How to Deter China: Enter Archipelagic Defense
Andrew Krepinevich has an important essay in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. The article constitutes his brief for “archipelagic defense” in Asia. Krepinevich is the grand wizard of the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and author of the standard work on the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He espouses emplacing missile-armed troops along Asia’s “first island chain” as a deterrent. Anti-ship and anti-air units acting in concert with surface, submarine, and air forces could bar passage through the narrow seas that separate the islands.
Or, more accurately, fortifying the islands would threaten to confine shipping and aircraft within the China seas. Krepinevich aims that threat squarely at China. If Beijing believes it, the leadership may refrain from future misadventures at fellow Asian powers’ expense. That’s a congenial thesis. Indeed, my longtime wingman Toshi Yoshihara and I have been pitching similar ideas for some years now, both together and separately. Always good to welcome a new ally.
Archipelagic defense turns Asia’s nautical geography to advantage. Geography isn’t as forbidding for China as it was for, say, Imperial Germany. Fin de siècle Germany was an upstart empire whose leadership entertained grandiose naval ambitions. Unfortunately for Kaiser Wilhelm and his henchmen, their major seaborne rival, Great Britain, lay athwart the German Navy’s access to the open ocean. That made it a simple matter for Britain’s Royal Navy to bottle up its chief rival. And indeed, during World War I the Royal Navy mounted a “distant blockade” that made the North Sea into a dead sea imprisoning the German surface fleet. Afterward a German sea officer with a sharp pen quipped that his navy may as well have ruled the—landlocked—Caspian Sea!
Now, Asia’s offshore island chain is far more permeable than the British Isles. Beijing’s geostrategic dilemma pales by comparison with Berlin’s. Still, the islands enclose China’s entire shoreline, arcing southward from the Japanese home islands through the Ryukyus (including Okinawa, home to U.S.-Japanese forces), Taiwan, and the Philippines. Depending on how you construe this geographic feature, it meanders around the South China Sea rim, passing through the Indonesian archipelago before terminating at the Malacca Strait, East Asians’ most convenient entryway into the Indian Ocean. Or, the U.S. Defense Department’s annual reports on Chinese military power portray it as looping northward to terminate off central Vietnam.
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Some Chinese cartographers do just the opposite—tracing the island chain into the Indian Ocean and designating Diego Garcia as its western terminus. Such visuals concentrate minds, implying that a hostile alliance may rig a barricade all around China’s periphery. And indeed, such a doomsday prospect is increasingly thinkable. Naval technology has come a long way since Britain and Germany squared off in the North Sea. As Krepinevich observes, island defenders could deploy precision-guided missiles, sea mines, and an array of other weaponry—land-based implements of sea power—along the island chain.
The product: a thicket of defenses that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ships and aircraft would be hard-pressed to breach. Why make such an effort? Demonstrating the capability to make the island chain impassable would put Beijing on notice that it will pay a heavy penalty for grabbing territory and subverting the Asian order. Severing sea routes connecting China’s economy with overseas markets or natural-resource suppliers would exact a fearful toll. Cutting PLA forces off from overseas theaters would hobble China’s foreign policy. Compressing north-south movement into narrow lanes along the Asian seaboard would expose seagoing traffic to disruption or destruction virtually within sight of home.
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An island cordon, then, is a Bad Thing from China’s standpoint. It would let the allies threaten to retaliate asymmetrically for, say, an assault on Taiwan, or to deny Beijing the access it craves to seas and skies beyond the island chain. If China believes the threat, it may desist from actions Washington and its allies want to discourage. That’s classic deterrence.
Will it work? No strategy is perfect, including archipelagic defense. Think about the politics of island warfare. Henry Kissinger analyzes the anatomy of deterrence. For Kissinger deterrence is a multiple—not a sum—of our capabilities, our intentions, and our antagonist’s belief that we have the resolve to use our capabilities to make good on our threats. If any one of those factors—capability, intentions, or belief—drops to zero, so does deterrence. No one’s deterred.
Capability is the easy part of Kissinger’s formula, strangely enough. These days anti-ship and anti-air weaponry is sophisticated and inexpensive enough to give the PLA a very bad day should it try to stage a breakout into the Western Pacific. Intentions and belief, on the other hand, unfurl within the minds of allied and Chinese decision-makers. Allies may have different aims in mind. They may rank their aims differently even if they agree on a list of priorities—and thus may seem inconstant about endeavors meant to secure those aims. One ally might appear halfhearted about some goal its partner holds dear, or obsessed with something its partner deems secondary.
Alliance management, in short, can be trying even for allies of decades’ standing, like America and Japan. Coalitions’ fissile tendency opens up opportunities for Chinese mischief-making. If the allies can try to deter, Beijing can reply in kind. It could threaten economic reprisals, sharing the pain an island-chain blockade would inflict. It could threaten to escalate, either by going after U.S. forces and bases in the theater with conventional strikes or by rattling the atomic saber. Firming up Asian alliances and coalitions while conveying the allies’ steadfastness to Beijing should top Washington’s diplomatic to-do list.
Archipelagic defense is more than an operational construct, then. The operational and tactical dimensions are nevertheless worth exploring in brief. Look at your map. The logic of archipelagic defense works best in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea—relatively cramped marginal seas adjoined by strong allied forces. Archipelagic defenders can employ armaments in conjunction with geography to stretch a barrier across these seas’ eastern rims. In effect they can convert the Yellow and East China seas into fully enclosed bodies of water. So long as island-chain defense remains effective, PLA forces will find themselves trapped within dead seas—much like the German surface fleet in the North Sea a century ago.
That’s the theory, at any rate. But think about the politics again. Taiwan bestrides the midpoint of the offshore defense perimeter. It can, and perhaps must, contribute to archipelagic defense to make it work. If the allies get serious about Krepinevich’s concept, will they be prepared to incur China’s wrath by collaborating with Taipei to seal off the Luzon Strait and Bashi Channel, to Taiwan’s immediate south? How about the waters separating Taiwan from Yonaguni Island, the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands, to the north?
If the answer is no, failure to coordinate tactics, techniques, and procedures may leave weak points along the defense perimeter. If the answer is yes, working with Taiwan’s military will elicit a characteristically fierce response from Beijing. How will the allies manage the Taiwan factor? It’s worth exercising some foresight about this dimension of the problem.
If archipelagic defense holds promise in northern waters, its prospects appear bleaker in the South China Sea, a vastly expanse ringed by weak coastal states that seldom coordinate policy effectively vis-à-vis Big Brother to the north. How to equip, say, the woefully underfunded Philippine military to seal off its section of the ramparts constitutes one vexing question. How to persuade Indonesia to join a common defense—shoring up a southern frontier pierced by the Sunda and Lombok straits, the best alternatives to Malacca—is another.
And lastly, guarding a long, distended defense perimeter is more challenging than it might look from drawing the perimeter on the map. Solid lines deceive the eye. No force can be strong everywhere along a line, which after all is composed of infinitely many points. The PLA could—and likely would—try to concentrate combat power at some point along that line, isolate and overwhelm the defenders, and smash through.
So it’s not all about smiting ships and aircraft trying to pass through the narrow seas. Hardening individual islands against assault should rank high for executors of archipelagic defense. So should thinking ahead about fallback measures should the PLA manage a breakthrough—as it might.
Good concept. Now let’s figure out how to implement it.