China: Leap-Frogging U.S. Deterrence in the Pacific


American deterrence in Asia is a success of function, but a failure of application. “Credible combat power” was the answer, but the adversary has changed the question from “how to prevent a war” to “how to prevent the establishment of norms with everything short of war.” China’s harassment of civilian targets, positioning and posturing of military assets, and use of paramilitaries in the South China Sea reveals that China is choosing to defeat American military power by ignoring it: strategic asymmetry. China has created a military strategy that functions independent of how much military force America forward deploys.

Strategic Maginot Line

Deterrence is one of the tried-and-true strategies of peacetime naval planners and a U.S. success in the Pacific. See the decades of growth in the Pacific, including the continued existence of Taiwan and some level of “peace” between China and U.S. allies. Through its non-confrontational stance, the United States is building a very specific type of deterrence—a Maginot line against the particular possibility of war. War, while being a very specific means of pursuing national objectives, is not the only way to leverage a military.

The Vice Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Vice Admiral Currier, touched on how China is maneuvering around this wall during his panel at the Naval War College’s 2014 Current Strategy Forum (CSF14):

We see China, in the disputed claims area, using what is now called the coast guard. They took four or five maritime governance organizations, and in a course of a couple of months, painted all the ships white and put a stripe on them, and now it’s called the China Coast Guard. What’s the maneuver there? Is it a soft-power application? Is it a part of their maritime portfolio that we should be aware of?

What VADM Currier is describing is neither soft power nor the war America is trying to deter. The declaration of the ADIZ over the East China Sea, island-building, and the game of bumper-boats with civilian vessels—these maneuvers would continue in spite of an increase in forward deployed U.S. forces. China has discovered a critical asymmetry to exploit in America’s deterrence regime.

Asymmetry: Its Not Just Small Boats and Missiles

Defense strategists usually discuss asymmetry in terms of operations or tactics: specialized anti-ship missiles, cyber-attacks on command-and-control functions, or insurgency against conventional forces. Strategic-level asymmetry is less discussed—in this case, a force designed to stop an opponent’s war versus an opponent using those forces for everything but a war.

The United States is leaving a gap in its strategy. At CSF14, Andrea Dew describes this gap in the context of groups in active conflict: “Although we artificially draw lines between different domains, other adversaries use them seamlessly.”Dew’s specific concernsare about armed groups fighting a state through the exploitable seams of its stove-piped perspectives. This general concept applies to non-combat operations, where China is utilizing a gap in how the West views the scope and appropriate use of military action as a political instrument. Between the committee chambers of diplomats and the joint operations center of admirals, there is a blind spot in our strategy being manipulated, the same as if it were a small boat attack against a conventional blue-water combatant.

Taking to the Dance Floor

If no amount of submarines, carriers, or destroyers “deterring war” could stop this continuing non-war, how does the U.S. maintain the norms with which we have enjoyed peace at sea? The U.S. must tread an uncomfortable path by entering the gray space—the seams—currently dominated by China.

The current U.S. strategy of backing deterrence with conciliatory “shaping” diplomacy is, ironically, allowing the U.S. itself to be shaped. China has already shown its disregard for maritime law, ignoring UNCLOS in its boat-smashing rampage through the South China Sea. Attempts to “shape” China’s actions, such as the Code of Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, will serve only to constrain and shape the United States. New guidelines provide a blueprint for the unlawful antagonist to force a crisis, driving the lawful and predictable protagonist to de-escalate. Successful Cold War experiences, notably the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreements, do not serve as accurate models for our current policy. China is playing for new norms of state police powers and sovereign jurisdiction. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had such grand aims, their encounters more concerned with tactical harassment and braggadocio. The U.S. is allowing a manipulative China to shape our expectations and actions, short-circuiting the expected effect of our forward deployed military presence.

The U.S. Navy will have to get close, very close, to counter China’s asymmetric strategy. Rather than conduct mere “freedom of navigation” passages, the U.S. should be learning a lesson from the Iranians: closely shadow Chinese naval or coast guard vessels and let them know the U.S. cares. The U.S. Navy must more aggressively seek to oppose excessive 200-mile PLAN security zones and fallaciously imposed versions of “safe navigation.” U.S. naval vessels should be interposing themselves, or at least videotaping when Chinese vessels attempt to smash non-military ships. U.S. Navy ships may have to trade paint or start acting as an interloper when the unfettered navigation of less powerful allies is being infringed in order to successfully challenge China’s nascent ideas about its reign at sea.

At the 2014 Current Strategy Forum, Lawrence Freedman noted that “there is a flaw derived from the model of the classics [of Western military strategy]…the separation of the military and political strands of strategy.” China is using this seam in perception to bypass U.S. strategies of deterrence. The U.S. responds to China’s military buildup and growing arsenal of asymmetric weaponry—but this is only part of China’s strategy. U.S. deterrence is braced for the impact of an approaching shadow: the shadow of China jumping right over it. The U.S. needs to stand up and throw a shoulder into China’s plans.


Matthew Hipple is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, he is Director of the NEXTWAR blog for the Center for International Maritime Security. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government, he wishes they did. Follow him on twitter: @AmericaHipple.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery