Crouching Tiger: James Holmes on China
As part of the research for my book and film Crouching Tiger, I interviewed 35 of the top experts in the world from all sides of the China issue. These are key edited excerpts from my sit-down with Jim Holmes, co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific and a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. Professor Holmes’ acute sense of Chinese and naval history is only surpassed by his keen sense of humor – as his reference to the classic film Animal House in the insight that ends this interview will attest to.
On the bad intentions behind China’s military buildup, Holmes believes the Chinese themselves have made it crystal clear that Beijing’s intention is to control the waters of the Asia Pacific:
Holmes: The Chinese have been very forthcoming with us about what their aims are. I'm not sure that there's a lack of transparency at all. They've told us face to face, including in meetings here in Newport [at the Naval War College] that they want to set the terms of access to the waters and the skies they claim as their own. That's very straightforward and it conforms pretty much ideally to what they have actually done over the past five years since they seemed to have cast off their soft power offensive – their charm offensive towards the region.
On President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, Holmes pulls no punches:
Holmes: The metric that President Obama and his advisors have put out is that the United States is going to a 60-40 split [of ships] between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. But if you look at what ten percent of the United States Navy is going to the Pacific, a lot of it is a lighter combat and literal combat ships. These are not high-end combat assets. So it's a little bit misleading -- and also the pivot is happening very slowly as well. So as diplomatic signals go, as deterrence signals go, this is a pretty Bush league thing.
Here, Holmes issues a clear warning on the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight and China’s attempt to rewrite the rules on freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific:
Holmes: Freedom of the seas and skies is very important. The ability to get to carry on foreign commerce and foreign military activities is really the basis of the United States position in the world. If the United States does not have the freedom unfettered to move ships, Marines, and so forth into Asia, it will really see see its strategic position in Asia unravel almost overnight.
At the heart of the freedom of navigation matter is China’s unlawful and restrictive view of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones established by the UN Law of the Sea Treaty in 1982. He explains why if we accept China’s EEZ definition, we have to acknowledge Chinese aggression:
Holmes: I think that the Chinese are actually putting us into an uncomfortable position with regards to exclusive economic zones simply because they're interpreting their own [200 mile] exclusive economic zones basically as territorial waters. Normally a territorial sea under the Law of the Sea is the waters within 12 offshore.
I think we may be forced to accept that interpretation of what the sea is simply to clarify politically what's going on in the China seas – East China Sea, South China Sea – in which case it looks like cross-border aggression [by China].
If you count the waters as territory, then whenever the China Coastguard, the Chinese fishing fleet, the PLA Navy, or what have you go into these waters, they're actually transgressing on another nation's sovereign territory.
Now that's totally a-historical. That's not the way the Law of the Sea is supposed to work. But I think that China may be forcing us into that sort of interpretation.
Red Star Over the Pacific with Toshi Yoshihara is Holmes’ lengthy treatise on the influence the father of the American navy, Alfred Thayer Mahan, has had on both US and Chinese operations. Here, he explains the essence of Mahanian “big think”:
Holmes: Mahan is an interesting theorist because he takes a very grand strategic view of what sea power is. Many strategic theorists are much more operational. They're worried about beating other armies or navies on the battlefield.
Mahan is thinking in big term. This is big think. He thinks not only about what sea power is. He thinks about what national purposes should be. Nations should go to the sea because sea power is a decisive factor in in world history going all the way back to the days of Rome and Athens and Sparta.
A big strategic concern of Holmes is how the People’s Liberation Army has integrated its various branches of service into a “truly maritime strategy.” At the same time, it has developed a very effective “white-hulled gambit” as part of its Three Warfares and “People’s War at Sea” doctrines.
Holmes: The Chinese have been very adept and I've actually been rather impressed with their ability to have a truly maritime strategy. A truly maritime strategy incorporates not just navies but also shore-based hardware – aircraft, missiles, and so forth. It also incorporates law enforcement assets; and for the Chinese, it also includes the fishing fleet. These things that we would think of as commercial vessels – they act as an unofficial arm of Chinese sea power at times.
I think the asymmetry between white hulls and gray hulls is very important. The Chinese are very deft at using these coastguard cutters to essentially stake their claims. These are police assets. The other coastguards reigning in the South China Sea are not nearly big enough or strong enough to stand up to even the China Coastguard.
So if you think about the dilemma that it would put the Philippines or Vietnam or any of these other nations in to counteract these China Coastguard patrols, they would have to use naval force and if it came to shooting, who's going to look like the bad guy? So that's a serious asymmetry that we are still coming to terms with and trying to figure out how, how do you counter such a strategy.
In the face of China’s white-hulled strategy, one of Holmes big concerns is the lack of pushback by a US hamstrung by a shrinking navy. Here, Holmes sees China strategy of expanding its authority as an attempt to establish its own Monroe Doctrine for Asia:
Holmes: If you want to look like you're the sovereign of the South China Sea as China claims to be, then send out police assets and start policing the South China Sea as though you're already sovereign. Over time, if nobody can push back, then effectively China has made itself the sovereign and essentially created a new normal. It has carved out an exception for itself in the South China Sea much the way the United States did it to a much more limited degree back in the days of the Monroe Doctrine.
Holmes does not see China’s anti-access, area denial strategy as an attempt to put up a “hard shield” to keep the US out. Instead, asymmetric weapons like the antiship ballistic missile are aimed at paralyzing decision-making in the White House:
Holmes: China has launched onto what Westerners call an “anti-access and area denial strategy.” What this basically means is that the Chinese are using shore-based sea power, aircraft missiles, short range platforms like small catamarans armed with anti-ship missiles – all of these sorts of things that they can send out and essentially disperse offshore.
The point of these things is not necessarily to defeat the U.S. Navy but to impress upon U.S. leaders that they will pay a heavy cost even just for getting into the theater –never mind how the battle comes out, whether it's over Taiwan or over the Senkakus or whatever the contingency might be.
So I think this is, it's important to realize that this is not as though China is trying to hold up a hard shield and keep the United States Navy completely out of the theater – keep it from going past Guam or whatever. I think what they're trying to do is essentially attrite the U.S. Navy as it comes into the theater, much as the Japanese thought about [doing] before World War II when they forward-deployed submarines and aircraft to islands they had seized in the Western Pacific in order to essentially whittle down the U.S. battle fleet as it came into Asian waters so that there could be an even fight at the end and Japan could hope to prevail. So I know it's contentious thing to draw the comparison between China today and Imperial Japan in the past, but there are certain echoes that we hear when we look at what the Chinese are doing with anti-access.
Anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines and so forth. These are things China has put out there to try to impress upon President Obama or whoever occupies the Oval Officer that the cost will be higher to the United States than it's worth to them. So drive down the value of the object by saying the Senkakus are a bunch of uninhabited rocks or Scarborough Shoal or whatever while showing this would be a very costly endeavor for the United States. The Clausewitzian logic just does not work out. The United States should get out of there and should essentially stand down.
With this insight, Holmes dismisses the “rocks in the sea” rhetoric of analysts and pundits who argue that the US and its allies should not go to war with China over small islands, reefs, and shoals. There are much bigger issues afoot.
Holmes: It's commonplace not only in places like Beijing but also among Western commentators to describe the Senkaku Islands just as a bunch of uninhabited rocks. In Clausewitzian terms, who in the world would undertake an expensive, perhaps retracted military effort in order to defend these worthless rocks? And I think intuitively that sounds right, doesn't it? They're not inhabited. They don't have water. They can't sustain economic activity.
But at the same time, I think what China is attempting to do is to try to create a precedent that they can modify the international order that's been in place under the United State's leadership for the last seventy years. If the United States permits China to unilaterally change the rules of the game, it may have a harder time pushing back effectively against that in the future.
Here, Holmes again invokes the wisdom of Clausewitz to significantly discount the idea that the US spends a lot more than China on defense and therefore would always beat China in a conflict.
Holmes: It's commonplace to claim that the United States military far outweighs the Chinese military. The larger picture is that China can concentrate on its own backyard. It's only concerned for the most part with the China seas, with the areas right off its shores whereas the United States is dispersed all over the globe.
So, if you take a lesser force, a weaker force, but you concentrate all of its power at one spot on the map, and then you have a stronger force opposing it but it it's spread out all over the globe, clearly the weaker force might be able to be strong at the right place at the right time in order to get its way. So it's very to compare militaries, but you have to keep that Clausewitzian point in mind: The only thing that matters is being stronger at the decisive point, at the decisive time, to get your way.
Holmes is a big fan of force restructuring in the face of China’s growing anti-access, area denial threat. Here, he makes the case for building many more Virginia class submarines.
Holmes: I'm rather skeptical over the long haul about the battle efficiency and the survivability of surface fleets. If a lot of these systems turned out, live up to their hype. We don't know about the anti-ship ballistic missiles because we haven't seen it tested yet, but at the same time, assuming this is a system that actually does live up to the billing that's been put out there for it, it indeed is a system that could exact a high cost from the U.S. Navy. So if surface ships can't come in during the initial round of fighting, I think that means you probably try to go under the anti-access perimeter using submarines.
If I were to get my way on one particular priority, it would be build more submarines, more Virginia class submarines in particular. They're built just down the road here Quonset Point on the Narragansett Bay and then down in Groton, Connecticut; and these have turned out to be very, very effective platforms.
The United States has already stepped up the construction rates as it retires older Cold War era ships. It's actually plugging these new ships into the lineup; and that's a good thing; but, ultimately if I had my way, we would step up our construction of submarines just because this is a key area of advantage for the United States. It's where we excelled during the Cold War, and it's where we still excel today. The Chinese, for whatever reason, have not to date put a lot of effort into anti-submarine warfare and so therefore I think this is an advantage that will prove durable for the United States for quite some time to come.
Let’s end these interview excerpts with Holmes’ classic Animal House riff on Beijing’s continued abuse of Japan for its past Imperial sins:
Holmes: Sure, I'm all for having a conversation about Asia's past if people in the region think that it's necessary. And this is by no means is meant to suggest that Japan should get a free pass because what it did is certainly horrendous, invading Korea repeatedly, occupying Manchuria and China, and big swaths of China. No one excuses that, nor should we; and I hope that the Japanese are not trying to get out of responsibility.
Once in awhile they say things that make them, make you think they might be. But at the same time, I think that if we're going to have a candid conversation about who abused the Chinese people in the twentieth century, you can't ignore the biggest abuser of the Chinese people, which is the Chinese Communist Party, which unlike Imperial Japan, is still in place.
I'd like to see some comparison between what the Japanese did and what the Maoists did during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution from the 1950s into the 1970s. So if we could have some candor among Asians about Asia's past, I think that would be a really helpful thing.
Do I think that will happen? No, I don't. There a dynamic I've called attention to which comes from a silly place out of movie-dom. If you think about the old movie Animal House, at one point at the beginning of that film, the two fraternity leaders are watching this ROTC officer Neidermeyer, who is a real jerk, abuse a couple of their pledges and they say: “You can't do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges.”
That's kind of the dynamic that you get with the Chinese. It uniquely bad for somebody off the continent of Asia to come into your country and abuse your people while at the same time, you write a free pass to the Maoist regime that actually abused the Chinese people in a lot bigger numbers over the twentieth century.
You can follow Jim’s Naval Diplomat Blog here.