Pushing Back Against China’s Strategy: Ten Steps for the United States


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in Patrick Cronin’s series on China’s strategy for dominance in the Asia-Pacific. Check out the first three, “Chinese Regional Hegemony in Slow Motion,” “How China’s Land Reclamation Fits in its Strategy for Regional Dominance,” and “In Search of a Southeast Asian Response to China’s Bid for Dominance.”

China’s new strategy attempts to leverage growing military capabilities for regional advantage. While it speaks of balancing rights protection with regional stability, it is a subtle blueprint for slow motion hegemony. In focusing on China as a maritime and not just land power, it speaks of moving from offshore defense to open seas defense: that is, it looks forward to a full blue-water capability, thereby effectively placing the PLA Navy on a par with the U.S. Navy, at least in the near seas and Western Pacific that are most significant for China. The implicit warning to the neighbors is not to bother with building capacity and confronting a reemerging China ready to capture its central historic role. Despite this unbridled military manifesto and China’s official brimming confidence, real Chinese strategy consists not in direct confrontation, still less in conflict, but in a never-ending search for a more favorable position.

What is the United States to do about China’s slow motion strategy for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific? As I detailed in the previous installments of this series (see parts one, two, and three), China has accelerated its efforts to displace U.S. power from the region by neutralizing American military strength through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), while preventing attempts to coalesce Southeast Asia against Chinese power. There are consequences to inaction. Failing to act now to establish what constitutes good neighborly relations may set bad precedents for opposing coercion in the future.

A U.S. counter-strategy must place allies and partners in the region at the center of its ambitions. Overlapping national interests provide the most durable foundation for opposition to aggressive behavior. When China exercises bad judgment and violates expected norms of behavior, the United States should find ways to impose appropriate costs. The least painful way to impose costs will remain indirect approaches, especially in the diplomatic, legal, and informational realms. These efforts to shape the context for coercion are often long-term and gradual propositions. Thus, occasionally the best way to arrest misbehavior must transcend the path of least resistance. So what should Washington do?

1. Arm the region with the facts. Step one should be to substantially strengthen the capacity for gathering and publicizing the facts of Chinese activities. Congress already requires an annual report on the People’s Liberation Army. But in light of the growing contest over maritime Asia, Congress should widen its demand for facts. Specifically, it should require the executive branch to keep persistent, precise, and public details of China’s military, diplomatic, legal, informational, and other relevant activities in the South China Sea. It is the administration’s job to keep these activities in the forefront of regional diplomacy at forums such as the East Asia Summit, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Plus (ADMM-Plus). Congress should direct the Department of Defense, in cooperation with the Department of State, to establish an authoritative website. This real-time, cumulative information source could be supplemented by periodic analysis, including as part of an annual report of activities in maritime Asia. These activities would not require a new institution or much funding, but instead could be delegated to an existing research institution, either the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College or the Center for Naval Analyses. The key here would be to leverage all-source information to ensure these analyses are more authoritative than those that can be produced by completely non-governmental institutions.

2. Establish a common regional maritime security information-sharing center. In order to promote maritime safety, disaster relief efforts, and broader regional coordination, the U.S. government should push for the creation of a region-wide fusion center. There are opportunities for improving upon existing embryonic attempts at regional sharing. For instance, 20 states are party to the 2004 Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Those countries have established a ReCAAP Information Sharing Center to exchange information on maritime piracy and crime. In addition, in 2009 Singapore set up an Information Fusion Center as a regional maritime security information-sharing mechanism. Located at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, the center illuminates maritime domain awareness to deal with piracy, safety, border disputes, and disaster relief. Whatever center is to be used as the region’s central information-sharing hub, the United States should seek to find a way to push out information without being censored by ASEAN’s need for consensus. Regardless of the precise command and control arrangements, however, the fusion center should provide information to all international actors transiting international waters, particularly the 18 members of the ADMM-Plus and East Asia Summit processes.

3. Leverage imagery. A picture is worth a thousand words. Today’s unprecedented quality and quantity of imagery should be made readily available through electronic means as a regional public good. Indeed, the U.S. Pacific Command is already talking to ASEAN members about building a common operating picture to deal with universal challenges such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search and rescue operations. An essential supplement to this general effort to share information should be the purchase of commercially available satellite imagery and accelerated declassification of select classified imagery of important construction and military-related activities in the South China Sea. These images could be publicized on the maritime security information-sharing hub above. But it could also be used to support ongoing analysis to ensure more people are better informed about the dynamic developments in the South China Sea.

4. Forge a coalition of nations that follow the rules. It is time to forge a coalition of maritime countries willing to voluntarily promote a binding code of conduct like the one we hope China will one day accept. This may help reinforce those within ASEAN to keep pushing ahead on a binding Code of Conduct. In fact, one aim of mobilizing maritime countries such as Australia, Japan, and the United States, is to help South China Sea claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam to pressure other ASEAN members to agree to the terms of a binding Code of Conduct without waiting for China. Thus, a voluntary coalition can help exact a price on China for foot-dragging while nudging it to accept a common rule set. While this coalition would not have enforcement authority, it could well provide a wellspring for enforcement-type activity, such as the conduct of periodic patrols to maintain freedom of the seas and an open global commons. This would not and should not be an alliance. Interests are too diverse to support an alliance in Asia and it would only create the kind of polarization of Asia we seek to avoid. But absent external pressure, China has no incentive to agree to a binding code of conduct, and a voluntary code of practice could provide that critical impetus.

5. Expand international legal expertise. We must also strengthen America’s capacity for understanding, analyzing, interpreting, disseminating, and discussing international law and diplomacy regarding maritime security, especially in the South China Sea. Last December the State Department issued an all-too-rare but very useful legal explanation of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Because China only wants to put out selective facts, it is vital for the United States to offer a more objective rendering of international law (perhaps mindful of the need for objectivity, in a savvy diplomatic move State only commented on China’s claims after releasing a similar document for those of the Philippines). Not only should the State Department continue regularly publishing authoritative documents on international maritime law, but Congress should support adding international legal experts to key regional policy offices at the State Department, the Department of Defense, and U.S. Pacific Command. This will be critical as we seek to support the Philippines in its efforts to address disputes through legal means and international law rather than coercion. After its eviction from Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. That slow process is finally moving toward a conclusion, and a judgment on issues such as China’s nine-dash-line claim is expected in early 2016. But the forthcoming judgment from the arbitral panel will only be important if we make the case that international law matters and remains a far better way to deal with disputes in the South China Sea than China’s forthcoming fortifications. In this connection, there are opportunities for the United States and others to cooperate with Japan, which has much more experience with litigation based on the international law of the sea than other regional states.

6. Ratify the darn treaty. It is time for America to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). More than 160 nations have acceded to this treaty, which creates common rules governing the world’s oceans. Although the United States Senate has failed to ratify the treaty, successive administrations implement it. Ironically, China has ratified UNCLOS but often refuses to implement it. The failure of Congress to ratify it only undermines our diplomatic efforts to mobilize support for a rules-based approach, while abetting disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining our credibility. As we inevitably accommodate shifts in global power, it is increasingly to our advantage to shape a common set of rules in which they occur.

7. Conduct more military exercises and shows of force. Timely and geographically meaningful exercises, not unlike the recent U.S.-Philippines amphibious exercise near Scarborough Shoal, should be conducted periodically so as to convey both concerns and capability. Likewise, the United States should give careful consideration to the right time to conduct freedom of navigation operations. The recent U.S. patrol flight over some of China’s reclamation projects in the South China Sea, which incurred repeated warnings from the PLA Navy, illustrated how a safe military operation could highlight existing international law. Similar operations with naval or coast guard vessels could also highlight the fact that submerged land features — even when they have been built up into artificial islands — earn no claim to territorial waters or airspace. This type of activity, a punch in the nose against aggression, must be placed in a careful diplomatic framework in which the United States emphasizes both engagement and hedging dimensions of its policy.

8. Build partner capacity. The United States can do much more to deny China the benefits of salami slicing tactics and coercion. The principal and easiest way to do this is by building greater capacity, both a minimal coastal law enforcement and a defense capacity, among the region’s maritime powers. The Senate Armed Services Committee wisely added some resources to the administration’s rebalance to Asia by increasing funding for building partnership capacity. Congress should also require the Pentagon to craft a long-term capacity-building plan for Southeast Asian maritime countries. This should encompass both bilateral and multilateral plans, including ways to leverage the strengthening network of intra-Asian relations. Among the highlights of any bilateral plans ought to be a clear blueprint for how to move forward with the Enhanced Cooperation Defense Agreement with the Philippines. Here we should consider not just rotational forces but human capacity building — literally supporting the Philippines as it seeks to develop future strategic concepts. The United States undertook a similar program in the early 1990s with Japan, and today Japan’s Ministry of Defense is awash with strategic depth. Similar plans of action with Vietnam should be spelled out, particularly as the United States builds on a strong foundation of strategic dialogue. Indonesia remains a looming opportunity, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s maritime awakening should be seized as an open door for expanded maritime cooperation. The effort recognizes that the world’s most archipelagic country is utterly dependent on connecting islands, building maritime infrastructure, and safeguarding Indonesia’s maritime lines of communication. In all these cases, as well as with others such as Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei and Thailand, we must be mindful to approach cooperation in ways that can be sustained.

9. Deepen engagement on all fronts. The final leg of the policy response should focus on engagement and, more broadly, doubling down on serious implementation of a comprehensive policy of rebalancing to Asia. This must begin with economic and diplomatic approaches and be undergirded by a quiet and sustained strength. Economically, this means the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trade Promotion Authority, which are essential for our future prosperity and security. But it also means going back to the drawing board to think through a long-term development initiative that gives the United States a more effective and positive approach to development rather than being portrayed as an obstacle to economic development. Any objective analyst standing back and comparing recent U.S. development initiatives (e.g., Lower Mekong Initiative, building energy plants in Pakistan) with the major promises of China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, would be forced to conclude that China is the rising power and America is in steep decline. But our failure of imagination, our divisive partisanship, and our failure of execution should now give way to a creative, serious, long-term way to demonstrate anew why the United States and its allies and partners have so much to contribute to problem-solving, human development, and regional integration. Rather than focused against China, it emphasizes what the United States brings to the region. Even soft power tools require a good offense.

Meanwhile, our engagement with China, including military-to-military engagement, should be institutionalized and ongoing, despite persistent friction for years to come. But this does not mean just pursuing any and all engagement. Congress is right to want to inventory the bilateral defense relationship to ensure it is balanced. Engagement of China, including pushing for effective confidence-building measures, should be an essential part of this comprehensive policy. While some want to rush to exclude China from military-to-military activities, I favor focusing on the quality of the military-to-military engagements we have. The biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, for instance, is an appropriate way for the United States to showcase how its military presence and capability is oriented toward a region-wide public good of stability and effective responses to common challenges, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to search and rescue and illicit trafficking. But confidence-building measures should be meaningful, pragmatic, and not excuses for helping China to offset its more belligerent behavior in the eyes of Washington and the region. Moreover, progress on military-to-military relations should be contingent on China’s military adhering to the operational safety and risk-reduction measures announced during President Obama’s visit last November.

10. Preserve a strong presence. There is an old saying that my father-in-law, retired Rear Admiral Ronald J. Kurth, used to keep in his office when he was president of the Naval War College: “Pray to God, But Row to Shore.” Likewise, the United States should be seeking engagement and building capacity but simultaneously preserving a formidable maritime presence. New U.S. Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry Harris represents this nation’s finest military professionalism. He epitomizes smart power. Even so, he will need the resources and number of platforms to ensure that the United States can cooperate from strength. Military and security rebalancing requires preserving the U.S. military capability to retain sufficient and credible forces forward deployed, prepared to undertake a wide array of missions, not least in situations short of war. The presence in Singapore is extremely helpful and must be nurtured. The presence in Australia is crucial and should expand over time. The presence in the Philippines should also grow, once the Supreme Court of the Philippines validates the legality of rotational presence. But another significant aspect of a serious presence as a permanent Pacific power means following through on the buildup of Marine presence and exercise ranges in the U.S. territory in Guam and the Marianas. For the longer term, we need to embrace the kind of thinking started by Deputy Secretary Robert Work, who analyzed how to invest in a “third offset” strategy to compensate for growing A2/AD capabilities in the region.

These ten steps are to varying degrees all in motion. However, far more energy and follow through are required. Empty declarations will quickly be seen for what they are. The United States must be more engaged and better prepared to build regional cooperation across the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Given China’s apparent desire to assert its own rules over its expansive claims, this will also require positioning ourselves to contest the rules for maintaining good order at sea.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former Director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.


Photo credit: U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Beverly J. Lesonik