Dr. James Holmes

Dr. James Holmes


You recently concluded a five-part series analyzing the possibilities of a U.S.-China War. You have also written articles concerning a China-Japan conflict over islands in the East China Sea. While you have noted many times that war between any of these countries is unlikely, paint a picture for our readers: What are the scenarios where you feel a miscalculation, nationalism, or some crisis could lead to conflict?

You’re not going to lure me into that briar patch. I am not a big fan of scenario analysis because that approach implies that political and social conditions drive events, whereas I believe people drive events through their decisions and actions. People also have a habit of interpreting scenarios as prediction, as they have with my work on Sino-Japanese tensions. So, I will remain evasive. The disputes we see are intermediate engagements in a larger struggle to define the nature of the Asian order. Hence all the overheated words and, sometimes, deployment of military and non-military instruments over seemingly trivial objects like Scarborough Shoal or the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It’s hard for us on this side of the Pacific to fathom, I think, but the contenders clearly understand that small-scale disputes are part of something big. Furthermore, deep passions over sovereignty, history, and lost honor and dignity are at work on all sides. It is very hard to compromise on matters that engage such basic motives, especially when leaders have tied their own political fortunes to not compromising on them. Nor is patience infinite. I could see the parties agreeing to kick the can down the road on these controversies again, but there will be an endgame at some point. That’s why, for instance, there will be no binding code of conduct for the South China Sea that requires the claimants to surrender their interests permanently. Ultimately the parties will have to decide whether to fight, to submit the disputes to a forum that might rule against them, or to abandon longstanding interests. It’s hard to envision China’s surrendering anything or submitting to arbitration, so I guess it’s up to China’s neighbors do decide whether to accommodate Beijing or try to push back. Their reaching out to the United States is why you hear all the bloviating in China about American mischief-making; U.S. help gives Asian powers options apart from caving in or fighting hopeless battles. In short, all of these disputes hold outsized importance. Any of them could turn ugly if leaders in one or more countries think the balance of forces favors them — or if they think they must act now, or never. Not to bash China, but recent history suggests that Beijing is the power most likely to force an endgame.

Various media outlets have reported that Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been patrolling the area around the Senkaku/Daiyo Islands.  Other outlets have reported that some of these vessels were from the Chinese Navy itself and not a non-naval maritime unit like a Coast Guard. You have written that China has attempted to press its maritime claims using non-naval assets or what you have called “Small-Stick Diplomacy.” We know that in the recent crisis over the South China Sea, Chinese Naval vessels were patrolling the area as one went aground. Is “Small Stick Diplomacy” dead?

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I think it is dead. There are two halves to big-stick diplomacy in Theodore Roosevelt’s mold, and to small-stick diplomacy — a concept I shamelessly pilfered, or rather adapted, from TR — as well. China now has the material half, the big stick embodied by military and naval power and the other elements of national strength. But Chinese leaders and many rank-and-file citizens don’t seem to get the diplomatic half, namely that you speak softly and conduct yourself with tact and good humor vis-a-vis other societies. You try not to engage the passions that tend to stiffen spines and inhibit you from getting your way without resort to arms and without leaving long-lasting animosities. That’s why TR adds a “frontier” corollary to his big-stick doctrine, to the effect that you should never bluster or flourish your revolver. The diplomacy of power politics seems lost on Beijing. Now, why is this approach dead? Why has Beijing squandered such a useful instrument? As above, my guess would be that Chinese leaders see the time as ripe to force these issues, and they may also think time is short — whether because the United States is rebalancing to Asia, political and economic pressures are mounting at home, or some combination of things. Haste seems imperative, whatever the longer-term costs.

The U.S. Navy is at its smallest point since 1916, as pointed out by Governor Mitt Romney, the United States Republican nominee for the presidency in a recent foreign policy speech at VMI. Many have argued that it is not the amount of vessels that count, but capabilities. In the Asia-Pacific, with America trying to “pivot” or “rebalance,” how much does the amount of ships matter? If budget cuts were to cut the size of forces from where it is now, is the defense aspect of this shift in U.S. focus still credible?

Numbers matter a lot in an evenly matched contest, especially for a remote power like the United States that stages military power in someone else’s backyard to deter or coerce. They have the home-field advantages, including the luxury to supplement their navy with shore-based firepower; we have the stretched logistics, wear-and-tear on people and hardware, and so on. We err if we project the experience of the past two decades, in which high-tech U.S. forces have plinked sorely outmatched adversaries at will, onto the Western Pacific. We also err when we think of the Chinese military as a descendant of the Soviet military we defeated so “easily.” Let’s bear in mind that we never put the U.S.-Soviet military competition to the test of combat — thank heaven. The Soviets were a serious opponent, and the PLA is an increasingly serious prospective opponent. These are some of the reasons I have urged the U.S. leadership to start ponder unifying the U.S. Navy in the Asia-Pacific. To channel Alfred Thayer Mahan, we need enough forces in the region to fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force we’re likely to fight. The Pacific Fleet’s margin of qualitative and quantitative superiority over the PLA is narrowing. At some point we will need more numbers to fight while absorbing the inevitable battle losses.

One of your most talked about – and controversial pieces – looked at the idea of moving away from a two-ocean navy for the United States. Many of our readers have asked for more specifics on this topic. For example: What assets would you move from the Atlantic to the Pacific? What percentage of Naval forces would remain in the Atlantic? Do you feel this would create an arms race with China by fueling Beijing to spend even more on naval forces or anti-access weapons?

To start with, much of what I wrote about that was predicated on finding a more central position in maritime Asia for heavy forces, presumably in Australia. That would position U.S. forces ideally to move between the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. The Australian government, however, saw fit to torpedo that idea with extreme prejudice when it appeared in a recent CSIS report. Whether that represents the end of the matter or the opening stage of tough negotiations, I guess we will see. If we can’t strike some sort of basing agreement with Australia, our position in the Indian Ocean — centered on Bahrain, inside the Strait of Hormuz and within easy reach of Iranian forces — will be increasingly tenuous. That will leave us with some hard thinking to do. Under those circumstances, Rep. Randy Forbes could be right that forces will still voyage to the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic coast, which would be the shortest route. But ultimately, I would say if no one is willing to host U.S. forces in the Indian Ocean, we may have to ask ourselves why we should go to the effort and expense of remaining there. Having said all of that, and assuming we do work something out with the Australian leadership, I think we could strip the Atlantic Fleet almost bare. There is no pressing threat in the Atlantic, so why not let the new Littoral Combat Ships anchor our presence off that coast while trusting to our European friends to take up most of the load? Light combatants joined by, say, enough amphibious ready groups to assure one is always available for non-combat contingencies like human or disaster relief should be enough for a permissive environment.

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