US Navy Declines To Party With PLA(N)

by Craig Hooper on April 19, 2019

The old movie Wargames reminds us that, sometimes, “the only winning move is not to play.” It looks like the U.S. Navy is doing just that with China’s massive naval review this month, refusing to send ships to celebrate the 70th anniversary of China’s Navy beyond the local attache. From the Japan Times:

The United States has decided not to send warships or senior military officers to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy later this month, a snub by Washington even as U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are expected to send their own vessels and officials.

If a rival is weaponizing ceremonial events like this, then the only option is to not play. This decision came a few weeks after I published this piece over at Forbes, detailing how these largely ceremonial events were becoming a new axis of maritime competition.

Also, I presume this refusal to show up for the party is something of an indication that the China-U.S. trade talks are not going well.

What To Do…Instead?

Ideally, the U.S. Navy would have some sort of specialized ceremonial platform–a training squadron, Presidential Yacht or floating embassy available to handle these things. A non-military option might be useful to subtly shift the axis of competition away from military pageantry (where the visitor is always gonna be handicapped) to some sort of governmental systems-based challenge that make regimes a tad nervous.

Another option would be to encourage friends to not show at all, but, aside from the fact that a refusal by the locals to attend would be entirely unsporting, America lacks the diplomatic power to pull off such a thing against China. Navies are proliferating, and, these days, every tin pot country has Blue Water pretentions of their own, and, well, if a big power pays handsomely to incentivize showing up, even the smallest of navies are gonna, well, “Navy” their way to the party. Certainly a few nicely-placed Op-eds recalling old Chinese habits of requiring regular tributes to the emperor might be an interesting touch (What happens on the Yellow River stays on the Yellow River, I suppose), but, I doubt the U.S. has developed substantial capability to shape news coverage/elite discussions in some of the small countries within China’s growing sphere of interest.

Finally, another option is to do something to completely put China off-kilter, feeding it’s worst instincts or otherwise helping the country’s well-calibrated and friendly veneer slip a little bit in public. These could range from recognizing Taiwan (!!) to coordinating the seizure of illegally-operating Chinese fishing-boats, grabbing Chinese-flagged ships involved in illegally supporting North Korea, or…conducting amphibious operations from Vietnam’s Truong Sa airport, at Scarborough Shoal, or the Philippines’ Pag-asa island airstrip in the South China Seas to…oh, releasing a periscope picture of some high-profile Chinese ship someplace.

What is the USCG Up To?

While the Navy is ignoring the Party, the USCG’s globe-trotting cutter, the Bertholf, joined Navy ships to parade through the Taiwan straits, only to make a quick stop in Hong Kong–the first Coast Guard ship to visit in 17 years. The ship is now operating with the South Korean Coast Guard, and was last reported in Busan.

That puts the USCG in an interesting place, capable of proving the U.S. Government options–the Bertholf is well positioned if the Administration decides at the last possible second to either try and join the PLA(N) party or to rain on the PLA(N) parade.

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