29 March 2017

Deterring Chinese Aggression

by Nathan Jennings

Tensions between China and nations across the South China Sea have simmered for the past decade as competing states contest territorial waters and economic exclusion zones. As the leading power in the Asia-Pacific region since World War II, the United States, and its peerless military in particular, should begin deploying diverse and scalable elements of national power to promote coalitions to deter Chinese aggression. This would fulfil the 2015 National Security Strategy’s imperative to, “manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms.”[1] While objectives should both limit and accommodate Chinese ambitions, the judicious application of diplomatic, military, economic, and informational capabilities in the South China Sea and across the Pacific basin—in concert with empowering coalitions—offers the best hope for achieving a peaceful balance of power.

Any effort to form coalitions to deter Chinese belligerence begins with American diplomatic leadership. As the traditional guarantor of international freedom of navigation and commerce in the region, the United States is uniquely positioned to sponsor and guide any emerging multinational partnerships. It alone possesses the national power and influence and lead combinations of conciliatory and provocative diplomacy. This would include both bi-lateral and multi-lateral economic arrangements and broader military coalitions with long-standing allies like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, and newer partnerships with modernizing powers like India, Vietnam, and Burma.

The reemergence of a 21st century version of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization—similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe—would be offer a possible diplomatic objective. While the President and State Department officials would lead these efforts, senior military leaders would play a pivotal role in securing agreements by adding martial credibility. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in particular, would emerge as an important figure in any security cooperatives and provide multinational and joint leadership as the lead flag officer. As a final and important task, American diplomats and senior officers could mediate disputes over coveted islands, both natural and artificial, to prevent hostilities between China, South Korea, and Japan.

The U.S. military itself, as a second and decisive element of national power, would provide the foundation of any multi-national security agreement. As recently argued by the commander of U.S. Pacific Command before the U.S. Senate, American strategy in the region must include “the forward presence of military forces to engage allies and partners and deter aggression.”[2] With the ongoing build-up of the Chinese armed forces, the formation of a robust and vigorous military coalition would be necessary to provide credibility to diplomatic initiatives. Though American naval and aerial forces would remain central to any attempts to project national power, the U.S. Army, as the premier landpower institution in the Free World, would also remain crucial to multi-national efforts with increased rotational presence by combined arms forces across islands and the main-land continent. 

This military coalition, perhaps arriving as a reimagined SEATO, would include multiple lines of effort to create multiple and simultaneous dilemmas to confound Chinese responses. Beginning with large-scale, multinational exercises, American joint forces could lead numerous small-scale naval, land, and air training events that could culminate in an annual coalition-wide exercise designed to demonstrate ability to conduct major campaigns. Similar to REFORGER exercises by NATO in Europe in decades past, this kind of cooperation would solidify the alliance and communicate resolve. In addition to multi-lateral engagements, the U.S. military could provide assistance and training to partnered navies, armies, and air forces. With the assurance of American presence and technical expertise, the armed forces of nations like Japan and South Korea would continue to benefit from long-standing partnerships while others like India, Australia, and Vietnam would gain confidence against Chinese intimidation.

A third opportunity for deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea centers on economic agreements and partnerships designed to incentivize coalition members. According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, America remains “committed to ensuring free and open maritime access to protect the stable economic order that has served all Asia-Pacific nations so well for so long.”[3] This interest could be furthered by lucrative trade deals with both established and emerging economies like Australia and India, in addition to numerous smaller states, to encourage meaningful participation. The current Association of Southeast Asian Nations, though historically lacking capacity to coerce, may provide a forum to both incentivize and counter Chinese economic behavior. Taking economic initiatives further, the U.S. could sponsor targeted loans and grants for emerging partnered economies from international financial institutions.

While increased trade with coalition members would prove strategically beneficial—with the U.S. military playing a significant role with its local purchasing power and mandate to protect sea and air lanes for commerce—continuing trade with China would be equally important for maintaining a peaceful equilibrium. Seeking to both accommodate and limit Chinese expansionist interests, America could use its massive imports from Chinese manufacturing as incentive and leverage to attain desirable behavior in the South China Sea. Should the world’s oldest nation choose volatile courses of action, the U.S. could simply shift vital economic relationships to other nations with massive and inexpensive labor reserves like India and Vietnam.

The final, and most pervasive, element of American power is informational capabilities. Similar to the role of information operations in U.S. Joint military doctrine, the broader, national ability to message, counter-message, network, and construct wining narratives ties together and empowers all other elements of national and international power. The U.S. military, in particular, possesses the world’s most robust and capable network of platforms and communications technologies. The American 7th Fleet, as the traditional lead force in the East Asia, enjoys vast communications potential with mobile platforms while the U.S. Army’s Pacific-oriented I Corps wields significant psychological means from land-based facilities to enable national messaging.

While the United States’ armed forces possess much of its means for networking, impactful narrative construction would have to be multi-faceted while synergizing cultural, economic, and diplomatic initiatives. Any attempt to deter Chinese aggression with trade partnerships and military coalitions would require a ‘comprehensive’ and ‘whole of government’ approaches with emphasis on unifying diverse means towards common ends. Even though informational superiority would be crucial for binding regional alliances under American leadership, it would also prove necessary in creating narratives to win global approval and potentially, if need be, internationally isolate the Chinese and North Korean position.

The ongoing contention over the South China Sea is a problem that must be addressed lest tensions rise and competing powers move to seize territorial primacy. While America seeks to avoid conflict and preserve stability in the region, it should form dynamic coalitions to limit Chinese aggrandizement of vital commerce lanes. Though economic cooperation could incentivize favorable regional behavior, expanded military partnerships would ensure, as promoted by the 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, preservation of the United States “as the security partner of choice for most nations in the region.”[4] As an important factor in the projection of national power—including diplomacy, force, economic strength, and informational superiority—the U.S. military would serve as a central implementing agent for coalition efforts. Though the United States desires commerce and peace in East Asia, it must achieve this equilibrium through a nuanced strategy of deterrence and accommodation.

End Notes

[1] National Security Strategy, February 2015, pg. 24.

[2] Admiral Harry Harris, Statement to Senate Armed Service Committee on Maritime Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region, September 17, 2015.

[3] The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy: Achieving U.S. National Security Objectives in a Changing Environment, July 27, 2015, pg. 2.

[4] General Joseph F. Dunford to U.S. Senate Advanced, Questions for July 9, 2015 Confirmation Hearing.

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