One word: Allies.
Back in 2019, the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Center (USSC) set policy circles aflutter when it issued a novella-length report that questions the staying power of U.S. military strategy in the Indo-Pacific theater while urging inhabitants of the region to take up their share of the defense burden vis-à-vis a domineering China. Read the whole thing.
In one sense the report presents little new information or insight. That the U.S. military has retooled itself for counterinsurgency warfare and must now reinvent itself again for great-power strategic competition is old news. So is the notion that Washington suffers from strategic ADHD, taking on new commitments around the world willy-nilly while shedding few old ones to conserve finite resources and policy energy. Over the past decade-plus, it’s become plain that Communist China is a serious, strategically-minded maritime contender and has equipped itself with formidable shore-based weaponry to assail U.S. and allied bases in the region and supply firepower support to its increasingly impressive battle fleet. Beijing can now hope to fend off U.S. reinforcements from coming to the aid of regional allies, to slow them down, or to make the effort so expensive in terms of lives and hardware that no U.S. president would order the attempt. If it does any of these things it could spring a fait accompli on the region, accomplishing limited goals before powerful outsiders could intercede.
This is old—if still potent—wine in a new bottle.
And yet. The report is clearly written and forceful, no small virtues. It adds a welcome new voice to the chorus—and that voice booms out from the region rather than from such precincts as Washington, DC or Newport, RI. One hopes the leadership in Canberra listens up, and other Indo-Pacific governments wary of Chinese Communist Party pretensions should bend an ear as well. The USSC coauthors’ central message—that the United States can no longer provide for common security alone and must have help—is precisely correct. They stop short of espousing an Asian NATO by name, but they invoke the basic concept underlying the Atlantic Alliance, namely “collective defense.” Allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific must shoulder their part of the defense burden, just as Europeans helped stave off the Soviet menace.
For its part, Washington must stop trying to do it all alone—and afford allies and friends the deference their interests and contributions warrant. All parties to the common defense must readjust not just strategy, resources, and hardware but also their way of thinking about these matters. They must nurture a culture of collective defense.
Three points the report puts forward are worth exploring: culture, strategy and operations, and alliance building and maintenance. First, culture. Note the coauthors: “In an era of constrained budgets and multiplying geopolitical flashpoints, prioritizing great power competition with China means America’s armed forces must scale back other global responsibilities.” But culture is a stubborn thing—and the strategic culture in Washington lags behind disconcerting new realities. The report maintains that “political leaders and much of the foreign policy establishment remain wedded to a superpower mindset that regards America’s role in the world as defending an expansive liberal order.” Acting as the lone custodian of the world order, including freedom of the sea, sets the United States up for strategic overreach and failure. Something will give.
The classics of strategy instruct statesmen and military commanders to wind down commitments or theaters that have outlived their usefulness, that no longer command the same importance they once did, or that have come to consume resources needed for more pressing priorities. That’s easy to say. It’s a simple matter of toting up costs and benefits, estimating the opportunity costs of one commitment against another, applying resources to the most important priorities, and downgrading or jettisoning the rest. But breaking up is hard to do, even with an Afghanistan, where eighteen years of combat and diplomacy have yet to yield a durable sovereign government. Why such obtuse stick-to-it-iveness? Because every foreign commitment attracts a constituency within the establishment, the think-tank sector, or academia. That constituency sees its chosen commitment as the top priority for Washington, bar none, and clamors tirelessly for policy attention and resources.
For bureaucratic institutions the easiest path is to try to please everyone and do everything. Yet setting and enforcing priorities is what strategy is at its most fundamental. Political leaders must harden their hearts when deciding on policy and strategy. If the Indo-Pacific is now the most critical geopolitical theater, other worthwhile commitments may have to give way.
Second, strategy and operations. The Australian coauthors do not counsel despair. They deny that “America is becoming a paper tiger.” It still fields “the world’s largest and most sophisticated armed forces; and is likely to continue to supply the central elements of any military counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific.” Still, “the United States’ longstanding ability to uphold a favorable regional balance of power by itself faces mounting and ultimately insurmountable challenges.” Just so. But let’s not sell ourselves short, either as the U.S. armed forces or as part of alliances that have endured for seven decades. It may be the case that Fortress China now boasts the capacity to reach out and smite allied military bases, or even forces in the field. But let’s refuse to succumb to a reverse form of the fallacy of “script writing.” We have options.
Scriptwriting in strategy reduces a living, thinking, impassioned foe to an inert, docile mass on which we work our will. Scriptwriters in Los Angeles or New York develop storylines that instruct the characters in a drama or sitcom what to do, and the actors do it. But in strategic competition or warfare, some of the “actors” in our script are under no obligation to play the part we set out for them. In fact, they have every incentive to go off-script and wreck our production so that they can fulfill goals diametrically opposed to our own. Now flip that logic around. Sure, Communist China may be able to pound our legacy infrastructure or forces. But the United States and its allies aren’t lifeless masses. We too have ingenuity and the desire to prevail. Let’s refuse to follow Beijing’s script—and figure out how to ruin its production.
How do multinational and joint forces go off China’s script? The U.S. Studies Center insists that girding for strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific “will not be easy or cheap. On the contrary, it will require major changes to the U.S. military’s force structure, regional posture and concepts of operations, only some of which are currently in train.” But dodging the brunt of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategy while giving PLA commanders strategic headaches may be less burdensome than all that. Read the Commandant’s Planning Guidance issued by the new U.S. Marine Corps leadership last month. Geography favors the allies. They can deploy low-cost measures along the first island chain, throwing up a barricade to Chinese maritime movement between the China seas, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. Small bodies of ground troops could fan out along the island chain, using volleys of anti-ship missiles to halt surface traffic. Sea mines, diesel submarines, and surface patrol craft could lend their firepower to the mix. Etc.
There’s no free lunch in strategy, but such measures could levy some serious military, economic, and diplomatic pain at manageable cost to the allies. One leading strategy professor in China pronounces challenging such a strategy a “suicide mission” for the PLA. If that reflects how Chinese Communist magnates reckon matters, then the prospects for deterrence—and thus for peacetime strategic success—may be brighter and more affordable than the Australian team lets on. Offbeat approaches to force design, operations, and strategy merit debating in allied circles.
And third, alliance building and maintenance. There are unmistakable signs that what the strategic canon calls a “community of interest” is gelling around the idea of counterbalancing Chinese overreach. What the U.S. Studies Center depicts as a brave new world in the Indo-Pacific is in many ways a return to geopolitical business as usual. During the Cold War, few deluded themselves that the United States could deter or defeat the Soviet empire all by itself. Allies chipped in niche capabilities without which the U.S. armed forces would have found it hard to execute their strategy. For instance, I was grateful to NATO navies for supplying minesweepers in the Persian Gulf back in 1991. Approaching the Kuwaiti coast would have been perilous in the extreme without Europeans running interference for us. Mine warfare is a traditional zone of neglect for the U.S. Navy—not so for the allies. Same goes for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, whose diesel submarines prowled along the first island chain throughout the Cold War to cramp communist maritime movement. Another niche but invaluable capability.
Such examples are legion. It’s good to see allies take ownership of their own security, and of freedom of the sea. The French and British governments have bruited about a return to Asia, possibly including naval bases in the South China Sea where aircraft-carrier groups can tarry. Here’s how a grand bargain could work should the USSC team get its way. A Golden Rule governs alliances and ententes of all types: the ally who furnishes the gold makes the rules. If Washington could provide for the common defense all by itself, it would have little reason to consult with allies or heed their advice. It would remain the sole agenda-setter. But if others contribute significant resources of their own, Washington must consult with them and consider—and perhaps embrace—their advice. U.S. leaders often deferred to allies during the Cold War, allowing them a say in policy and strategy. Consensus prevailed for the most part, even when decisions ran afoul of American preferences. And U.S. alliances proved resilient for the most part.
So America needs to rediscover the habit of strategic humility after being top dog for a generation. Here’s what Indo-Pacific allies need to do: help us help you. Even if island-chain defense works out, U.S. reinforcements must gain access to the Western Pacific to prevail in wartime. PLA commanders have predicated their access-denial strategy on disheartening their U.S. counterparts or convincing the U.S. administration the military effort cannot succeed at a cost the country is prepared to pay. Allies and partners should devise strategies and operations that hold down the price of access for U.S. forces—and thus make it thinkable if not easy for an American president to order them into combat.
Let’s march jointly in the Indo-Pacific.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.