It seems everything old is new again. My (online) colleague Jens Kastner published an important article in Asia Times this week, detailing how Beijing enlists fishermen as an arm of its maritime strategy. His story will strike a familiar chord with any U.S. Navy sailor of a certain age. During the Cold War it was hard for an American task force of any consequence to leave port without a Soviet “AGI” in trail. These souped-up fishing trawlers would shadow U.S. task forces, joining up just outside U.S. territorial waters. So ubiquitous were they that naval officers joked about assigning the AGI a station in the formation, letting it follow along – as it would anyway – without obstructing fleet operations.
AGIs were configured not just to cast nets, but to track ship movements, gather electronic intelligence, and observe the tactics, techniques, and procedures by which American fleets transact business in great waters. Few seafaring nations use nonmilitary assets that way. Wielded deftly, though, they can play a vital part in sea power, broadly construed as encompassing not only government but commercial shipping, and not only navy personnel but private mariners. Maritime strategy is about more than navies. It’s about using all implements available to governments – sea- and land-based, public and private – to shape events at sea.
AGIs were mainly passive platforms sent to watch, listen, and report. While intelligence collection is part of Chinese fishing vessels’ job description as well, Beijing entrusts more active duties to these small craft. They can discharge combat missions. Some of them can lay or clear sea mines, for example. Or, as Naval War College professor Peter Dutton put it in another context, the fishing fleet is an unofficial maritime auxiliary that Beijing can deploy to stoke “managed confrontation” with neighbors whose seaborne interests contradict China’s. Kastner portrays it as a stick with which the Chinese government can stir up maritime Asia at opportune moments, whether to solidify its claims to contested islands and seas, appease a restive populace at home, or support a cross-strait offensive against Taiwan.
Japan, the Philippines, and other claimants to waters and soil China considers its historic patrimony constitute special targets for managed confrontation. Fishing boats have been in the thick of such scuffles as the war of words that ensued in 2010 after the Japan Coast Guard apprehended a Chinese fishing boat near the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islets. Fishermen have been at the vanguard of Chinese policy in the ongoing impasse with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, an atoll west of Luzon. Does Beijing control the whereabouts and actions of fishing boats directly? It’s not entirely clear, and Chinese diplomats aren’t saying. There must be some mix between conscious action and opportunism. While they may or may not exercise operational command over a given boat, Chinese officials can certainly encourage its skipper to ply his trade in disputed water – and respond if he runs into trouble.
If a foreign coast guard or navy tries to shoo Chinese boats away, Beijing gains plausible grounds to act. It can intervene diplomatically on Chinese nationals’ behalf, as in the Senkakus in late 2010. Or nonmilitary maritime services like China Maritime Surveillance can dispatch assets to protect the fishermen, as at Scarborough Shoal. Call it gunboat diplomacy without the guns – or at least without an open display of guns. The People’s Liberation Army is the unseen adjunct to Chinese nautical diplomacy. Military power held in reserve represents an enormous Chinese advantage, especially when the opponent is as completely outmatched as the Philippines.
As Henry Kissinger notes, deterrence is a product of a nation’s capability, its leadership’s resolve to use that capability under well-defined circumstances, and the adversary’s belief in both capability and intentions. If any of those factors is zero, deterrence is zero. Manila disbelieves in Chinese will or military might at its own peril. In all likelihood, deterrence results.
This imposes a Catch-22 on regional capitals. If Manila, Hanoi, or some other government is deterred from upholding its claims – leaving Chinese units holding the contested ground by default – then Beijing scores an incremental diplomatic victory. That’s the best outcome from China’s standpoint. If a rival government isn’t deterred – if it deploys ships to the scene to put steel behind its claims – it does so at a lopsided material disadvantage. It again stands to lose. And if it’s rash enough to use force to impose its will, as sovereign states do to preserve order within their territory, it looks like the bully vis-à-vis unarmed Chinese ships. Philippine leaders have been trying to escape the no-win situation that Beijing has imposed on them, to no avail thus far.
If successful, Chinese strategy creates facts on the ground. Its maritime claims calcify into accepted state practice. And what states do has a habit of finding its way into international law over time – of becoming what they should do.
Which is the point for China, which finds itself bestriding awkward legal ground. No one outside China takes seriously the extralegal idea that documents, artifacts, and oral traditions dating from antiquity entitle China to the waters and landmasses within the “nine-dashed line” enclosing most of the South China Sea. That’s especially true when these claims skirt close along another Asian state’s shorelines, as is the case with the Philippine Islands, Brunei, and Malaysia, which comprise the eastern arc of the South China Sea. The law of the sea apportions maritime rights by geographic distance from landmasses, not by who fished where two millennia ago. But the Chinese government can establish a physical presence in these expanses and deploy overpowering might to dissuade others from opposing it.
If this approach prevails at Scarborough Shoal – deep within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone encircling the Philippine island of Luzon – it will probably form the pattern for Beijing’s handling of maritime territorial disputes. If it works there, where Manila’s legal rights are at their strongest – indeed, unassailable – why not try it elsewhere? Maybe might does make right.
While they would probably deplore China’s political goals in the East and South China seas, the greats of sea-power theory might applaud its strategic artistry. In a way, Beijing’s strategy extrapolates from British historian Sir Julian Corbett’s writings on the design of fleets, published just over a century ago. For Corbett, two broad components constituted any navy: the battle fleet, designed to wrest command of the sea (a.k.a. “permanent general control” of the sea) from enemy fleets, and the “flotilla” of lesser craft that exercises maritime command, either in peacetime or once the battle line has put adversaries out of action in wartime. Frigates, patrol boats, and other lightly armed craft that are inexpensive and can be built in large numbers comprise the flotilla. Once rival navies have been cleared away, even their minimal armament overmatches likely antagonists.
It’s no stretch to include noncombatant craft like law-enforcement ships, coast guard cutters, merchantmen, and even fishing vessels as part of the flotilla should a government choose to employ them that way. China apparently does so choose. And there’s precedent for this approach. In bygone ages, the boundary dividing the navy from private seafaring often blurred into invisibility.
China’s unconventional flotilla lets Beijing accomplish some of the things in peacetime that Corbett envisioned the battle fleet’s accomplishing in wartime. He pointed out, for instance, that it was hard for the strong to compel the weak to fight when the weak stood to lose everything. Corbett advised the stronger fleet’s commanders to create a forcing function. They should attack something the opponent couldn’t refuse to defend. He would have to run the risks of sea combat despite the likelihood of defeat.
Ample historical precedent stood behind Corbett’s counsel. By the late 17th century, Britain’s Royal Navy had come to outclass its long-time nemesis, the Dutch Navy. (To this day gentle Dutchmen will remind you that they won two out of the three Anglo-Dutch naval wars of the 1600s – just not the last one.) Dutch admirals feared challenging a stronger opponent. But the British Isles lay astride sea lanes connecting the Netherlands to overseas trading partners. That meant the Royal Navy enjoyed the option of attacking Dutch merchant shipping. The Dutch Navy must either hazard combat or abandon the merchant fleet, the wellspring of national prosperity. Britain used its combination of naval might and geographic advantage to wear down Dutch sea power over time.
While they have no desire for an armed conflict – nonviolent coercion promises rewards without the diplomatic fallout – Chinese leaders can try a similar stratagem in the China seas. Its combination of fishing boats, unarmed law-enforcement ships, and military power in reserve lets Beijing act as a provocateur. No East or Southeast Asian state wants to pick a fight with China. The mismatch between the Chinese and Southeast Asian armed forces far exceeds that between 17th-century Britain and Holland. It’s a chasm between the Philippines, with no operational combat aircraft, and China, with its vibrant and improving air force.
But Beijing can mount a direct challenge to its neighbors’ maritime claims, forcing them to respond. It can send fishing vessels to places like Scarborough Shoal, provoking a showdown with a foreign navy or coast guard and compelling a rival claimant to back down. Or it can take advantage should fishermen provoke a controversy on their own. This may have been the case at Scarborough Shoal. Either way, superior power grants new options.
China’s margin of superiority determines its options. The greater its margin, the wider its horizons for managed confrontation.“Small stick diplomacy” offers the greatest prospects of success in the South China Sea, where regional sea powers lag far behind notwithstanding their efforts to bulk up. Beijing has been more circumspect in the East China Sea, where Japan is a serious naval power with the capacity to push back, a strong ally in the form of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and an apparent allied commitment to defend the Senkakus should it come to a trial of arms. A showdown over the Senkakus would be a high-stakes, high-risk affair.
Accordingly, Beijing affords Tokyo more respectful treatment than it does Manila. Should the naval balance come to favor China over the U.S.-Japan alliance, though, it may well take a more forceful stance – exercising its Scarborough Shoal option.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.