Incurring Strategic Risk in the East Asian Littoral: On What Basis?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 12, December 2018 

By Captain Robert C. Rubel USN (Ret)

The South China Sea (C) is seen on a globe for sale at a bookstore in Beijing on June 15, 2016. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea — a vast tract of water through which a huge chunk of global shipping passes. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to harbour significant oil and gas deposits. (Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently, two US Navy ships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Straits in an exercise of freedom of navigation.  Right now, US naval forces can conduct freedom of navigation exercises throughout most of the East Asian littoral, including the South China Sea (SCS) without serious fear that they will provoke open hostilities with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), but as the PRC builds up its forces and gains more confidence, such an escalation may become a distinct possibility.  China started building up its “islands” in 2014, and at the time the US did nothing to stop it.  The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in the Philippines’ favor in 2015 over the status of Scarborough Shoal and other SCS features, but China ignored the ruling and the US did nothing to enforce the ruling.  Now Beijing has its “great wall of SAMs” there and it will likely take war to change things.  If China decides in the future to threaten or use force to enforce its claims to the entirety of the SCS as sovereign territory, there will be considerable finger-pointing in Washington concerning “who lost the South China Sea.” US inaction concerning the buildup could be attributed to misdiagnosis of Chinese intent or even a desire to accommodate what was seen as strategically harmless initiatives; however one potential explanation that has implications for future decision making is that the Obama Administration did not feel it had the backing of the international community and more specifically the support of regional countries to take action that would risk war.

Upon what basis should the US use force or take actions that might risk war?  This was a compelling question in the aftermath of Vietnam and led to such policy prescriptions as the Weinburger Doctrine.  Although criticized for being too conservative, none of the policy’s elements included the garnering of international support.[1] It is one thing to respond to a direct attack on the homeland or even on deployed US forces, but quite another to threaten or initiate the use of force based on ambiguous provocation.  The US invasion of Iraq was condemned by a number of countries as well as many Americans who felt that the US acted unilaterally, without international support, for its own selfish reasons.  However, actions by both China and Russia in what has been termed the “gray zone” have raised the possibility that the US will, at some point, feel compelled to threaten or use force to prevent or reverse some attempt by either country to expand its territory or perhaps coerce a neighbor.

During the Cold War the US assumed the mantle of “leader of the free world” by virtue of being the only nation that was strong enough to counter the presumed expansionism of the USSR.  As such, it brokered the formation of a number of alliances and coalitions designed to hem in the Soviets.  When prompted to military action in particular cases, the specific reason was response to aggression against an ally or neutral, but more broadly the decision to act was based on defense of Western values as embodied in the idea of the Free World.  One could characterize the basis for US grand strategy as a decision to accept the role of international leader and all the costs and risks associated with it.  Whatever the specific policies of particular administrations, their wisdom or folly, the US persisted in pursuing the role of leader of a broad coalition of “free” nations throughout the Cold War.

The dissolution of the USSR pulled the rug out from under that basis for the US leadership role, but the US continued acting as if its leadership still existed, intervening in Kuwait, Kosovo and other places.  As long it was the undisputed hyper power, relatively speaking, the US could operate on habit pattern, although some nations objected.  The 9/11 attacks produced a new potential basis for global leadership as the Bush Administration proclaimed the Global War on Terror.  However, the invasion of Iraq compromised US leadership legitimacy in the eyes of many nations, it being seen as interventionist for its own interests.  This was why it was hard for Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen to generate a global maritime security partnership.  The 2007 national maritime strategy document “A Cooperative Security for 21st Century Seapower” (CS21) changed that by proclaiming a new basis for US global leadership: it would employ its strength to defend the global system.[2]  This was embraced by the international maritime community under the assumption that it meant the US would operate within the framework of international treaties, rules, frameworks, organizations and norms, all of which served to protect the weak from the strong.  Embedded in this implied promise was the idea that if the US acted, it would do so on behalf of all the nations in the system.  This is a very different basis than that which underpinned its policies during the Cold War.

The immediate presumption, at least on the part of foreign nations, was that US leadership in the context of CS21 would be a function of restraints on action; no more Iraqs.[3]  However, there is as strong an implied presumption that the US would take action where necessary.  There were cases of this concerning human rights violations and maritime security, such as anti-pirate operations off Somalia.  However, if one regards Chinese claims to the SCS as counter to international treaty and its militarization of islands and rocks there as an impending threat to the mare liberum,[4] one could make the case that the US had a responsibility to act to prevent the threat from becoming manifest under the rubric of defending the system.  It did not.  The Trump Administration has all but rejected, rightly or wrongly, the notion of US leadership as a global public good in which it would accept risks and costs not necessarily in accordance with its immediate interests in order to benefit the greater good. This has put the whole notion of a global system into question and abetted the Chinese ambition of reordering the world order along lines beneficial to its interests.

Notwithstanding any of this, the US, as a maritime nation, has a fundamental interest in maintaining a mare liberum, so it cannot tolerate the progressive establishment of a mare clausum.[5]  But under what banner will it maintain this crusade, especially when war between the US and China becomes the price of admiralty?

China has provided ample evidence of how it would regulate the international order if it became ascendant, and it likely would be objectionable to everyone but the ruling clique of the CCP.  That said, survival trumps freedom and a key impediment to US action to maintain the SCS as high seas is that even the nations bordering the SCS, much less Australia, India and others, might be content to watch from the sidelines as the US and China struggle to enforce their policies, especially if it involved open combat.

Any future war between China and the US will be globalized from the outset, at least in terms of the information and economic aspects of it.  While China has 1.4 billion people and a GDP second only to the US, if one adds up the relevant indicators of national power among nations that could be potential allies of the US, China is overwhelmed.  However, securing political, if not some form of military support will be dependent on the US being able to make the case that it is acting in the best interests of the community of nations in general; defending the system of commerce and security that is of benefit to all in one way or another.  China has been busy attempting to establish a global web of economic and political dependencies for various reasons, one of which might be to hamstring any US attempt to garner international support for acting contrary to China’s interests.[6]  The US, for its part, unless it is content to act unilaterally, will have to find a way to knit together a community of interests in the face of an ambiguous threat.

In executing the 2007 maritime strategy the US Navy widened its scope of engagement in order to cultivate as broad a maritime security partnership as possible, under the theory that all seas must be secure in order to prevent terrorist or criminal use of the maritime domain.  Most nations were receptive to this initiative since it involved issues that were in the realm of peacetime operations and focused on enforcing the sovereignty of each nation’s littoral.  Cooperation at higher levels of force was simply a matter of exercises to enhance partner nation capability and interoperability, with no promise of actual support in the event of war implied.  In any case, regardless of the amicable relations between the USN and other navies, the political level will govern whether or not assistance will be forthcoming in case of war.  Nonetheless, the USN’s engagement efforts over the past decade have at least created a level of familiarity, if not interoperability which can form a basis for combined operations if the decision is made to cooperate.

In any future military conflict with China the US will attempt to depict itself as acting on behalf of nations whose interests are threatened by Chinese, Russian, North Korean or Iranian military aggression or gray zone actions that cross some red line.  Whether or not such depiction is supported by the victim nations or the wider international community will be a function not only of the specific circumstances that led to the fighting, but the success the US had in cementing the legitimacy of its leadership.  That legitimacy, at a peak in the direct aftermath of the Cold War, has eroded due to the invasion of Iraq, the failure to ratify the UN Law of the Sea Treaty, exiting the Paris Accords on Global Warming, pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and other recent actions and policies.  Not that the US should revisit any of these things or even adopt some new form of cooperative security, but if it intends to have military options in the SCS or elsewhere in the future it will have to find a new basis for justifying that it is acting, legitimately, on behalf of other nations.  Otherwise it will find itself isolated in a high end war that taxes its capabilities and economy in ways that it has never experienced.

Captain Robert C. Rubel USN (Ret) served thirty years active duty in the US Navy. In the first twenty years he served as a light attack/strike fighter pilot. His last ten were mostly spent on the faculty of the US Naval War College, teaching planning and decision making, and wargaming. After retirement from active duty spent thirteen years as a civilian faculty member at the Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later as Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He currently serves as an advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations on fleet design and fleet architecture. JPR Status: Opinion.

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[1] The Weinburger Doctrine consists of six provisions:

  1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
  2. S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
  3. S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
  4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
  5. S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
  6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort

[2] US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” n.p. The following statement clearly indicates the strategic intent: “As our security and prosperity are inextricably linked with those of others, U.S. maritime forces will be deployed to protect and sustain the peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance.”

[3] Based on multiple discussions between the author and heads of foreign navies.

[4] Mare Liberum is a Latin term denoting freedom of the seas.  Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius advocated for it in his 1609 book The Free Sea.  The current instantiation of the concept is embedded in the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Treaty that defines “high seas” as ocean outside of the 12 nautical mile territorial limit that may be claimed by coastal nations.  On the high seas, vessels of any nation are free to engage in any legal activity without permission.

[5] Mare Clausum is a term that denotes waters under the jurisdiction of a particular nation.  While specific instances of such areas are acknowledged in the UN Law of the Sea Treaty, these are specific and limited.  More broadly, a global policy environment of mare clausum would result in expansive territorial claims on the ocean and inhibit freedom of navigation.  This is a situation steadfastly opposed by the United States and most other nations whose economic and strategic interests are based on or supported by ocean trade and sea power in general.

[6] Robert C. Rubel, “Exporting Security: China, the US and the Innovator’s Dilemma,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2017, (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), pp. 11-28.