Tag Archives: China

Aiki in the South China Sea: Fresh Asymmetric Approaches and Sea Lane Vulnerabilities

By Christopher Bassler and Matthew McCarton

The Challenge: Growing Uncertainty and Tensions in the South China Sea

Over the last decade, stability in the South China Sea (SCS) has progressively deteriorated because of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actions. China’s leadership has followed a long-term, multi-pronged strategy. On the military front they have constructed a “Great Wall of Sand”1 through island building, deployed an underwater “Great Wall of Sensors;”2 and completed detailed planning and preparations to establish air defense identification zones3(ADIZ) in the SCS. Despite assurances from the highest levels of the CCP leadership, they have militarized islands in the SCS,4 deployed bombers to the Paracels5 and built up military forces in the region.6 Diplomatically, the CCP has ignored international legal rulings, continued to assert sovereignty over disputed territories,7 and sought to dissuade, protest, and prevent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).8 On the commercial front, the CCP has encouraged its large fishing fleet to overfish within other states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs).9 When confronted, they have often harassed local fisherman and even purposely collided with them, leading to sinking vessels.10

A key feature of the CCP’s approach has been an attempt to calibrate individual disruptive and provocative actions in the SCS (and elsewhere) below the international threshold for armed conflict. As a result, responses from individual states, or coordinated action from nations with common interests, have been limited. The U.S. and other nations have requested clarity from the CCP or simply disregarded China’s unlawful and unfounded maritime claims. The only other notable responses have been the establishment of a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a series of FONOPS, and the use of limited but targeted sanctions.11 A recent indicator of the state of increasing tensions in the region is the establishment of a new “crisis communications” mechanism between the U.S. and China,12 as well as reportedly strict orders from CCP leadership to avoid initiating fire,13 in an attempt to avoid sudden armed escalation in the SCS.

With hindsight, it is unmistakably clear that the CCP’s collective actions have been in support of a long-term strategy. It is equally apparent that traditional instruments of diplomacy and military power have had limited practical effect against incremental sub-threshold actions. Because no nation has a desire for escalation, the CCP’s strategy must be countered with sub-threshold asymmetric actions by the U.S. and allies. These actions must capture the CCP leadership’s attention, help them to understand that their provocations are taken seriously, and that there are corresponding negative consequences.

Aiki is a fundamental principle in Japanese martial arts philosophy that encapsulates the idea of using minimal exertion and control to negate or redirect an adversary’s strength to achieve advantage. The legitimacy of the CCP’s leadership rests on a core foundation of economic strength and growth, as well as prestige. Due to China’s geography, the principal artery of this economic growth is through the maritime approaches of the SCS. The most direct way to affect CCP behavior is to consider how the free flow of goods and energy at sea through the maritime approaches of the SCS may be altered. And by alternating these maritime flows, further impacts and restructuring of trade-flows and global supply chains may also occur.

No Good Options: Considering Maritime Asymmetric Strategies

Since the end of World War II, the overwhelming might of the U.S. Navy has guaranteed freedom of the oceans and ever-increasing maritime commercial activity that has lifted countless people out of poverty around the world. However, there are many indications of the American public’s growing desire for a retreat from the forms of global engagement that have been the norm since the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed 75 years ago on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.14 Over the last two decades, the ship inventory and material readiness of the U.S. Navy have noticeably declined, while the PLAN has emerged as a regional naval power with increasing capabilities. Future American naval recapitalization efforts are likely to face the twin headwinds of a lack of political will and increasing pressure on defense budgets. Efforts to encourage allies to increase defense spending and concentrate on effective capabilities will continue, while suggestions to “lead from behind” will likely increase. 

The core of American naval strategy will continue to be to fight an “away game” when required. The U.S. Navy will still be the world-leading force with its substantial naval power and effectiveness, even if no longer in quantity, and will contribute massively to global security, despite the growing pressures. However, in the next decade, the U.S. is likely to find it increasingly difficult to project power whenever and wherever it wants, as it had grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War.

For these reasons asymmetric strategies must be developed by the U.S. and key allies, both as a hedge against decline and to act as force multipliers. The imperative is not new. When the U.S. Navy’s inventory began to first noticeably decline during the 2000s, the idea of a 1,000-ship navy gained prominence.15 This was more of a conceptual framework and a call for expanding cooperation, than a significant change in activities or force structure. The U.S. Navy has for decades used multinational task group exercises and interoperability training with allied navies to increase capability. Concepts have also been developed to use conventional weapons in asymmetric “hedgehog” strategies, particularly by key allies and partners, but these are mainly meant to be used if, and when, a conflict arises. What is needed is for the U.S. to help its allies and key partners to cooperatively develop comprehensive maritime-based asymmetric sub-threshold strategies to respond to the CCP’s activities and incursions.

Since antiquity, the oceans have been a venue for naval powers, big and small, to clash in pursuit of their respective national interests.16 If American maritime power recedes, local power vacuums will eventually be filled. The chances for naval conflict will increase between regional hegemons, like China, and smaller states, especially those with predominantly coastal navies. For the broader Indo-Pacific region, and especially in the SCS, several key factors further increase the odds of conflict. The number of small surface combatants in the Indo-Pacific has greatly increased (Figure 1) as well as the number of nations acquiring and operating them (Figure 2). This growth in small surface combatants is in direct response to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that gave each nation an incentive to protect its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). All navies have the following basic options at their disposal: fleet engagement, blockade, raids on commerce (guerre de course), and raiding (guerre d’razzia).  

Figure 1. Number of Small Naval Surface Combatants (50-4,000 tons displacement), 1980-2014, by Region, with China featured. (Click to expand)17

Most small navies have neither the means nor the strategic interests to seek out a climactic fleet engagement. Traditional sea control is beyond the means of smaller coastally oriented navies. Instead, they seek to defend the sovereignty of their EEZ and maintain a force that is credible enough to deter aggression by being capable of exacting a heavy price from their adversary, even if they have no chance of defeating a larger foe.18 Sea denial approaches typically focus on the use of shore-based missiles and aircraft, sea mines, torpedoes, submarines, and fast attack surface combatants. Technological advances have allowed for increasingly more capable missiles to be effectively deployed on smaller combatants, as well as from land. But these are less useful against sub-threshold actions. Likewise, blockades are difficult to implement effectively and have a high probability of leading to escalation, especially over time.19  

Effective asymmetric strategies are needed. There are options beyond sea control and sea denial, primarily sea disruption or harassment: raids on commerce (guerre de course) and raiding (guerre d’razzia).20

Figure 2: Small Naval Surface Combatants (50-4,000 tons displacement) of Asia, 1980-2014.(Click to expand)21

Commerce raiding is resource-intensive and typically best employed during a protracted war. Historically, it has been carried out by a near-peer navy, or at minimum, a navy that enjoys a specific technological or geographic advantage. The U-boat enabled Germany to use this approach against Great Britain and the U.S during both World Wars. This was also part of the U.S. Navy’s strategy against Japan from 1942-45. The nascent American Navy in both the American Revolution and War of 1812 was no match for a direct confrontation with the Royal Navy, but successfully conducted limited commerce raiding against Great Britain because of favorable geography and the technical superiority of its frigates over their Royal Navy counterparts. Guerre de course does not seek to achieve a direct naval result, but to diminish the national will of an adversary through protracted economic pain. Ultimately, guerre de course is not a good option for a small coastal navy because the convoy is an effective counter-strategy, as has been demonstrated from antiquity, through the Anglo-Dutch Wars, to the Napoleonic Era and 20th Century wars.

Generalized raiding has a long historical tradition as an asymmetric approach to maritime strategy. This was especially prevalent before the modern era, when weaker central governments did not have the resources to maintain highly trained standing navies. With the advent of strong central governments and professional navies, guerre d’razzia fell out of favor with major powers because it was ultimately counterproductive to their respective hegemony. Since the age of steam and steel, the disparity in capabilities between major navies and all others has grown so large that guerre d’razzia became rare and highly localized. Its use dwindled to specific regions where a major power could use a smaller ally as a skirmisher against a major power adversary.

Coupled with longer-term efforts for economic sanctions, increased patrols, direct support, capacity building and collective statements,22 such a guerre d’razzia strategy could be revived in the SCS. A robust asymmetric strategy of guerre d’razzia could include maritime irregulars, privateers/raiders, and proxy forces employed in hit-and-run raids on commercial ships. Maritime raiding requires speed, deniability, non-uniform assets, and the ability to blend back into the local surroundings. Coastal navies could employ these sub-threshold/gray zone tactics to minimize a regional great power’s conventional military response to their provocations. Of course, there would be a certain irony of nations employing maritime “guerrilla tactics” against the CCP. Guerre d’razzia may be enticing to some states, because the economic dimension of Chinese power remains at the forefront of the CCP leadership’s thinking, especially with the continued slowing of the Chinese economy.

However, this would be antithetical and illiberal to the predominant view of an international rules-based order. By upholding a rules-based order in the SCS, the U.S. has been a key enabler of ensuring the conditions for Chinese economic growth and power, as well as gray zone methods of coercion. Until recently, the U.S. has accepted the role as the world’s security guarantor, especially in critically important maritime zones. As a result, the U.S. and key allies have continued to ensure the free flow of commerce across the entirety of the SCS, while the PRC has simultaneously been free-riding and increasingly provocative. But what else can be done?

The Least Bad Option: Rerouting the Sea Lanes

Some have rationalized their acceptance of the militarization of the islands in the SCS on the basis that it was unlikely to affect commercial shipping directly.23 However, the steady deterioration of the situation in the SCS should encourage skepticism of those assumptions. The CCP’s continued provocative actions in the SCS have negatively affected the long-guaranteed security in the region for all. The dependability and predictability of shipping transits through the SCS sea lanes have become increasingly uncertain.

The U.S. and its regional allies and partners should recognize the reality of this major shift and adapt accordingly to establish a new major maritime trade route. This would re-route the preponderance of maritime traffic not destined for China from the Strait of Malacca through the Java Sea and the Makassar Strait, then the Celebes Sea, and north along the east side of the Philippines (Figure 3), instead of around the Spratly Islands. This approach would only increase shipping times by a few days and ensure maritime trade flows to key allies such as Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. By rerouting shipping around the South China Sea, the volume of maritime traffic that China could threaten or coerce would decrease and correspondingly diminish its leverage.

Figure 3. Shipping Routes Through the South China Sea (CSBA Graphic). Shipping Flows (various cargo types) in the Indo-Pacific (top left ); simplified primary shipping routes used today in the South China Sea (bottom left); proposed alternative primary shipping routes (right).[Click to expand]24
The U.S. should declare that until further notice, it will only ensure the security of shipping trade flows in the southern half of the SCS. Even without immediate crisis or war, the U.S. administration could announce that due to CCP actions, including illegal island building and militarization, the U.S. can no longer guarantee the security of shipping in the specific region of the northern half of SCS (above the Spratly Islands). It should urge China to return to recognizing and adhering to long-standing international norms, or the effect will be a permanent re-routing of key global shipping. The U.S. should be clear that shipping will still be protected for all ASEAN states bordering the SCS (e.g. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and Cambodia), all of which can be accessed via the southern half, and with transits closely following the coastline, particularly in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines. Shipping flows to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan will continue to be protected, and it will continue to be in their mutual interest to support the establishment and patrols of this alternative route that avoids the most contested parts of the SCS. A corresponding presidential direction to INDOPACOM would ensure that FONOPS would still be conducted throughout the entirety of the SCS, but that protection of shipping is no longer “guaranteed” in the northern half.

By focusing on the southern half of the SCS, potential vulnerabilities from China’s militarization of the Spratly Islands would be minimized, while still ensuring critical shipping flows to regional states. This would prioritize the scope of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard activities,25 while still conducting FONOPS in the northern half of the SCS, as desired. The U.S. must emphasize to Indo-Pacific nations that this is not ceding the SCS to become effectively a Chinese “lake,” but instead reassure them that the objective is to re-route global shipping traffic to a more free, open, predictable, and stable alternative.

Understandably, the main consideration for global shipping is security and stability to enable predictable schedules. The U.S. and like-minded countries should encourage this alternative routing, for stability and predictability, and so maritime forces can be better used to collectively ensure shipping in a much safer and less contentious new route. Inevitable outrage or backlash from the CCP will only help to re-enforce the urgent need for implementing this approach.

By shifting the preponderance of maritime traffic out of the northern half of the SCS, especially those sailing to non-Chinese destinations, this would also make the task of target deconfliction easier in the undesirable event of future hostilities. This is especially important within close proximity to the sophisticated surveillance and weapons capabilities China has deployed on many of the artificial islands.26 Vessels remaining in the northern half of the SCS would likely be destined for Chinese ports, or be military vessels, which would enable other strategies, such as sea denial or blockades to be much easier to execute when necessary. Attempts to disrupt or attack vessels following the alternative shipping route outside of the SCS would be more difficult due to its proximity to allied territory where combined sea, air, and land would be available to provide substantial and effective support and safety.

Some piracy already occurs in the SCS.27 However, without the express guarantee of securing the shipping lanes in the northern half of the SCS, a corresponding increase in piracy and raiding-like activity may follow, concentrating to this geography. An uptick in this activity may be a result of the obvious pursuit of plunder, or potentially some states opportunistically enacting a limited guerre d’razzia strategy. Commerce raiding in the northern SCS would be unlikely to affect the Chinese economy directly, given its massive size. However, the unfortunate occurrence of commerce raiding would likely require the PLAN to become encumbered with dealing with local problems, chasing asymmetric ghosts at sea.


If select states were to employ maritime guerilla warfare in a limited and targeted way in the northern half of the SCS, China would have a clear glimpse of the implications of a world without the U.S. Navy and allies and partners guaranteeing the free flow of shipping. This would be a stark reminder of the key differences between a regional great power and the constructive and rules-based role of a global hegemon. This continued activity would further incentivize the restructure of trade flows and global supply chains, particularly away from the instability associated with transiting to Chinese ports, and instead to ASEAN countries. Key Indo-Pacific nations could more effectively employ their fleets of coast guard vessels and small combatants to support limited-range convoy escorts along the new routes, as well as fisheries patrols, enabling them to contribute more to their own security and the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, while avoiding a hyper-localized region of instability.

It is time for the U.S. and key allies to refocus their efforts and enact an effective response in the South China Sea by re-routing the sea lanes for peace, stability, and freedom for all nations of the Indo-Pacific that adhere to international law and rules-based order.

Christopher Bassler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Matthew McCarton is a Senior Strategist at Alion Science and Technology Corporation.


1. https://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2020/08/05/china-builds-surveillance-network-in-international-waters-of-south-china-sea/#7ad20aef74f3

3. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3086679/beijings-plans-south-china-sea-air-defence-identification-zone

4. https://thediplomat.com/2016/12/its-official-xi-jinping-breaks-his-non-militarization-pledge-in-the-spratlys/; and https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-completes-runway-on-artificial-island-in-south-china-sea-1443184818

5. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/south-china-sea-as-china-deploys-bomber-vietnam-briefs-india-about-deteriorating-situation/articleshow/77682032.cms

6. https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2020-07-20/china-us-escalate-forces-threats-in-south-china-sea

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html

8. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/world/asia/missiles-south-china-sea.html/

9. https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/china-illegal-fishing-fleet/; and https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3097929/chinese-fishing-boats-near-galapagos-have-cut-satellite

10. https://csis-ilab.github.io/cpower-viz/csis-china-sea/; and https://maritime-executive.com/article/report-chinese-vessel-rams-vietnamese-fishing-boat-in-s-china-sea

11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/27/south-china-sea-us-unveils-first-sanctions-linked-to-militarisation

12. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1321525/South-China-Sea-US-china-Beijing-maritime-conflict-Mark-Esper-Defense-Minister-Wei-Fenghe

13. https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/chinese-military-told-to-prevent-escalation-in-interactions-with-us/

14. Zeihan, Peter, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, Harper Business, 2020.

15. McGrath, Bryan G. “1,000-Ship Navy and Maritime Strategy,” Proceedings, January 2007.

16. Rodgers, William L., Admiral (USN), Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) Naval Institute Press, 1937; Rodgers, William L., Vice Admiral, USN (Ret.), Naval Warfare Under Oars; 4th to 16th Centuries, Naval Institute Press, 1940.

17. McCarton, Matthew, A Brief History of Small Combatants- Their Evolution and Divergence in the Modern Era, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) – Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) report, September 2014.

18. Borresen, Jacob, “The Seapower of the Coastal State,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 17, 1994 -Issue 1: SEAPOWER: Theory and Practice

19. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-massive-naval-blockade-could-bring-china-its-knees-war-50957?page=0%2C1

20. Armstrong, B.J. Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.

21. McCarton, Matthew, A Brief History of Small Combatants- Their Evolution and Divergence in the Modern Era, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) – Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) report, September 2014.

22. https://warontherocks.com/2020/07/what-options-are-on-the-table-in-the-south-china-sea/

23. https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/4-reasons-why-china-is-no-threat-to-south-china-sea-commerce/

24. Top left in Babbage, Ross (ed.), “Which Way the Dragon? Sharpening Allied Perceptions of China’s Strategic Trajectory” CSBA Report, 2020; with data from Kiln and University College London, “Visualization of Global Cargo Ships,” (available at: https://www.shipmap.org/). The passage frequency and routing of different types of ships is indicated by the colored lines. Yellow = container ships, Mid-blue = dry bulk carriers, Red = tankers, Light blue= bulk gas carriers, Pink = vehicle carriers

25. https://news.usni.org/2019/08/27/pacific-deputy-coast-guard-a-continuing-force-multiplier-with-navy-in-global-missions

26. https://www.andrewerickson.com/2020/08/south-china-sea-military-capabilities-series-unique-penetrating-insights-from-capt-j-michael-dahm-usn-ret-former-assistant-u-s-naval-attache-in-beijing/

27. http://cimsec.org/marines-and-mercenaries-beware-the-irregular-threat-in-the-littoral/45409

Featured Image: China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017, less than a week after a high-profile visit by president Xi Jinping. (Photo via AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Competing with China for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

This article originally featured in the September-October 2019 edition of Military Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Gen. Robert B. Brown, U.S. Army, Lt. Col. R. Blake Lackey, U.S. Army, and Maj. Brian G. Forester, U.S. Army

As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.

Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy

We are at a strategic inflection point. A hypercompetitive global environment coupled with accelerating technological, economic, and social change has resulted in an incredibly challenging and complex twenty-first-century operating environment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Indo-Pacific as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), seeks to undermine the rules-based international order that has benefitted all nations for over seventy years. The PRC’s intentions are clear: to shape a strategic environment favorable to its own national interests at the expense of other nations. Recognizing the growing global challenges emanating from the region, our national leaders have offered a contrasting vision: a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”1 Since the end of World War II, the substance of that vision has benefitted all nations and none more than China. As an integral part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s joint and combined approach to realize that vision and maintain the advantage against the PRC, Army forces are actively competing for influence in the region. Maintaining an Indo-Pacific that is free and open will require us to continue competing with Beijing by forward posturing combat-credible forces, strengthening our regional alliances and partnerships, and tightly integrating with the combined joint force to succeed in multi-domain operations.

A Revanchist China

The CCP’s unabashed vision for the future is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”2 Beyond just words, this blueprint has manifested itself in actions such as China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, wherein the CCP promises loans for infrastructure development across the Asia-Pacific region and, increasingly, the globe. In 2018, China expanded One Belt, One Road to include arctic regions as the “Polar Silk Road” and emphasized its growing status as a “Near-Arctic State.”3 Exploiting the resources of other nations for China’s benefit, One Belt, One Road development agreements often come with harmful, mercantilist terms that result in host-nation corruption, crippling debt, and Chinese takeover of critical infrastructure. For example, Chinese loans to Sri Lanka for a port project in Hambantota ultimately resulted in political turmoil and debt default. In 2015, Sri Lanka was forced to hand the port over to China along with fifteen thousand acres of coastline.4 This and other examples represent the type of “debt-trap diplomacy” that typifies the predatory economic practices under China’s One Belt, One Road.5

Beyond simple regional influence, the CCP has a long-term vision for global preeminence.6 President Xi Jinping has offered a plan to guide China through domestic transformation and realize the “Chinese dream.”7 This plan includes “two 100s,” a symbolic representation of the CCP’s and the PRC’s one hundred-year anniversaries (2021 and 2049, respectively). By 2021, the CCP aims to achieve status as a “moderately prosperous society,” doubling its 2010 per capita gross domestic product and raising the standard of living for all Chinese citizens.8 By the PRC’s one hundredth anniversary in 2049, the CCP envisions the nation as “fully developed, rich and powerful,” with an economy three times the size of the United States backed up by the world’s premier military power.9 Collectively, the “two 100s”—with 2035 as an interim benchmark year—outline China’s self-described path to revitalization as a superpower. This future vision is evident in the rhetoric and views of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leaders. Command level engagements with PLA officers indicate that they no longer fear the United States. Twenty, or even ten, years ago, it was evident that the PLA viewed the United States with a healthy dose of both respect and fear. That view has noticeably changed in recent years. While the PLA still respects our military capability, it no longer fears us, which is reflective of its confidence in its growing relative military power.

China has been utilizing the current peaceful interlude in international relations to aggressively modernize its military force. From 2000 to 2016, the CCP increased the PLA’s budget by 10 percent annually.10 And while the CCP has voiced its intentions to achieve a fully modernized force by 2035, its actions indicate a far earlier target.11 Capitalizing on the research-and-development efforts of other nations, frequently through underhanded means, the PLA is rapidly expanding its arsenal, focusing less on conventional forces and more on nuclear, space, cyberspace, and long-range fires capabilities that enable layered standoff and global reach. The PLA’s updated doctrinal approach to warfighting envisages war as a confrontation between opposing systems waged under high-technology conditions—what the PLA refers to as informatized warfare.12 In short, this is using information to PLA advantage in joint military operations across the domains of land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. Additionally, recognizing the need to carry out joint operations in a high-tech operating environment, the PLA is in the process of reforming its command-and-control structure to resemble our own theater and joint construct.13 In sum, the CCP characterizes the PLA’s military modernization and recent reforms as essential to achieving great power status and, ultimately, realizing the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”14

Our Competing Vision

It is against this backdrop that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is implementing a strategy toward our national vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”15 As stated by Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command:

We mean ‘free’ both in terms of security—being free from coercion by other nations—and in terms of values and political systems … Free societies adhere to the shared values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respecting individual liberties.16

By “open,” we mean that “all nations should enjoy unfettered access to the seas and airways upon which our nations and economies depend.” This includes “open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, protection of intellectual property rights, fair and reciprocal trade—all of which are essential for people, goods, and capital to move across borders for the shared benefit of all.”17The substance of this vision is not new; “free and open” have buttressed our regional approach for over seventy years. As an enduring Pacific power, we aim to preserve and protect the rules-based international order that benefits all nations, and it is this objective that underpins our long-term strategy for Indo-Pacific competition.18

Despite our conflicting visions, we must not overlook areas of common interest with China. As noted by then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan at the recent IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, “We cooperate with China where we have an alignment of interests.”19 We have strands of commonality—especially in the military realm—notably related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. U.S. Army Pacific annually participates in the largest exercise with the PLA that focuses on disaster response. We can and should find common ground to build trust and stability between our two nations. But, as Shanahan went on to say, “We compete with China where we must,” and though “competition does not mean conflict,” our overarching goal is to deter revisionist behavior that erodes a free and open Indo-Pacific and, ultimately, win before fighting.20 Land forces play a key role in competing to deter the PRC. Deterrence is the product of capability, resolve, and signaling, and there is no greater signal of resolve than boots on the ground. Forward-postured Army forces, alongside a constellation of like-minded allies and partners, provide a competitive advantage and a strong signal of strength to potential adversaries. Should deterrence fail, forward-postured land forces support a rapid transition to conflict, providing the Indo-Pacific commander additional options in support of the combined joint fight. In an environment where anti-access aerial denial systems provide layered standoff, forward-postured land forces can enable operations in the maritime and air domains if competition escalates to crisis or conflict, which we have demonstrated in tabletop exercises, simulations, and operational deployments.

A Naval Strike Missile fires from an Army Palletized Load System truck 12 July 2018 before hitting a decommissioned ship at sea during the world’s largest international maritime exercise, Rim of the Pacific, at the Pacific Missile Range near Kekaha, Hawaii. This was the first land-based launch of the missile. (Photo by David Hogan, U. S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center Weapons Development and Integration Directorate)

Competition with the PRC is happening now, and the twenty-five thousand islands in the Indo-Pacific will be a key factor in any crisis scenario we may encounter. U.S. Army Pacific delivers several advantages to the combined joint force as America’s Theater Army in the Indo-Pacific. This summer, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command completed the first ever certification of U.S. Army Pacific as a four-star combined joint task force (CJTF). This historic certification not only signifies the integral role of land forces in the Indo-Pacific, but it also provides the combatant commander the option of a land-based CJTF. Additionally, Army forces contribute to an agile and responsive force posture that ultimately strengthens the joint force’s capacity for deterrence.

Now in its seventh year, the Pacific Pathways Program is evolving to meet the demands of increased competition. Under Pathways 2.0, U.S. Army Pacific forces are now west of the international dateline ten months of the year, and the Pathways Task Force, which is growing from under 1,000 to approximately 2,500 troops, will remain static in key partner nations—especially in the first island chain—for longer periods.21 Doing so benefits the partner forces by increasing the depth of training and relationships, enhances the combat readiness of the deployed task force, and allows the dynamic force employment of smaller units to outlying countries. For example, in May of this year, we operationally deployed a rifle company from the Pathways Task Force based in the Philippines to Palau for combined training with the local security forces—the first time in thirty-seven years Army forces have been in Palau. Pathways 2.0 and other Army force-posture initiatives are expanding the competitive space, providing opportunities to compete with the PRC for influence in previously uncontested regions of the Indo-Pacific.

Operating among the people, our land forces are especially suited to strengthening the alliances and partnerships in a complex region containing over half of the world’s population. Everything we do in the region militarily is combined; we will never be without our allies, partners, and friends. Relationships must be built before—not during—a crisis. We strive every day to form our team in the Indo-Pacific so that when a crisis occurs, we are ready. During U.S. Army Pacific’s recent certification as a CJTF, key allies and partners provided critical capabilities that made the entire team better. The exercise exemplified the importance of forming the team prior to crisis, strengthening our capacity for deterrence to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Because fear and coercion are central to the PRC’s regional approach, mutually beneficial and purposeful engagements build trust among our partners and enable us to cooperatively counter China’s intimidation. During this fiscal year alone, U.S. Army Pacific conducted over two hundred senior leader engagements, seventy subject-matter expert exchanges, and over thirty bilateral and multilateral training exercises involving thousands of soldiers. These partner engagements reinforce the message that nothing we do in the theater will be by ourselves; it is only by working together that we can achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Army forces also strengthen regional partnerships by enhancing interoperability among militaries. We often focus interoperability discussions on technical systems (communications, fires, logistics, etc.). The hard reality is that our systems will always have challenges with communication, and though we should not stop pursuing perfection, we must not forget the other dimensions of interoperability: procedures and relationships. Procedural interoperability involves agreed upon terminology, tactics, techniques, and procedures that minimize doctrinal differences. While we will always remain frustrated by—and often focused on—systems interoperability, procedural interoperability should not be overlooked as a way to enhance our cooperative effectiveness. The most important dimension of interoperability is personal relationships. Strong relationships among partners can overcome the friction inherent in today’s complex operating environment, especially at the outset of crisis, and they are a critical component of long-term strategic competition with China.

Finally, our strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific embraces the reality that current and future operations will be multi-domain. In competition and conflict, all domains—land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace—will be contested. The combined joint force will have to seize temporary windows of opportunity to gain positions of relative advantage. Considering the geographic complexity of the Indo-Pacific across twenty-five thousand islands, land forces will play a pivotal role in supporting operations in other domains whether during competition, crisis, or conflict. Exercises and simulations have demonstrated the value of land-based systems—integrated with cyber and space capabilities—in enabling air and maritime maneuver. For over two years, U.S. Army Pacific has been leading the Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) Pilot Program; through exercises and experimentation in the Indo-Pacific, we are driving the development of multi-domain operations (MDO) doctrine and force structure. Earlier this year, we activated the first Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare, and Space (I2CEWS) Detachment, which serves as the core of the MDTF’s forward-deployed capability to strengthen our capacity for deterrence.

Soldiers from Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command and the U.S. Army Pacific carry an injured man 18 November 2016 as they conduct a search-and-rescue operation at a simulated earthquake-collapsed building during the U.S.-China Disaster Management Exchange drill at a PLA training base in Kunming in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province. (Photo by Andy Wong, Associated Press)

Succeeding in multi-domain competition with China will require an unprecedented level of U.S. joint force integration. In the past, we have waited for conflict to begin for jointness to take hold, but we cannot afford to do so now. And while we are well practiced at joint interdependence in conflict—notable examples include Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom—MDO will require the “rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare to deter and prevail as we compete short of armed conflict.”22 Accomplishing this level of joint integration will require us to break down existing service stovepipes, overcome our tendency to seek service-centric solutions, and integrate doctrine, training, and modernization efforts to mature MDO into a joint warfighting approach. The Indo-Pacific is truly a combined and joint theater, and we must seek combined and joint solutions to the problem of competition with China.

Our Advantage

We should be clear-eyed about the PRC’s demonstrated intentions to undermine the rules-based international order and shape a strategic environment favorable to its interests at the expense of other nations. No one seeks conflict, but as George Washington once said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”23 U.S. Army Pacific, as part of a lethal combined joint team, contributes to deterrence through the forward posture of combat-credible forces, the strengthening of our regional alliances and partnerships, and a joint approach to MDO. We will cooperate with China where we can but will also compete where we must to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific and preserve the rules-based order that has been at the heart of the region’s stability and prosperity for over seventy years.

Strategic competition with China is a long-term challenge, exacerbated by the accelerating complexity of the global security environment. Within this challenge, though, is the opportunity to leverage our greatest long-term advantages: our partnerships and our people. Everything we do in the Indo-Pacific is in partnership with other nations. We must maintain strong alliances and partnerships, leveraging our combined forces to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. And as Gen. George Patton said, “The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers.”24 Though our combined joint force is the envy of the world, we have “no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.”25 We must actively invest in the development of our people now in order to retain the advantage in MDO. Leaders who can thrive—as opposed to just survive—in ambiguity and chaos are essential if we are to maintain a combat-credible force that can succeed in a complex, multi-domain operating environment. We are confident in our greatest assets—our people, in cooperation with our great allies and partners. Investing in our advantage today will ensure we can compete, deter, and, if necessary, win as part of a lethal combined joint team.

Gen. Robert B. Brown, U.S. Army, is the commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC). He has served over fourteen years with units focused on the Indo-Pacific region, including as commanding general, I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McCord; deputy commanding general, 25th Infantry Division; director of training and exercises, United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) J7 (now J37); executive assistant to the commander, USINDOPACOM; plans officer, USARPAC; and commander, 1st Brigade Combat Team (Stryker), 25th Infantry Division. Assignments in the generating force include commanding general, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, and commanding general, Maneuver Center of Excellence.

Lt. Col. R. Blake Lackey, U.S. Army, is executive officer to the commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific. He has served in Stryker and light infantry formations in the Indo-Pacific, most recently commanding 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Maj. Brian G. Forester, U.S. Army, is speechwriter to the commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific. He most recently served as the operations officer for 1st Brigade Combat Team (Stryker), 25th Infantry Division at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.


  1. Alex N. Wong, “Briefing on the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” U.S. Department of State, 2 April 2018, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.state.gov/briefing-on-the-indo-pacific-strategy/.
  2. Rush Doshi, “Xi Jinping Just Made It Clear Where China’s Foreign Policy is Headed,” Washington Post (website), 25 October 2017, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/25/xi-jinping-just-made-it-clear-where-chinas-foreign-policy-is-headed/.
  3. Jack Durkee, “China: The New ‘Near-Arctic’ State,” Wilson Center, 6 February 2018, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/china-the-new-near-arctic-state.
  4. Maria Abi-Habib, “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough up a Port,” New York Times (website), 25 June 2018, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-sri-lanka-port.html.
  5. “The Perils of China’s ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy,’” The Economist (website), 6 September 2018, accessed 5 July 2019,https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/09/06/the-perils-of-chinas-debt-trap-diplomacy.
  6. Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 28.
  7. Robert Kuhn, “Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream,” New York Times (website), 4 June 2013, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/opinion/global/xi-jinpings-chinese-dream.html.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon, 28.
  10. Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence Agency, 3 January 2019), 20, accessed 5 July 2019, http://www.dia.mil/Military-Power-Publications.
  11. Ibid., 6.
  12. Ibid., 24.
  13. Ibid., 25.
  14. Ibid., V.
  15. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, December, 2017), 46, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.
  16. Philip Davidson, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (speech, Halifax International Security Forum, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 17 November 2018), accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.pacom.mil/Media/Speeches-Testimony/Article/1693325/halifax-international-security-forum-2018-introduction-to-indo-pacific-security/.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Patrick M. Shanahan, preface to Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 1 June 2019), accessed 5 July 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.
  19. Patrick M. Shanahan, “Acting Secretary Shanahan’s Remarks at the IISS [International Institute for Strategic Studies] Shangri-La Dialogue 2019” (speech, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, 1 June 2019), accessed 5 July 2019, https://dod.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1871584/acting-secretary-shanahans-remarks-at-the-iiss-shangri-la-dialogue-2019/.
  20. Ibid.
  21. The “first island chain” is a term used to describe the chain of archipelagos that run closest to the East Asian coast.
  22. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 (Fort Eustis, VA: TRADOC, 6 December 2018), accessed 5 July 2019, https://adminpubs.tradoc.army.mil/pamphlets/TP525-3-1.pdf.
  23. George Washington, “First Annual Address to Both Houses of Congress” (speech, New York, 8 January 1790), transcript available at “January 8, 1790: First Annual Message to Congress,” University of Virginia Miller Center, accessed 5 July 2019, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-8-1790-first-annual-message-congress.
  24. George S. Patton Jr., “Reflections and Suggestions, Or, In a Lighter Vein, Helpful Hints to Hopeful Heroes” (15 January 1946), quoted in “Past Times,” Infantry 78, no. 6 (November-December 1988): 29.
  25. Summary of the National Defense Strategy, 1.

Featured Image: Chinese troops on parade 13 September 2018 during the Vostok 2018 military exercise on Tsugol training ground in Eastern Siberia, Russia. The exercise involved Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian service members. Chinese participation included three thousand troops, nine hundred tanks and military vehicles, and thirty aircraft. (Photo by Sergei Grits, Associated Press)

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. 


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.


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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)