Over the course of my naval blogging, nothing has worried me more than the Pacific. I worry that American policymakers have taken their eyes off the ball, distracted by impulsive, poorly justified national security choices (i.e. Iraq and Libya). As resources dwindle, the margin for error and or ability to absorb/compensate/fix strategic mistakes dwindle too.
Other countries are increasingly able to capitalize on American mis-steps. We don’t deal with that well, at all. With China, in particular, America’s penchant for panic in the face of even the most minimal of perceived challenges poses a real–and largely unrecognized–security threat.
That is why the US desperately needs a comprehensive national security strategy for the Pacific.
The United States needs a strategic outline for the Pacific. Not a milk-toast “glossy” maritime strategy “outline” or a some phone-book sized strategic door-stop (think QDR), but more strategy built around public discussion and good, thorough debates on basic strategy. That’s why I am excited to see this sort of conference take place out at the Navy War College. (I’m glad to have been invited, and hope to attend. It looks interesting, and I hope to be able to make some contributions there.)
In the Pacific theatre, I am particularly worried about how America will respond as other countries begin to employ naval force in ways that we have pretty much taken for granted. I fear the United States public (and policymakers) will fail to react in a constructive fashion once China decides to engage in some, oh, unilateral peace-keeping exercise of it’s own someplace in the Pacific (and, for that matter, nor do I believe the PLA will constrain its apatite for new territory–particularly if the pickings are tiny Pacific kleptocracies.). A good strategy would seek to prevent–or reduce the need–for the PLA to get into a situation where it might succumb to temptation.
To start that discussion off, Hoover Fellow Commander David Slayton (USN) and I penned a few papers looking at this very issue. In the Hoover Digest, we present “China at Sea“, and at USNI Proceedings we offer, “The real game changers of the Pacific Basin” (and no, to answer all the questions from those who have gotten the printed version, we didn’t write or see the captions on the illustrations there before the article went to press!). They’re pretty much identical papers–but I think the Hoover one reads better.
Anyway, the gist of the two papers is this: We feel that the first unilateral tests of China’s emergent amphibious force will take place in the deep Pacific, and that there is a risk China will exploit local (and very, very violent) anti-Chinese violence as a justification to carry out some form of a HA/DR or NEO evacuation. But we also fear that such activity will creep into some form of Spratly-like squatting and, in time, a permanent presence and/or territorial claim.
After all, what member of the PLA would refuse a Chinese “Diego Garcia” in the Pacific? Those islands can be darned useful, after all.
Are we panicking? Maybe. On a parochial level, panic is good–and the Marine Corps must be thrilled with us right now. But I feel that provocation is going to become a regular part of the Western Pacific’s strategic fabric. Australia’s Peter Howarth, I think, hit the nail on the head back in 2006, in “China’s Rising Sea Power: The PLA Navy’s Submarine Challenge.” In the book, he quoted Castex:
The side whose serious inferiority on the surface condemns it to the defensive ought always, despite its unfavorable situation, to try to be as active and aggressive as possible. Its fleet should remember that the very fact of its existence is sufficient to confer upon it the title of “Fleet in Being”, and that, if it wants to have some influence on events, it has to give some sign of its state of being, which it can do by undertaking something, by trying to impose its will to the extent that its means allow, seeking as far as it can the operational initiative, even if it does not result in anything decisive.
That’s what is going on here. China is not building a blue-water Navy–they’re building a Navy to serve as a goad.
China’s ships–even relatively recently built front-line craft (that are expected to remain in service for the next twenty years)–are glass-jawed wonders, complete with plywood interiors. The PLA(N) still has trouble producing sufficient fresh water for embarked crew. And on a regional basis, with South Korea, Japan, Australia or other allies added in, China’s Navy looks far less daunting. It’s a fleet built to confront than to provoke and exploit.
Just look at the strategic message put forth by naming their first aircraft carrier (a feeble, aged hulk that it is), after the Admiral who conquered Taiwan. Add in the fact that work was sped up on the craft to, in part, enter service during the U.S. Navy’s Centennial of Aviation. (Nevermind the fact that this platform will likely be mostly used as a test DF-21D targeting surrogate, but hey, that’s for another day, right?) China gets a heck of a lot of mileage out of minimal investment. China has a strategy, and they are doing the things they need to do to carry it out.
America isn’t. And that worries me.
**There is also an aside here about leveraging intellectual capital, too. I mean, why isn’t there far more collaboration between Australian and U.S. strategic think-tanks? As far as Navy studies go, Australia hits far above its weight, as does Singapore. We should have all kinds of joint strategic studies going on in that part of the world, but, frankly, I’ve not been impressed. We should be doing a lot more to engage our Pacific Partners–we can start by trying to send more officers over with the express purpose of forging good strategy. And, for that matter, let’s encourage more Aussies to come to the War Colleges as well.**