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

July 2, 2014

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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

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11 thoughts on “China: Leap-Frogging U.S. Deterrence in the Pacific

  1. “closely shadow Chinese naval or coast guard vessels and let them know the U.S. cares”

    Author should remember that it already happened with the Cowpen incident recently and we lost. We even fired the captain for whatever reason afterwards.

  2. Matt, an excellent essay.

    As Prof. James Holmes recently reminded at The Diplomat (June 19, 2014), deterrence equals our capability X our resolve X the adversary’s beliefs in the first two terms.

    When any term is zero, deterrence is zero.

    The first question (really the issue in Matt’s essay) is whether U.S. policymakers will have the resolve to display U.S. military capabilities over the low-level salami actions China is cleverly employing. This would constitute a sudden “change in the rules” which frequently in the past has led to an unintended war (think of the Danzig Corridor as an example of such a “rule change”).

    Next is the issue of capabilities. Which side benefits from military escalation? I think there is increasing ambiguity about this in East Asia, which is highly dangerous.

    Given the risks, it is easy to understand why many on the U.S. side are playing cautiously. But will playing for time make things better or worse?

  3. For these games of chicken in amongst the islands of the SCS, it sounds like the ideal ship for the USN would be a small warship that is faster and more manoeuvrable than the Cowpens, but it doesn’t need to be heavily armed.

    Should some thought be put towards acquiring such a small combatant?


  4. The US and China are mutually deterred and have been for a long time.

    Mutual Nuclear Deterrence MND is a good thing.. also known as Civilized Deterrence, Civil Deterrence, Civilizing Deterrence.

    The US and China will not risk war with each other.

  5. Can a mountain range collapse smoothly?

    The current international order is collapsing. There is increasing talk of war – especially about China. Get ready for war first before focusing on the small stuff.

  6. The thing to note is that the Chinese ultimately have more to lose than the United States in the event of war. If war is avoided, by 2025 the Chinese will be the dominant economic power on this little blue marble, and that they will be well on their way to achieving indisputable military dominance at least in the Asia Pacific Region. In a confrontation, logic dictates that when push comes to shove, when the United States has military superiority and can prove its military superiority by bombing the crap out of the Chinese, the Chinese will back down.

    On the other hand, we’re 2/5 with the Chinese, and the Chinese know it. In strategic confrontations with the Chinese, the Chinese Communists managed to defeat three American proxies, the Chinese Nationalists, the South Koreans and the UN Forces in Korea, and the South Vietnamese with their Vietnamese allies (at the time). On the other hand, we managed to defeat them with the First and Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, but the Chinese know that what the score is, and they know that even if the United States has a massively superior economy and military, which was in the case in all three engagements that they won, the United States will back down before going for ultimate victory. That is why, despite the disparity in military force, the Chinese are willing to stick the middle finger to Obama, and maybe Hillary Clinton, because they know they can get away with it.

    1. I think with analysts regarding the Chinese military-strategic system, the observation was that while the Americans are superior on a tactical level, the Soviets are superior on an operational level, the Chinese strategically speaking have many things to teach us.

      That is to say, the Chinese have, from relatively weak hands since the 1949 Communist take-over, been able to play their hand extremely well. They have been able to give the middle finger to several different world powers, despite the fact that they’ve always been weak in terms of full-scale military capability.

      In the event that we choose to threaten the Chinese, anything less than going all the way and achieving Carthago Delenda Est will not be enough. Chinese strategic culture means that if we escalate a single fight on their close terrain, they will escalate a single fight on their far terrain. For instance, if we attempt to ensure Taiwanese independence and massive American basing on Taiwan, the Chinese will, of course, fold, because they cannot win a war, but at the same time, they will find some way to screw with American interests in such a way that “counter-escalation” will be highly damaging, but will not result in sufficient excuses to go to war with China. In the same way, the Chinese will make sure that “every grievance will be remembered”, so that if the Chinese manage to achieve regional dominance in the 2020-2030 time-frame, containment will be paid for in full.

      The other little option is to immediately do Carthago Delenda Est, but the problem with that is that destroying the Chinese will take up a huge chunk of American power and assets. The United States is in the unfortunate situation where it is the global hegemon, meaning that it is threatened from all sides, whether from European attempts at constituting their own power pole, Russian attempts at revisionist resurgence, Chinese attempts to displacing the United States in its core Asia-Pacific Region, or fundamentalist Muslim attempts at settling their grievances with the Great Satan. Weakness or losses taken in one front will result in a loss of capability to deal with threats in another front, as can be seen with the War on Terror, which turned the Chinese of 2001, a marginal regional power, into the Chinese of 2014, which is regularly thumbing its nose at the American world system.

  7. What happens if we try to interpose ourselves against Chinese mischief, and they respond by trying to ram OUR ships instead? Trading a guided missile destroyer for a dirt cheap coast guard vessel seems like a losing proposition.

    1. DDGs have CIWS systems, with some variants with the ability to target surface ships as part of the anti-sea skimming missile capability. On super-close range, provided that the skipper doesn’t blink, he can activate the CIWS systems on his cruiser, kill the ramming crew, and probably sink the coast guard vessel.

      The Chinese will kick up a fuss, mark it down on their “list of things to avenge if and when we get on top”, and back down, because if they try a full-scale engagement, they’ll lose.