insightful. You can access his piece here.

Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, proposed the creation of joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea by ASEAN member nations – this was quickly met with mix reactions. Scott Cheney-Peters provides some solutions to challenge the arguments presented by the ‘nay-sayers’ and suggests that the presence of the “white hulls” of the U.S. Coast Guard could mitigate many of the perceived drawbacks. You can find out more by accessing his article on the AMTI’s website, here.

Harry Kazianis, on The National Interest, shares an analysis of the core reasons behind China’s ‘massive’ military buildup. He explains the historical roots of the Chinese military psyche due to subjugation at the hands of external powers. The solution to this is to employ an asymmetrical strategy  to defeat, in battle, forces that are superior to its own. You can access his article here.

Long range anti-ship missiles contribute to an essential element of China's deterrence.
Anti-Ship Missiles contribute to an essential element of China’s deterrence.

On the National Defense Magazine’s online blog, Sandra Erwin reports that the current pace of shipbuilding and funding will not be able to meet the future demands of the Navy. Given that is an annual obligation of the Navy to tell Congress how many ships it will need and how much they will cost, it should certainly raise some alarm bells for decision-makers in Washington. For more on this, you can access Sandra’s post here.

U.S. Navy Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships assigned to Patrol Coastal Squadron 1 (PCRON 1), USS Hurricane (PC-3), USS Chinook (PC-9) and USS Typhoon (PC-5), transit in formation during a divisional tactics exercise in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. Navy Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships assigned to Patrol Coastal Squadron 1 (PCRON 1), USS Hurricane (PC-3), USS Chinook (PC-9) and USS Typhoon (PC-5), transit in formation during a divisional tactics exercise in the Persian Gulf.

Bringing the theme of this Roundup to the naval profession, Matthew Hipple in a joint article with Dan Follet and James Davenport, remind us the important role of patrol coastal ships in securing the seas. In this edition of Proceedings, the authors suggest that patrol coastal ships are an “incredible platform for both mission execution and cultivating war fighting.” To read more about why this is the case, you can access their article here.

Over at War on the Rocks, CIMSECian Emil Maine (and company) provide some critique of Congressman Mac Thornberry’s ‘Defense Acquisition Reform’ initiative. Defence acquisition is a necessity, but the question is whether political momentum can be sustained long enough to overcome the usual barriers to wholesale reform. More on this topic here.

Finally we conclude this edition with a shameless plug for my own work. The first is an article featured in the March-April edition of the Australian Defence Force Journal. Titled ‘Evolution of the Battlefield’, I examine existing strategic and legal challenges to developing an effective cyber warfare policy for military planners. My second piece is a brief analysis of the Australian Department of Defence’s new First Priniciples Reviewthis will hopefully provide an insight into some of the organisational challenges faced by the ADF and Department of Defence. Perhaps some of the US readers can find some similarities and provide suggestions for the Australian context. You can access each of the above articles here and here.

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on the NextWar blog or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to dmp@cimsec.org.

Strategic Insights Arctic Special Issue – Call for Papers

The December 2015 special issue of Strategic Insights magazine will deal with maritime security problems associated with the Arctic. Although international attention in recent months has shifted to places such as Russia/Ukraine, Syria/Iraq, Greece, or the South China Sea, the High North retains its unique position and potential as a future site of conflict and cooperation, disruptive technology, and a major maritime trade shortcut. We are looking for thought-provoking contributions that address challenges and risks in the High North, and provide fresh perspectives for our readers. Whether it is a particularly Canadian, American, Russian, Norwegian, Danish, or any other nation-state view, a discussion of current and future operations, or perspectives on maritime security from your particular point of view, all suggestions are welcome.

It doesn't happen often that an entire ice-breaking fleet is in one picture... but when it does, it's set to be cool.
It doesn’t happen often that an entire ice-breaking fleet is in one picture… but when it does, it’s set to be cool.

Anyone with an interest in writing an article should send a short note Sebastian Bruns, member of the SI editorial board and fellow CIMSECian, at sb@riskintelligence.eu. Please include a short bullet-point list of what you would like to discuss and provide 2-3 sentences on your professional background. If your article is accepted for publication, remuneration is 300.00 € (or – currently – 335.00 USD) per article and will be paid via bank transfer on the first of the month after publication of the respective issue. The deadline for your final article is 15 November 2015.

From Russia with love.
From Russia with love.

Strategic Insights draws on the focus and geographical coverage of Risk Intelligence’s MaRisk maritime security monitor, but takes a wider look at the nature of maritime risk in different threat locations around the world. Each issue goes beyond facts and figures to consider the drivers of maritime security challenges and how these challenges will evolve in the future.
The focus of Strategic Insights is on security threats and political-military developments with a maritime dimension, particularly non-traditional security issues such as piracy, maritime terrorism, insurgency, smuggling, and port security. The journal is read by players in the maritime industry, law enforcement agencies, think tanks and institutions, and inter-governmental regional security bodies. A particular emphasis is placed on articles that offer policy-relevant and operational analysis relevant to the maritime community. The style is a mix of journalism and academic, length about 2,500-3,000 words. Visit the website for more info and to download your complimentary free issue.

Sebastian Bruns is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University where he is responsible for all things maritime. He is also one of the editors for Strategic Insights magazine.

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