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The Right Way to Fight a Maritime War Against China

U.S.-China Maritime War
Image: U.S. Department of Defense Flickr.

Over at Bloomberg retired Admiral Jim Stavridis presents his take on the growth of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and projects how a maritime war might play out:

“I see four distinct maritime ‘flashpoint’ zones, where the Chinese navy may potentially take military action against the U.S. and its allies, partners and friends. They are the Taiwan Strait; Japan and the East China Sea; the South China Sea; and more distant waters around China’s other neighbors, including Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and India.”

This suggests an approach to U.S. and allied strategy vis-à-vis China for times of strife. U.S. commanders and officialdom should look to the basics of strategy, concentrating in particular on the principle of concentration. Strategic grandmasters from Carl von Clausewitz to Alfred Thayer Mahan affirm that at its most fundamental, strategy is about amassing more firepower than the adversary at the scene of battle at the time of battle. Straightforward, isn’t it? Whoever’s stronger where it matters, when it matters, wins.

This oversimplifies a trifle. More firepower furnishes no ironclad guarantee of victory. In fact, there are no such guarantees. But it does bias the odds toward the better-armed gunslinger.

And yet Clausewitz points out that while everything in warfare is simple, accomplishing the simplest thing is difficult. In part that’s because of the climate of warfare, an endeavor rife with chance, dark passions, and Murphy’s Law. In part, it’s because the antagonist gets a say in how the endeavor unfolds and will do its darnedest to make sure it is stronger at the decisive place and time. The U.S. military and its regional allies should act on that logic, making themselves the ornerier contender rather than passively awaiting what the PLA Navy and the landbound air and rocket forces that back up the fleet choose to do off Taiwan, in the East or South China Sea, or elsewhere on the Indo-Pacific map.

Some principles that should govern war planning in the Western Pacific or the Indian Ocean include:

Keep the initiative, and keep Beijing guessing:

Sometimes you get the sense that we in the West are nervously wondering what big, bad China will do with all that fancy hardware it has accumulated in recent decades and when it will do it. A more proactive posture will keep China’s leadership wondering what Washington, Tokyo, and other regional contenders have up their sleeve. As retired general and secretary of defense Jim Mattis once put it, it’s better to keep others up nights than let them keep you up nights.

Do not withdraw from the Western Pacific under assault: 

An absentee combatant stands little chance of prevailing. The U.S. Marine Corps has been way out in front on implementing this principle in recent years, fashioning the idea that “stand-in forces” will remain in the region even during a PLA onslaught, and will do their best to make things tough on China until forces from outside can make their way into the combat zone, combine with stand-in forces, and win. They will protract the war in hopes of making Father Time their ally in the struggle. Stand-in forces are troublemakers. They should conduct themselves as stubbornly as possible.

Keep the PLA in East Asia while stretching it out within East Asia:

Geography is a foe to China, fettering its nautical destiny. Beijing has to fret about gaining access to the Western Pacific high seas and waters beyond from the moment a warship or merchantman casts off lines in a Chinese seaport until the time it moors in a foreign port of call. China’s misery is America’s opportunity. The United States and its allies can deliberately compound China’s access dilemma by deploying along the first island chain and barring its access to the high seas through the straits that puncture the island chain. The more PLA commanders have to worry about marine access, the more they will disperse forces along the island chain—and the less firepower they will have to concentrate at any individual flashpoint cataloged by Admiral Stavridis.

A back-to-basics approach offers the allies their best chance of massing more combat power for a contingency than can China’s armed forces. Look to the masters of strategy for wisdom—and execute.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Contributing Editor for this publication. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Carlton Meyer

    April 28, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    “U.S. commanders and officialdom should look to the basics of strategy, concentrating in particular on the principle of concentration.”

    China has ten times more air and naval power in WestPac than the USA, so this means we must remain at a safe distance and wait for more ships to arrive, which will take months.

    But then he writes “Do not withdraw from the Western Pacific under assault:
    An absentee combatant stands little chance of prevailing.

    Well, which is it? This mindless doublespeack is common in the Pentagon. Did he mean to write “An absentee combatant stands little chance of being destroyed”.

  2. Michael Kearins

    April 29, 2021 at 7:51 am

    Well at least he’s not a defeatists like that Lt Colonel who writes here. But he does not provide a real strategy just touches on a broad one. China will initially have a massive bolt to shoot but then over time will get pounded out. Don’t worry about the number of planes etc bec their quality and training are not that great.

    • frazier stall

      May 1, 2021 at 9:17 am

      Well, seems you don’t recall anything about the great Nam debacle at all. That debacle spread over 10 years and the U. S. was injured and exhausted and had to leave. It’s going to be exactly the same with China unless you plan to expend your nuke arsenal on it.

      • Harry_the_Horrible

        May 3, 2021 at 1:09 pm

        The PRC, unlike Vietnam, is dependent on overseas trade. If we pull up our big girl panties and end their merchant marine, and maybe mine all their major harbors, we might win or at least force them to negotiate.
        Otherwise, we’re back to The First Rule which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

  3. ADM64

    April 29, 2021 at 10:38 am

    The first priority will be to use our submarines to interdict all trade with China. That can be done outside of the South China Sea, in the Indian Ocean, and in other areas where Chinese air and sea power cannot effectively be brought to bear. This can be augmented by surface ships and carriers in these waters. Second, or perhaps simultaneously, cyber and space operations must be used to attack China’s capabilities in those domains (they will be doing likewise to us). China is not self-sufficient in either food or energy (although they do have a lot of coal) but does have a large manufacturing base. The question will be whether we can break them while building up our own capabilities.

    • Mario De Losa

      April 29, 2021 at 12:33 pm

      As a retired surface sailor, I will cheerfully make the case for more submarines. If Hitler had listened to Donitz’s plea for more submarines, German could very well be the language of choice now. I will also point out that Navy submarines sunk roughly two thirds of Imperial Japan’s merchant marine during WWII. If, Heaven forbid, push comes to shove, Navy and allied submarines should send as many PRC merchants to the bottom as possible. I also concur with the primary point of the article; the U.S. Navy needs to be more aggressive and proactive. We cannot afford to be reactive vis-a-vis the PRC/PLAN. They must be forced onto their back foot

      • Harry_the_Horrible

        May 3, 2021 at 1:06 pm

        I like the idea of putting an end to the PRC’s merchant marine, or at least forcing the PLAN to escort the ships where ever they go.
        1. I think Unrestricted Submarine Warfare is considered a war crime these days.
        2. It would probably pull some other countries in on the side of the PRC.

  4. DavidC

    April 29, 2021 at 11:59 am

    Japan’s 22 diesel electric subs, among the quietest in the world could take out much of the PLAN, Chinese navy. They should build 8 more.

  5. Sachin Dhir

    April 30, 2021 at 11:16 pm

    Yet again, an insightful article by one of the best professors on strategy and policy at the USNWC. Thank you for a terrific perspective.

  6. Donald Link

    May 30, 2021 at 11:24 am

    I Would remind everyone that China is not particularly fond of self induced pain despite its rather impressive military parade displays. Their border “adventure” against Vietnam in 1976-77 is still remembered with some embarrassment. The upshot of that operation was a deep distrust of China’s ambitions in the ASEAN nations and around the world. Presently, the debacle in handling Hong Kong is seen by everyone as a failure in domestic governance and a failure of diplomacy in international affairs. The damage to China’s previous beneficial arrangement with Hong Kong far outweighed any imagined domestic advantage. China may not be a paper tiger but neither is it the Middle Kingdom it imagined itself in imperial times.

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