Does America Even Need a Strategy for Asia?

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Does America Even Need a Strategy for Asia?

Defining ends and means is hard; aligning them is even more so. Still the benefits of a strategy outweigh the costs.

In mid-December the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower Subcommittee, chaired by Randy Forbes (R-VA), held hearings to discuss China’s growing naval power. When questioned about the United States’ strategy for engaging China at sea, consensus appeared to emerge: Washington did not have one.  The four witnesses agreed that there was a need to find a coherent approach to China’s naval emergence. More broadly, the United States needed to craft a whole-of-government approach for the Asia-Pacific, or risk policy incoherence. This consensus appeared to echo what many experts in Washington have been saying for months—that the so-called pivot or rebalance has thus far not been much more than a tagline, albeit a well-intentioned one.

Shortly after the hearings, Diplomat contributor Harry Kazianis argued that the United States does have a strategy: it is hedging, working with China economically, while making defensive preparations regional allies. While this may be a very accurate description of how the United States is engaging the region at present, I would argue that this is not actually a strategy. A hedge is something that provides protection or defense.  Hedging can also mean to limit or qualify something by conditions or exceptions. But what, precisely, is the United States protecting? How does conditional engagement further that objective?

A strategy is a plan for achieving a goal over a period of time. Scholars and other pundits may exaggerate the degree to which such plans are realistic. Helmuth von Moltke is often quoted for his rejoinder: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” More recently, Lawrence Freedman wrote on the matter, and demonstrated that strategies rarely produce the quick victories they envision. Freedman argues, however, that they are nonetheless valuable as blueprints for achieving finite goals. Put simply, a strategy connects political aims with the means that will be used to reach them. Having one, therefore requires that both of these things are reasonably well-defined.

In the weeks since the Seapower Subcommittee meeting, analysts have written and met to discuss this important question: What should the United States’ strategy towards China and the Pacific be?  These discussions have elucidated the fact that defining ends and means may be a more difficult task than the devoted Clausewitzians among us might imagine.

First are the questions of ends: what are the political goals the United States hopes to achieve with respect to China and the region? Analysts roundly agree that it is in the interests of both countries to avoid a major war. Beyond this, I have heard several former high-level government officials argue that the United States should aim to protect the status quo. But this political objective raises as many questions as it answers. How do we define the status quo in the Pacific? Is it measured by continued freedom of navigation and access to the commons? The maintenance of territorial integrity and sovereignty of all regional players? The continued political autonomy and freedom from coercion of relevant actor? In his testimony, Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service told Congress that the United States should consider its ability to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon, preserve the U.S.-led international order, fulfill its treaty obligations, and continue to shape the Asia-Pacific region. None of these are small tasks, and one could label any or all of these forms of status quo preservation. (Incidentally, it is also worth considering how Beijing defines the status quo, and how an American definition of status quo preservation may accord or conflict with that one).

But let’s assume we can arrive at some consensus definition of status quo preservation. What are the means that would be required to achieve it? Much of the international order is, in fact, already in place to lock in the status quo. From alliances and extended deterrence to international law, treaties and institutions, all serve to create some stability and predictability in international politics and protect against punctuated, unilateral actions.  But how exactly should these instruments be used, individually and in combination, to protect the status quo? And what does this require of American power? Admiral Samuel Locklear recently stirred controversy when he argued that the United States was already losing naval dominance in the Pacific.  Does some form of status quo preservation necessarily require American military dominance? And what role do diplomatic and economic resources play? Again, defining our means is no easy task.

It is of course the case that there classified war plans exist for engagements in the region. And it is a safe bet that while strategists and regional experts are wrestling with these questions in the public sphere, civilian and military leaders are doing the same behind closed doors. But beyond the question of defining ends and means, there exists another important consideration: There are ample incentives not to define a clear Pacific strategy—at least not too quickly.

Consider an American grand strategy of yore—containment—which was, itself, a form of status quo preservation. George Kennan developed the concept on the State Department’s request following a series of unilateral Soviet actions that suggested that USSR and American interests might, in fact, be diametrically opposed. Containment was given bumper-sticker status and could be widely discussed as a whole-of-government approach because, by the late 1940s, Moscow was clearly an adversary. The doctrine was, of course, re-interpreted countless times over the course of the Cold War, but it always implied direct competition (the phrase was not often uttered during the period of détente).  Contrast this with the way the phrase “containment” is treated now: When leaders in Beijing argue that the United States is attempting to contain or encircle China with its regional ties, Washington is quick to reject this argument, and right to do so. China is not an adversary, and it is in the United States’ interest that it not become one. Navigating a competitive, but non-zero-sum relationship requires a degree of nuance that will be difficult to fit on a bumper-sticker.

Careful strategic contemplation is not just about avoiding the alienation of Beijing: It also warranted because it requires that Washington answer some fundamentally important questions of its own. Chief among these is what costs the United States is willing to pay to obtain its objectives. What sorts of concessions are acceptable in the name of stability? And are there conditions when a strategy that aims at stability requires tactics that may seem destabilizing? And if, despite efforts to the contrary, some form of conflict were to erupt, where and when would U.S. interests be engaged, and at what price? These questions are all at the heart of the relationship between ends and means. But they remind us that strategy is far more than a simple definitional exercise.

Failure to define a strategy may nonetheless come with significant costs. Strategic studies scholar Richard Betts recently wrote that Washington’s finessing of this question amounts to a “yellow light”—it signals to Beijing that it should slow down, as opposed to stop. But, as Betts reminds us, yellow lights cause some drivers to speed up. If the United States does not set some clear red lines, it may send muddled deterrent signals on behalf of allies and other interests, and sacrifice crisis readiness.

As strategists and scholars continue to wrestle with this vital question, the drawbacks to defining a strategy do not trump the advantages.  To protect some version of the status quo, however we ultimately define it, Washington will absolutely need a plan that draws upon all available tools of statecraft. It will not be as confrontational as containment, or as passive as total accommodation. But we’ll need definite ends, commensurate means, and a plan to connect them to navigate the road ahead–even if these don’t fit on a bumper sticker.