Re-Orienting American Seapower for the China Challenge


As a seafaring state, America demands maximal access to the world’s oceans within the constraints of international law. Though seldom recognized, U.S. efforts to defend its interest in maritime freedom in the Western Pacific have been fairly successful. When the People’s Republic of China unlawfully draws “fences” around the sea, U.S. warships steam through the fences. Beijing recognizes the seriousness of America’s position, and thus far has generally yielded.

However, when it comes to helping its allies and partners protect themselves against Chinese encroachment, the United States has a mixed record. Since 2006, Beijing has dramatically expanded the frontiers of its control in the East and South China Seas. To pursue its irredentist agenda, Beijing has largely relied on unarmed or lightly armed paranaval forces — coast guard and militia — conducting operations in what has been described as the “gray zone” between war and peace. Despite the robust presence of American sea power in contested areas of maritime East Asia, the United States has largely failed to halt China’s bullying behavior. This failure devalues Washington’s commitments to its friends and shakes the foundations of the U.S. alliance system — the true source of American global influence.

To better aid its allies and partners, Washington should consider expanding its catalogue of peacetime maritime operations. Passive presence has proved inadequate. In some cases, American policymakers may need to place U.S. forces on the front lines, where they can play a more direct role helping other states counter China’s seaward expansion.

Defending U.S. Maritime Freedom: Largely a Success Story

The United States does not possess or claim any land west of the Mariana Islands and therefore has no proprietary interest in the outcome of sovereignty disputes in the East and South China seas. However, Beijing’s maritime claims do directly threaten U.S. maritime freedom: above all, the freedom to conduct naval operations unimpeded wherever international law allows. China seeks to turn the exclusive economic zone into a security zone. It proclaims the prerogative to limit foreign naval activities within its jurisdictional waters, imperiling American access to huge sections of ocean within the First Island Chain. China’s method for drawing baselines around terrestrial features — the first step in demarcating zones of maritime jurisdiction — also threatens U.S. interests. By treating islands, rocks, and reefs as clusters instead of individual features, Beijing creates far more “Chinese” space than it is legally entitled. This “fake it till you make it” approach to international law risks generating gigantic sea and air zones in which Beijing claims the sovereign right to exclude all foreign activities it opposes.

The United States justifiably refuses to allow China’s excessive claims to affect its behavior. U.S. Navy special mission ships, for instance, routinely operate in the East Asian littorals. Ocean surveillance vessels like the Impeccable and Victorious monitor the underwater environment with their powerful towed arrays, collecting intelligence on foreign submarine activities. Meanwhile, oceanographic survey ships like the Bowditch and the Henson compile foundational marine data that serve as inputs for the systems and models upon which the fleet relies. With these operations, American forces exercise navigational freedoms to serve U.S. security interests in this region.

The U.S. Navy also engages in targeted acts of defiance, operations conducted for the sole purpose of resisting China’s excessive claims. Where China’s claims are explicit, the Navy sends ships and aircraft to conduct freedom of navigation operations. In the Paracels, for example, U.S. Navy ships have performed “maneuvering operations” to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty over waters that should be open to other states. The U.S. Navy has even conducted freedom of navigation operation-like activities to defy claims that China has not yet made, preemptively staking out the American position before China erects its next fence. China has built an enormous base at Mischief Reef, a feature not entitled to a territorial sea. By sending ships there now — even to conduct an operation as innocuous as a “man overboard” drill — the U.S. Navy shows China that even a large base cannot generate maritime sovereignty.

With these operations, Washington employs what James Cable called the “definitive” use of sea power. It asserts its maritime freedom — indeed, the maritime freedom entitled to all seafaring states — regardless of China’s claims, thereby placing Beijing in a passive position. China can respond with violence or it can acquiesce.

Faced with this stark choice, Beijing has pioneered a third option: Chinese coast guard and militia forces track U.S. ships, insist that they leave, and even sometimes physically impede their navigation — the last of which is in flagrant violation of international law. In December 2016, a People’s Liberation Army-Navy ship even seized a U.S. underwater glider in international waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay. Still, these incidents remain rare and have utterly failed to dampen American resolve to sail, fly, and operate wherever international law allows.

Nevertheless, this is no cause for complacency. As the 2017 National Security Strategy emphasizes, China is engaged in “continuous competition” with America — neither fully “at peace” nor fully “at war.” Beijing has not renounced its excessive claims. Indeed, if it takes further steps to “jurisdictionalize” the South China Sea — such as drawing straight baselines in the Spratlys — the potential for friction at sea could increase dramatically. Ensuring freedom of the seas requires the United States take further steps, such as publicly exposing the reckless behavior of Chinese para-naval forces at sea and updating rules of engagement.

Helping Allies Defend their Maritime Rights: Room for Improvement

Most of China’s para-naval activities, however, do not directly undermine U.S. maritime freedom. Rather, they infringe upon the maritime rights of China’s neighbors, most of whom are far weaker. Here, China has made great headway with “definitive” actions of its own. It dispatches patrol ships to others’ sovereign waters to assert China’s right to be there. It empowers survey ships and fishing vessels to assert China’s right to exploit marine resources in other states’ exclusive economic zones and sends law enforcement and militia to harass the legitimate activities of foreign vessels in their own waters.

Washington has not stood entirely aloof from Beijing’s bullying behavior. It has sought to help its allies and partners. However, when supporting the maritime rights of other states, the U.S. has largely relied on the tool most vulnerable to China’s trickery: coercive diplomacy. U.S. diplomats tell their Chinese counterparts that if they cross some red line, the United States could act in some way. Meanwhile, the U.S. military sends forces to trouble spots to back up, or embody, these threats.

Coercive diplomacy can achieve some of America’s most important aims. Coercive diplomacy likely convinced China not to press its blockade of the Second Thomas Shoal in 2014. It probably deterred more escalatory Chinese activities around the Senkakus in early 2013. It may have worked to convince Beijing not to develop the Scarborough Shoal in 2016. However, because of the nature of gray zone contention, coercive diplomacy cannot halt most of the elements of China’s seaward expansion.

When supporting allies and partners, Washington almost entirely eschews the “definitive” use of seapower: It seldom directly helps other states to assert their own legitimate maritime rights. The United States provides them with equipment and shares intelligence. But American forces are generally not out with them on the front lines. For Washington to help stem allied losses to China, that would have to change.

Re-Orienting American Seapower

When crafting policies to help allies counter Beijing’s expansion, the U.S. military can do much more than communicate threats. Nor is it limited to capacity building or other indirect efforts to support allies confronting China at sea — though both of those are extremely important. If this contest matters to the United States, American forces must play a much more direct role in helping allies defend their maritime rights; and ensure that any settlement of disputes is by peaceful, legal means rather than Chinese coercion. American seapower must also operate on the front lines, employing sea power in its “definitive” form.

What might that look like? When Chinese ships intimidate allies by sailing to legally-claimed land features, U.S. Navy ships could sail with them. When Chinese coast guard forces harass Japanese or Philippine fishermen or survey teams in legally-claimed waters, the United States could send warships to protect them. When Chinese fishermen poach fish, turtles, and giant clams in Philippine jurisdictional waters, U.S. forces could help apprehend them. The below table outlines a range of “definitive” actions the U.S. might take to help allies assert their legitimate maritime rights.

“Definitive” U.S. Actions to Help Allies Assert Their Maritime Rights

Maritime Rights of Allies “Definitive” U.S. Action
Sovereign access to their offshore rocks and reefs Escort allies’ vessels. If necessary, use nonlethal means to protect them.
Sovereignty to fish within their own waters Escort allies’ vessels. If necessary, use nonlethal means to protect them.
Sovereignty to explore and exploit seabed resources in their own waters Escort allies’ vessels. If necessary, use nonlethal means to protect them.
Sovereignty to prevent poaching within their own waters Help allies arrest and charge Chinese poachers. Protect allies’ constabulary vessels from Chinese harassment.
Sovereign right to prevent foreign theft of their seabed resources Help allies board Chinese ships and charge Chinese companies for operating illegally in allies’ waters. Protect allies’ constabulary vessels from Chinese harassment.
Sovereignty to conduct military exercises in their own waters Conduct joint exercises with allies in their waters.

The U.S. military would need to formulate a doctrine for “definitive” actions. In most cases, the mere presence of a U.S. Navy surface combatant should be enough to keep the jackals at bay. But there are many other rungs on the escalation ladder. If necessary, shouldering and bumping — techniques that Chinese para-naval forces have used with coercive effect — can likewise be employed by U.S. ships. Other nonlethal means such as sonic devices and water cannons may also have a place in the new toolbox. American ships and personnel should also be prepared to defend themselves with lethal force, if necessary.

To be sure, there exists a mismatch between China’s huge and varied set of para-naval tools and the assets that the United States has at its disposal. Confronting Chinese white and blue hulls with U.S. gray hulls could risk presenting the United States as the aggressor. Ultimately, however, it would depend on the situation. The image of a U.S. destroyer providing overwatch for Filipino fishermen as they operate in their own waters would not reflect badly on the national character. Just the opposite: It would portray America as protector of the vulnerable, a country true to its commitments, and a guarantor of the international rules-based order in a vital part of the global commons.

Asymmetries in force structure could, however, present problems when it comes to countering illegal Chinese activities in allies’ legally-claimed waters. Such constabulary actions would risk the image of U.S. warships bullying defenseless Chinese fishermen. As an alternative, U.S. Navy forces could sail with Philippine law enforcement forces, protecting them from Chinese paranaval intimidation. There is also a role here for the U.S. Coast Guard. As a key component of America’s armed forces, the Coast Guard should be appropriately funded and empowered to help the Philippines maintain order within its exclusive economic zone. With the U.S. Coast Guard’s “Shiprider” program, there already exists a precedent for the Coast Guard to help other states build capacity and otherwise cope with rampant poaching and other lawlessness. This would contribute meaningfully even if the Coast Guard does not dispatch significant numbers of its own ships to East Asia and instead “backfills” in the South Pacific, where vulnerable island nations struggle to police vast exclusive economic zones against predations by vessels from China and elsewhere.

In sum, while it may be too late to “roll back” the gains Beijing has made since 2006, Washington can help its allies prevent future expansion. It can do this through a combination of exercising deterrence (where possible) and using American seapower in its “definitive” form to help allies assert their legitimate maritime rights.

No Risk, No Reward

Critics of more direct American involvement might counter that Washington lacks the resources to directly compete in East Asia’s maritime disputes. This is a legitimate concern. After all, Beijing has hundreds of coast guard cutters and perhaps thousands of militia vessels at its disposal. At any given time, the United States may only have available a handful of naval combatants, one or two coast guard cutters, and no maritime militia. These numbers, however, do not accurately reflect the balance of power in contested areas.

China’s paranaval forces are very busy. Aside from “maritime rights protection,” Chinese coast guardsmen have many legitimate tasks to perform. For most Chinese militiamen, fishing is their first vocation. To maintain all its new footholds in the East and South China seas, Beijing needs large numbers of ships at sea at all times. This taxes the fleet. It is also very expensive. Moreover, one major imbroglio can pin down dozens of vessels, for weeks at a time.

The United States and its allies do not need to prevail as in a traditional armed conflict. All they need to do is boldly resist China’s expansion, such that Beijing decides to align its claims with international law and adopt gentler means to pursue them. Ultimately, the goal is for China to recognize that its interests would be better served by a more cooperative approach.

In the short term, China may respond with more assertive actions of its own. But there exist inherent constraints on the intensity of any Chinese response: if it is to be secure, China must get along with its neighbors reasonably. Beijing is sensitive to pressure from neighboring Southeast Asian states and key trading partners. If China acts too aggressively, it will drive other states into the camp of rival great powers. This prospect will ultimately force China to pull its punches.

Beijing does not want war. Conflict would jeopardize four decades of progress and risk derailing the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. Beijing has carefully avoided armed conflict, even with much weaker states. Witness China’s feeble response to Indonesia’s use of force against Chinese fishermen in 2016. Consider China’s restraint in the face of Vietnamese assaults on oil rig HYSY-981 in 2014. China certainly does not want a conflict with the United States. Moreover, great power wars do not ignite because of incidents at sea, especially in the nuclear age. This is one of the key lessons of the Cold War, where U.S. and Soviet forces regularly “scratched paint” on, above, and below the sea. Therefore, America and its allies can and should embrace a higher tolerance for risk.

Though the U.S. armed forces represent just one instrument of national power that Washington can leverage to support its East Asian allies, the military tool will sit at the heart of any successful strategy. Coercive diplomacy alone will not give our allies the support that they need. The U.S. military, especially America’s sea services, can and should work directly to help assert the maritime rights of U.S. allies, who for too long have stood alone against the agents of Chinese expansion. Only then can Beijing be prevented from winning incrementally at the expense of is neighbors, of American interests in freedom of the seas, and of the laws that underwrite the international system for the benefit of all.


Ryan D. Martinson is an assistant professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He has just published the institute’s latest monograph, entitled Echelon Defense: The Role of Sea Power in Chinese Maritime Dispute StrategyAndrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute, an associate in research at Harvard’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: U.S. Navy/Johans Chavarro