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A Tale of Two Seas: The Caribbean and South China Sea in Great Power Perspective

By Akshat Patel

The South China Sea is to China as the Caribbean Sea is to the United States. Just as the United States repeatedly thwarted European powers from the Caribbean throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China intends to thwart an American presence in the South China Sea in this century.1 In 1962, the ambitions of two superpowers reached a crescendo in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Along the same lines, the ambitions of two of today’s great powers are resulting in skirmishes across the South China Sea. In the same way that the clash in the Caribbean was a deciding factor in who the victor of the Cold War would be, American maritime superiority will be decided in large part by who the reigning power in the South China Sea will be.

The parallels between Soviet-U.S. relations vis-à-vis the Caribbean and China-U.S. relations vis-à-vis the South China Sea are as striking as they are instructive. The Red Navy’s mistakes in its transatlantic ventures serve as salutary course corrections for the U.S. Navy’s transpacific undertakings today.

Then, as Now

By the twentieth century, the United States had established itself as the dominant power in the Americas. Politically stable and economically vibrant, the United States overshadowed the smaller republics of the Caribbean. Blessed with two adjacent oceans and two peaceful neighbors, the United States was virtually immune to a land-based invasion. The only way for a foreign power to establish a foothold in the American hemisphere was through the Caribbean. While “the Caribbean was the natural maritime extension of the continental United States, it was also the part of America’s security environment most vulnerable to European attack,” notes Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.2

In October of 1962, the Soviet Union attempted to exploit this potential American vulnerability through Cuba. The Soviets wanted to establish a naval base and station land-based nuclear missiles on the island nation. President Kennedy ordered an embargo around Cuba to expunge Soviet ambitions from the Caribbean and compelled Khrushchev to blink in the ultimate staring contest. In exchange for withdrawing nuclear missiles from Cuba, the Soviets extracted a public promise to not invade Cuba and a private promise to withdraw American nuclear missiles from Turkey.3 Both sides avoided direct conflict by reaching an agreement that neither desired. The Soviets surrendered their Caribbean aspirations and the United States surrendered its Cuban advances. 

China enjoys many of the same benefits of geography as the United States. Surrounded by natural barriers to aggression such as frigid Siberia, the Gobi Desert, the impenetrable Himalayas, and the lush forests of Vietnam and Laos, China is largely shielded from terrestrial attack. Just like the United States, China’s vulnerability is to the southeast. Not only do most Chinese live near the coast, but the South China Sea serves as their primary economic lifeline.4 The straits of Malacca, Makassar, Sunda, and Luzon all pour into the South China Basin and control both China’s energy supplies from the Middle East and its exports to the West.5 Just as the Caribbean is littered with small island nations eclipsed by a colossal United States, the South China Sea is peppered with littoral states over which China casts a large shadow.

The fallout over control of an American sea of 1.5 million square miles foreshadowed the rest of that great-power competition – the Cold War. Similarly, the contest for an Asian sea of comparable proportions will act as a bellwether for the great-power competition taking place today. Five claimants occupy almost 70 different atolls and have built more than 90 different outposts in the South China Sea.6 With 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands, 7 in the Spratly Islands, and 3,200 acres of newly constructed land, China is by far the most aggressive player in the area.7 Malaysian, Philippine, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese maritime claims have been brushed to the wayside while China charges forward to secure its “blue national soil.”8 China is aware of its vulnerability to the southeast and stands to gain immensely by shielding against it. By turning the South China Sea into a Chinese enclave, Beijing would not only safeguard the lives and livelihood of its citizens, but would also create a strategic disadvantage for the United States. The South China Sea is a conduit linking the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and Chinese control of that critical juncture would jeopardize American maritime dominance. Lucrative global trade routes would cease to be international common grounds and the redoubts of allied nations would fall under a Chinese penumbra. American merchants would be subject to harassment by the Chinese coast guard and the U.S. Navy would no longer be able to crisscross the Indo-Pacific theater with impunity.

To circumvent China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea, American naval policy is rightly learning from Soviet efforts. By maintaining naval bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam while simultaneously encouraging a naval buildup in Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, the United States is building a multilateral coalition to check Chinese forays into the Pacific.9 As the Soviet Union attempted to tamp down American influence in the Americas through Cuba, the United States is curbing Chinese influence in Asia through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations.

Empowering the Right Platform

When Che Guevara expressed concern at the Soviet gambit in the Caribbean, Soviet Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky replied, “There will be no big reaction from the U.S. side.”10 The Soviet defense minister expected little retaliation from the United States because, as he viewed it, he was exercising soft power by bringing Cuba into the fold. As the term “Cold War” reminds us, neither side was ever interested in a full-fledged, direct, violent conflict; instead, the Cold War was a great-power competition in which both sides tried to undermine the other through maximum power projection while suffering minimal losses. To project this power, the Soviets wanted to permanently station an entire fleet in the Caribbean: two cruisers, four destroyers, eleven diesel electric submarines, and two submarine tenders.11 But, at the last minute, the Soviets changed their plans. Instead, they sent forth four covert Foxtrot-class diesel submarines as the vanguard of the Red Fleet.12

The reigning Soviet naval doctrine prioritized submarines over surface ships. In 1956, Khrushchev stated that “submarines were the most suitable naval weapon and they would receive emphasis in the future development of the Soviet Navy.”13 As a result, new construction of major surface vessels was virtually terminated under his premiership.14 According to a 2017 CIA analysis of the Soviet Navy, “Khrushchev declared surface naval forces…no longer useful and predicted they would soon become obsolete.”15 Motivated by advances in technology, the Soviets wanted to reduce overall military manpower and costs by replacing a large surface fleet with a more effective, smaller submarine fleet.16 In other words, they prioritized a denser more capable force over a more numerous, less capable one.

By attempting a transatlantic overture to the Caribbean, the Soviets made the right geopolitical decision. By sending submarines, they made the wrong tactical decision. Submarines are mobile, undersea intelligence gatherers packed with brutish lethality. They are about “sheer aggression,” not power projection.17 They are best suited to spy and wreak havoc, not as conspicuous icons of power. By deploying covert submarines to the Caribbean, the Soviets were guaranteed to alarm Americans and provoke a strong response. President Kennedy ordered a maximum Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) effort to track and surface the submarines.18 The Soviets were not harmlessly posturing by deploying submarines within sailing distance of Florida while simultaneously stationing land based nuclear missiles at America’s doorstep. They were committing an act of belligerence that the Unites States met with force. The Atlantic Fleet mobilized to detect and ferret out the furtive aggressors. As Defense Minister Malinovsky’s comment suggests, the bold step to Cuba was never supposed to culminate into the hair-raising crisis that it did. His intention was to assert Soviet dominance without causing an international scene. This is exactly the United States’ objective in the South China Sea today.

To maintain American primacy in the South China Sea, Chinese maritime ambitions must be curtailed without devolving into the grand standoff that occurred in the Caribbean. Submarines should not be the U.S. Navy’s primary tools in this great-power competition. Because of the raw aggression that submarines communicate, they are ill-suited for missions that display military power and best suited for missions that exercise military power. The surface fleet’s strengths are altogether opposite.

Aircraft carriers, simultaneously symbols of national power and of national prestige, are excellent tools for communicating power, but a ruinously costly platform to lose.19 Losing a symbol of national pride would deal irreparable damage to the national psyche. The U.S. Navy must look to its destroyers and cruisers as the primary combatants of this great-power competition. While not as awe-inspiring as an aircraft carrier, they are still an excellent form of communication. The U.S. Navy has rightly increased destroyer and cruiser freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, and it must continue this upward trajectory.20 By regularly challenging expansive Chinese claims, Washington must continue to signal Beijing that the South China Sea is not a Chinese lake. Frequent FONOPs through contested sea lanes go much farther in projecting maritime strength, communicating intentions, and deterring aggression than stealthy submarine deployments. To do this effectively, and not repeat Soviet mistakes, the United States needs a larger surface fleet.

The battle of ‘capability vs. numbers’ is a perennial struggle that has haunted the minds of American naval policy wonks for decades. Examined holistically, there is a clear winner. “The trend towards fewer, more capable ships is both unarguable and . . . inexorable,” notes Admiral John Ellis, former Commander of United States Strategic Command.21 Over the past twenty-five years, the number of ships in the U.S. Navy has decreased by nearly half while the demands placed on the American fleet remain the same.22 “Today, that means twice the percentage of the fleet is deployed than was at the height of the Cold War,” notes ex-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead.23 At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office recently determined that the Navy is only able to fulfill 60 percent of deployments requested by combatant commanders.24 In short, at some point, numbers do matter. Simple math dictates that if the U.S. Navy has fewer ships, either they need to be deployed more often or they must be asked to execute fewer missions. The Navy must stem its unrelenting pursuit of a leaner, cutting-edge fleet. Naval budgeteers must be willing to substitute a pricey aircraft carrier for a dozen more destroyers or cruisers. Vulnerable aircraft-carriers and stealthy submarines will not be the heroes that secure American maritime superiority, it will be destroyers and cruisers.

Together, not Alone

The Cuban missile crisis of 58 years ago stands as the most studied event of the nuclear era—so much so that there are essays about why we should stop writing essays about it.25 Yet, until fall 2002, American national security experts were not aware that the four Foxtrot-class diesel submarines deployed to Cuba had been armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes.26 The CIA’s four intelligence reports on Soviet arms buildup leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis categorically ruled out the presence of nuclear weapons in the Caribbean.27 Instead of preparing Americans for the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, intelligence reports based on complacent assumptions made the discovery of this fact all the more shocking. In short, the Soviet Union caught the United States flat-footed.

Handicapped by the technology of the time and oblivious to the presence of tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. Navy decided to release a Notice to Mariners (NTM) detailing how depth charges would be used to peacefully signal the submarines to surface. Moscow never sent an acknowledgement of receiving the NTM.29 Upon detecting the nuclear torpedo laden B-59, American naval forces started dropping depth charges in accordance with the NTM. Unaware of American intentions, suffering from inhospitable conditions and agitated by the subsurface explosions, Captain Savitsky gave the order to ready the nuclear torpedo: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”30 It is because cooler heads prevailed on the B-59 that day that the Caribbean was not subject to a nuclear explosion. Second Captain Vasily Arkhipov overruled Captain Savitsky and prevented the opening shot of a nuclear war.

Now as then, complacency continues to surprise and compel the United States into ad hoc, reactive measures. In 2012, both China and the Philippines swarmed a collection of rocks and reefs known as Scarborough Shoal. Up until then, both countries claimed the Shoal as theirs, but it was under de facto Philippine control. 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese land mass and 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, the Scarborough Shoal episode exemplifies China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.31 To mediate their dispute, the United States hastily brokered a bilateral agreement for both sides to retreat and, in effect, return control to the Philippines. Only one side held to its word. China used the agreement to deceive the Philippines into retreating while maintaining its presence. Without American reprisal or condemnation, China has since then controlled Scarborough Shoal.

The United States must not let the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) bully China’s neighbors. Unlike Khrushchev’s about-face with Castro, the United States must stand steadfast beside its allies. Despite increased FONOPs in the South China Sea, a recent public opinion poll of ASEAN citizens indicated that almost two-thirds of respondents believed U.S. engagement with ASEAN nations had declined. Another one-third said they had little to no confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner and provider of regional security.32 The United States must reaffirm its commitment to the South China region through military sales, combined exercises, and economic empowerment. It is much harder to reverse a change in the status quo than to maintain it through deterrence. By turning the cause of American maritime dominance into a multilateral quest, China’s unilateral offensives will be rendered moot. 

One More Time

The Soviet Union was not defeated through armed conflict; it was defeated through persistent coercion. As the United States negotiates its presence in the South China Sea, and by extension its maritime dominance, it must rely on the same strategy that overwhelmed the Soviet Union while not resurrecting Soviet mistakes. The Soviet decision to forsake their surface fleet and their allies precipitated their withdrawal from the Caribbean, which in turn forecasted their global retreat and eventual downfall. The United States must simultaneously lean on its surface fleet and its ASEAN allies to maintain its position as the bailiff of the world’s saltwater commons.

Sun Tzu pithily remarked that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. We have done it once before, now we must do it again.

LT Akshat Patel is a Submarine Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense. 


1. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (W. W. Norton, New York, 2001), 401.

2. Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2015), 278.

3. Noam Chomsky, “Cuban Missile Crisis: How the US Played Russian Roulette with Nuclear War,” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, October 15, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/15/cuban-missile-crisis-russian-roulette.

4. George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 2009), 153.

5. Ibid.

6. “Occupation and Island Building,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic and International Studies), accessed April 25, 2020, https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/

7. “China Island Tracker,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic and International Studies), accessed April 25, 2020, https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/china/

8. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 60.

9. Ibid., 75.

10. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:2 (April 2005): 236, doi: 10.1080/01402390500088312.

11. Raymond Garthoff, “New Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev, Nuclear Weapons, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cold War International History Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998): 253.

12. Ryurik A Ketov, Captain 1st Rank, Russian Navy (retired), “The Cuban Missile Crisis as Seen Through a Periscope,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:2 (April 2005): 218, doi: 10.1080/01402390500088304.

13. Soviet Navy: Intelligence and Analysis During the Cold War (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017), 12.

14. Ibid., 7.

15. Ibid., 12.

16. Ibid., 8.

17. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 71.

18. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 249.

19. “Aircraft-carriers are big, expensive, vulnerable – and popular,” The Economist, November 2019; Jeff Vandenengel, “Too Big to Sink,” Proceedings, May 2017.

20. Zack Cooper et al. “America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations Are Lost at Sea,” Foreign Policy, January 2019.

21. James O. Ellis, Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired), “Rightsize the Navy,” Hoover Digest (Summer 2018): 49.

22. Gary Roughead, Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired), “A Stretched Navy and A Fiscal Disconnect” Strategika 47 (January 2018).

23. Ibid.

24. Ellis, “Rightsize the Navy,” 51.

25. Eliot A. Cohen, “Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Interest, Winter 1985/86.

26. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

27. Amy B. Zegart, “October Surprises,” Hoover Digest (Fall 2013): 50.

28. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 249.

29. Ibid., 250.

30. Ibid., 246.

31. Gordon G. Chang, “A China Policy That Works – For America” Strategika 41 (May 2017).

32. Jack Kim et al. “Southeast Asia wary of China’s Belt and Road project, skeptical of U.S.: survey,” last modified January 6, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asean-singapore-idUSKCN1P00GP.

Featured Image: A P2V Neptune U.S. patrol plane flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Envisioning a Dystopian Future in the South China Sea

By Capt. Tuan N. Pham, USN

The setting is the South China Sea (SCS) in 2035. On the Chinese island of Mischief Reef, Senior Captain Chen, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Spratly Islands Commander, considers a Philippines Navy request to conduct a quarterly search and rescue drill in the vicinity of the Chinese island of Scarborough Shoal. At the Philippines Navy HQ in Manila, Captain Arroyo goes over the details of the naval drill and approves its execution pending authorization from the PLAN. Near the Chinese island of San Cay in the middle of the SCS, a lone Vietnamese fishing boat evades a China’s Coast Guard (CCG) patrol craft. The fishing boat captain knows full well the penalties for illegal fishing in Chinese waters – arrest, confiscation, fine, and imprisonment. At the Petronas Corporate HQ in Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian vice president negotiates a proposed joint development project in the vicinity of the Chinese islands of Natuna with a Chinese counterpart from China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation. Inside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat Building in Jakarta, the staff reworks next month’s meeting agenda based on guidance from Beijing.

While conjectural now, the SCS as China’s de facto home waters may become a reality in a few years. If so, the dystopian future represents a blatant contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and another blow to the weakening rules-based liberal international order that has provided global prosperity and security for over 70 years. The risk is too high to defer action or do nothing on the wishful hope of Chinese benevolence. The time to act is now. It is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a steep hill near the top than wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom. Inaction, or worse yet, retrenchment further reinforces the ingrained Chinese belief that it is an unstoppable rising power, and the United States is an irreversible waning power.

Beijing’s Gambit

Under the cover of the coronavirus (COVID) pandemic, China took advantage of the outbreak to expand and strengthen its administrative control and jurisdictional authority over the disputed and contested waters and intimidate regional neighbors to acquiesce to its national will. But Beijing misread the geopolitical landscape in 2020 and miscalculated its response. Chinese leaders wrongly assumed that the region and the international community would be distracted with and weakened by COVID, and that they could advance their national interests in the SCS with acceptable political and military risks and costs.

At the onset of COVID, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping may have thought something along these lines:

“As the regional countries, the United States, and the international community look inward to deal with the global pandemic and the force readiness of the U.S. Navy (USN) and its allies in the Pacific appears impacted by COVID, now may be an opportune time to advance China’s interests in the SCS. I anticipate a serious backlash from the world as our COVID misinformation campaign fails, so better to have something to bargain with later. I may also have to remind the people that only the CCP and PLA under my leadership can defend Chinese national interests, particularly when it comes to national unity [territorial integrity] and rejuvenation [Chinese Dream].”

Pursue Cumulative Strategy

Although the U.S.-led regional and international response temporarily checked the increased Chinese aggression in the SCS, it will not alter China’s long-term revanchist design for the international waterway or influence its revisionist global ambitions. To do that, the United States should heed Sun Tzu and pursue an enduring cumulative strategy – a series of connected actions that, when taken together, asymmetrically attacks China’s strategy, undermines China’s developing regional partnerships, and prompts China to overreact and overreach. Firstly, the United States should help the other claimants expand and strengthen their footprints in the SCS and advance resource exploration and development in collaboration with multinational corporations and other state actors. Secondly, the United States should promote and support more legal challenges to China’s excessive maritime claims and ratify UNCLOS to better pursue that avenue. Thirdly, the United States should make more investments in maritime domain awareness (MDA) and law enforcement (LE) capabilities for the other claimants and ASEAN countries bordering the SCS. Lastly, the United States should increase and enhance persistent and collective maritime presence in the SCS to include holding the next biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in the strategic waterway.

Why Act

In the context of the SCS, Chinese overreach is any action that empowers Beijing to dictate who can occupy territories, exploit resources, and conduct commercial and military activities in the disputed and contested waters (as illustrated in the dystopian vignette), undermining the rule of law and necessitating a strong response from the United States and the international community. These overreactions include but are not limited to declaring and enforcing an air defense identification zone; requiring notification of (and perhaps permission for) transits and operations; demanding consultation with (and perhaps approval from) Beijing for any hydrocarbon exploration and development; regulating fishing throughout the SCS; policing the SCS as territorial waters; seizing and militarizing the Natuna Islands, militarizing Scarborough Shoal, and further militarizing the Paracel and Spratly Islands (strategic control points within the SCS); demilitarizing the other SCS claimants; and barring ASEAN countries from military activities outside of ASEAN.

The Chinese overreach, or overreactions, may further push the SCS claimants, other ASEAN countries (though not ASEAN as a whole), and the international community to take a more assertive stance against Beijing. The nature, scope, and extent of the pushback may buy more time for Washington to reverse the erosion of U.S. military advantages and unfavorable trends in the SCS, and for the enduring Chinese domestic problems to further weaken the fragile Chinese economy that underpins its maritime activities locally in the SCS and its coercion globally. These potential effects overlap in time, space, force, and value. From a regional perspective, a strengthened America with confident allies and partners advances a maturing Free and Open Indo-Pacific. From a global perspective, actions that uphold global rules and norms reinforce the weakening rules-based liberal international order.

What and How to Act

While some of the following proposed actions have been discussed individually before, both by myself and others, they have not been wholly framed in this targeted, synchronized, and integrated purpose and manner. They span the diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) instruments of national power and are consistent with the U.S. National Defense and National Military Strategies to counter malign influence: “Compete, deter, and win below the level of armed conflict; and be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable, and strengthen U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.” They asymmetrically attack China’s strategy and undermine its developing partnerships in the SCS by imposing more costs (economic), winning the narratives (information), encouraging greater restraints (diplomatic), and denying the benefits or objectives thereof (military).

As Sun Tzu said: “The supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy, next best is to disrupt his alliances, next best is to attack his army, the worst policy is to attack his cities.” It makes more strategic sense to counter Beijing by undercutting its strategy and undermining its regional relations: Operate and compete in the gray zone. Challenge China just below the threshold of armed conflict, but avoid conflict altogether. It is more advantageous and less costly to take risks and deter a conflict than to pay the price of actually fighting one.

Impose More Costs

The most effective and enduring way to dissuade and deter Beijing in the SCS is to impact its economy (pocketbook). This can be done by helping the other claimants expand and strengthen their military, basing, and infrastructure footprints and advance their resource exploration and development in the strategic waterway, thereby raising China’s operating costs in the SCS. China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan occupy nearly 70 disputed reefs and islets spread across the SCS. China far exceeds them in terms of reclaimed land, built infrastructures, and fielded intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) and power projection capabilities, but these local advantages come at substantial economic and political costs. To level the playing field, the U.S. should assist the other claimants to reclaim more land and improve infrastructures on their internationally recognized maritime claims. By focusing on the recognized geographic features within their exclusive economic zones (EEZ), the other claimants would steer clear of any inconsistency with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) fourth ruling that “China aggravated and extended the disputes through its dredging, artificial island-building, and construction activities.”

Another “escalate to de-escalate” strategy option is to promote more oil and gas exploration and development with multinational corporations and other state actors like Russia’s Rosneft and Gazprom, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Japan’s Idemitsu Kosan and Teikoku Oil, and Exxon Mobil. By internationalizing and diversifying the SCS issue, Beijing could be compelled to compromise and cooperate with the other claimants for peaceful and equitable sharing of the vast oil and gas resources under the SCS. While there is no specific provision in UNCLOS requiring state-to-state cooperation to manage oil and gas resources, certain UNCLOS articles offer mechanisms to encourage compromise and cooperation in resource development. This development could be done equitably and consistently with international laws and the domestic laws of all involved claimants. 

Win the Narratives

Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and the other ASEAN countries are pushing back in the SCS and pressuring China on the long-stalled SCS Code of Conduct which is set to finalize this year. They were encouraged by Vietnam as the 2020 ASEAN Chair, Vietnam’s strong response to Chinese encroachments into its EEZ in 2020, Hanoi’s consideration to take Beijing to the PCA, and the release of Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper. The fleeting geostrategic conditions present yet another opportunity for America to actively promote and support more legal challenges to China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, and the other SCS claimants could leverage the legal precedent set by the 2016 PCA ruling in favor of Manila and submit their challenges to the PCA for arbitration. Washington should encourage these legal challenges, but to be more effective, America must first ratify UNCLOS if its support is to have international legitimacy and be taken seriously by the other claimants. Washington should also encourage a multilateral “grand bargain” for the other claimants to settle their disputes with each other, and thereby providing a united front to China’s excessive maritime claims.

Encourage Greater Restraints

An integral part of the diplomatic initiatives surrounding the SCS is shared situational awareness of the destabilizing Chinese activities therein. It is in the interest of the SCS claimants and ASEAN countries at large to “maintain MDA of their national maritime boundaries as well as of the adjacent international waterways.” They would largely welcome the transparency. Transparency promotes consensus, enables individual and collective responses, mitigates Chinese information operations against them and within ASEAN itself, and strengthens deterrence against Chinese activities below the threshold of armed conflict. Persistent ISR may also give pause to Beijing if it knows that it is being monitored and that its actions are attributable. Put simply, the other claimants and ASEAN countries cannot act collectively without first knowing what, how, where, and when to act.

Another key diplomatic component to stymie Beijing’s efforts to exert increasing administrative control and jurisdictional authority over the SCS is to build up regional LE capabilities and capacities in terms of people (training), processes (tactics), and things (equipment) and prevent China from dominating the LE domain – as the recently passed CCG law might portend. The new Chinese law authorizes the CCG to demolish foreign constructions on Chinese-claimed maritime features (which implies all such Chinese-claimed maritime features within the SCS) and allows the use of weapons against foreign vessels in carrying out these sovereignty operations. The CCG also has been given the authority to board, search, detain, and expel foreign vessels, and arrest individuals suspected of violating Chinese maritime laws (which implies greater authority over international maritime laws) in the waters under Chinese jurisdiction (which means the whole SCS).

Deny the Benefits or Objectives

The U.S. should deny Beijing’s objectives in the SCS, or at least diminish the benefits of its actions therein. There is still much value in continuing to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims through a deliberate and calibrated campaign of persistent presence operations – transits and overflights, exercises, and freedom of navigation operations (FONOP). In 2019, the USN conducted nine FONOPs, an inaugural U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise, annual Cooperation Afloat and Readiness and Training drills, and several combined and multinational naval operations. In 2020, the USN conducted 11 FONOPs, a dual-carrier strike group operation, and a trilateral maritime exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Royal Australian Navy (RAN). To date in 2021, the USN has conducted two FONOPs, a dual-carrier strike group operation, an expeditionary strike group operation, and a bilateral maritime exercise with the RAN. The number of FONOPs in 2019 and 2020 is a dramatic turnaround from the previous years (2015 – two, 2016 – three, 2017 – six, 2018 – five) in terms of operational tempo – despite the COVID impact in 2020.

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has also oriented itself toward China by deploying more cutters and personnel to the region to help train their coast guards. With its developing “regional partnerships and extensive experience strengthening maritime LE regimes,” the USCG is well suited and postured to address the growing need for greater maritime governance in the disputed and contested waters. The United States’ allies and partners have likewise stepped up their presence and operations in the SCS in support of freedom of navigation (FON) – most notably Japan, Australia, India, United Kingdom, and France. Failing to conduct these lawful and routine operations in the aftermath of the landmark 2016 PCA ruling sends the wrong strategic signals to Beijing. The right strategic signals moving forward are more combined and multinational operations and exercises that underscore the universal maritime right of all nations to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits.”

The United States should hold the next RIMPAC exercise in the SCS. The exercise would push back against China’s unilateral militarization of the strategic waterway, reinforce the legal standing of the PCA ruling that invalidated Beijing’s excessive maritime claims, underscore the universal importance of the rule of law and compliance with global norms, and demonstrate that the United States and like-minded nations are willing to collectively stand up for their national interests and shared values. The nature and scope of the exercise could be calibrated to achieve the desired objective. That objective may only require a portion of the exercise to be held in the SCS.

Too Little or Too Much

 For those who view the actions as too little, Washington has more options to dissuade and deter Beijing in the SCS: Build an enduring framework of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements with ASEAN countries to bind the United States to the regional economies and keep them from moving more toward economic alternatives like the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Belt and Road Initiative, and Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership. Lay the groundwork for a regionally-sponsored and -led independent environmental assessment detailing the impact of the damaging Chinese dredging, artificial-island building, and over-fishing to the fragile marine ecosystems. Upgrade the bilateral relationships with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia to strategic partnerships, and advance and accelerate the development of the Quadrilateral Security Framework. Lastly, draw a sharp comparison between Chinese divergent sovereignty positions on and convergent “gray zone” activities in the SCS and the Arctic Ocean to heighten the growing Russian and Nordic concerns of the latter. Then triangulate and bring Russia into the SCS fray to further internationalize and diversify the strategic waterway and asymmetrically check China’s growing Arctic ambitions. These options were not explored for brevity but should be considered in future strategy re-assessment on how best to influence and deter Beijing in the SCS.

Some view these actions as too much, fearing that the recommendations risk pushing Xi (and the CCP) over an invisible red line drawn by “fear, honor, and interest.” The key to the cumulative strategy is for Washington to retain escalation dominance, freedom of movement, and strategic initiative to impose its will on Beijing. As Sun Tzu said, “the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” Washington should seek to impose costs, deny benefits (objectives), encourage restraints, and win the narratives so that the only acceptable strategic calculus for Beijing is to curb or abandon its ambitious and expansive enterprise in the SCS. Like a rheostat, this diversified approach can adjust the “how” to achieve the desired “what.” The strategy must also offer off-ramps throughout the continuum of competition so that Xi (and the CCP) can spin the domestic narratives and save face with the Chinese people. The strategic objective is deterrence, not regime change. The desired end state is to negotiate terms from a position of advantage like during the U.S.-China trade war. China respects resoluteness (strength) and disrespects vacillation (weakness).

Act Now

It is clear that the status quo or retrenchment will have negative consequences for the United States, the region, and the world. It is equally clear that Washington must act now to turn the tides in the SCS and avert a dystopian future when Beijing exerts administrative control and jurisdictional authority of the strategic waterway. The outlined proposals provide a range of DIME options to prompt overreach by Beijing. Such overreaction may cause regional countries, and the greater global community, to view China’s destabilizing actions for what they truly are – a threat to the rules-based liberal international order.

Captain Tuan Pham is a maritime strategist, strategic planner, naval researcher, and China Hand with 20 years of experience in the Indo-Pacific. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. Government or U.S. Navy.

Feature Photo: The Philippine Coast Guard reported that despite repeated demands by Manila that Chinese ships leave Whitsun Reef, at least 240 Chinese vessels remained in the area and surrounding waters. Photo credit: Philippine Coast Guard, 16 Apr 2021.

Conventional Deterrence and the U.S. Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now, Pt. II

Read Part One here.

By Adam Taylor

The challenges posed by China’s offensive deterrence paradigm require a new and innovative future force design for the US Navy. China’s deterrence model prizes confrontation and escalation in order to stop its neighbors from pursuing an unwelcome course of action, and, ultimately, force the target of its deterrent behavior to favor Beijing’s interests. This operating environment requires the US Navy to move from a fleet better suited for conventional war to an architecture that can succeed in a traditional great power conflict and countering Chinese deterrent behavior in the grey zone. A closer exploration of the US Navy’s response and involvement in deterring general war and Chinese aggression short of war in a Taiwan scenario demonstrates both the challenges confronting the current fleet and a possible force design roadmap the service can follow moving forward.

Any assessment of this question requires understanding Beijing’s interests in Taiwan and the range of behavior China might pursue to achieve its desired outcomes. In turn, this clarifies both the range of Chinese military behavior American forces must be prepared to deter and defend against, and whether current US force posture in the region meets those demands. Beijing’s most recent defense white paper makes clear that its overwhelming interest in Taiwan remains the islands reunification and incorporation into the PRC polity. China maintains numerous other interests in the island, however, and could employ a variety of deterrent stratagems to prevent Taiwan from pursuing various political ends at odds with Beijing’s preferences. Examples of China’s other interests could include deterring or reversing a “declaration of independence;” preventing Taiwan from developing nuclear weapons; compelling the abandonment of a military access agreement to US forces; deterring Taiwan’s electorate from pursuing an “independence-minded” course or influencing its electorate not to support candidates favoring such a course; compelling Taiwan to abandon sovereignty claims in the East China Sea (ECS); and forcing Taiwan to accept reunification.

Past examples of Chinese military action provide context for when the PRC will employ deterrent measures in response to developments within Taiwan and the form of force it will use.

Notable Security Events in Cross-Strait Relationship

Historical Event Year(s) Circumstances US Response Notes
First Taiwan Strait Crisis 1954 PRC bombs Taiwan’s islands of Quemoy, Dachen, and Mazu. The US signs mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Taiwan maintains Quemoy and Mazu islands. China gains Dachen island.
Second Taiwan Strait Crisis 1958 PRC bombs Quemoy and Mazu and establishes blockade around Quemoy to compel Taiwan to abandon claim to Quemoy. US Navy escorts Taiwan’s resupply ships to Quemoy, breaking PRC blockade of island. US publicly commits to defense of Quemoy. Taiwan renounces use of force to retake Chinese mainland. China frames crisis as an “internal affair,” and uses the conflict to exacerbate relations between US and Taiwan.
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis 1995-1996 PRC conducts show of force exercises and missile tests near Taiwan in response to US policy toward Taiwan and public support in Taiwan for pro-independence regime. The US deploys two carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait. The US publicly and explicitly states it does not support Taiwan’s independence. US’ conventional deterrent response assured throughout region.
ECS ADIZ Establishment 2013 China establishes ADIZ outside accepted international legal norms. ADIZ contests Japan and Taiwan’s sovereignty claims to same airspace and islands in ECS. America labels ADIZ establishment as “unilateral change to the status quo.” US continues flight operations through China’s ADIZ in ECS.
Island Encirclement Drills 2016 PRC begins regular PLAN and PLAAF exercises around Taiwan to “protect China’s sovereignty.” Exercises occur following election of pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen. US officials condemn exercises. American forces support Taiwan defense force freedom of navigation operations. Encirclement drills ongoing.

Both the Second and Third Taiwan Strait Crises demonstrate that Beijing would resort to abnormal levels of conventional hostility and force to compel Taiwan to abandon its ECS territorial claims or to express its displeasure with political developments that threaten the prospective reunification of Taiwan with China. Beijing’s ADIZ establishment and encirclement drills illustrate that it also relies on related, albeit less pronounced, compellent measures to further its sovereignty claims over Taiwan. These security developments demonstrate the expanding depth of China’s conventional deterrent policy tool kit and the range of scenarios US forces must be equipped to deter.

The PRC’s growing military capabilities also complicate any response to Chinese belligerence towards Taiwan. China now possesses the largest navy in the world, and, per the most recent Department of Defense report on Chinese military power, maintains the largest number of aviation forces in the Asia-Pacific as well as a growing inventory of conventional missiles. While force size alone does not determine the military balance, these developments suggest Beijing now has access to a broader range of tools to advance its goals in the cross-strait relationship.

Given available knowledge about China’s deterrence practices and its forces’ composition and disposition, it becomes possible to create a spectrum of behavior that the joint force must be able to effectively deter in a Taiwan scenario. The figure below highlights this spectrum. The top half of the spectrum illustrates a range of events in Taiwan that the Chinese would utilize varying levels of force to deter. These events are extrapolated from understanding China’s general interests in Taiwan. Each event ranges from least to most threatening Beijing’s interests in Taiwan. The bottom half highlights possible compellent behavior China can pursue to deter events on the top half of the spectrum. The compellent force arrow demonstrates that left to right movement across the spectrum will lead to increasing levels of Chinese deterrent force against Taiwan. While there remains a correlation between Taiwan’s escalatory behavior and increasing Chinese deterrent force as one moves across the spectrum, this does not mean Beijing would not utilize lower levels of compellent force in response to an escalatory event along the spectrum. More important, however, the spectrum illustrates those scenarios when the Navy’s contributions to the joint force’s conventional deterrence posture would be tested. A closer look at the Navy’s ability to support operations aimed at stopping China from deterring Taiwan from policies that lead to de facto independence demonstrate the challenges confronting the service now and in the future.

China’s Spectrum of Conventional Deterrence Measures (Click to Expand)

China Deters Taiwan from Policies that Lead to de-facto Independence

The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis highlights Beijing’s use of military exercises and shows of force that target domestic developments within Taiwan or compel the US to change its policy towards the island. One can see similar circumstances unfold again should the people of Taiwan continue to elect pro-independence minded politicians or publicly support policies that Beijing might consider measures of de-facto independence, such as signing an access agreement for US forces or codifying policy that contradicts the “one China, two systems” policy. The spectrum of behavior suggests that China would resort to intense forms of hostility short of war. America would also likely pressure Taiwan’s leadership to stop such pronouncements for fear of conventional Chinese escalation. It may therefore seem misguided to only examine the utility of America’s current force composition and disposition to deter China’s use of military exercises, considering the seeming mismatch between the implications of outlined provocative domestic political behavior in Taiwan and the range of Chinese behavior. This question remains important, however, given the ability of China to use similar methods against other states in the region pursuing policies at odds with Beijing’s political goals.

In the last Taiwan Strait Crisis, America sailed two aircraft carriers through the strait to communicate America’s resolve to protect Taiwan. Would the threat of a similar response today meaningfully curtail Chinese military exercises or shows of force? Can the threat of sending US warships to signal resolve with Taiwan communicate to Beijing it should reconsider its course of action? Not anymore. Chinese forces today are both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to their forebears, and while they continue to be qualitatively inferior to their American counterparts, they now have the means to effectively engage US vessels. The declining capability gap found between American and Chinese platforms means the deterrent threat posed by current US forces has decreased. Furthermore, it remains a serious logistic, maintenance, and human endeavor to keep America’s highly capable ships at sea consistently and long enough. These conditions make America’s assortment of large platforms not always suited for the passive everyday presence necessary to reassure Taiwan and needed to communicate to the PRC the ability to impose costs should conflict arise.

This dilemma speaks to the issues confronting the composition of the current USN fleet. While aircraft carriers and other large surface combatants possess incredible capabilities and maintain deterrent utility, their size and relative paucity in number make them susceptible to a variety of China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats and difficult to replace should conflict occur. In the words of one US naval professional, “our fleet is too small, and our capabilities are stacked on too few ships that are too big.” Beijing recognizes the operational problem this poses for US military leaders. In turn, this likely informs how China would view the presence of American aircraft carriers or other large platforms in the Taiwan Straits in response to a military show of force exercise. Chinese leaders may view the presence of such platforms as provocative and an important reminder of the force America can bring to bear in a general conflict, but not necessarily an incentive to stop its aggressive behavior. This represents an important consideration for leaders in Washington as they consider the many requests from allies and combatant commanders for the presence of carriers and America’s larger surface combatants in their respective territory or area of operations.  

This scenario raises important questions about the utility of the Navy’s current fleet architecture and the service’s future force design goals. These issues led Department of Defense (DoD) leaders to commission a series of force design studies from the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), the Hudson Institute, and within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to inform their future force design proposal. Together, these studies influenced the Navy’s Battle Force 2045 future force design proposal. While details surrounding the CAPE study remain unavailable to the public, both the Hudson Institute and Battle Force 2045 proposals highlight the direction DoD will take the future fleet.

Unfortunately, Battle Force 2045 falls short of the service’s actual needs because it makes a series of unrealistic assumptions about DoD’s future financial resources and Congress. While this proposal has received much time and attention elsewhere, its shortcomings deserve brief consideration. Two notable issues include the costs associated with a 500-ship fleet and the politics associated with platform divestment decisions. Despite a historically high budget in fiscal year (FY)20, the navy’s current fleet of 300 ships accounts for roughly half its size in FY85. This suggests that maintaining the current force is increasingly expensive relative to previous years and will limit any increase in fleet size. Many legislators will also resist stopping procurement of existing platforms built in their districts and naval leadership would also need to engage in a parochial struggle over which platforms to cut. These and many other issues will limit the ability of the Navy, Congress, and defense enterprise from quickly achieving the consensus needed to build the future fleet the Navy needs.

A Better Fleet

 Navy and DoD leaders can take important steps now, however,  to ensure the service will succeed as a conventional deterrent in both the near and long term. Some of these steps include:

Reduce the advantage of China’s local balance of forces. China’s quantitative force advantage in the region means it will likely maintain and increase its ability to field a larger force in any future contingency within the first island chain. This balance of forces allows it to quickly mass its forces and complicate any US or combined response to conventional Chinese aggression. States who remain possible objects of Beijing’s aggression like Taiwan, the Philippines, or Vietnam will likely need to confront Chinese forces in response to malign conventional behavior short of war or in the initial stages of any deterrent action with limited US support. These states can mitigate the Beijing’s balance of forces advantage by increasing the deterrent utility of their security forces. America can support this goal by both increasing its arms sales to these nations and facilitating greater training opportunities designed to qualitatively improve partners’ capabilities. Although the China will likely view such a strategy as antagonistic, it provides a cost-effective way for the US to increase the deterrent capability of its partners.

Incorporate cheaper and more expendable platforms. America’s high end warfighting platforms do not always provide the best deterrent response options because they remain expensive to employ, costly to replace, and potentially vulnerable to the threats posed by China’s well developed A2/AD capabilities. Beijing can use these considerations to pursue courses of action that advance its interests while reducing the passive threat posed by US forces in the Asia-Pacific. America could respond to this dilemma by trying to increase the number of high-end ships in its fleet, but this approach remains unsustainable. Both the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service recently concluded that the cost of maintaining a 355-ship fleet (let alone 500 ships) over 30 years would exceed the cost of purchasing new ships. This crowding out effect could prove disastrous for future US defense planners who want to field new generations of technology across the feet or build newer ships. While the Biden administration’s recently released “skinny budget” and comments from the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggest a future naval shipbuilding boon, it remains difficult to assess if this thinking maintains long-term political support if it leads to cuts from the other services’ toplines.

The Navy can mitigate this issue by divesting from legacy platforms today and reinvesting those savings into research and development projects that increase the capability of platforms currently in service and into cheaper and more expendable platforms. Although this modernization window may provide Beijing an opportunity to act, it would provide the service with the investment needed to ensure long-term success.

While these cheaper ships would likely not have the individual capability of other platforms found throughout the fleet, they could provide the means to place a limited suite of capabilities on highly survivable platforms. These platforms, in turn, would be able to operate in A2/AD environments within zones of contention for longer periods of time and would be more easily replaced. Such ships would provide a credible denial deterrence capability by reducing China’s quantitative balance of forces advantage and increasing the qualitative ability of the deterrent response from the US and its partners.

Reconsider offset strategies to bridge the gap between the present and future. The Third Offset Strategy first introduced under the Obama administration provides a possible near term solution that can meet this goal. This initiative prioritized investments in projects like laser weapons that could shoot down enemy missiles at a fraction of the cost of current missile defense systems; modifying traditional cannon to fire guided hyper velocity projectiles; and investment in increasing the range of the navy’s Tomahawk missiles or the payloads of its submarines by decreasing procurement of more ships. While this would sacrifice procurement and acquisition of some platforms in the near term, it could lead to savings the Department of Defense needs to invest in cutting-edge technologies. These investments would also mitigate vulnerabilities associated with any modernization window. Many of these technologies would increase the operational reach and efficacy of existing platforms, which, in turn, may increase the deterrent utility of the fleet in the near-term and better posture the service to field more deterrent and defense credible ships in the future.

Beijing’s competitive deterrence model has led it to fashion a force that targets the vulnerabilities found within the Navy’s existing fleet, which is why the Navy cannot afford to double down on a losing force design like Battle Force 2045. Instead, service leadership must be willing to make difficult decisions today that prioritize divestment from legacy platforms and investment into future platforms and technologies that ensure America can field qualitatively superior platforms at scale that are able to deter China across the spectrum of competition.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, leaves after wrapping up a five-day visit to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), south China, July 11, 2017. A departure ceremony was held at the Ngong Shuen Chau Barracks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison by the HKSAR government. (Photo via Xinhua/Zeng Tao)

Conventional Deterrence and the US Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now Pt. I

By Adam Taylor

Recent remarks by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM), highlights one of the most difficult challenges confronting US naval forces in the Asia-Pacific—America’s conventional deterrence posture in the region. He noted “the greatest danger for the United States in this competition [with China] is the erosion of conventional deterrence. Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order.” This statement deserves further consideration among naval observers given its assumptions about the nature of conventional deterrence, possible ramifications on the composition and disposition of US forces in the region, and implications for the Navy’s future force design. An assessment of the Navy’s recent “Battle Force 2045” vision against the utility of its traditional contributions to conventional deterrence and the implications associated with differing US and Chinese ideas about deterrence unfortunately demonstrates that the service’s future force design remains ill-equipped to address the deterrence deficit confronting the US.

Deterrence represents one form of coercive diplomacy, which the DoD defines as the “prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” Compellence constitutes a different form of coercive diplomacy, representing the “use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would.” States can employ these coercive approaches through various instruments of power in their pursuit of national interests.

Strategies of deterrence and compellence differ in their relationships to the prevailing status quo : Deterrence seeks to preserve the status quo, while compellent policies seek to alter it. Other important differences between both strategies include the passage of time and initiator of action. Deterrence strategies passively wait for the object of the deterrent strategy to initiate action, while compellence requires continuous and active efforts by the coercing state.

As a status quo great power, America’s deterrence paradigm informs the Navy’s contributions to the nation’s conventional deterrence posture. Three of its nine functional contributions to the joint force directly contribute to conventional deterrence posture:

  1. Conduct offensive and defensive operations associated with the maritime domain including achieving and maintaining sea control, to include subsurface, surface, land, air, space, and cyberspace;
  2. Provide power projection through sea-based global strike, to include nuclear and conventional capabilities; interdiction and interception capabilities; maritime and/or littoral fires to include naval surface fires; and close air support for ground forces;
  3. Establish, maintain, and defend sea bases in support of naval, amphibious, land, air, or other joint operations as directed.

The chart below from a Center for Naval Analyses report illustrates how the Navy’s deterrent contributions fit into the broader joint force deterrent posture.

Deterrence: Total Force View

The Navy’s ability to “loiter” and remain minimally intrusive highlights why the service is best suited to provide mobile, prompt, and flexible conventional deterrent forces that can sustainably project power without a footprint. The resources needed to deploy and sustain land forces may effectively signal a state’s deterrent commitment, but require time to generate and are relatively less mobile within a theater of operations. Conversely, air power can provide prompt response and minimally intrusive capabilities, but is limited by platforms’ relatively short time on station compared to naval assets. The Navy mitigates these issues through a variety of means, as noted in the same report:

“When maritime power is used, countries can keep from appearing to have an overly close relationship with the United States that might spark new, or enflame ongoing, socio-cultural tensions and violence, while at the same time enjoying the security benefits of US forces in the area vis-à-vis regional adversaries. In fact, if there is a continuing trend in which countries want completely new US security commitments and/or strengthened assurances of existing guarantees, but at the same time do not want to host US forces on their soil, maritime power may increasingly become the primary military instrument used to simultaneously assure allies and deter adversaries.”

Naval operations can simultaneously address the need for commitment without the costs associated with permanent military installations because they do not need basing or overflight rights like land or air forces and can maintain either an overt or “over the horizon” presence. These qualities led Oliver Cromwell to famously declare that a “man-o-war is the best ambassador.” They also demonstrate how naval assets can credibly communicate the commitment needed to deter without incurring political costs or unnecessarily antagonizing potential belligerents.

These qualities ensure the Navy remains a crucial element of America’s deterrence posture in the Asia-Pacific given the contestable nature of conventional deterrence. Prompt denial mitigates opportunistic aggression by limiting the likelihood of quick and low-cost victory. The Navy’s combination of air, sea, and land assets ensures the service has the organic ability to counter aggression. Similarly, the service’s ability to loiter in zones of contention for extended periods of time means the Navy can demonstrate the political resolve and commitment needed to convince potential belligerents to abandon hostile courses of action – but only if those potential belligerents find the deployed forces to be credible.

China, however, pursues a conventional deterrence strategy at odds with America’s deterrence paradigm. The PRC defines deterrence as “the display of military power or the threat of use of military power in order to compel an opponent to submit.” This definition encompasses both dissuasion and coercion in a single concept. Chinese military writing emphasizes that deterrence has two important functions: “one is to dissuade the opponent from doing something through deterrence, the other is to persuade the opponent what ought to be done through deterrence, and both demand the opponent submit to the deterrer’s volition.” Beijing’s definition of deterrence also suggests it views deterrence as a way to achieve a desired political outcome. Deterrence represents a means to a specific end. American discussions tend to characterize deterrence as a goal. INDOPACOM’s mission to field a “combat credible deterrence strategy…” highlights this distinction.

American versus Chinese Views of Deterrence

Strategy Definition Temporal Constraint Object of Force Characteristics
American Deterrence Dissuade an opponent from taking an unwelcome action by threatening the use of force. Occurs during peace time. Passively influence enemy’s intentions to prevent future challenge to status quo. Status quo posturing can be viewed as first strike preparations.
Chinese Deterrence Dissuade or coerce an opponent through the display of military power or threatening the use of force in order to compel an opponent to submit. Occurs during peace and war time. Requires object of deterrence to preference Chinese political interests at object’s expense. Multi-domain; preemptive; contests disputed sovereignty claims; crisis amenable.

The PLA pursues deterrence through a strategy of “forward defense.” This strategy calls for China “pushing the first line away from China’s borders and coasts to ensure that combat occurs beyond China’s homeland territory, not on or within it…China’s borders and coasts are now viewed as interior lines in a conflict, not exterior ones.” China incorporates a variety of conventional, space, information capabilities, economic, and diplomatic means into its deterrence policy tool bag. All of these measures combine to aide Beijing’s deterrence policy which aims to compel an aggressor to abandon offensive intentions or cause a defender to conclude the cost of resistance remains too high. The offensive nature of Chinese deterrence means Beijing would consider preemptive action during periods of tension should the PRC conclude an aggressor has decided to violate China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing’s use of force in its deterrence strategy also highlights the value it places on crisis and tension. While American policy makers might consider a crisis that challenges the status quo a possible point of deterrence failure, Chinese leadership views crisis as an avenue to achieve favorable political outcomes. A crisis or increase in tension that might not normally exist under the status quo allows the PRC to probe an adversary’s intentions, foment friction among allies, weaken an opponent’s resolve, or decrease the domestic political support for an adversary’s policies.

The divergence in deterrence theory and practice between both nations has important implications for the Navy’s future force design. China’s impressive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities combined with a deterrence strategy that favors crisis escalation and encroachment on other nations’ sovereignty challenges the Navy’s ability to effectively deter. The Navy can no longer assume that its ships’ ability to loiter in zones of contention will deter an increasingly capable Chinese military from taking unwanted action. Navy leadership also must reconsider if the fleet’s current composition and posture adequately conveys America’s daily commitment to its allies or provides a realistic deterrent against belligerent Chinese behavior short of war. Aircraft carriers, high-tech destroyers, and attack submarines do an excellent job demonstrating the Navy’s capabilities should conventional war occur, but do not necessarily represent the best choice when dealing with the daily and persistent malign behavior that China employs. These platforms cost a lot to operate and maintain which means the Navy cannot endlessly keep them at sea in contested areas. Furthermore, it likely strains Chinese credulity to believe that the US would employ its qualitatively superior platforms to respond to every escalatory action Beijing engages in against American partners. Washington would look overreactive and all too willing to consistently let its ships and sailors operate in a costly A2/AD environment.

All of these issues raise important questions about the Navy’s ability to deter Chinese aggression, manage escalation, and credibly prevail in a great power conflict. The future fleet must possess the ability to decisively win a conventional conflict while also maintaining the capability needed to deter aggression short of war. Beijing’s deterrence paradigm requires a navy that can compete with China across the entire spectrum of operations. Unfortunately, the Navy’s recently released “Battle Force 2045” concept falls short of these requirements with its over investment in surface combatants, under investment in uncrewed ships, and unrealistic assumptions about defense budgets.  A more thorough review of the Navy’s ability to respond to conventional aggression against Taiwan will demonstrate the service’s current shortcomings and the way ahead for a more sustainable and effective force design.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: INDIAN OCEAN (March 20, 2021) Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ryan Walsh, from Monroe, N.Y., watches the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) March 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wade Costin)