James Holmes

USS Cowpens and China’s First-Mover Advantage

The main threat to maritime Asia today is not miscalculation. It’s Beijing’s carefully calculated policies.

Moltke the Elder maintained that the strongest form of warfare is strategic offense combined with tactical defense. In practice that means wresting something from an outmatched or unready opponent and daring that opponent to take it back. Since defense is stronger than offense according to Clausewitz, seizing a disputed object preemptively confers advantages. It compels the opponent to undertake a costly offensive; he might find himself cast as the aggressor, with all the political baggage that entails. In short, an enterprising power can obtain what business folk call a “first-mover advantage” (hat tip: Toshi Yoshihara), preempting competitors in a contested theater or other dispute.

Nor is the geostrategic first-mover advantage the sole preserve of stronger competitors. Indeed, Clausewitz notes that a weaker power may pick a fight with a stronger one if its leadership has resigned itself to using force and believes its prospects of success are as good as they’re going to get. Clausewitz writes: “Supposing that a minor state is in conflict with a much more powerful one and expects its position to grow weaker every year. If war is unavoidable, should it not make the most of its opportunities before its position gets still worse?” Now-or-never logic may goad the lesser power into action. Now suppose the weaker contender sees the trendlines going its way — it believes its strength is on the upswing while its rival’s is in decay — but frets that the favorable outlook may not last. The pressure to leap might grow unbearable.

I’m starting to think China has contacted Moltke and Clausewitz through its strategic Ouija board. It’s possible to interpret Beijing’s moves in the China seas — seizing disputed islets and atolls, asserting ownership of others, trying to restrict free use of the maritime commons — as China’s version of a first-mover strategy. To channel Moltke, Beijing has staked claims to parts of the commons while daring fellow Asian powers to reverse its claims at high cost and risk to themselves, and to regional tranquility. Strategic offense, tactical defense.

This would help explain China’s passive-aggressive approach to offshore quarrels. It proclaims some new policy, then acts put-upon and oh-so-prickly when challenged. Beijing’s announcement of an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ)  has riveted commentators’ attention on the skies over the East China Sea for the past three weeks. The South China Sea appeared somnolent. But last week, reports Bill Gertz reports, a PLA Navy vessel ordered the cruiser USS Cowpens to stop in international waters (but presumably within the nine-dashed line). Cowpens was evidently shadowing the carrier Liaoning at a distance, and Chinese commanders didn’t take kindly to its presence. When the cruiser refused to halt, a PLA Navy amphibious vessel cut across its bow so close aboard that the crew had to maneuver to avoid colliding.

This is serious business. U.S. officials continually harp on the need to work out procedures whereby American and Chinese reduce the chances and ill effects of “miscalculation.” Maybe so. But the main problem in maritime Asia isn’t miscalculation, it’s calculation. The ADIZ, the Senkakus, Scarborough Shoal — none of these are accidents. They’re policies made in China. By all means, let’s work out hotlines and incidents-at-sea agreements in Asia, if possible. But let’s not kid ourselves about their prospects for success. U.S. and allied strategists had better ponder how to counter a Moltke.