It’s been a busy week for the South China Sea. For those of you keeping score at home, these are some of the news stories we’ve been following:
1. Post-ASEAN fall-out: After ASEAN failed last week to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, Cambodia is looking to some in the region like a Chinese proxy playing the role of spoiler. Indonesia managed to salvage a version of the “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a 6-point declaration to essentially work peacefully to implement existing maritime law and guidelines and avoid military confrontations: making progress by reaffirming the status quo.
2. Beijing announces troop build-up in Paracels: On Monday, China said it would send troops to guard its newly incorporated city of Sansha. The most likely location is the largest island, Woody Island/Yongxing. Fun fact – according to Chinese reports the city, home to 1,000 across various islands, already has a karaoke parlor up and running. Preparations for hosting the troops may take longer – the announcement and move is more symbolic than practical at this time.
3. The Philippines and Vietnam Protest China’s moves: Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the new garrison, while President Benigno Aquino took to the airwaves and decried Chinese provocations in an address to the nation. Meanwhile, Hanoi filed an official diplomatic complaint about the build-up in the Paracels, which it too claims. Both the Philippines and Vietnam however reiterated their desire for a diplomatic solution and stated they would not seek military confrontation.
4. The International Crisis Group releases report on the SCS: Said the report: “The failure to reduce the risks of conflict, combined with the internal economic and political factors that are pushing claimants toward more assertive behaviour, shows that trends in the South China Sea are moving in the wrong direction.” Interestingly, the report also believes the Philippines made the wrong move in the recent Scarborough Shoal stand-off with China by sending in a naval vessel, thereby giving the Chinese an excuse to escalate, to play up nationalism to their domestic audience. The report also states the U.S. might not be obligated to assist the Philippines in the event of an attack in the South China Sea under the terms of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, as the U.S. has yet to make a formal statement whether the Spratleys and other disputed maritime areas are covered under the treaty’s terms.
5. Taiwan to ship armament to the Spratleys: Taiwan has confirmed it will send a mix of mortars and artillery to Taiping, the largest of islands and host to a 130-strong Taiwanese force, in August. Fun fact – the total land mass of the 100 Spratley “islands” is less than 2 square miles.
No one of these stories points to a looming conflict, but taken together they provide context for what has been the increasing trend of looking towards military power for lack of a diplomatic progress.
This is what I get for going on vacation. As always seems to befall the hosts of The Daily Show and Colbert Report, my absence appeared to correspond with a wealth of new material and events. Luckily my friends and colleagues in our blog roll on the right did a pretty decent job of covering most of the angles.
The shooting was certainly unfortunate, and was undoubtedly an action not taken lightly. But a student of history, thethreat level in the region, and common sense cannot find fault with the actions of the crew in the circumstances. Driving at a naval vessel in close quarters and ignoring its warnings is akin to pointing something that looks like a weapon at a police officer and ignoring his warnings to put it down. As a former anti-terrorism officer I can attest that these types of scenarios were the last thing we wanted to encounter, but the rules were clear and the training thorough. While the outcome in this case is tragic, it is also understandable.
Trouble at Sea
Other tragedies struck the maritime community. In the mid-Atlantic, a fire broke out aboard the MSC Flaminia that set off an explosion killing two crew members and injuring more. In an echo of a ferry disaster in September that claimed 200 lives,another ferry sank en route to the Zanzibar archipelago off Tanzania’s coast. The latest count is at least 31 dead.
The Great Wall at Sea
There has been some positive maritime news. A Taiwanese vessel and its international crew (including 13 PRC nationals) have been “freed” (it’s unclear if any ransom was paid) and the crew taken to Tanzania by a Chinese naval vessel on a counter-piracy patrol. The fishing vessel, Shiuh Fu No. 1, has reportedly run aground.
A less fortunate Chinese frigate ran aground on Half Moon Shoal in the Philippine’s EEZ (not to be confused with its territorial waters, which would be a much bigger story) before refloating Sunday.
Speaking of China, the mainland managed to check off another country on its “maritime disputes with neighbors” punch card. Following similar disputes this year with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and even North Korea, China is embroiled in fishing-fueled spat with Russia after 2 of its fishing vessels and 36 crewmembers were detained by Russia’s coast guard. One of the ships was taken in dramatic fashion, as the vessel was fired on and rammed by the Russians after its crewmembers resisted arrest for fishing in Russia’s EEZ. Whether China applies the same intense diplomatic pressure it did following Japan’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Philippine’s government is apparently confused whether a flotilla of another 30 Chinese fishing boats under government escort is in fact in its territory, or not.
Is China today in the same strategic position as pre-First World War Germany? If China’s current economic rise and expanding naval power makes it the modern counterpart to Wilhelmine Germany, does the U.S. face a similar set of strategic choices as turn-of-the-century Great Britain? The British response to Germany’s new fleet was to redouble its efforts to build a more powerful Royal Navy, and critics who believe that the current size of the U.S. Navy is too small contend that the U.S. needs to respond in a similarly aggressive manner. For two recent examples of this line of thinking see hereand here, and a counter-argument that contends a naval arms race with China is just not worth it here. Hereis another piece arguing that the true historical counterpart to China was the US. Does this analogy provide useful insights into what should drive current U.S. maritime strategy or acquisition efforts?
A century ago the globally deployed British fleet ensured security of the seas, but its prominence was increasingly challenged by the expanding naval power of many states worldwide, particularly Germany, as well as fiscal constraints at home. The famous “People’s Budget” of 1909 proposed by the Liberal government attempted to juggle guns and butter, raising taxes in order to balance “an enormous deficit” and the need “to create new revenue for the Army, the Navy, and Old Age Pensions.” 
Concerned by the danger posed by Germany’s new naval power, Britain’s leaders implemented an aggressive naval modernization program, ultimately resulting in ships like the Dreadnought-class battleship and its successors, which were bigger, faster, and better-armed than anything else afloat. However, restricted by the amount of money available to construct newer and more capable ships, this procurement of better ships was also accompanied by a withdrawal by the Royal Navy from much of the globe, as well as a significant drawdown in the size of the fleet itself. The new-look Royal Navy would prioritize manning the most modern large ships, which would be stationed in home waters, ready to face the threat posed by the German Navy in the North Sea. Victory against or neutralization of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) became the aim of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, noted that “if we win the big battle in the decisive theatre we can put everything straight afterward.”
Sir John Fisher (commonly referred to as “Jackie”) removed 154 ships (primarily small cruisers and gunboats) from the “effective list” after becoming First Sea Lord (the senior Royal navy officer) in 1904, as well as eliminating or combining several of the overseas “stations” into a fewer number of fleets. He also changed the orientation of the forces afloat, with the newest and most capable platforms primarily deployed to the new commands in the Channel and Atlantic. This reduction and reorientation in deployed afloat forces was enabled by a significant geopolitical shift. Rather than being the sole guarantor of global maritime security, Britain essentially outsourced those obligations through agreements with states such as Japan (with which a naval alliance allowed British withdrawal from the Far East), France (the Entente shifting responsibility for the Mediterranean largely to the French Navy), and a realization that combating the growing U.S. Navy in the Western Hemisphere was both impossible and undesirable. This approach towards outsourcing maritime security to other allied or aligned powers was could be considered similar to that of a “thousand-ship Navy” in its recognition of the limitations that a single state has in imposing its naval power everywhere at all times.
What lessons can the U.S. today learn from how the Royal Navy was reshaped a century ago? Britain’s strategic calculus was much simpler vis-à-vis Germany than the US and its current relationship with China. The only reason for the German naval program was to fight or deter the Royal Navy, and in such a conflict it “would need a fleet able to overpower the biggest contingent the Royal Navy was likely to station in home waters.” The German fleet Admiral Tirpitz built was designed to engage in a symmetrical conflict with its British counterpart. In contrast, China’s naval expansion is quite different. Instead of building carrier battle groups, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is emphasizing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to keep other powers out of adjacent waters like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Chinese naval strategy seems to revolve around A2/AD as a means to keep the US away, as “their goal is to deter US forces from intervening in regional disputes.” The choice faced by Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill as to how to respond to the Germans was simple, assemble a battle force that could win in the North Sea.
The choices faced by the U.S. due to its current security challenges are not as clear cut. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which implemented the “Pacific Pivot” indicated that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The focus of the U.S. military cannot just switch entirely to China, however, as the Middle East remains a critical theater. The same document notes that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”
Faced with an uncertain world, the2007 Maritime Strategy similarly (and understandably) hedges when discussing what types of missions that the Navy should be able to accomplish. Its six “Core Capabilities” reflect both high-end war at sea (Forward Presence, Deterrence, Sea Control, Power Projection) as well as more prosaic tasks (Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response). In a world in which war at sea with a near-peer competitor is not necessarily likely, but in which non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates, and illicit smugglers either exploit or are the main threat to freedom of the seas, the notion of ignoring these missions in order to maintain an overwhelming battle force may not be as wise in a constrained fiscal environment as the presence provided through “Influence Squadrons.” Those advocating for a more maritime security-oriented force are calling for the opposite of Fisher’s reforms, instead bringing back the gunboats and coastal security force at the expense of the battle fleet.
One clear lesson from the Anglo-German naval arms race is that the answer is not to just buy more ships. The Royal Navy certainly engaged in a naval modernization program and expansion of the battle force, but complemented that effort with a shift in strategy, focusing the combat mission of the fleet on a single task, and eliminating the Royal Navy’s global responsibilities. U.S. responses to the challenge of a rising China should be echoed by similar adjustments in strategy and force employment that address current (and likely future) maritime security needs rather than having an arbitrary number of surface platforms. Jackie Fisher slashed the quantity of ships in the Royal Navy because they did nothing towards accomplishing the mission, the priority for the US now should be to set its maritime priorities, and then ensure that the force structure can accomplish those missions.
1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1935), 19.
2. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Amherst: Humanity Books, 2006), 214-226.
3. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 48.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
As part of the American shift in strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is touring the region, and has made important stops, among others, in India and the Shangri-La Forum in Singapore. Before departing on his journey, he addressed the 2012 graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy. In his speech he told the Midshipmen:
America’s future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia.”
That prosperity and security rest on the Pacific living up to its name is true not only for the U.S. but also for China. Many believe this simple fact will be enough to prevent conflict. Among others, in his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman’s “Dell Theory” argues that no two countries both part of a major global supply chain like Dell’s will ever fight a war against each other, as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.
However, hope that a rational fear of Mutual Economic Obliteration – Worldwide, or MEOW, is not enough. It does not absolve us of our duty to find other means of prevention. Rational calculations may factor little in the run-up to a conflict, at least those calculations about the good of the state rather than the good of the party or individual. This is especially true in China, where the military’s allegiance lies with the party and not the nation. As I mentioned in my first post, additional means of prevention fall generally into one of two distinct, but related categories: actions to sow respect, and those taken to create familiarity.
Reap What You Sow
In his speech at the Naval Academy, Secretary Panetta also outlined both of these approaches, calling on the Midshipmen to:
…strengthen defense ties with China. China’s military is growing and modernizing. We must be vigilant. We must be strong. We must be prepared to confront any challenge. But the key to peace in that region is to develop a new era of defense cooperation between our countries – one in which our militaries share security burdens to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.”
When Secretary Panetta says, “We must be vigilant. We must be strong,” he’s talking about those actions that sow respect. Maintaining a strong naval presence (60% of U.S. Navy surface ships by 2020), strong naval capabilities, and a dedication to naval professionalism. The seminal 2007 work, A Cooperative Strategy for 21stCentury Seapower(CS21), (which the CNO recently announced will soon undergo a revision process) discusses deterrence in similar terms, talking of combat power to “deter and dissuade potential adversaries and peer competitors.” Some of this reasoning relies on a rational actor China that might not always hold true. However, even when the prospect of delayed pain, such as a later economic calamity, does not induce one to seek peaceful solutions, one might be so induced by the prospect of a more immediate pain in the form of destruction at sea. Regional partnerships and alliances, with clear responsibilities and demonstrated support bolster respect for America’s potential military response. Credible combat power, on the scene or close at hand, can therefore help deter instances of spontaneous tactical aggression and calculated strategic aggression.
Yet, pursued by itself, such an approach could have negative side-effects. To forestall unilateral military action by the U.S.’ own emboldened partners, they must know that the U.S. will not back them, right or wrong, but only when they are in the right. More importantly, an array of regional allies and combat power lurking nearby can be viewed as a threatening encirclement, or as China now claims, a new attempt at “containment.” It is thus important to pair the attempts at sowing respect with a simultaneous drive to enhance familiarity.
Habits of Cooperation
The second aspect of Secretary Panetta’s address, aimed at enhancing familiarity, called for strengthening defense ties and security cooperation with China. A frequent refrain from some schools of foreign policy experts has been that bringing China into international institutions will help “bind” it to international norms, by giving it incentives to play “by the rules” and a chance to shape those rules. This has largely worked in the trade realm with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2000, although with the hiccups expected from initiating such a large new player.
In the security and defense fields, little progress has been made in bringing China into an active partnership beyond the standard “comprehensive” international treaties on arms and POW regulations. The PLAN’s counter-piracy task forces have offered one of the few chances to work together, if only from a distance.
This lack of progress is for a variety of reasons. The U.S. Congress restricted the extent to which the U.S. military can build its formal ties with China’s, mainly limiting agreements and operations to Search and Rescue (SAR) and Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response efforts. For China’s part, its leadership has a tendency to hold every exercise and bilateral meeting hostage to the ongoing political issues of arms sales to Taiwan and American meetings with the Dalai Lama. Additionally, those exercises and exchanges that do go forward are often viewed primarily as overt intelligence collection opportunities for the Chinese.
For prevention to truly work, the U.S. needs more normalized, integrated defense ties with the Chinese. While I am not the first to call for it, building “habits of cooperation,” is absolutely vital to diffusing those instances when misunderstanding and accidents lead to a stand-off with few face-saving options. In the Cold War the U.S. had red phones with the Russians and generally understood rules for behaving at sea. Today, the U.S. can do much more with the Chinese, who are not looking to export a world ideology. The U.S. and China have many mutual interests that extend beyond economics and piracy to terrorism and North Korea’s instability.
The time is ripe for a change in thinking about China’s military threat. While it is important to sow respect through U.S. combat capability, it is just as important to work on what CS21 calls “extended deterrence” – using effective Theater Security Cooperation activities to create security and remove the conditions for conflict. In the Asia-Pacific, removing conditions for conflict means turning China from a potential foe to an ally. More tested than Friedman’s Dell Theory, rare is the instance when allies fight a war. Such a task is of course easier said than done, and many high but not insurmountable hurdles lie in the way. In part 3 of this series I will examine one model for starting the process of strengthening prevention, with current realities and limitations in mind.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.