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Red Star Over the Pacific: A Conversation with James Holmes on China’s Maritime Rise

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific with James Holmes, current J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. In this conversation Holmes lays out how the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan helped inform China’s maritime rise, how China built a formidable naval warfighting capability, and how the U.S. and its allies can more effectively deter China militarily. 

Q: Throughout the book you note that China’s approach to building maritime power is very comprehensive and “Mahanian” in nature. What do you mean by this, and how has maritime power contributed to China’s rise as a great power?

JH: China’s rise is avowedly Mahanian in terms of both purpose and power. Sea power proponents in Beijing and places like that will tell you so. In terms of purpose, Mahan declares that commercial, diplomatic, and military access to important trading regions is the uppermost goal of maritime strategy, bar none. Because of China’s exceptionally forbidding strategic geography, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chiefs have to worry about access from the time a ship leaves harbor in East Asia until the time it docks in an Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, or European seaport. Hence Beijing’s effort to erect an anti-access buffer to hold the U.S. Navy at a distance: it eases the challenge of gaining access from the China seas to the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and points beyond.

In terms of power, Mahan’s famous six “determinants” of sea power indicate which would-be seafaring societies have the right stuff to go to sea in the search for commercial, diplomatic, and military access and the prosperity and power it promises. The determinants also suggest what the leadership of a prospective seafaring society should do to hasten the process along and make it more robust, such as enacting laws and policies encouraging people to engage in maritime industries, construct the infrastructure to support merchant and naval fleets, and on and on. His writings describe and prescribe.

It’s important to note that Mahan’s influence on naval operations can, and we believe does, stop with his injunction to seek “command of the sea,” meaning relative supremacy in waters that matter to China. There are many ways to skin a cat. Navies and affiliated joint forces can seek maritime command through a variety of methods, not just by sending out battle fleets for symmetrical force-on-force engagements as in the age of sail, and to a lesser degree, the age of steam. For instance, they can execute an “active defense” until such time as they are strong enough to venture a decisive battle. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists read Corbett and approve of his concept of active defense, but more importantly, active defense has been graven on the CCP’s way of strategy and operations since Mao fashioned the concept in the 1930s. Beijing’s 2015 white paper, “China’s Military Strategy,” reaffirms that active defense remains the “essence” of the party’s way of war, just as it was for the Red Army during the Chinese civil war. China’s methods are nothing new, even though it uses different implements to put them into effect at sea.

So people should not make too much of the operational and tactical implications of Mahan’s writings for China’s navy. They should pay a great deal of attention to what he says about maritime strategy and amassing sea power to execute strategy. These are the ideas to which CCP leaders have declared fealty.

Q: For millennia China was a continental power, primarily focused on land. Now within only the past generation or two has China made a historic transition into becoming a maritime superpower. How did this shift change Chinese strategic thinking and threat perception?

JH: As I noted earlier, maritime strategy rivets attention on the problem of access, and for China that means guaranteed passage between the China seas and the Pacific or Indian ocean first and foremost. CCP leaders are acutely conscious that the first island chain encloses the entire continental crest—no city outflanks it—that U.S. allies or friends occupy the first island chain, and that the United States used the island chain to fetter maritime movement in the Western Pacific throughout the Cold War. So if Beijing seems morbidly obsessed with its geographic plight, that’s because it is. And for good reason. Its worries constitute our opportunity.

Q: In Chapter 4 of the book, you discuss China’s “strategic will” to the sea. What do you mean by strategic will, and how has China’s strategic will to the sea grown over the years?

JH: The term comes from Wolfgang Wegener, an admiral in the World War I German High Seas Fleet and the author of The Naval Strategy of the World War, a blistering critique of Germany’s failure as a sea power and a fine work of sea power theory. Strategic will for Wegener is nothing more than the Nietzschean “will to power” turned to the sea in pursuit of strategic position and a great navy able to seek out key strategic locations to further overseas commerce. We prefer Wegener’s concept to Mahan’s, which is valid but rather static. There’s a real dynamism to the will to power, yet it is also perishable. Wegener is vehement about urging political and naval leaders to rouse and husband strategic will to the sea—which is precisely what CCP leaders have done over the past quarter-century or so as China amasses the trappings of sea power. If only U.S. and allied leaders were as single-mindedly focused and persuasive about seaborne endeavors.

Q: You argue that concepts like active defense and the fortress fleet are core components of China’s maritime warfighting strategy and operational thinking. How may these concepts and others animate China’s prosecution of a future war at sea?

JH: We should be clear about the terminology here. Active defense is a Maoist term and ubiquitous in CCP writings about strategy, operations, and tactics. (It’s far from uncommon in Western writings as well, not just in Corbett’s works but those of Bradley Fiske and many others.)

“Fortress fleet” is a term we use to describe the PLA’s use of shore-based firepower to supplement the power of the battle fleet. The term comes from Mahan’s critique of Russian naval strategy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Russian naval commanders had a bad habit of huddling under the guns of Port Arthur for protection against the superior Imperial Japanese Navy. Mahan deemed this a “radically erroneous” way of naval operations because the range of a gun was so short in those days—a fortress fleet was confined to a very small circle on the map whose range was the effective firing range of a cannon circa 1904-1905. That had all manner of ill effects. But that doesn’t render the concept of shore-based fire support moot. If I have the scouting capability, command and control, and firepower to rain ordnance on an enemy fleet scores, hundreds, or thousands of miles out to sea, exactly what is the objection to a fortress fleet? None whatsoever. You have plenty of sea room to roam while still tapping fire support. You can have the best of both worlds, blue-water mobility plus that great shore-based equalizer.

Bottom line, it is misleading in the extreme to run direct comparisons between the PLA Navy and the U.S. Navy and console ourselves that we remain ahead. If we run comparisons between the fraction of the U.S. Navy that would appear on scene at likely battlegrounds in the Western Pacific and the massed PLA Navy backed by shore-based firepower and we look like we’re behind, well, that reflects reality. It matters not a whit who has the stronger navy overall; it matters who can concentrate the most firepower at scenes of action for as long as it takes to accomplish tactical and operational goals. As Nelson quipped, a ship’s a fool to fight a fort. If Fortress China can reach far out to sea and lend accurate firepower in support of the battle fleet, that’s a discomfiting prospect. Do not give in to the temptation to view maritime competition and warfare solely as a navy-on-navy thing.

Q: You discuss a dichotomy in the orientation of a fleet, where a Mahanian fleet is focused on preparing to secure command of the seas in the event of conflict, and where a post-Mahanian fleet is mostly focused on exploiting command of the seas in peacetime. It appears the Chinese Navy has been developing itself as a Mahanian fleet focused on the high-end fight at the same time the U.S. Navy has been focusing on post-Mahanian missions such as power projection and constabulary functions. How do you compare these two navies through the lens of this dichotomy, and how could a Mahanian/post-Mahanian mismatch between rival fleets create strategic risk?

JH: Here I should give credit to my friend Geoff Till, who articulated the distinction between Mahanian and post-Mahanian navies back in 2007. It’s a cultural mismatch translated into force structure and doctrine. After the Cold War we told ourselves the Soviet Navy was gone and no one would replace it as a peer adversary. So we could lay down arms—the arms needed to fight for command of the sea, anyway—and deemphasize missions such as surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-air warfare. We assumed away our first and foremost function, the fight for command—hence “post-Mahanian.”

Meanwhile future challengers resolved to prepare for that fight against a U.S. Navy that had persuaded itself naval history had ended—hence those challengers were “Mahanian.” If a bloody-minded Mahanian fleet backed by shore-based firepower encounters an inattentive post-Mahanian fleet, who wins—even if the material advantage happens to favor the latter?

Never, ever assume away your primary reason for existence. It’s ahistorical for fighting forces, and dangerous in the extreme.

Q: Near the conclusion of the book you argue that American diplomats and troops must prepare themselves for Beijing’s “hyper-Mahanian approach to seapower.” What could such preparations look like as the U.S. calibrates its strategy toward China?

JH: It doesn’t mean reciprocating China’s naval preparations in symmetrical fashion, although a lot of what we must do is regenerate habits, skills, and hardware we need to compete the way we did against the Soviet Navy. That part will look symmetrical. We started delving into an asymmetrical approach back in 2012, after the first edition of Red Star over the Pacific, but before the idea of island-chain defense became common wisdom in journals, think tanks, and the Pentagon. We preached island-chain defense before it was cool. The basic idea is that we need to turn geography, alliances, and asymmetric advantages in hardware and tactics into a decisive strategic edge. If Beijing frets about access, and if we and our allies stand athwart its access to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, that constitutes invaluable potential leverage.

In other words, we can mount an anti-access strategy of our own along the first island chain, using submarines, sea mines, unmanned vehicles of various kinds, aircraft, and land-based firepower to seal up the straits between the islands constituting the island chain. We can convert the island chain into a “Great Wall in reverse,” a barrier to Chinese maritime movement rather than an edifice that keeps out China’s foes. Display the capability to do all of that at manageable cost to ourselves and allied governments, and we will have erected a formidable deterrent to CCP mischief. A few weeks back The Economist ran an article about China’s strategic geography, including a nice mention of Red Star over the Pacific, and closed by quoting Professor Hu Bo—one of China’s preeminent maritime strategists—as observing that challenging island-chain defense would be a “suicide mission” for China’s armed forces. We agree—and hope the CCP leadership does as well.

I noted that the PLA Navy need not be Mahanian in its operational and tactical methods, however Mahanian it may be in larger things. The same goes for America and its allies. We can repay Beijing’s anti-access efforts with interest by staging an anti-access strategy of our own—and dare Beijing to undertake Hu’s suicide mission.

Q: What are your predictions for how Chinese maritime power will continue to evolve into the future?

JH: My predictions are usually about as venturesome as Clubber Lang’s in Rocky III: “Prediction? Pain!” In fact, that one probably applies here as well. I think it is safe to say that, barring some black swan-like economic collapse or political revolution, the CCP will remain a serious player at sea. China will not somehow return to port or otherwise revert to being its traditional continental self on the day after the conquest of Taiwan, or whatever. The leadership has connected sea power to sovereignty, to China’s banishment of the century of humiliation, to China’s very sense of itself and its place in the world. You don’t rouse sentiments like that and then let the seaward quest fizzle out from inattention.

So this is a lasting challenge. I think it’s also fair to prophesy—because we see it happening now—that U.S.-China relations will take that competitive swerve we thought the relationship might take when we came out with the first edition, and took a fairly upbeat view. Which is why the second edition has a keener edge to it than the first. The first edition was a plea to take these people seriously; this edition is about getting ready. If we don’t get ready and convince Beijing we are ready, our efforts at deterrence are apt to falter—and we may find ourselves in a very bad place. The hour is late.

Q: Any final thoughts you would like to share?

JH: Just that there is no reason to resign ourselves to failure. In fact, this strategic competition is ours to lose when you take account of geography, our slate of allies compared to China’s, and so forth. Those are all formidable assets. But we do have to get serious about competing and act accordingly. We are trying to come from behind.

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views expressed here are his own. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org

Featured Image: Chinese Navy’s 055-class guided missile destroyer Nanchang takes part in a naval parade off the eastern port city of Qingdao, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, China, April 23, 2019. (Reuters/Jason Lee)

If Not China, Who? Competing in Africa Through Foreign Military Education

Countering China Topic Week

By Matthew Quintero

“If not China, who?” was a question asked during a class on foreign investment in Africa. The speaker was an African naval officer. The class was equally composed of American and African military officers, and the place was the United States Naval War College (NWC). The African officers all seemed to nod in agreement while the rest of the room shrugged. The author has heard this comment several times before by other exasperated African officers. They were tired of being reminded that China was only interested in the natural resources of their homelands, or that China was building ports, bases, and infrastructure on loans their nations could hardly repay. They were also acutely aware that China’s “no strings attached” development targeted their weak governments and “big man” regimes. It was sometimes difficult for this particular officer to express himself, as English was his third language after Bantu and French. But on this day he made himself very clear, stating:

“All Africans want democracy. We all want to be like the United States. We need help with roads and infrastructure, but our governments cannot work with USAID and the World Bank. Who can the people get help from? If not China, who?”

In his mind, China was helping exactly where it mattered. The question of whether the U.S. or China invests more in Africa was irrelevant. This was a matter of sentiments and perceptions. If competition for the Indian Ocean during peacetime requires building partnerships with African nations, the U.S. will be best served by focusing on people rather than ports or platforms. But as it now trends,  an entire side of the Indian Ocean in the form of east African nations is poised to embrace deeper strategic partnership with China.

Chinese Solutions to African Problems?

Like every other continent, Africa has problems. Africa has the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. By 2035, nearly half of all Africans will inhabit urban areas with poor infrastructure. These cities will struggle to provide their citizens with food, water, shelter, and employment. Africa’s GDP exponentially increased over the past decade due to the international scramble for its rich national resources. Yet with this remarkable rise in GDP, there has not been a corresponding rise in youth employment. Often when foreign investors come to Africa with a need for technical expertise they do not end up hiring African firms. This feeds a cycle of “brain drain” where Africans with scientific and technical degrees leave the continent for better employment elsewhere.

Climate change will also test urban infrastructure. Africa is warming at 1.5 times the global average. Flooding and rising sea level will continually impact the quarter of the continental population that lives within 60 miles of a coast. Climate change is estimated to cost Africa $50 billion per year by 2040. These struggling cities will also have to contend with the burden of displaced peoples.

Civil wars and ethnic struggles continue to foster Boko Haram in the West, Al Shabab in the East, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. In their wake, “populations of concern” whether they be refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced persons, have greatly multiplied in the past decade. Porous land and maritime borders, along with government corruption, facilitate criminal activity. These extremist groups can then draw on public anger at government corruption to recruit and radicalize disenfranchised youth. This resentment is only made worse when police and military forces abuse local populations in their hunt for extremists.

Many of Africa’s woes are symptoms of government inability to react to the changing African environment. Managing the impact of foreign actors, population, climate change, violence, and economic growth will all depend on governance. According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, overall governance across the continent is on a marginally upward trend. The past decade has also seen a wave of democratic reform, in which six nations have voted to limit presidential terms along with improving decentralized governance. Yet, more than a quarter of Africa’s population has never seen a change in leadership. Coincident with this upward trend, African governments show increasing divergence in performance. Some governments are getting better, while others are getting worse.

The realization of the importance of “good governance” in Africa has created a dilemma for donor nations. Traditional sources of development such as the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have safeguards built into their aid that are meant to stop or slow funding should the ruling governments use the aid for patrimonial purposes or in the violation of human rights. For many African nations, World Bank aid only comes with guarantees of democratic reform. Corrupt and oppressive regimes eventually refuse aid or refuse to change in order to qualify for aid. These same regimes often rule where infrastructure and other development projects are needed most. Should good governance or development come first? This chicken and egg dilemma is the topic of much current debate concerning international aid. And into this environment, China steps in.

As China’s need for commodities grows so does its involvement in Africa. China has invested heavily in Africa through the One belt, One Road initiative, and the Forum on Chinese-African Cooperation. With a policy of “noninterference,” Chinese development supposedly comes with “no strings attached,” meaning that China is ready and willing to work with corrupt African governments.

China is very effectively providing a counter-narrative to “western” international institutions. These ideas have most recently manifested in BRICS, the union of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. BRICS members see themselves as leaders of the developing world and have their own agenda and development funds, liberated from restrictions placed on aid by the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and United States. This has worked very well for China. African nations are lining up to receive aid, and for their efforts, many Africans view China favorably.

But it would be unfair to say that Africans do not understand who they are dealing with. African civil society has criticized China for failing to promote good governance and human rights. For the African officers in certain war college classes, while they don’t necessarily like China, they don’t see development through the lens of great power competition. They see infrastructure projects increasing the quality of life within their nations. These projects just happen to be Chinese and not of some other foreign actor.

If not China, who will help? China wins over public opinion when they develop in nations with corrupt or weak governments. But Africa must have governments and societies able to resist both Chinese and U.S. influence, should that influence be malign. Capable democratic governments would be better equipped to handle their own problems and keep foreign actors in check.  That is what the U.S. must strive for. To counter China in Africa, the U.S. must promote resilient, prosperous African states and not spheres of influence.

A Role for Foreign Military Education

In the parlance of Multi-Domain Operations, how does the U.S. compete with China for access to the East African coast? If the problem is governance, what role can the U.S. military possibly play? While debating these questions and government policies, international officers must ponder of the heated debates that occur in American war college classrooms. Americans often speak critically of the U.S. government, but could African officers speak critically of their own governments? Could these conversations ever occur in a Chinese war college?

The U.S. military can best compete with China for influence in Africa through foreign military education. Influence will come when African leaders see that good governance, respect for human rights, and abiding by international law is worth working toward. U.S. military leaders can work directly with African military leadership, specifically in war college settings where uniformed service meets free speech and critical thinking. More African officers training side-by-side with bright U.S. military officers and civilian professors is where the U.S. can reconcile ground truth with strategic aspirations.

Foreign military education focused on governance, accountability, and human rights is a small sliver of Defense Institution Building (DIB). DIB nests within Security Sector Reform (SSR), which falls under Security Sector Assistance (SSA). DIB, SSR, and SSA spheres overlap and funding for subordinate programs is held by both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of State (DoS). Education of this sort currently falls under DoS’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Among other objectives, IMET espouses a “respect for…democracy and…internationally recognized human rights.” IMET receives the least funding of all DoS global SSA efforts, and sub-Saharan Africa only receives 14 percent of funds allocated to Africa. IMET is also susceptible to only going to nations the DoS and DoD can agree on, rather than where it may do the most good. While the DoD is charged with administering IMET, DoS determines the recipients, and Congress controls the funding. DoD must be in “lockstep” with the DoS throughout the annual budget request process to ensure both departments needs are met.

DoD “Regional Centers for Security” (RC) can fulfill functions similar to IMET. The DoD budget for SSA significantly trumps that of DoS, but most of those funds are focused on the tactical training and equipping of partner militaries in their efforts to defeat transnational threats. RCs are the exception as they are DoD funded education tools serving regional combatant commanders. RC roles have expanded from “strengthening civil-military relations in democratic society” to “the promotion of democratic accountability” and “respect for human rights.” In a given year the DoD can train over twice as many foreign military personnel through RCs than DoS can through IMET. These programs are different, yet overlap toward the same objectives, and therein lies opportunity.

Gen. David Rodriguez (front row second from left), commander U.S. Africa Command, visited the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to meet with African nation Navy students who are currently attending the college in resident programs for international officers. (U.S. Navy photo by Mr. John Stone)

If more funding for education is untenable, the Gordian knot of SSA can be solved by more efficiently coordinating the education efforts of DoD and DoS. The DoD Inspector General summarized the situation well in reporting that “Without DIB policy that distinguished the DIB roles of…the Regional Centers or any other office or command conducting DIB-related efforts, a potential for duplication and inefficiency existed.” With the end goal of educating an entire military on international norms and good governance, RCs don’t necessarily target the required audience. IMET is intended for a wide audience of relatively young foreign officials. Conversely, RCs cater to a more selective group of senior foreign officers. However, as DoD initiatives, RCs are less vulnerable than IMET to political leveraging. IMET may be turned off due to political instability or coup attempts within the partner nation, which brings it back to the good governance versus development dilemma.

Foreign military education is of far greater importance and strategic potential than is currently realized, but these are often among the first types of programs to be cut from budgets. If for no other reason, the U.S. must address international military education because China is competing in this space as well.

China’s College of Defense Studies

The author would not have been aware of China’s competition in this space if it weren’t for African counterparts. Their story went something like this, “China has an international program too, but in China they teach us in our languages, we get a diploma, and a considerable stipend.” Every international student the author ever interacted with was extremely grateful for their opportunity to study at a U.S. war college, but this note about language is very important. Most African students at the Naval War College did not arrive with the requisite mastery of English to complete a master’s degree.

When they arrive in the U.S., the first stop for most international students is Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. Here they attend the English language course at the Defense Language Institute. They are put through a rigorous program, but at least for certain African colleagues, most did not meet the standards of the language and writing screener when they checked into the Naval War College. Failing this test ensured that these students would only receive a certificate of completion and not the diploma that most other students received. Even a 25-week course in English may fail to prepare a Swahili speaker for an English-only graduate school accredited by the same source as nearby Harvard and Yale. However, if given enough time to communicate, most of these students had as much if not more to contribute to any conversation about global politics than U.S. students. As most classes were held in a fast-paced seminar setting, one could only wonder if they felt their statements could impact discussions.

Since 2012, China’s College of Defense Studies (CDS) has awarded war college master’s degrees to international students. CDS is a program within the Peoples Liberation Army National Defense University (PLA NDU) that provides a strategic and operational level defense education to international students. It caters to most officer ranks and just like the U.S. war colleges it is a year-long program that ends with a master’s degree. CDS specifically targets sub-Saharan Africa for potential enrollments, and courses are available in Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. And, just like the international programs at the U.S. war colleges, there are cultural tours and spouses clubs. But not everything is the same.

Unlike the U.S. war colleges, the international students are not well integrated with the greater PLA NDU student body. Alumni of CDS have been critical of the physical location of their school, which is in a completely different part of Beijing from the PLA NDU. This distance made interaction with Chinese counterparts very difficult. Alumni also report that much of the course incorporates China’s official view of the U.S. as a “neo-imperialist,” especially in Africa, and there is very little deviation from this official position in their discussion. The relative strength of U.S. international programs is found in these differences since international students in the U.S. are invited to explore the good and bad of American society. Compared to the U.S. system, China’s methods of physical separation and imposed ideology do not offer value when it comes to attracting favorable foreign sentiment. 

Conclusion

Through enhanced professional military education, the U.S. can empower future African military leaders. Much like China’s College of Defense Studies, this U.S. program must also deliver an official party line and never deviate from that line, but that line must be democratic, open-minded, and inclusive.

To counter China in Africa the world needs resilient and empowered African states, not spheres of influence. Resilience is achieved when the African people believe in their governments, and in turn their governments are fair, accountable, and effective. So when an international student asks at an American War College, “If not China, who?” the answer must always be, “you.”

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Quintero, USN, is a Naval Flight Officer, E-2D Mission Commander, and recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own.

Bibliography

Adams, Gordon, and Shoon Murray, editors. Mission Creep. Georgetown University Press, 2014.

“Africa at a Tipping Point – 2017 Forum Report.” Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Accessed July 15, 2019. http://s.mo.ibrahim.foundation/u/2017/09/14103424/2017-Forum-Report.pdf.

“China in Africa.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed July 15, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-africa.

“College of Defence Studies – Home.” National Defence University PLA China. Accessed July 15, 2019. http://www.cdsndu.org.

“Defense Language Institute English Language Center – Course Catalog.” DLIELC.edu – Home. Accessed July 15, 2019. http://www.dlielc.edu/prod/Catalog.pdf.

Hanauer, Larry, Christopher J. Springer, Chaoling Feng, Michael Joseph McNerney, Stuart E. Johnson, Stéphanie Pézard, and Shira Efron. Evaluating the Impact of the Department of Defense Regional Centers for Security Studies. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2014.

McNerney, Michael J., Stuart E. Johnson, Stéphanie Pézard, David Stebbins, Renanah Miles, Angela O’Mahony, Chaoling Feng, and Tim Oliver. Defense Institution Building in Africa: An Assessment. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2016.

Piombo, Jessica, editor. The US Military in Africa: Enhancing Security and Development?. Boulder: First Forum Press, 2015.

Van Oudenaren, John S., and Benjamin E. Fisher. “Foreign Military Education as PLA Soft Power.” Parameters 46, no. 4 (Winter 2017), 105-118.

“Whole of Government Security Cooperation Planning.” Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies. Accessed October 10, 2018. http://www.discs.dsca.mil/documents/greenbook/19_Chapter.pdf.

Featured Image: A Chinese paratrooper coaches his South African peers to use Chinese rifles during a recent tactical training exercise at a military training base in central China’s Hubei Province. (Photo courtesy chinamil.com.cn)

Localized Sea Denial: Countering Chinese Aggression in the South China Sea

Countering China Topic Week

By LtCol Roy Draa

“Free and open access to the South and East China Seas is critical to both regional security and international commerce…Through its illegitimate efforts to build and militarize islands in the region, the Chinese Communist Party has aggressively attempted to control these critical waterways and undermined international law. This legislation makes clear that any individual or entity supporting these illegal actions will be held accountable.”1

There can be no doubt that the United States lacks an actionable maritime strategy with respect to the South China Sea, nor does the maritime force exist to effectively counter Chinese expansion in this economically and politically critical space. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission made this clear in its recent report to Congress. While the Navy and Marine Corps have nascent  operating concepts in Littoral Operations in a Maritime Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO),  the United States—given the current fiscal environment—is years away from developing a naval force in size and sophistication to directly contest Chinese militarization of the South China Sea through the implementation of said concepts. Moreover, as Rep. Mike Gallagher of the House Armed Services Committee recently explained, “The Marine Corps’ emerging Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept is a good start, but it needs to go further and focus on how to put capabilities in place persistently rather than moving them in place after a crisis begins.”2 In short, the maritime services have much work to do in refining and translating current operating concepts into a “just in time” stop-gap answer to an increasingly volatile security situation. They must do so in an innovative manner that inspires joint and combined action.

South China Sea Problem Response

A potential military solution to the ongoing and growing problem in the South China Sea lies in the middle ground between directly contesting and accommodating China’s illegal actions. This solution would be part of the “collective pressure” strategy recently recommended by Hal Brands and Zack Cooper. The United States, bringing all elements of national power to bear, would persistently reinforce diplomatic and economic relationships with regional partners (i.e. Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.) while focusing theater security cooperation in the region in order to demonstrate its commitment to offsetting malign Chinese influence in the region. Central to this will be a tactical solution that provides a credible deterrent, and is capable of sea denial in the vicinity of key maritime terrain while functioning as a covering force for the deployment of a larger Combined Joint Task Force (JTF).

In the last six months, the United States Marine Corps’ Training and Education Command Warfighting Club (TWC) has considered this challenge in the context of LOCE/EABO and published its preliminary findings in the July 2019 Marine Corps Gazette. Using commercial, off-the-shelf simulations software, TWC was able to confirm the ineffectiveness of current U.S. Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and tables of organization against a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)-led limited objective attack in the South China Sea.

TWC also ran several sea denial simulations with a specifically designed “Inside Force,” building a Multi-Domain Marine Air Ground Task Force (MD-MAGTF) around a reinforced Marine Infantry Battalion forward deployed on key maritime terrain (the Philippine island of Palawan). The simulated MD-MAGTF was supported by land-based anti-ship missiles, armed (kinetic/electronic warfare) unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and unmanned surface vehicles (USV), as well as forward elements of the Pacific Fleet operating over the horizon in the Leyte Gulf. In each simulation, the MD-MAGTF was able to force Chinese naval and aviation forces to culminate both tactically and logistically with limited friendly losses. Through the employment of swarming tactics, the MD-MAGTF (supported by a larger JTF) overcame threat surface/aviation units, exposing their inability to effectively counter a coordinated UAS and anti-ship missile threat. In certain iterations of the simulation, the MD-MAGTF was able to commence limited strikes on militarized islands in anticipation of the entry of a follow-on combined maritime force.

Implementation of this inside covering force requires several critical actions and enablers:

1. United States Marine Corps remissioning/restructuring to address critical gaps in Mission Essential Tasks (METs), anti-aircraft/anti-ship missiles, and armed UAS capabilities. Service-level training exercises (SLTE) could easily incorporate these problem and potential solutions sets in the near future in live, virtual, and constructive maritime environments with requisite input and support of the Navy and Coast Guard.

Remissioning: As a part of the METL review process, Marine Corps planners must take a hard look at the Navy’s Composite Warfare doctrine and how Sea Denial is not addressed as a MET, with supporting Training and Readiness (T&R) tasks across the MAGTF.

Restructuring: The Marine Corps lacks critical capabilities to execute sea denial. In a fiscally constrained environment, these shortfalls can only be addressed through restructuring and a revision of tables of equipment. The focus should be on air defense, UAS, and artillery battalions.

Training and Exercises: At present, SLTEs are focused on land-based, offensive operations. Exercise design must also look at maritime operations in the littorals in partnership with the Navy and Coast Guard. This necessitates a dedicated plan of action for updating range and landing beaches on San Clemente Island, as well as this training area’s incorporation into SLTE design, whether through live or constructive means.

2. Focused INDO-PACOM partnership with the Philippine Armed Forces, specifically Task Forces 41 and 42, the 4th Naval District, and the 10th Marine Brigade Landing Team. The MD-MAGTF cannot effectively train nor operate without partner nation political and military support. With that in mind, INDO-PACOM must move beyond scripted amphibious bilateral exercises centered on Luzon. INDO-PACOM and III MEF planners must work with the Philippine Armed Forces in order to redirect efforts toward bilateral, free-play exercises in Palawan and the Philippines’ western littorals.

3. Over-the-horizon aviation and logistical support for the MD-MAGTF should be provided by an Expeditionary Strike Group (Task Force 76/31st Marine Expeditionary Unit) operating in the Leyte Gulf. This can easily be incorporated into INDO-PACOM’s current list of joint and combined exercises.

4. On call logistical support from an Expeditionary Transfer Dock vessel capable of over the horizon aerial/surface resupply via UAS/USV. The Navy and Marine Corps have conducted extensive experiments using this class of support ships as an adjunct to the ARG. Further experimentation is required to determine how non-L class ships can be added to or replace those capabilities typically found in a standard ESG. These experiments should focus on what personnel and support equipment capabilities are required to support launch and recovery of ordinance and logistics payloads on UAS/USV in support of a MD-MAGTF.

Conclusion

While the task of sea denial is not explicitly addressed as a current United States Marine Corps MET, this concept is not new and would nest well with the Naval Composite Warfare doctrine. It is a dusting off of the Marine Defense Battalion concept of the inter-war years. Despite less than optimal pre-war logistical support, the effectiveness and sacrifice of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion on Wake Island (in gaining time for U.S. offensive operations in the Pacific) and the TWC study of the problem set serve as a framework for the proposed solution. Based off the initial results of TWC simulations, a modern ground-based, multi-domain capable, inside covering force can act as an integral component of a larger JTF and may serve as an effective maritime counter to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

LtCol Draa is a career infantry officer with 19 years of active duty service in the United States Marine Corps. He is currently stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Base with Training and Education Command (TECOM). He is a charter member of the TECOM Warfighting Club, the Commanding General’s working group that explores and evaluates future warfare concepts, applications in maneuver warfare and mission command in improving professional military education. These are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

References

1. https://gallagher.house.gov/media/press-releases/gallagher-panetta-introduce-legislation-counter-chinese-aggression-south-and

2. https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/1/2181/files/2019/06/Gallagher.pdf

Featured Image: Marines with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, ride aboard a Combat Rubber Raiding Craft during an amphibious raid exercise off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, April 17, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonah Baase)

Dealing with the Dragon

The following article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Philip A. Shull

Winston Churchill famously referred to Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Doubtless, many would agree the same could be said of China. During nearly four decades dealing off and on with China, first as a university teacher and then as a diplomat with the Foreign Agricultural Service, I have seen hundreds of officials and exporters from dozens of countries smack their foreheads in surprise and frustration at Chinese behavior—from unjustly rejected shipments and illogical lurches in negotiating positions to blatant disregard of World Trade Organization commitments.

Since the United States and the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations in 1979, the relationship has swung back and forth between one of glowing expressions of optimism about shared interests in a peaceful and prosperous world, and one of tension and mutual mistrust. Always underpinning hopes for a happy future on the U.S. side was the basic assumption that China would join the international community as a “responsible” player, and that the obvious benefits of a “rules-based” system of trade and diplomacy would inevitably lead China in that direction, to the betterment—and enrichment—of all.

Since Beijing’s accession to the WTO in 2001, trade with China has exploded and the country’s potential as a market has become greater than ever. Yet the promise of China operating as a trusted and conventional member of the international community has not been realized and seems further away than ever. Instead, China’s spectacular economic rise has led to outrageous behavior and unfair competitive practices. China’s frequent and flagrant flouting of WTO rules has resulted in many billions of dollars in lost trade and consternation among U.S. and “like-minded” traders, policymakers and negotiators.

So, what’s going on? Why doesn’t China behave like a “normal” country and play by the rules? Why does Beijing act in ways that undermine the confidence of the global community? Why would China take these self-destructive actions now, precisely when its historic achievements have made it the second-largest economy in the world, and when its new prominence on the world stage has rekindled a desire to be seen as a global leader and to reclaim what it sees as its rightful position as “The Middle Kingdom”? Most importantly, how do we encourage China to be a positive force in a world where its impact is so huge?

Rules as Objective Requirements vs. Optional Tools

It will come as no surprise to diplomats and other international practitioners that China’s actions and reactions—which many Americans find shocking—may be traced in large part to fundamentally different expectations and worldviews. When it comes to global economic competition, those differing views include (a) the role and responsibility of government and (b) the role and purpose of rules and regulations.

While the American ideal of the government’s role in trade is to create and police a transparent, predictable egalitarian system in which participants may compete and strive for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Chinese ideal is very different. Most Chinese I know believe the government not only may, but must take a far more active role. Because government has the responsibility to ensure domestic tranquility and provide prosperity, it is only natural for government at all levels to become active and biased participants in promoting trade.

Similarly, while the American view is that rules and regulations should be equally applied and consistently enforced, Chinese government officials are expected to use rules and regulations as simply another set of policy tools to be used or set aside in the pursuit of broader policy objectives that serve the national interest. The U.S. government and U.S. companies are not the only ones that have had secrets stolen or shipments unjustly rejected. Indeed, when it comes to violating international trade norms, China has been a model of nondiscrimination.

The Chinese are genuinely puzzled by our reverence for “principle” and see it as a weakness to be exploited. I have been in many trade negotiations where the Chinese seek to defend an unjustified trade barrier by quoting from the WTO’s declaration that each country has the right to establish its own regulations. Fundamentally, China rejects and is even confused by a trading system based on “rule of law,” and tries to operate instead according to a “rule by law” of its own making.

Understanding China’s Behavior

The root of China’s interventionist and authoritarian role in trade and all other parts of its economy may be found, among other places, in its searing experience with scarcity, especially food scarcity.

As I learned in a Foreign Service Institute area studies class decades ago, no country in the world has known more starvation than China. The impact of recurring famine was so common and so profound that it became embedded in the Chinese language. The Chinese word for “population” is made up of “person” + “mouth,” and a colloquial way of saying hello is, “Have you eaten yet?” (By contrast, in English we talk in terms of “per capita,” which comes from the Greek “per head.” Most Western language greetings inquire about health and family, perhaps because it was disease rather than starvation that was the greatest threat to life.)

One of the worst famines in China’s history took place after the founding of the PRC in 1949. While estimates vary, it is widely agreed that Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in tens of millions of Chinese dying of hunger from 1959 to 1962. Significantly, this occurred during the formative years of most of China’s current top leadership.

Combined with the powerful weight of history and imperial Confucian tradition, these long years of tremendous suffering and turmoil refreshed and entrenched the conviction in the Communist Party that strong, centralized authority is essential to bringing a higher standard of living for the people, and a bright future for China. Yet as confident as the PRC leadership is that its power and position justify its behavior, many Chinese officials also recognize that China’s continued growth and prosperity depend on constructive economic relations with other countries.

The PRC’s lack of respect for the WTO and other international norms is also because China had no part in their creation, and its experience with international treaties has been far from pleasant. After many centuries as the richest and most advanced country in the world, China experienced invasions and “unequal treaties” in the 19th and 20th centuries. Profoundly humiliating, these experiences still help shape how Chinese leaders approach international trade and security questions—including their aggressive steps to assert China’s centuries-old “Nine-Dash-Line” territorial claims in the South China Sea. Of course, to understand unacceptable behavior is not to excuse it.

I agree with many others who believe that the best way to change China’s behavior is to work together with our allies. Beijing’s modus operandi is to divide and conquer. While the United States is strong enough to go “toe-to-toe” with China, many others are not. China respects power. To the extent we can enlist those countries in our efforts, we will all stand that much taller.

The Great Wall Separating Common Ground

The Chinese term mao dun (literally “spear shield”) is used to describe two irreconcilable differences. It comes from a famous folktale about an endless battle between two warriors—one with a spear that could pierce any shield, and the other with a shield that could stop any sword. Here, drawn from my personal experience, is a sampling of common Chinese practices that run counter to our sense of right and proper international behavior.

Inconsistent application of import regulations. A product rejected at one Chinese port may well be accepted at another. I was meeting with an importer when he got a call about an arriving shipment. “Yes … good … What?! NO! The ship must dock at BERTH SIX! That is where things are arranged!” he exclaimed. Vastly different tariffs may be assessed for the same product, as well. In one case I worked on, one company importing a product with a 44 percent tariff paid zero, while another importer paid 100 percent.

Ignoring their own trade bans and their own rhetoric. For many years in the trade, there was a running joke that because Beijing banned a certain U.S. product, China was only our fourth-largest market for it. During a break in one negotiation in which I had been told yet again how U.S. meat was unsafe and posed a grave risk to Chinese, my opposite number came up to me and said, “Minister Counselor Shull, I want to tell you my wife and I are so happy our son will be going to university in the United States!”

Changing requirements in the middle of a negotiation. When Chinese officials were surprised to learn we could comply with a new technical requirement for an agricultural product, they called a break and then announced a stricter one.

Rejecting shipments that are no longer profitable. If the price of an imported product has dropped between the signing of the contract and the delivery, chances rise that Chinese inspectors will find the shipment does not meet contract specifications and reject it.

Ignoring some laws and regulations to achieve a more important objective. During the peak of the “one-child policy” in the late 1980s, I discovered in my crop travels that most farmers were ignoring it. When I asked a Beijing official in charge of rural policy about this, he said: “Local officials must adapt central government policies to local conditions. The one-child policy in the villages might be very unpopular with the peasants.”

Relationships trump laws and rules. One joint venture executive shared two kernels of wisdom: “The signing of the contract marks the beginning of the negotiations,” and “If the relationship is not good, the contract won’t save you.” (These attitudes toward relationships played out even inside the embassy. In the early days of ICASS, the admin section put out a notice that agencies could no longer share office supplies. When one Foreign Service National was challenged for using another section’s copier, she replied, “Oh, it’s okay, because one of your officers is married to one of our officers, so we are related.”)

Mistrust of “The People.” Even otherwise open-minded Chinese I have spoken with say China is “too big” for democracy. When I spoke with demonstrating pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, some told me: “Well, of course, we can’t let everyone vote. Peasants don’t have education and would vote to raise food prices, and that would be destabilizing.”

Mistrust of “The Market.” During the early introduction of market reforms, one local grain official asked me, “How does the U.S. government set the price of bread?” I explained that our government doesn’t do that; the price floats. “If there are 100 people and 50 loaves of bread, there is one price; and if there are 50 people and 100 loaves of bread, there is another price,” I said. He paused for a moment and then asked, “How does the U.S. government set the price of bread?”

Setting impossible standards. One way China has tried to reconcile millennia of absolute government power over commercial operations with an objective and egalitarian rules-based system of trade and laws is to set standards no one can meet, and then give officials the discretion about whether to enforce them. This practice alone has disrupted billions of dollars in U.S. food and agricultural exports.

Competitive Leadership

One of the most eloquent and insightful statements about international leadership I have seen is in President Dwight David Eisenhower’s farewell address. Delivered in 1961, at a time when the United States was the dominant power in the world, he said: “Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

This truth is a basic lesson Chinese leaders have not yet learned. As long as China behaves with such narrow self-interest, it cannot join—much less displace—the United States as a top global leader. China is still trapped in the mindset that “might makes right” and that being the biggest means being the best.

There is a reason why many countries have prominent boulevards and plazas named Roosevelt, Kennedy and Eisenhower. Global leadership is demonstrated and earned by pursuing policies that work toward the common good, and by honoring commitments and following rules even when they disadvantage the country in a particular case. The reservoir of goodwill and trust the United States has built up over the decades endures, despite occasional missteps. When combined with the quality of our products and trustworthiness of our traders, the United States is well placed to retain its role as a global leader and its tremendous competitive advantage in global trade.

To give credit where it is due, hard work, determination and economic reform policies have transformed China, lifting hundreds of millions out of dire poverty and making it a leading world economy. But without a fundamental change in behavior that makes it less of a riddle, mystery and enigma, China will not become a leader of nations.

Philip A. Shull is a retired FSO who served in China (three times), the Philippines, Argentina, Korea and Hong Kong during 31 years with the Foreign Agricultural Service. He is a retiree representative on the 2017-2019 AFSA Governing Board.

Featured Image: istockphoto.com