Whither an American strategy to deal with China, laments Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA), Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. In Forbes’ view, China is executing a focused strategy in its (desired) areas of influence in East and Southeast Asia: occupying features; supporting maritime militia; creating and expanding economic and trade links; constantly and unwaveringly repeating its (logically incorrect) “indisputable” claims; and so on. In contrast, the US is lost in the woods without a clear plan to take up the gauntlet that China has thrown down. Instead, the US should be actively responding to these de facto challenges to the American order in the region (Forbes handily provides his own five-point checklist for creating such a strategy).
Not so fast, says US Naval War College Professor James Holmes. Crafting an effective American strategy in East Asia is not simple, especially given the US’ global security commitments. First, we need to analyze the types of strategies that best suit status quo and challenger countries: as the challenger to the American system, China is more likely to advance a “sequential”-type strategy, with linear tactical movements that build on each other to a clear goal; meanwhile, the US probably develops a “cumulative” strategy, which is comprised of often far-flung, disconnected and disparate movements that, in aggregate, support a general outcome. Viewed in this way, China’s strategy is clear, simple and straightforward, while the US is in the unenviable position of responding with diffuse responses, which must be managed in the context of a wide-ranging and complex relationship. With these differences in mind, though, Holmes argues (not unlike Forbes) that the US itself needs to craft a sequential strategy for East Asia. To this end, he recommends setting and acting upon priorities, reducing the burden on US resources by enlisting global allies to lead in their respective neighbourhoods, and directly challenging China’s attempts to create facts on the ground, such as the massive buildup of sometimes-submerged features in the South China Sea. In many ways, this sounds like the Obama administration’s strategy – the rebalance to the Pacific, and recent US Navy freedom of navigation challenges in the South China Sea – but adopting Holmes’ and Forbes’ recommendations would presumably make this strategy easier to execute, achieve, and evaluate.
The creation and execution of national maritime strategies is the focus of an entire panel at Maritime Security Challenges 2016, to be held in Victoria, BC, Canada, on October 3rd to 6th, 2016. Come join us!