A Master Plan to Counter China’s Growing Military Might?
Robert Haddick, Fire on the Water: China, America and the Future of the Pacific (Naval Institute Press, 2014)
The Islamic State is on a tear, Russia has launched an invasion “incursion” into Eastern Ukraine, Syria is in crisis, a war in Gaza just ended in a bloody stalemate with tensions still running high, Ebola is on the loose, Libya is falling apart, and Afghanistan is still a complete mess. To put it bluntly, the challenges the United States faces seem to be multiplying like cockroaches. And yet, Washington will soon face an even bigger challenge: a rapidly evolving Chinese military that is focused on defeating Washington if war ever comes.
The challenge presented by China is formidable and is a present-day problem, not something Washington won’t have to worry about for another couple of decades. Soon, formal commitments to defend old partners such as Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines will become worthless — all thanks to twenty years of advances in Chinese military technology focusing on “counter-intervention operations” or anti-access/area-denial weapons (A2/AD). In fact, if trends continue, I would argue that by 2020 — some would say maybe even today — the United States will not be able to credibly deploy high-impact military assets like aircraft carriers in and around China’s coast all the way out to the first island chain in a time of crisis. (Well, it could, however, the risks would be so great, the possible losses so dire, that no commander-in-chief would want to take such a risk.) With over $5 trillion dollars of sea-borne trade transiting through just the South China Sea alone the cost of failing to deter Chinese actions and then not being able to quickly resolve and stabilize a crisis is just too high.
There could be no better time than the present for a new book that not only explores issues surrounding China’s A2/AD weapons and strategy and its overall military modernization, but also digs into the deeper dynamics of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and what Washington must do going forward. On balance, in his first ever book, titled Fire on the Water: China, America and the Future of the Pacific, Robert Haddick produces a strong volume that lays out not only the historic challenge presented by the rise of China, its growing military and A2/AD strategy, but the history involved when it comes to Beijing rising armed forces.* Haddick even boldly offers his own strategy for managing the strategic dynamic of the U.S.-China relationship and what Washington should do with regards to its own force posture in Asia — something he pulls off reasonably well considering troubling trends in America’s foreign policy decision making. (Sorry, no spoilers here, buy the book!)
But why should we care about another volume on China’s armed forces, overall rise, and what America should do about it? Considering the vast amount of literature on the subject and the tremendous amount of books, peer-reviewed journal articles, and edited volumes one can turn to for guidance, surely Haddick’s work has already been covered, right? I would argue that this is, in fact, not the case.
I recommend Haddick’s book as it offers something that other volumes sometimes lack — a comprehensiveness that is quite shocking. It presents the state of play in Asia as of today — not in 2013 or even further back. It is clear Haddick has done his homework. Just a cursory review of his endnotes reveals Haddick has studied, analyzed, and dissected the major works and authors in his genre — not an easy task considering the amount of research that is out there and how far back it goes. At the same time, he avoids recycling familiar arguments while presenting his reader with an informed snapshot of the strategic challenges America is facing in Asia. His work clearly draws from the U.S. Naval War College’s “brain trust” of A2/AD and defense experts like Andrew Erickson, Peter Dutton, James Holmes, and Toshi Yoshihara all the way to D.C.-based think tankers and scholars such as Ely Ratner, Bonnie Glaser, T.X. Hammes, and Todd Harrison (some of my favorites, by the way). Haddick breaks it all down while offering his own incisive analysis for the reader to stew on. If I were going to recommend one book to someone who is just starting to explore the strategic landscape in Asia and the challenge America is facing, this would be the one.
So besides providing readers with a complete volume that summarizes, dissects, and offers his own take on Chinese military doctrine and strategy, explains what it means for U.S. national interests, and proposes a plan of action, what else does Haddick do? Well, he does something very brave that I found quite refreshing: he attacks the much-loved and hated Air-Sea Battle (ASB) and offshore control (OC) concepts. Likely familiar to readers of this publication, both ASB and OC offer competing ideas of how to wage effective military operations against the People’s Republic of China. The challenge, of course, is neither ASB nor OC deal with the real — and non-kinectic — challenge presented by Beijing in 2014: salami-slicing tactics and pushing its claims more and more with non-military assets of national power. Things like fishing boats armed with Chinese-based GPS systems that can “call for help” when needed, oil rigs parked in disputed bodies of water, and new maps and passports leveraged to push disputed claims all amount to slowly changing facts on the ground and in the water without firing a shot. Will Washington or Tokyo go to war over such slow changes in the status quo? Beijing is gambling no, and so far, has been right on the money.
While the book is clearly a great source of information when it comes to China’s strategic calculus in the Pacific, there are two weaknesses with Haddick’s work. (To be fair to the author, I would have the same problems if I were writing a similar book.) First, the book uses little-to-no Chinese-sourced material. This would have been useful as immense treasure troves of data points are available in Mandarin and could offer the reader the latest ideas of what China intends to do with its A2/AD strategy or growing military might. A great example of what can be mined from Chinese sources comes to us in a recent article published in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. This must-read article by Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight uncovers multiple Chinese language sourced materials that show Beijing “has deployed fixed ocean-floor acoustic arrays off its coasts, presumably with the intent to monitor foreign submarine activities in the near seas.” Considering a good portion of America’s ASB concept reportedly relies on stealthy submarines being able to strike command and control systems, such submarines could be in danger along the Chinese coastline in the very near future. When one factors in America’s limited numbers of long-range aircraft that can get past China’s dense air-defense networks, Washington could have a big problem on its hands. Haddick relies mostly on U.S. researchers, limiting the analysis largely to an American-centric (and to some extent American allied-centric) view of the challenges in Asia.
The second instance where some would say Haddick might fall short is in the second half of the book where he lays out a broad agenda to counter China’s growing military and strategic might. Haddick advocates big changes to U.S. diplomacy, defense programs, and policies all in an effort to negate China’s budding military challenge. While I disagree with some of his prescriptions (again, no spoilers here) he clearly understands China’s ultimate military goal: to create a range of weapons systems across multiple domains that are designed to take advantage of perceived American military weaknesses. As Haddick notes:
Getting on the right course will not be cheap or easy. But the rewards for doing so will be immense. The risk of war in East Asia is rising. But the United States and its partners in Asia have the power to prevent another tragedy and to shape a better future that will beneﬁt all.
Unfortunately for Haddick, or anyone who offers a guide to tackling China — regardless of what political party or foreign policy school he/she associates with — the biggest problem America will have in crafting any sort of strategy is the reluctance of the American people to become entangled in open-ended foreign challenges in the wake of two prolonged wars (which currently manifests as the don’t do stupid sh*t doctrine). Can America’s foreign policy elites move beyond great marketing slogans like “pivot” or “rebalance” and enact a multi-administration strategy to steward America’s interests throughout Asia? Can the United States move past dealing with the “forest fire” of the moment and think strategically over the long term? Even more difficult, how does one say to the American people that over the long term, with shrinking defense dollars, vital national assets are needed to ensure stability in the Pacific when the Islamic State seems on the march, and a new Cold War in Europe is appearing on the horizon? How can we make China a top priority if we can’t even move past the crisis of the day? This is the true challenge of contemporary American foreign policy — devising some sort of grand strategy for Asia and beyond and not just simply avoiding major mistakes or putting out fires — an issue of “bandwidth” which is something no one can easily solve.
Despite these issues, Haddick has written an important contribution that should be on every Asia-focused defense geek’s desk. In one volume, and in just a few hours, any student of international relations can get a sense of the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific — not too shabby. I can see quite a few university classrooms using this volume to teach students about present-day Asian geopolitics, likely opening many people’s eyes to the challenges America and its allies face. Let’s hope our most senior military and strategic minds, as well as politicians here in Washington, are paying attention to Robert Haddick as well. I have it on good authority that they are.
Harry J. Kazianis is a senior fellow (non-resident) at the China Policy Institute. Mr. Kazianis also serves as managing editor of the Washington, D.C.-based international affairs publication The National Interest. The views expressed in this review are his own.
Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery