Features | Security | East Asia

Beating “Voldemort Syndrome”

Frank talk about U.S. purpose and power is more likely to deter than provoke conflict with China. Admitting Beijing could be an adversary, and preparing accordingly, is the way forward.

James R. Holmes

Much has been made of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia since November, when U.S. Secretary of State Clinton announced it in Foreign Policy. We took this largely in stride in the sea services, namely the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. We never left the Pacific. And we’ve been present in force in the Persian Gulf – an inlet or bay in the Indian Ocean, as Indian geopolitical thinker points out – for over two decades, since the first Gulf War. Indeed, our combat power in Asia has been on the increase for nearly a decade, since the Bush administration decided to realign U.S. forces stationed overseas. One example: the U.S. submarine force started moving units to the Pacific in 2006.

Indeed, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard formally “pivoted” to Asia in 2007, when they published a Maritime Strategy titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. As the title implies, the Maritime Strategy stresses coalition building for a variety of purposes, from counterpiracy and counterproliferation to humanitarian and disaster relief. These are worthy missions. But the document’s drafters tucked away a couple of bloody-minded passages in the text. The first directs the sea services to remain capable of imposing “local sea control” in any navigable body of water on the face of the earth. The United States will do this by itself if necessary. Evidently it’s hard to give up the habit of ruling the waves, wherever those waves may be found.

But the second proclaims that the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard have fixed their strategic gaze on maritime Asia. They will stage “credible combat power” in two oceans – the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean – for the foreseeable future. They intend to remain Number One in this grand “Indo-Pacific” theater. What this means is that the U.S. Navy will remain the two-ocean navy it’s been since 1940, when Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act – in effect creating one navy for the Atlantic and a second for the Pacific. But the second ocean is now the Indian Ocean. It’s more accurate to say the navy is pivoting from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

Like any strategy, this one must be backed with forces. Otherwise, ambitious powers like China will set the terms for U.S. policy in Asia. Since the fleet is unlikely to grow in these difficult budgetary times, those forces will come from the Atlantic theater. For example, around 60 percent of the nuclear attack-submarine force now makes its home in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which holds responsibility for the Pacific and most of the Indian Ocean. That’s a rough indicator of how much of the navy will eventually concentrate in the Indo-Pacific.

However…this nautical pivot remains incomplete. As the old saying goes, it takes a while to turn a battleship. Permanently shifting vessels and aircraft is expensive, and it’s hard. It requires expanding base infrastructure, improving logistics and repair facilities, and moving families. It engages local and national politics – as anyone who’s ever tried to downsize or close a military base will tell you.

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But the real impediment is intellectual, not material, or even political. For global powers like the United States, or Great Britain before it, it appears hard to set priorities and act on them. Think about the two passages I mentioned before – local sea control anywhere versus credible combat power in East and South Asia. I’m not sure navy or defense officials truly accept the need to refocus on Asia if it means accepting new risk in traditional theaters like the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. You’d think shedding old burdens would be a welcome thing, but it seems to contradict the logic of power politics. Commanders and their political masters hedge like there’s no tomorrow!

One thing to watch as we track the evolution of U.S. strategy in Asia is how the Obama administration “refreshes,” or revises, the Maritime Strategy inherited from its predecessor. The sea services are revisiting the strategy as we speak. The term “refresh” implies a shift of emphasis more than wholesale change. We’ll have to wait and see what that entails.

The other thing to monitor is the United States’ effort to assume a more central position in maritime Asia. Australia makes a logical staging point at the “seam” between the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. From this position midway through the region, maritime forces can swing from side to side as needed. And they can do so while remaining out of contested expanses like the Yellow, East China, and South China seas, which increasingly fall under the shadow of long-range Chinese weaponry.

I’m delighted that our administration and the Australian government have agreed to station U.S. Marines in Darwin, along the northern coast of Australia, and to operate American drones from the Cocos Islands. But much more needs to be done to establish a hub for seagoing U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region. I’d like to see carrier strike groups and surface action groups operate from this close American ally. Whether that happens…I guess we’ll see.

One problem is that U.S. commanders are so preoccupied with retaining, or regaining, access to maritime Asia that they seldom ask what U.S. forces should do there. Well, for one thing, we should stop making China the Voldemort of U.S. policy in Asia – a power certain to unleash terrifying consequences if we speak its name. As former Kennedy School professor Thomas Schelling teaches, candor towards prospective opponents is just as important as candor towards friends and allies. Frank talk about American purposes and power is where deterrence comes from. Admitting that China could be an adversary, and that we must prepare accordingly, poses a test of our character and resolve.

In strategic and operational terms, the U.S. military must figure out how to pierce increasingly potent Chinese defenses, also known as “access denial” weapons, sensors, and tactics. The U.S. Navy and Air Force are developing an “AirSea Battle Doctrine” to overcome this challenge. We also need to think about what to do once we have pried open contested Asian waters and skies – say, during a war in the Taiwan Strait. My answer is that we need to think ahead about ways to make things tough and expensive for Chinese forces, at low cost and risk to ourselves and our allies, and without provoking all-out war. For example, small U.S. Army or Marine units equipped with portable antiship missiles and stationed along Japan’s Ryukyu island chain could make the straits virtually impassable for Chinese Navy surface units – impairing the People’s Liberation Army’s efforts to resist U.S. reinforcements steaming westward from Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. West Coast.

One model for such operations is an unlikely one – Lord Wellington. From 1807 to 1814, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the great British commander led a ground force of modest size, supported from the sea, which operated in Portugal and Spain. This “hybrid” campaign, in which regular British soldiers fought alongside Spanish partisans, imposed a costly second front on the French at minimal cost to Britain. Napoleon joked that Wellington’s campaign gave France a “Spanish ulcer.” The United States should think about how to give China an ulcer of its own should events warrant.

Ultimately, proven capacity and resolve to conduct operations along the Asian periphery represent Washington’s best way of deterring war and preserving the U.S.-led order that has served the United States – and the region – well for seven decades.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of ‘Red Star over the Pacific.’  This article is based on remarks delivered at The Diplomat’s ‘Pivot to the Pacific’ panel at Harvard University. The views voiced here are his alone.