How U.S. Allies Can Counter China's Strategy

Fire on the Water: China, America & the Future of the Pacific
How U.S. Allies Can Counter China's Strategy
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The following is an adapted excerpt from Robert Haddick's Fire on the Water: China, American, and the Future of the Pacific (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, © 2014).

America’s allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region are an indispensable component of any successful U.S. strategy. These relationships are vital, both for the political legitimacy of America’s regional strategy and for supporting any military strategy.

America’s partnerships in the region are perhaps its most important competitive advantage. This means that U.S. policymakers and military planners will need to get more out of these relationships in order to maintain the region’s stability in the face of China’s ascent. For those policymakers coping with the dilemmas of partnership, demanding more from the relationships will not always be welcome. U.S. officials will thus need new approaches for getting more out these critical partnerships while maintaining their cohesion under increasing stress.

In order to keep up with China’s growing influence and military capabilities, U.S. policymakers will inevitably press America’s partners for greater contributions to the region’s security. China’s strategy—salami slicing, military modernization, and creating commercial and financial dependence with others in the region—is multidimensional and requires a similarly broadbased response. This section describes ways America’s partners, with U.S. support, can contribute to a competitive response to China’s strategy. These responses will resist China’s salami slicing and attempt to counter elements of China’s military program. As we will see, many of these approaches come with risks and objections.

Take on China’s Territorial Claims

First, America’s partners must promote their legal cases against China’s territorial assertions. A central element of China’s salami slicing is to gradually build up the legal legitimacy of its territorial claims by incrementally, but firmly, accumulating ever more “facts on the ground” to support its claims. America’s partners must resist this by supporting their own legal claims. China’s “nine-dash line” and its legal position regarding EEZ restrictions are weak legal claims and they find little acceptance in the international community. But China’s persistent salami slicing, if not resisted, could still prevail. The United States could help its partners, and its own interests, by leveraging existing law and institutions.

For example, the United States and its partners in the region should support use of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a dispute resolution method. The Philippines is pursuing such a case against China, with China resisting the legal authority of this procedure. Building a large multinational front supporting the Philippine UNCLOS gambit will reduce the legitimacy of China’s claims.

The U.S. government should continue its support of ASEAN’s unity and its role in promoting a binding Code of Conduct for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Achieving this unity and establishing such a code would constitute resistance to China’s salami slicing and would reduce the legitimacy of China’s strategy.

Supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade negotiations is another method the United States and its partners can use to build up multilateral cooperation and the broader concept of a rules-based system—a visible contrast to China’s unilateral assertiveness.

Match China’s Maritime Presence

Second, America’s partners around the East and South China Seas need to match China’s maritime presence. China’s salami-slicing strategy is supported by its economic and industrial power, which Beijing believes will sustain a growing and persistent presence of civilian, paramilitary, and if necessary, military vessels on patrol around the disputed claims in the two seas. Chinese planners are counting on their material advantages to wear down the other claimants, with Chinese fishing boats and patrol craft establishing new “facts on the ground,” which they hope will eventually be accepted by the  international community. Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other claimants need to match China’s persistence with their own, otherwise they risk conceding the seas to China.

The United States has a strong interest in supporting a matching presence by the other claimants. Should China’s salami slicing eventually result in recognition of the nine-dash line, the burden could eventually fall on U.S. military forces to restore the status quo ante in a crisis—a situation U.S. policymakers and military commanders greatly wish to avoid.

In order to assist the other claimants with their maritime patrolling presence, the United States should organize a multilateral group to support the claimants, especially the smaller countries around the South China Sea.  The United States should quietly rally Japan, Australia, and India, the other three big powers in the network, to assist and subsidize a matching maritime presence in the two seas. The civilian component of maritime presence should have the lead in such an effort.

The private-sector fishing fleets of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia should do more to match those from China. A subsidy fund organized by the United States, Japan, India, and Australia could support the capacity and endurance of fishing fleets from the smaller countries, for the sole purpose of strategic competition with China. Foreign assistance from these four countries should also support paramilitary maritime capacity in the South China Sea, such as coast guard cutters, fisheries enforcement craft, police patrol boats, and other maritime policing activity.


The program could establish technical support relationships, for example, Japanese maritime patrol forces supporting their Philippine counterparts and Indian units supporting Vietnam. The goal of this program would be to build up the sustained civilian maritime capacity of the other claimants, demonstrated by fishing fleets and paramilitary patrolling that match China’s presence. Should these claimants succeed in matching China’s maritime presence, it would demonstrate resistance to the notion that China is succeeding in establishing new territorial facts on the ground in the two seas. This effort, at relatively little cost, could stymie China’s salami slicing, raise political costs to China, and boost the confidence of the U.S. partnership network.

Boosting the maritime presence of the claimants opposing China will increase both the risk of maritime incidents and clashes and the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict entangling the United States. Dissuading China from continued salami slicing will unavoidably require the United States and its partners to assume a heightened risk of confrontation. There is a perception that the United States stepped away from such a risk during the April to June 2012 standoff over Scarborough Reef that left Chinese paramilitary forces and fishing fleets in sole control of the shoal and left the Philippines locked out. The desire by policymakers of the major powers to avoid a confrontation over uninhabited rocks is understandable. Regrettably that view only postpones trouble for the future, when China is likely to have a stronger hand to play. The United States and its partners will eventually have to face China’s salami slicing. Preparing for that with legal, diplomatic, media, and security strategies will improve the likelihood of success when such a faceoff occurs.

Show China as the Neighborhood Bully

Third, America’s partners in the region should improve their information operations and messaging to the global audience. Media outreach, information operations, and public diplomacy are critical elements of a successful strategy. In the contest with China over territorial claims in the two seas, America’s partners should enjoy a comparative advantage in the realm of media and information operations: they have a stronger legal case to argue before the global audience. Even more compelling should be the impression that China, with its huge size and graceless moves, is a bully, intent on using its raw power to take possessions and rights from its much smaller neighbors.

In a battle over media impressions, the small neighbors should have an advantage. For example, in the event of a clash between Chinese paramilitary patrol vessels and Philippine or Vietnamese fishing boats, the smaller countries should have an easier time portraying China as the bullying aggressor. This portrayal is even more likely if the small neighbors encourage crews of their fishing boats and coast guard cutters to record clashes when they occur, for later editing and display through global media channels.

By making the case that China is bullying its neighbors, these countries will raise the costs of China’s salami slicing, possibly to the point of making the tactic too painful to continue. The U.S. government, along with other partners in the region, can quietly support this line of effort through technical assistance and through its own indirect public diplomacy initiatives.

Expand the U.S. Partnership Network in Asia

Fourth, the United States should expand and deepen its partnership network across Asia. There are at least three aspects to this initiative:

(1) the United States should reach out to countries where there has been little security cooperation in the past,

(2) U.S. security interests would benefit from deepening the security relationship with a few especially important partners, and

(3) the U.S. government should extend the concept of partnership beyond just relationships with states and state-based organizations like ASEAN.

Burma’s decision to break from China provided the United States with an opportunity to develop a new security partnership, an event the Obama administration quickly exploited. The United States should look for other opportunities to build security relationships around China that will complicate Beijing’s security planning, increase China’s security costs, and hold out the prospect for further cost increases should China pursue assertive behavior.

Central Asia, Russia, and the Himalayan countries merit consideration in this regard. The start of the U.S. and NATO campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 brought U.S. military and intelligence forces into Central Asia. Since then U.S. relations with the countries in that region have waxed and waned because of tension between U.S. concerns about human rights in some countries and the need for bases in the region to support the war in Afghanistan.

China and Russia responded to the sudden arrival of U.S. power in the area by stepping up their own presence and influence. China’s emergence as a naval and aerospace power in the western Pacific is predicated on maintaining the strategic tranquility Beijing thought it established along its northern and western frontiers in the 1990s. For little cost the United States could create concerns on China’s western frontier, which China would have to expend time and resources to protect.


U.S. relations with Russia are troubled while China’s relations with Russia seem on the rise. Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip as China’s president was to Moscow to negotiate deals on energy, weapons, and technology. The Russian and Chinese economies are highly complementary, with Russia a well-positioned supplier of energy and high-end weapons and China an eager customer. China has a strong interest in maintaining serenity to its north and west, while Russian sales of warships, submarines, and antiship missiles threaten U.S. maritime power in the Pacific, where Russia is not competing.

But this is a short-term calculation for Moscow. Longer term, China would seem a larger threat to Russia’s interests than the United States or Europe; in particular, China’s ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles are as threatening to Russia as they are to the United States and its partners in the Pacific. Russia is as constrained by the INF Treaty as the United States is. Given Russia’s experience and comparative advantage with ballistic missiles, it would benefit even more than the United States would from the treaty’s termination, should Moscow decide that it needs to respond to China’s military buildup. It may thus come to pass that Russia and the United States will find a mutual interest in either terminating the INF treaty or in negotiating an exception for missiles deployed in Asia. U.S. policymakers would be wise to quietly explore this possibility with Russia.

In response to possible Chinese aggression in the Himalayan region, expanding U.S. security relationships there could draw China’s attention, stretch its security resources, and threaten to impose greater costs in the future.

The United States should seek to deepen its security relationships with India and Vietnam, two notable partners in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S.-Indian military relationship has already advanced considerably over the past decade. Indeed India now conducts more military training exercises with the United States than with any other country and is purchasing billions of dollars of U.S.-sourced military hardware. U.S and Indian security interests in the region overlap considerably and the United States is

understandably interested in a deeper security partnership. But for reasons discussed below, there are cultural and political barriers to achieving this aspiration, at least at a rapid pace.

Regarding China’s assertiveness, the United States and Vietnam similarly share overlapping interests. The military partnership between the two countries is deepening but has begun from a minimal base.8 As with India, cultural and political obstacles are likely to slow the progress of this relationship.

U.S. policymakers and planners should remember that partners should include nonstate actors. With their experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in recent years, U.S. military commanders are well aware of the role of nonstate actors and have learned to exploit this aspect of irregular warfare. Irregular warfare and nonstate actors will be factors in the Asia-Pacific theater, something military planners for the region should keep in mind not only as threats but also as opportunities.

Collaborate on Maritime Surveillance of Chinese Activities

Fifth, the United States should lead an effort to build up basic maritime domain awareness and information sharing among its partnership network. The goal would be to develop an accurate and timely picture of China’s maritime activities, of both its naval forces and its civilian and paramilitary patrolling. This network would then share this up-to-date picture with all its members so they could improve their responses to China’s maritime actions. This initiative would not be a substitute for U.S. Pacific Command’s current intelligence collection; rather it would be a complementary effort, designed to assist America’s partners in the region and to improve cooperation among them.

The partnership network would use a variety of sources to collect information on China’s maritime dispositions. First are the normal contact reports from naval and paramilitary patrolling. Enhancements to partners’ maritime presence capacity would add to this collection source. The four big powers in the network (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) could also assist some of the partners in acquiring unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities to expand their maritime patrolling coverage. A similar effort could promote the emplacement of undersea sensors for detecting and monitoring PLAN submarine forces.

Equally important would be the use of civilian vessels, such as fishing boats with radios and satellite phones, as collectors of information on China’s military and nonmilitary maritime activities. Chinese commanders will find it politically awkward to attempt to thwart the collection efforts of civilian vessels. And because of their protected status as noncombatants, these vessels may be able to go places their military and paramilitary counterparts cannot.

Partners contributing to the network’s common maritime picture would share its output. In addition to the valuable information the program would produce, network participants would gain experience cooperating on a common task, experience that will bring benefits in other ways. Additionally this program will raise the costs to China should it attempt to attack the network’s collection efforts. Although the network would not be a binding treaty, some members may view an attack on the network as an attack on all of its members, a position that may improve deterrence in the region.

Build A2/AD Capabilities

Sixth, the United States should encourage its partners in the region to build their own access denial capabilities. China’s rapid development of extensive access denial capabilities over the past two decades demonstrates that dangerous antiship and antiaircraft capabilities are accessible to countries (and even nonstate actors) not previously ranked as leading military powers.


With moderate effort, it is within the capacity of some of China’s neighbors to develop some of the access denial capabilities China has itself developed. The purpose of building partner access denial capabilities is to complicate the PLA’s military planning, reduce its options, and raise China’s potential costs for employing military force during future crises.

Japan’s military forces are already near the leading edge of technology. In 2010 Japan acted to increase its submarine fleet by one-third, from eighteen to twenty-four boats, citing concerns about China’s naval expansion. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his desire to expand Japan’s offensive capabilities, using platforms and doctrines not previously considered by Japan’s policymakers. For example, Japan is a participant in the F-35 stealthy Joint Strike Fighter program, which will give that nation the capacity to penetrate a sophisticated adversary air defense system. In February 2013 remarks to Parliament, Abe said, “Can we continue to depend entirely on the United States to attack our enemy’s bases? . . . If we’re going to introduce F-35s, then we should consider fully utilizing their capabilities.”

Abe made these remarks in the context of the threat to Japan from North Korea. But the concept naturally applies in other contexts such as the rising threat from the PLA, which arguably was a major factor in Abe’s return to power in 2012. And once the principle of Japanese offensive actions using F-35s is accepted, that principle can be transferred to more survivable platforms such as mobile cruise and ballistic missiles.

In 2009 Vietnam placed an order with Russia for six Kilo-class dieselelectric submarines and received the first of these in 2013.12 The version of the Kilos Vietnam will get may be more advanced that the Kilo submarines operated by the PLAN. It remains to be seen what armament for the Kilos Russia provides to Vietnam; in theory, Vietnam’s Kilos could be armed with the same supersonic antiship cruise missiles and wake-homing torpedoes that make China’s submarines a threat to the U.S. Navy. Although it will take many years for Vietnam’s submarines crews and maintenance personnel to transform this Kilo program into a significant military capability, with persistent effort and support such an outcome is realistic. When that occurs, Vietnam’s submarines will have a short transit to patrol positions off Hainan Island and other PLAN bases.

There are more initiatives the United States and its partners could support that would build up the access denial capabilities of China’s neighbors. Vietnam, the Philippines, and others could acquire frigates and patrol boats armed with antiship cruise missiles, torpedoes, and antiaircraft weapons. The technology involved with these capabilities is relatively modest and accessible to small countries.13 These countries could also acquire land-based antiship cruise missiles and air defense systems mounted on mobile TELs.

The United States and its partners could attempt to get more out of their submarine fleets by increasing cooperation among them. The planned expansion and modernization of China’s submarine fleet is perhaps the most important part of its naval program, and, as mentioned, Japan and Vietnam are responding with their own submarine acquisitions. Australia also plans to completely renew its submarine fleet in the years ahead. With these countries recognizing the importance of submarine warfare, they may also see the benefit of coordinating their efforts in order to achieve a better return from the investments they make in these assets. The U.S. Navy, with its comparative advantage in submarine warfare, could be in a good position to develop this concept with these partners.

The United States could work still further with Japan, India, and Australia in sponsoring solutions and in providing ongoing technical assistance for these access denial initiatives. Working through a multilateral group will improve the political legitimacy of such a program and allow the participants to practice cooperation that will be useful in other contexts.

Vietnam, the Philippines, and others in the region are obviously not going to match the PLA’s military capacity. The Philippines in particular is beginning its military reforms from a very low base. The PLA’s missiles and airpower are daunting enough for the United States and Japan, let alone the other small countries in the region. In a conflict sparked by, say, a confrontation over maritime claims in the South China Sea, the military forces of the small countries would suffer badly under a determined PLA assault.

The purpose of building regional access denial capabilities is not only to raise the political costs of potential Chinese mischief but also to make such hypothetical PLA military operations more complicated, more risky, easier to detect in advance, and ultimately more costly to China. Raising China’s political and military costs at the margin, and making it more difficult for the PLA to achieve operational and tactical surprise, should reduce the utility of the military option for China’s leaders and thus improve deterrence.

The United States and its partners can achieve this important benefit at relatively little cost and with benefits to all the countries in the network.

Prepare for Irregular Warfare

Seventh, the United States and its partners should prepare for irregular warfare.


Much of the discussion about the various military competitions in the Asia-Pacific region centers on high-end conventional and, occasionally, nuclear forces. This is understandable given the growth in spending on these capabilities over the past two decades. However, all sides, especially China, will prefer to use their conventional military capabilities for signaling and intimidation rather than actual employment—that is, to achieve their political and security objectives without kinetic combat. Against this backdrop, it is likely all sides will look to a variety of irregular warfare techniques to enhance political advantage and to wear down their opponents.

The recent wars in the Middle East and Central Asia have focused the minds of U.S. policymakers on defending against an adversary’s use of irregular warfare. The United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region may face this prospect, either through China’s expanded use of its nonkinetic “Three Warfares” doctrine (media, psychological, and legal techniques) or through its employment of proxies, nonviolently or kinetically. Should these tactics transpire, the United States and its partners will once again have to fashion ways to parry them.

However, U.S. and allied planners should also plan for their own offensive use of irregular warfare. Irregular warfare is commonly associated with the weaker players in a security competition—the side that does not have the advantage in military hardware and organization and that would not gain from conventional military escalation. A decade from now, when China’s reconnaissance, missile, aircraft, and submarine programs mature, the United States, with its defense effort lagging by comparison, might end up as the second-ranking military player in the region and thus the player on the losing side of potential conventional escalation. In that case, the United States and its allies may have to resort to irregular warfare in order to change the rules of the competition in their favor.

The intent of this approach would be to impose costs on hypothetical Chinese expansion and to deny China the benefits it seeks should it eventually achieve its territorial goals through salami slicing or other means. Examples of irregular warfare in the maritime domain could include more aggressive media and information operations directed against China’s actions, clandestine emplacement of sea mines targeting Chinese naval and paramilitary ships, sabotage of Chinese oil facilities in the South China Sea, and sabotage of undersea data cables connecting to China. Other forms of irregular warfare might include covert action and unconventional warfare aimed at creating trouble for the CCP in Tibet and Xinjiang province and also mobilization of resistance to China’s economic and political presence in Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

These are controversial measures that policymakers should not employ without very careful consideration. But merely preparing for their employment could be a powerful and low-cost deterrent to possibly aggressive Chinese behavior. The United States and its allies should prepare offensive irregular warfare options and do so quietly yet within full view of China’s intelligence collection system. The intent would be to show resolve and the capability to impose costs and deny benefits to China, should it seek to expand its authority in the region at the expense of its weaker neighbors.

These seven security initiatives would accomplish several important goals. They would improve the political and security cooperation of the countries affected by China’s assertions by giving them specific security tasks such as working together to develop a common maritime operating picture; the countries in the region could similarly cooperate on access denial techniques and information operations. Greater cooperation among the partners would result in better security and greater legitimacy for the initiative.

Next, the initiatives call for the other big powers in the region besides the United States to take a role in coordinating regional security. The United States would still have a very large role in most of these programs; but the greater the role played by the other powers, the more the overall effort will be viewed as legitimate.

Perhaps most important, these initiatives show how the small countries in the region can take actions that threaten to impose costs on potential Chinese misbehavior. Effective dissuasion will result in improved regional stability and the avoidance of conflict. When all of the partners in the network are contributing to that effort, the results will be more enduring. 



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