Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Cold War and Strategic Competition with China

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber, USN, and Dr. John Hemmings

The most significant foreign policy debate in Washington at the moment is how to frame the emerging strategic competition with People’s Republic China (PRC), with foreign policy elites arguing whether we are in a “cold war” with China or something entirely different. The stakes of the debate are considerable because it will decide how the United States develops policies for competing with the PRC and how it frames that competition with allies and partners.      

On the “against” side (those who disagree with framing the competition as a “cold war”), there are two basic approaches. The first is to argue that the United States should not engage in a cold war with the PRC – a prescriptive argument – based on the argument that the U.S. and PRC are too deeply intertwined to have a cold war and must cooperate across a range of international issues, including climate change, non-proliferation, North Korea, and COVID-19. 

The second argument is that although the U.S. and PRC are engaged in a strategic competition, it should not be framed as a “cold war.” This is a “historical fallacy” argument based on differences between the current state of competition and that which existed between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Most recently, Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner made this argument in the Washington Post, writing that the essential features that made the Cold War what it was – two coherent blocs arrayed against each other, with little or no economic integration – are missing. 

While the positions laid out above have merit and although the current competition between Washington and Beijing has marked differences from the Cold War, we believe we can still learn from historic frameworks like the Cold War and that it provides a number of benefits for the U.S. in doing so. 

Four Arguments in favor of a Cold War Framework

In this essay, we make four arguments for calling the U.S.-China competition a “cold war”:

  1. The Cold War template provides Western political elites with a compelling narrative on why Western publics must bear the burdens imposed by a competition that may occur over many decades. It also shapes a “common approach” towards our adversaries within society at large.
  2. There is a structural similarity between the Cold War and the current competition, as a potential hegemonic transition takes place between two nuclear powers, thus diffusing competition horizontally, below the threshold of war into other areas of competition.
  3. The United States and the PRC have different political and economic ideologies with different approaches toward state power. Under China’s president, Xi Jinping, these have become more pronounced rather than less, causing friction between the two powers. What’s more, Chinese leaders view themselves to be in a competition with the West. A Cold War analogy acknowledges Chinese claims about the ideological competition.
  4. The Cold War template provides Western policymakers with both a toolset and point of comparison for constructing policies that will allow the West to weather long-term competition across multiple sectors, socialize allies, counter all-pervasive political warfare, and develop the military-industrial strategies for long-term competition.

We argue that the debate over whether the Cold War framework should apply to the U.S.-China competition is missing key components, and that once applied, they support the utility of the framework. 

Policy makers must engage the American population to once again take up the burden of leading its friends, allies, and partners in a global, ideological struggle for an indeterminate amount of time. Instead, policy elites remain fixated on whether to label this emerging competition as a “cold war” or not. But in that debate, neither side seems to consider that it is not the elites, but the taxpayers who will be crucial in supporting this competition. To that end, elites must meet taxpayers where they are.

Meeting Them Where They Are

As Michael J. Green discusses at the outset of By More than Providence (2017), there is even a debate whether democracies like the U.S. can ‘do’ grand strategy.1 This argument has been leveled against U.S. foreign and defense policy2 a number of times and has much to do with the pluralistic style of governance, required consensus-building, and weak power of the executive over the economy and other tools of statecraft. However, for democratic states to compete well, they need to frame their competitions well with their constituencies. The strategic competition with the PRC will require a reorganization – at the very least – of a great many of the tools of U.S. statecraft, in the bureaucracy, in society, in education, and in the media. 

While the previous Administration restricted U.S. technology companies and businesses in their dealings with the PRC, the need for a compelling and overarching national narrative is increasing. Much of the national debate around supply chain security, leading to “decoupling” or “partial disengagement” from the PRC has suffered because it is not clear to what extent the state requires those who seek the nation’s fortune to make way to those who seek its security. Critics of decoupling or of restrictions on PRC tech companies continue to make counter-arguments based on costs, revealing a stark lack of understanding of the extent of the forthcoming competition. If the United States is going to expect its finance, tech, and innovation sectors to restrict their dealings with the PRC, they must do more than simply pass regulatory measures and legislation. 

There is also the issue of paying for the strategic competition and the growing alarm among many on both sides of the political spectrum over the structural fiscal challenges America faces. At the same time that these challenges must be addressed, policy makers must justify to taxpayers why in a time of recovery from the pandemic, several hundred billion dollars, or perhaps more, must be devoted toward defense, the intelligence community, public diplomacy, strategic communication, research and development, and other efforts critical to national security.

The U.S. policy community must explain to U.S. taxpayers why they are expected to pay a larger proportion of their taxes toward defense. U.S. defense spending between 1949 and 1990 (between five and ten percent of GDP) was at historically high levels for nearly five decades. Today, even though defense spending barely constitutes three percent of GDP, it would be absurd to expect the public to be willing to shoulder this type of burden for anything less than a war, “cold” though it might be. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the U.S.-Soviet Cold War is replete with examples of bureaucratic, education-funding, and departmental organization that helped the United States compete. 

Preparing the American people for a long-term competition and potential conflict will come against the backdrop of formidable social, economic, and domestic obstacles not easily overcome. They include income disparity and labor issues in an economy that has been offshoring its “middle” skill manufacturing jobs for decades. In addition, the United States is undergoing an opioid crisis that creates pressure on already-wide social disparities in health coverage and access to public resources. Finally, social and political divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of U.S. society, media, and political elites have begun to widen, creating tension points across a range of issues including immigration, policing and society, race-based politics, and religion. These are the daily realities of the general population. In a crisis, these social and domestic tensions will only be exacerbated.

These social, economic, and health conditions are the backdrop to a well-documented fiscal challenge that Congress faces. Recent policy decisions on taxation and emergency spending as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic have added to the problem. This is not to say that they are insurmountable. The U.S. still has the world’s largest economy, and with more than $20 trillion in gross domestic product annually, the resources are available, even if the political will remains elusive. The fiscal burden of creating and sustaining American power is likely to grow. This burden will come at a time when it will be incumbent on decision makers to address the entire scope of national taxation and spending. Hard trade-offs will be required.

Yet fiscal constraints are only one piece of the puzzle. Even if the resources were readily available, it is not entirely clear that the population of 2020 is particularly interested in competing. The first Cold War was born out of the Second World War, and early system shocks caused a public reappraisal of U.S. efforts to rebuild the world order while being confronted with a global Communist movement that had other designs. That context is missing for today’s generations.

Part of this is due to the nature of how the Cold War ended and the brief, “unipolar moment” the United States and its Allies enjoyed. During the unipolar moment, little effort was given to recapitalizing the institutions necessary to meet a new, peer challenger. Even anti-communist stalwarts argued that it was time for America to become a “normal nation,” and shed the burden of global leadership. The lack of an existential threat made such calls more appealing.

Recent polling suggests that a smaller portion of younger generations consider America an “exceptional” nation. Significant gaps exist between generations on perceived threats to America, with Millennials pointing to “climate change” (62%) as a bigger threat than “the development of China as a world power” (35%), “North Korea’s nuclear program,” (55%) or the “rise of authoritarianism around the world” (42%). Now as one ages and experiences the world, the perception of threats changes. Generations are not monolithic and views do not remain etched in stone. Evidence suggests that the public is growing far more wary of China as a threat, and the recent global COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese leadership’s complicity in covering up the danger may further incur the American public’s anger. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans still believe that a future with U.S. leadership is far better than a world led by Beijing.

An Ideological and Existential Fight

Like the original Cold War, the ongoing competition between China and the United States is openly ideological in nature, and there will be a winner and a loser. Nadège Rolland notes that the implications of this struggle for “discourse power” and the significant resources that Beijing is pouring into expanding its media footprint and activities overseas, indicating “a yearning for a partial hegemony, loosely exercised over positions of the ‘Global South’ – a space that would be free from Western influence and purged of liberal ideals.”3 While it has been a long-cited trope that the PRC is “communist in name only,” there are abundant signs that Xi Jinping has sought to reassert the primacy of Marxist-Leninism, reinvigorate the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party, and hold up Socialism with Chinese characteristics and China’s unique development model as exports to the world.4 In addition to a string of campaign slogans, speeches, and policies meant to reinforce the importance of the Party’s Marxist heritage, it is clear from Xi’s internal speeches that he holds deep ideological convictions and began promoting them from the earliest days of his leadership. 

In one early speech, given to CCP cadres in 2012, he argued that Chinese socialism was not only in competition with western liberalism and capitalism, but was destined for eventual dominance: “We firmly believe that as socialism with Chinese characteristics develops further, our system will inevitably mature; it is likewise inevitable that the superiority of our system will be increasingly apparent; inevitably, our country’s road of development will have increasingly greater influence on the world.” He continued, “But the road is tortuous. The eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism will require a long historical process to reach completion.”

That Xi and other senior leaders see themselves in an ideological struggle vis-à-vis the West is also evident in the infamous Party memorandum, known in the West as “Document 9,” circulated by the General Office in April 2013 around the time that a general crackdown of human rights lawyers, academics, and media outlets was taking place. The memorandum asserted that “the current situation [is] a complicated intense struggle”, naming seven “perils,” including Western constitutionalism, civil society, “nihilistic” views of history, universal values, and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.”

In recent years, PRC leadership has begun to talk about exporting China’s “unique development model,” with Xi stating in 2017, “[China] offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” As Elizabeth Economy and others have written, this takes place primarily in the supply of training of foreign officials on its development model and distinctly authoritarian techniques, such as guiding public opinion, at new leadership academies, such as the Baise Cadre Academy, based in Guangxi. Most recently, Beijing responded to the COVID-19 crisis by framing it as a battle of systems, between its own handling of the crisis, and the handling by democratic states. 

The Tools and Rules Still Apply

Historically, great powers competed for regional or global hegemony through conventional wars,5 such as the Napoleonic Wars, or the First and Second World Wars.6 In all three instances, rising powers sought to challenge the status quo power or order, and establish their own hegemonic orders, suited to their individual national preferences. The United States and USSR were not fated to have a cold war, but driven to it by the impossibility of using war as a matter of statecraft in resolving their hegemonic competition. The mutual possession of nuclear weapons caused a stalemate and as a result, the confrontation became ‘colder’, waged through what Rogers calls “a plethora of proxy conflicts and with an array of instruments, deliberately designed to get underneath the escalatory ladder.” Hegemonic competitions between nuclear powers or nuclear blocs cannot be resolved in the historic manner. As a result, competition is diffused horizontally in sectors like technology, political warfare, sports, intelligence, media & discourse, and of course in indirect proxy wars, such as the Vietnam War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

The current competition between the United States and the PRC occurs across multiple sectors. It takes place in the military sphere, albeit at the gray zone level, or in planning and tactics – such anti-access/area denial. Competition also occurs at the level of international governance as the PRC begins to amass more influence among United Nations agencies (it leads four agencies, more than any other nation), leading to criticism from the United States that Beijing uses such agencies for its own national or geostrategic objectives.

Conflict also occurs in the media sector as Xi Jinping consolidated editorial control over most of China’s media outlets through changes made between 2013 and 2019.7 A massive outward push to those same media outlets to “tell China stories well” (jianghao zhongguo gushi) overseas, in conjunction with Beijing’s greater strategic goals has resulted in a growing bifurcation between Chinese and Western media.8 In response to the PRC’s drive to create positive external propaganda (waixuam), the U.S. ordered Chinese state propaganda organs inside the United States to register as foreign agents. In response, three major U.S. news outlets were banned from China.9

There is also a growing competition in the sectors that constitute civil society, cultural exchange, and education. The most recent evidence of this has been the American decision to restrict Chinese graduate students who have proven links to military institutions in the wake of a revival of China’s Thousand Talents program. It has also impacted the media, as policies under Xi Jinping began to promote a discourse powerin a battle between Western media and Chinese state media.     

The “character” of a cold war may have changed, but its “nature” has not. 

As Mahnken has argued, many of the tools used by the United States during the Cold War still apply today as they are enduring sources of national statecraft and power. Alliance management, defense policy, arms control and competition, economic relations, political warfare, and internal security remain central concerns. He notes that the range of instruments of power the U.S. used was broad, and that today’s debate over competition seems to lack the scope of the Cold War. He writes “there has been much less debate over the role that arms control, industrial policy, industrial mobilization and internal security may play” compared to the Cold War.     

Blanchette further articulates that a central feature of the Cold War was the protection and promotion of our American values and living up to the standards upon which the Republic was founded. He notes that early architects of America’s Cold War strategy, George Kennan and Paul Nitze, pointed to building “a successfully functioning political and economic system,” one that gives America the “courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”     

In this respect, the usefulness of the Cold War framing becomes more apparent. Half of the American population was alive for some or all of the Cold War, though that memory is growing distant. Yet there remains a residual notion among them of the gravity of the competition, its existential nature, and its costs.

Conclusion: The Cold War Frame Works, But You Have to Make the Case

In laying out our argument on why we believe the cold war framework is not only useful but necessary for the future of U.S. policy toward China, we have made certain key assumptions. The first of those is that the two powers will remain on a par for some decades to come. This is because Chinese advantages – excellent infrastructure, many more graduates in engineering, computing, and centralized planning – are balanced out by their disadvantages of an ageing and shrinking workforce, a growing tendency towards political control of the economy, and a costly internal security system. By that measure, U.S. social and political disarray at home is balanced out by the American advantages of a much-better educated and international workforce, access to two seas, and continental resources. For this reason, both states are likely to remain peer competitors for some time, with their ideological and geopolitical differences promoting a decades-long state of competition.

With these basic assumptions, it follows that it would be the most profound failure of policy for the United States to execute a grand strategy designed to compete with the People’s Republic China without popular consensus and support. Indeed, it would be disastrous. This is more important for younger generations as it is they who will largely face most of the sacrifice. The underlying assumption behind competing with China is that the American people are invested in the cause. If that assumption is misplaced, then the strategy will not be resourced adequately.

This will require not only public debate, but also public accountability, and the willingness to craft policy and strategy around the constraints of public opinion. While public opinion can be moved, the case must be made. This must be central to American strategy to compete and win this new cold war. The current complacency regarding the public’s declining trust in institutions and America’s role in the world is dangerous. Foreign powers are actively engaged in strategies to undermine political legitimacy and resiliency, but they need only accentuate the trends that were already present. 

Jonathan Ward explains how the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have used economic engagement with the United States to bring it to the brink of the end of American power. Victory in their eyes is “the building of a superpower, and the restoration, as China’s leaders see it, of China’s position of supremacy among all nations.10 Like the first Cold War, this one is also a conflict in which there will be a winner and a loser. It will be existential in nature, as the PRC challenges fundamental liberalism, respect for free markets, and democratic ideals within China and in the international system. The decade of the 2020s – much like the early years of the first Cold War – will shape the contours of this new Cold War. The window of opportunity is fast closing on America’s ability to organize its society to prepare to defend its interests and the cause of freedom. This is worth fighting for. But it cannot be defended without the support of the American people and the support of its allies abroad. It is a political case that must be made at all levels of government and society. It will require a renewed effort toward public education, and frank, honest debate about the sacrifice required. To best make the case, policy makers have to meet the American public where they are, using terms that convey the gravity of the situation and the stakes involved.

LCDR Bebber is a Cryptologic Warfare officer currently assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station, located in Pensacola Florida. He welcomes your comments at

Professor John Hemmings is an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. He writes in his own personal capacity. 


1. Green, Michael J., By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783, (New York, Columbia University Press, 2017), pp.2-5.

2. For examples, see: Betts, Richard K. “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security, 25, no.2 (Autumn 2000), p.40., Friedberg, Aaron, “Strengthening US Strategic Planning,” in Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, ed. Daniel W. Drezner (Washington DC, Brookings Institutional Press, 2010).

3. Rolland, “China’s Vision for a New World Order”, NBR Special Report 83, 27 January, 2020.

4. Economy, “Yes Virginia, China is exporting its model”, Council of Foreign Affairs Blog, 11 December, 2019.

5. For examples, see: Modelski, George, Long Cycles in World Politics, (Basingstoke, Hampshire, Macmillan Press, 1987); Wittkoph, Eugene R. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 12th Edition (Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth Publishing, 2008).

6. For examples, see: Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, (New York, Vintage Books, 1989); Mead, Walter Russell, God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

7. Brady, Anne-Marie, “Plus la Change?: Media Control Under Xi Jinping”, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 64, Issue 3-4, 2017, pp.128-140.

8. Huang, Zhao Alexander, Wang Rui, “Building a Network to “Tell China Stories Well”: Chinese Diplomatic Strategies on Twitter”, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 13 (2019).

9. “China to restrict journalists from three major newspapers” BBC, 18 March, 2020.

10. Jonathan D. T. Ward, China’s Vision of Victory (Atlas Publishing and Media Company, 2019).

Featured Image: People’s Republic of China, People’s Liberation Army (Navy) frigate PLA(N) Yueyang (FF 575) steams in formation with 42 other ships and submarines representing 15 international partner nations during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe/Released)

China as a Composite Land-Sea Power: A Geostrategic Concept Revisited

The following is adapted from a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Seizing on Weakness: Allied Strategy for Competing With China’s Globalizing Military

By Toshi Yoshihara

China’s military is going global. Beijing possesses the largest navy in the world and is fielding an expeditionary fleet at a rapid pace. It established a permanent base in Djibouti in 2017 and is reportedly prospecting for more locations, from the South Pacific to the east coast of Africa, that could provide logistical support to China’s forward-deployed forces. In the coming decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be well-positioned to influence events and conduct a wide range of missions, including limited warfighting, far beyond the Western Pacific.

As the PLA goes global, Chinese leaders will need to meet multiplying demands on their attention and resources. They will have to work hard to defend their core interests in offshore areas, keep the peace along its interior, and maintain a durable overseas presence. Beijing’s omnidirectional and increasingly global security burdens will require adroit statesmanship to avoid overextension, a classic blunder that has humbled past great powers.

Imperial overreach is not as farfetched as one might assume, despite China’s impressive wealth creation over past decades. As a classic land-sea power, which faces the seas and shares contiguous borders with its neighbors, Beijing must always stay alert to threats in the continental and maritime domains. This inescapable two-front challenge imposes perpetual opportunity costs: every yuan spent on one area is one fewer yuan available for the other flank and vice versa. The trade-offs between its landward and seaward commitments could impose built-in limits on China’s global plans.  

Composite Land-Sea Power Concept

The idea that China’s dual orientation could complicate, if not derail, its ascent is not new, not least to Chinese strategists themselves. They took up the debate two decades ago when two scholars assessed the “composite land-sea power (陆海复合型国家)” concept and its implications for China’s future.1 Since then, analysts have wrestled with China’s dual-domain dilemma. The internal debates offer fascinating insights into how Beijing likely assesses its geostrategic obstacles. This discourse could regain salience as China opens a new global front to fulfill its ambitions as a world power.

The main lesson is that land-sea powers must obey geography’s limits. Past great powers that violated those constraints brought misfortune on themselves. At a minimum, land-sea powers must field armies and navies strong enough to defend both their terrestrial and maritime interests. According to two scholars, such powers “cannot neglect either sea power or land power. Both fists must strong.”2 By implication, land-sea powers must devote adequate resources against liabilities in the continental and maritime directions and they perpetually run the risk of diluting their energies across the two domains.

At the same time, dominance in the maritime and continental directions simultaneously is rarely sustainable over the long term. Land-sea powers must abide by the principle of strategic concentration, favoring one orientation over the other. But they must be careful not to blindly pursue sea power or land power while neglecting the other domain. To one scholar, Imperial Germany’s “excessive worship” of naval power unmoored it from its continental interests and spelled disaster for its long-term ambitions.3

Land-sea powers face the gravest danger when they are squeezed concurrently between hostile rivals on the landward and seaward flanks. Indeed, two-front wars have invariably spelled doom for past great powers. Mao Zedong’s “dual adversary” diplomatic strategy in the 1960s that pitted China against the United States and the Soviet Union has taught his successors the potential existential risks of picking two fights at the same time.

Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian troops take part in a military equipment parade at Tsugol training ground in Siberia not far from the Chinese and Mongolian border in September 2018. (Photo via AFP)

For land-sea powers, prudent statesmanship is invaluable. Leaders must strike a delicate balance between their multi-directional commitments and their scarce resources. To complicate matters further, resources dedicated to maritime affairs are frequently inapplicable to continental matters and vice versa. Sound judgments about risk, trade-offs, and so forth are therefore essential to success.  

No Longer a Dilemma for China?

For the past three decades, the dilemmas of a land-sea power have not been acute for China. Since the Cold War’s end, China has inhabited a congenial security environment, arguably unprecedented in its modern history. As one scholar claims, Beijing’s surroundings have been “the most favorable since New China’s founding, if not in its entire history.”4 Sustained amity with Russia and an uneasy peace with India have opened new strategic vistas to China. The absence of significant liabilities along its land borders have enabled China to invest in maritime and aerospace capabilities on a massive scale, transforming the PLA into a formidable force.5

Nevertheless, Chinese commentators have expressed misgivings that China’s rising maritime power might still trigger countervailing geopolitical responses. Some worry that China’s rapid ascent at sea could stimulate resistance by the United States, the leading naval power, and by China’s neighbors on land and at sea. Such “dual pressure (双重压力)” could undo China’s rise, just as similar counteractions have spoiled the ambitions of past land-sea powers.6

To avoid triggering such countervailing responses, some scholars urge Chinese leaders to develop “limited sea power (有限海权)” to reassure the United States and China’s neighbors that Beijing harbors no hegemonic ambitions.7 Another argues that constructing a Chinese navy meant to maintain good order at sea might telegraph China’s benign intent.8

Still others believe that China’s best hedge against a dual-front challenge is to maintain good ties with Russia, by far the most powerful actor bordering China. According to this logic, Beijing can withstand pressure in the maritime direction if its relations with Moscow are on a steady footing.9 One analyst contends that Xi Jinping’s global initiatives to court partners, such as the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, could “reduce balancing pressures by maritime and continental great powers.”10

Despite the varying prescriptions—some of which have clearly been overtaken by events—these writings share an overriding imperative to avert counterbalancing coalitions that balked past land-sea powers.

The Return of Geographic Constraints?

For years, the opportunity costs of going to sea have been low, if not negligible. Put another way, Beijing has not yet had to pay significant penalties for turning decisively in the maritime direction. But convivial geostrategic conditions could well be reversed. China’s recent skirmishes with India along the Himalayan border, for example, show how territorial disputes could stoke great power animosities in unexpected ways. Indeed, sustained Sino-Indian border tensions could metastasize into a more intense rivalry, drawing Beijing’s attention to its southern flank. The standoff could serve as a test case for determining how well Beijing can manage landward liabilities even as it extends its reach at sea. 

To the north, several factors could complicate Sino-Russian relations, despite the strategic partnership between the two powers, including close military cooperation. The end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 freed Moscow to deploy ground-based theater-range conventional missiles. If Russia were to field such weaponry in numbers and in ways that threatened China, Beijing could respond forcefully to a more complex geometry of conventional missile competition in the continental direction, diverting resources from the maritime front. China’s quests for access to the Arctic and for influence in Central Asia, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative, could also introduce friction in Sino-Russian ties.

Wang Hai, deputy commander of the Chinese Navy, shakes hands with Russian Marines in a joint naval drill off Guangdong province on September 14, 2016. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Other contingencies, such as the resumption of conflict on the Korean Peninsula, could draw Beijing into a major military conflagration and suck China into protracted, manpower-intensive postwar duties, including occupation and other stability operations. A security vacuum caused by political upheaval in a neighboring Central, South, or Southeast Asian country, could similarly pull China into a prolonged and costly landward commitment.

Implications for the United States and Its Allies

As China goes global and as its relationship with the West enters a more rivalrous phase, Washington and allied capitals should consider how they can leverage Beijing’s predicament. However, for the moment, the allies are constrained in their collective capacity to steer China’s relationships with its great continental neighbors, Russia and India, in directions that favor them. Geostrategic logic suggests that Sino-Russian enmity, akin to that of the Cold War rupture, would be a nightmare scenario for Beijing. But the current configuration of international politics indicates that efforts to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow would likely prove fruitless. Similarly, New Delhi’s tradition of independence and non-alignment have repeatedly dashed some Western hopes that India could be persuaded to counterbalance China’s ascent more overtly. 

Given that the close allies possess limited agency for now, they may have to settle for opportunism to exploit China’s geostrategic dilemma. They should watch closely for developments that could complicate Sino-Russian and Sino-Indian ties. China could well cooperate in allied plans and stumble into confrontation with its giant neighbors. In such scenarios, the allies would need to assess the opportunity costs of China’s landward commitments and the extent to which such additional fronts might lead to overextension. If signs of overreach were evident, then the allies would do well to apply even more pressure in the maritime domain—near and far from the mainland—to attenuate Chinese power. By doubling down on the maritime flank, the allies would force the PRC to compete more vigorously on both fronts while denying it relief in the seaward direction.

A theme that runs through the Chinese discourse is a clear-eyed sense of the limits on China’s geostrategic choices. Chinese strategists who possess a tragic sensibility about great power politics understand that favorable circumstances are never permanent. They recognize that Beijing must strive to cultivate conditions conducive to its outward orientation and that hostile great powers, especially if they were to coalesce against China, could undo its global plans. As the PLA goes global, it behooves allied policymakers to adopt a similarly tragic worldview and revisit age-old geostrategic dilemmas that will likely prove as nettlesome to China as they have for past aspiring land-sea powers.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). He is co-author, with Jack Bianchi, of Seizing on Weakness: Allied Strategy for Competing with China’s Globalizing Military, a CSBA report from which this article is drawn.


1.  邵永灵 时殿弘 [Shao Yongling and Shi Dianhong], “近代欧洲陆海复合国家的命运与当代中国的选择 [The Destiny of Modern European Hybrid Land-Sea Power and Contemporary China’s Choices],” 世界经济与政治 [World Economics and Politics], no. 10, 2000, p. 50.

2. 郑义炜 张建宏 [Zheng Yiwei and Zhang Jianhong], “论陆海复合型国家发展海权的两难困境—欧洲经验对中国海权发展的启示 [On the Dual Dilemma of Developing Seapower for Hybrid Land-Sea Powers—Lessons from Europe’s Experiences for China’s Seapower Development],” 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal], no. 3, 2013, p. 64.

3. 刘中民 [Liu Zhongmin], “关于海权与大国崛起问题的若干思考 [Some Thoughts on the Problems of Seapower and the Rise of Great Powers],” 世界经济与政治 [World Economics and Politics], no. 12, 2007, pp. 10-11 and 刘中民 [Liu Zhongmin], “中国海洋强国建设的海权战略选择—海权与大国兴衰的经验及其启示 [Seapower Strategy Choices for the Development of China’s Maritime Great Power—The Experiences and Lessons of Seapower and the Rise and Fall of Great Powers],” 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal], no. 8, 2013, p. 78. See also 古天姣 [Gu Tianjiao], “我国建设海洋强国的困境分析及战略选择 [An Analysis of the Dilemmas of Our Nation’s Development into a Maritime Power and Our Strategic Choices],” 行政与法律 [Public Administration and Law], no. 9, 2014, p. 77.

4. 刘中民 [Liu Zhongmin], “中国海洋强国建设的海权战略选择 [Seapower Strategy Choices for the Development of China’s Maritime Great Power],” 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal], no. 8, 2013, p. 78.

5. See 王勇 [Wang Yong], “浅析中国海权发展的若干问题 [Analysis of Several Problems of China’s Seapower Development],” 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal], no. 5, 2010, p. 95 and 刘新华 [Liu Xinhua], “海权优先: 当代中国的地缘战略选择 [Seapower Takes Precedence: Contemporary China’s Geostrategic Choices],” 社会科学 [Journal of Social Sciences], no. 7, 2008, p. 58.

6. 吴征宇 [Wu Zhengyu], “海权与陆海复合型强国 [Seapower and Hybrid Land-Sea Great Powers], 世界经济与政治 [World Economics and Politics],” no. 2, 2012, pp. 47-50 and 吴征宇 [Wu Zhengyu], 论陆海复合型国家的战略地位—理论机理与政策选择 [On the Strategic Position of Hybrid Land-Sea Powers—Theoretical Mechanisms and Policy Choices], 教学与研究 [Teaching and Research], no. 7, 2010, pp. 69-70.

7. 郑义炜 [Zheng Yiwei], “陆海复合型的中国发展海权的战略选择 [China’s Strategic Choices for Developing Seapower as a Hybrid Land-Sea Power],” 世界经济与政治 [World Economics and Politics], no. 3, 2013, p. 25 and 刘中民 [Liu Zhongmin], “中国海洋强国建设的海权战略选择 [Seapower Strategy Choices for the Development of China’s Maritime Great Power],” 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal], no. 8, 2013, p. 80.

8. 吴征宇 [Wu Zhengyu], “海权与陆海复合型强国 [Seapower and Hybrid Land-Sea Great Powers], 世界经济与政治 [World Economics and Politics],” no. 2, 2012, p. 50.

9. 郑义炜 [Zheng Yiwei], “陆海复合型中国“海洋强国”战略分析 [Analysis of China’s Hybrid Land-Sea “Maritime Power” Strategy],” 东北亚论坛 [Northeast Asia Forum], no. 2, 2018, p. 88.

10. 秦立志 [Qin Lizhi], “陆海复合型国家战略转型的动力机制—兼论对中国的启示 [The Dynamic Mechanism Behind the Strategic Transformation of Hybrid Land-Sea Powers—Implications for China],” 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal], no. 2, 2019, p. 11.

Featured Image: Russian and Chinese forces operating in a combined exercise in Spring 2018. (Photo via Russian Ministry of Defense)

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.





4.; and





9.; and

10.; and




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


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.



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: 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




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)

Cooperative Maritime Law Enforcement and Overfishing in the South China Sea

By Michael Perry


Fish are the primary source of animal protein for populations bordering the South China Sea (SCS) and overfishing in the region has emerged as a major threat to food security.1 Over the past 30 years fish stocks have declined by one-third and are expected to decrease an additional 59 percent by 2045 if current practices persist.2

The threat is recognized by all SCS nations but hasn’t been curtailed for three primary reasons. First, the migratory nature of fish requires all SCS nations to jointly agree on constraints. Disagreements have not only made cooperation difficult, but have led to increasingly frequent confrontations between rival Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) forces and fishermen. Second, even if nations could agree, the presence of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing creates an MLE challenge. Lastly, the first two challenges coalesce to form a third – disparities in MLE capabilities affect perceptions of fairness and the perceived benefits of cooperation. That is, a nation asked to carry a heavier MLE burden may demand an increased share of fish stocks.

There may be a solution. U.S. MLE assistance can set the conditions for a fair, fully cooperative fishing agreement among SCS nations with minimal risk of escalating the present situation to the level of war.

Challenges to Cooperation

Fisheries economists agree that when nations cooperate to optimize the use of depletable resources, total catch increases because stocks are maintained at high levels.3 However, economists have also demonstrated that nations deviate from this total catch maximization model because there is no clear way to divide the “cooperative surplus” among nations, defined as the excess catch above what’s attained under noncooperation.4 As a consequence, noncooperation leading to overexploitation has been observed time and again.5 The reasoning behind this is simple. If nations unilaterally pursue policies not agreeable to others, the sum of these policies will exceed the optimal cooperative policy, and stocks will become depleted.

The concept of a fair allocation of the cooperative surplus is particularly challenging in the SCS. Expansive claims based on historical discoveries and interpretations, United Nations-defined exclusive economic zones, and the occupation of islands and reefs afar from mainlands leads to a large degree of overlapping jurisdictions.6 The most extreme claim is that of China’s “nine-dash line,” encompassing 80 percent of the SCS.7 Aside from tangible issues of geography and historical discovery, a nation’s ideology can contribute to what’s perceived as “fair.” China views itself as a Middle Kingdom that ought to govern affairs in its area of the world, if not globally. This conflicts with the U.S. view that it occupies the position of global leadership and must “contain” China from becoming too influential.8 Thus, even if China could make a case that its geography, population, MLE capabilities, and so on, warrant a “fair” allocation encompassing its claimed 80 percent of the SCS, established U.S. policy would be to exert influence to alter this balance, which would enrich other SCS nations to the detriment of China.

Were the challenge of a fair allocation of the cooperative surplus to be solved, SCS nations would still face an MLE challenge as IUU fishing is prevalent in the SCS. The current situation under noncooperation is informative for understanding the extent of IUU fishing. The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, an intergovernmental organization including all SCS nations other than China, estimates IUU fishing currently accounts for 8-16 percent of total catch.9 Much of this is Chinese fishing which China doesn’t consider IUU, but it would be naïve to assume that were China to enter a cooperative agreement that curtails its allowable catch, there would be a corresponding decrease in IUU fishing.  A cooperative agreement will place increased constraints on fishing, thus decreasing supply and increasing the incentive to fish illegally. For fishermen suddenly forced out of the legal fishing business, IUU fishing will be a logical, even if risky, line of work. Empirically, past agreements outside the SCS have seen this phenomenon occur.10 Thus, to address the MLE requirements brought by a constrained fishing environment, nations must also engage in security cooperation so MLE effectiveness can be maximized. IUU fishing can only be assumed to decrease following a cooperative agreement if SCS coast guards fully integrate their MLE efforts so there are no weak spots IUU fishermen can exploit.

The final challenge to cooperation is a conglomeration of territorial disputes and IUU fishing, along with China’s supremacy in MLE. China’s coast guard easily surpasses all other SCS nations combined in gross tonnage, with 190,000 tons of coast guard vessels of multiple types.11 In contrast, Vietnam and the Philippines possess 35,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively, while Indonesia possesses about 400 vessels compared to China’s 1,300.12 ISR and aircraft are both force multipliers in MLE and China has superiority in each of these.13 Thus, China possesses great leverage when bargaining over the cooperative surplus. 

Presently, noncooperation persists because China has calculated it is better off using its MLE strength to unilaterally impose its own laws in the SCS, rather than submitting to terms acceptable to the other bordering states. This strategy is evident in repeated instances of the Chinese Coast Guard intervening in fishing disputes with Vietnam near the Paracel Islands, with the Philippines near the Scarborough Shoal (approximately 472 NM from the Chinese mainland), and with Indonesia near Natuna (1151 NM).14 The problem with this unilateral Chinese strategy, aside from a lack of fairness, is that it has failed in the sense that overfishing persists. Despite its superiority in MLE, China hasn’t been able to reverse the observable trend of depleting stocks in the SCS.

In light of these issues, while geography and historical claims are immutable sources of conflict, MLE capabilities are mutable and can be employed by the U.S. to mitigate the threat of overfishing in the SCS. By providing MLE assistance to non-Chinese coast guards, the U.S. can, at minimum, assure China’s attempt to unilaterally control the SCS no longer appears feasible, and may even bring about a fully cooperative agreement.

Shaping the Conditions for Cooperation

An important notion from cooperative game theory is that when the right incentive structure is in place, players who would otherwise be in competition will form a “cooperative coalition” that is beneficial to all. The first objective of U.S. MLE assistance in the SCS should be to provide non-Chinese nations sufficient capabilities to police an area of the SCS that can provide a sustainable level of fish to all nations in the coalition. Lacking this, some nations may acquiesce to Chinese unilateralism as the best option. A fully cooperative agreement would include China, whose MLE capabilities would partially offset needed U.S. assistance to combat IUU fishing, and per economic theory total catch will increase as well. While Chinese cooperation can’t be assumed, it is highly desirable and MLE assistance should be directed toward convincing China the coalition can be an ally vice adversary.

While the coast guard figures cited earlier show a clear capabilities advantage for China, it is not an overwhelming one. Consider, for instance, disparities in population and hence demand for fish. Non-Chinese nations account for only 25 percent of the population bordering the SCS, so coalition MLE may only need to control a comparatively small section of it.15 Further, while China does possess superior air and ISR assets than other SCS nations, they still lag the U.S. in these areas.16 Aircraft and ISR are comparatively cheap relative to large end surface vessels. These facts make it seem promising the U.S. can cost-effectively close the MLE capabilities gap; looking at current coast guard and military aid budgets provides a useful heuristic to assess this more fully. China spent approximately $1.7 billion per year from 2011 through 2015 to modernize its coast guard. In contrast, the U.S. currently spends over $10 billion per year on its coast guard, while Vietnam and the Philippines each spend about $200 million.17 U.S. military aid for fiscal year 2019 allocated $30 million, $12 million, and zero dollars to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, respectively. The global mission to improve food security was allocated $518 million.18 Active participation by U.S. Coast Guard assets in the SCS has been virtually nonexistent, though in May 2019 they participated in a combined exercise with the Philippines, perhaps signaling willingness by the U.S. to invest more in MLE assistance.19

Given these figures it is clear a relatively small investment in the modernization of regional coast guards could go a long way. While federal budgeting is competitive and slow to change in the U.S., there are strong reasons to justify increased funding for MLE in the SCS. Aside from the general notion throughout the Department of Defense of a shift in emphasis toward INDOPACOM, there is a growing trend towards gray-zone operations where coast guards are better positioned than navies to play the central security role.20 Further, MLE assistance is ultimately intended to induce security cooperation with China to combat IUU fishing; successful cooperation on the comparatively benign issue of overfishing may pay dividends in resolving contentious issues closer to the level of war.

The above analysis makes it appear feasible the U.S. could provide the necessary MLE assistance to cordon off a section of the SCS sufficient to supply sustainable levels of fish to partners, and at a moderate cost. The problem, however, is that due to the migratory nature of fish this cordoned off area must be larger than what a simple calculation of fish per capita would suggest. Fish stocks intentionally left uncaught by the coalition will migrate to waters not policed by the coalition. In an idyllic world China wouldn’t deplete these migratory resources, but realistically overfishing should be expected as China disagrees with the fairness of the coalition’s policy. To account for expected Chinese excesses the coalition’s area must expand, so not only does required MLE assistance increase, but there is a risk of becoming too provocative and causing China to escalate hostilities to the level of conflict. It is therefore critical to assess the likelihoods of China joining an expanding coalition, and alternatively escalating to war.

The rationale for China joining the coalition in the face of U.S. MLE assistance is that, given the strengthened ability of the coalition to defend its waters, China’s strategy of unilaterally imposing its own laws for sustainable fishing will become clearly impractical. Under the current state of affairs China’s strategy isn’t working yet there’s still no sign of a shift, indicating they still believe aggressive unilateralism can work if they further advance their MLE capabilities. By advancing a regional coalition’s MLE toward first-world standards, U.S. partners can impose costs on Chinese unilateralism and hopefully encourage China to see cooperation as the best option. The suboptimality of unilateral MLE on the part of China is, however, not sufficient to assure cooperation. China has a third option, which is to escalate the dispute over fishing to the level of war. Fortunately, there are multiple reasons to believe China won’t take such action.

A comparison to a similar dispute over fishing laws involving China is informative. In the East China Sea (ECS), China and Japan have an ongoing dispute over fishing rights near the Senkaku Islands. While each continues to proclaim ownership of the Senkakus and surrounding waters, there have been far fewer provocative actions by China than seen in the SCS, and zero instances of the Chinese Coast Guard detaining Japanese fishermen.21 The limited hostilities in the ECS are likely the result of Japan fielding a peer coast guard to China’s.22 In fact, far from leading to war over the Senkakus, Japan’s ability to resist Chinese unilateralism led to an agreement between the two nations on both fishing constraints and MLE cooperation, which was signed in 1997.23

Despite the datapoint that Japan’s peer coast guard successfully curtailed Chinese unilateralism in the ECS, there is a justifiable fear that the interactive effects of China being curtailed in both the ECS and SCS would push it over the edge. It may consider failure to control either the SCS or ECS an unacceptable threat to its aim of becoming a global superpower and opt for war rather than cooperation.24

This is, however, unlikely due to the multitude of internal problems China currently faces that hinder its ability to wage a conventional war against U.S. partners. For example, China is facing a workforce crisis where cheap labor, which was the catalyst for its “economic miracle” that began in the late 1970s, is disappearing. Mortality rates, once in decline, are now on the rise in China.25 The United Nations’ Human Development Index for China also lags far behind first-world standards.26 All these factors negatively effect China’s ability to fund a prolonged, large-scale war. China does have escalation dominance over other SCS nations, so to signal to China that war would in fact be “prolonged” and “large-scale,” the U.S. must maintain its strong naval presence in the region as a sign of its commitment to fight a war if necessary.


U.S. MLE assistance in the SCS can mitigate Chinese unilateralism on fishing rights without provoking war, establish sustainable levels of fishing without Chinese cooperation, and may lead to a fully cooperative agreement with China to combat overfishing. Full cooperation has three key advantages, including a greater total catch, a reduced requirement for the U.S. to provide MLE assistance, and a reduction in the threat of war, even if this is small in the noncooperative case. It is therefore in the U.S.’ and partners’ interests to provide fair terms for an agreement with China rather than one that appears exploitative and pursuant of a containment policy. An agreement that is most likely to be accepted is one that has clearly defined rules on who can fish where and how much, how random fluctuations in catches will be remedied through trade, as well as complete transparency in how these determinations are made.

Michael Perry is a PhD student at George Mason University studying applications of game theory in the security environment. He is also a U.S. Navy Reservist and has deployed to Singapore, Bahrain, and Rota, Spain. The views expressed in this article are his own.


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2. Hsiao, Amanda. “Opportunities for Fisheries Enforcement Cooperation in the South China Sea.” Marine Policy, June 2019, 103569.

3. Munro, Gordon R. “Game Theory and the Development of Resource Management Policy: The Case of International Fisheries.” Environment and Development Economics 14, no. 1 (February 2009): 7–27.

4. Kaitala, Veijo, and Marko Lindroos. “Sharing the Benefits of Cooperation in High Seas Fisheries: A Characteristic Function Game Approach.” Natural Resource Modeling 11, no. 4 (1998): 275–99.

5. Munro, Gordon R. “Game Theory and the Development of Resource Management Policy: The Case of International Fisheries.” Environment and Development Economics 14, no. 1 (February 2009): 7–27.

6. Stearns, Scott. “Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea.” Voice of America. State of Affairs (blog), July 31, 2012.

7. “Coastguard Here to Help, US Says to South China Sea Nations.” South China Morning Post, July 11, 2019.

8. Goodman, Melvin. “The Twin Dangers of Exceptionalism and Mindless Bi-Partisanship.” Counter Punch, June 13, 2019.

9. “Catch Documentation and Traceability.” Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, n.d.

10. Zhang, Hongzhou. “Chinese Fishermen in Disputed Waters: Not Quite a ‘People’s War.’” Marine Policy 68 (June 2016): 65–73.

11. Morris, Lyle J. “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2 (2017): 38.

12. Morris, “KPLP Director Asks for Effective and Efficient Patrol Boat Management.” Berita Trans, May 7, 2018. 

Erickson, Andrew S. “Numbers Matter: China’s Three ‘Navies’ Each Have the World’s Most Ships.” National Interest, February 2018.

13. Morris, “The Era of Coast Guards in the Asia- Pacific Is Upon Us”; Morris, “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.”

14. “Are Maritime Law Enforcement Forces Destabilizing Asia?” ChinaPower: Unpacking the Complexity of China’s Rise, 2019.

15. “World Population Prospects.” United Nations, 2019.

16. Morris, Lyle J. “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2 (2017): 38.


18. “Congressional Budget Justification:  Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, Fiscal Year 2019.” U.S. Department of State, February 12, 2018.

19. Jennings, Ralph. “Coast Guard Gives US New Tool in Disputed South China Sea.” Voice of America, May 20, 2019.

20. “The Era of Coast Guards in the Asia- Pacific Is Upon Us.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), CSIS (March 8, 2017).

21. Morris, Lyle J. “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2 (2017): 38.

22. Ibid.

23. Hsiao, Amanda. “Opportunities for Fisheries Enforcement Cooperation in the South China Sea.” Marine Policy, June 2019, 103569.

24. Phillips, Tom. “Xi Jinping Heralds ‘new Era’ of Chinese Power at Communist Party Congress.” The Guardian, October 18, 2017.

25. Chomsky, Noam. “‘Losing’ the World: American Decline in Perspective, Part 1.” Tom Dispatch, February 14, 2012.

26. “Global Human Development Indicators.” United Nations, 2018.

Featured Image: Fisherman Shi Renping sails a fishing vessel towards a deepwater fish farming base near Meiji Reef of the Nansha Islands of China, July 17, 2016. (Xinhua/Zhao Yingquan)