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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Why the U.S. Navy Needs to Be in the South China Sea

USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72).
PHILIPPINE SEA (Feb. 28, 2022) Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Anatalia Zamora, from Midland, Texas, runs to a safe distance before an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the "Tophatters" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14 launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability through alliances and partnerships while serving as a ready-response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Singley) 220228-N-MM912-1137

I’ve been a ghost around the hallowed halls of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport this sabbatical year. But I did clank and moan my way onto campus late last month to give a talk at the Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups annual symposium. This year’s workshop attendees explored “gray-zone” competition at sea, chiefly in such quarters as the South China Sea.

My bottom line was blaringly obvious—namely, that a contender has to take the field of competition and stay there in order to compete.

That you have to be there to win seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? I rather doubt the legendary University of Georgia Bulldogs football team would have defeated Alabama for the national championship last January had the Dawgs only shown up in the first half of the championship game. A contestant has to show up—and stay for the duration of the contest—if it hopes to control the field and win the game.

The brawniest team accomplishes little if it doesn’t compete. And it has to stay the course.

And yet U.S. forces have displayed a disturbing proclivity for violating this simple precept—in irregular warfare and gray-zone competition in particular. They show up and take control of the field, only to move on in search of the next battle or engagement. In the process, they relinquish control to such outmatched foes as the Taliban or North Vietnamese communists. Small wonder victory proves elusive.

The same precept that holds in open combat holds in the shadowy realm of great-power strategic competition. If China fields the world’s largest maritime militia, coast guard, and navy and backs up seagoing forces with shore-based military might, and if its forces are on the scene all the time, it exercises control of the disputed turf. No Southeast Asian navy or coast guard can outmuscle it.

And outsiders? U.S. naval contingents can show up all they like to mount a show of force or freedom-of-navigation cruise. No matter how impressively they comport themselves, though, they cede control to China when they depart the scene—as they typically do after a brief spell. And Chinese forces resume bullying Southeast Asian neighbors when they go, in a bid to make good on China’s unlawful claims to be sovereign over some 80-90 percent of that body of water.

If you forfeit control of something important, don’t be surprised when a rival seizes it. And don’t complain when you see that L inscribed on your won-loss ledger.

So much for the recap. During the Q&A, a commonplace question came up: why do we have to be there? In other words, why does America have to be in theaters off rival great powers’ shores at all? Now, the question constitutes a sleight of hand, shifting a discussion about the hows of gray-zone strategy and operations and making it about the whys. But no matter. Here’s how I replied if I correctly decipher my chicken-scratching from the event:

Military sage Carl von Clausewitz might agree that a contender shouldn’t pursue a competition unless it cares enough to win. He observes that the value a contender attaches to its “political object”—its goal—must determine the “magnitude” and “duration” of the effort it puts into obtaining that goal. In other words, how much it cares about its goal should dictate how much it spends on the goal, and for how long.

If you don’t prize something, don’t spend much on it—or anything at all.

Clausewitz also observes that three elements comprise any society, namely the people, government, and military. The people are usually the wellspring of passion for some warlike endeavor, the military its executor, and the government its rational (restrain your giggles) overseer. If top political leadership can’t align the people, military, and government toward some worthwhile goal, it’s probably best to forego the attempt to grasp it.


Being there is a conscious political and strategic choice, but so is not being there. This is a choice of the utmost moment. Accordingly, top leadership in Washington DC needs to put the stakes in the Indo-Pacific to the American people in the starkest terms possible. The stakes are compelling and should be nonnegotiable. They are worth an effort of substantial magnitude and duration, in Clausewitzian parlance.

Let’s stick to the South China Sea for today, although the same applies to any semi-enclosed seaway coveted by a strong coastal state. In fact, three successive presidential administrations representing both political parties have concurred that freedom of the sea is a goal worth championing—and investing in lavishly. It’s not hard to see why. The basic principle underlying freedom of the sea is that no one owns the sea, with very limited exceptions codified by treaty. This principle comprises the foundation of the international legal order of maritime trade and commerce.

China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea amounts to a claim to state ownership of nautical territory. It is staging a direct assault on the world order over which the United States has presided since 1945, and which has profited all trading societies—including China.

Freedom of the sea is indivisible. It applies throughout the world’s oceans and seas. But if Beijing gets its way, the rules governing what happens in the South China Sea will be made in China—never mind what the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the “constitution for the oceans,” says, or what rulings authoritative international tribunals hand down regarding territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. Freedoms sanctified by treaty will cease to exist—or at most will be indulged at the sufferance of the Chinese Communist Party.

So preserving freedom of the sea is a goal of surpassing importance, yet Southeast Asians have zero chance of preserving it from Big Brother’s avarice. That leaves guarantors from outside the region, the United States foremost among them. That’s why we have to be there—and that’s why Washington must rally the electorate to the cause.

If not America, who?

But again, the problem doesn’t stop with the South China Sea. If the international community shrugs and lets China get away with purloining this maritime space from its neighbors, there is no reason in principle why China can’t do the same in other expanses it craves, notably the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea. Nor is there any reason other malefactors can’t do it in waters they deem theirs—say, Iran in the Persian Gulf or Russia in the Black Sea or Arctic Ocean.

If it lets the South China Sea go, the international community will have consented to the abolition of a time-tested principle—that the sea belongs to no one and everyone—and reestablished the bad old principle that the strong do as they will in world politics while the weak suffer what they must. And the foundation of the maritime legal order will start to crumble.

Let freedom of the sea go, furthermore, and U.S. grand strategy of over a century’s standing will come undone. Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States has premised its grand strategy on securing commercial, diplomatic, and military access to important trading regions, chiefly the rimlands of East Asia and Western Europe. Access is the purpose and prime mover of American strategy.

Aircraft Carrier

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, catches an arresting gear wire while landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 4, 2019. The John C. Stennis is underway conducting routine operations in support of Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Grant G. Grady)

Yet commercial and diplomatic access will stand in peril if powerful coastal states start making offshore waters their own. Nor will the United States be able to interject itself in the rimlands militarily should some domineering power or alliance bid for martial supremacy there, and should local powers—many of them U.S. allies and friends of decades’ standing—prove unable to fend off the would-be hegemon on their own.

After all, U.S. maritime forces won’t be able to get to the rimlands to balance against great-power antagonists if they cede command of offshore waterways. If America is not there for its allies in their time of need—if it betrays them, cutting and running rather than honoring longstanding commitments—fateful consequences are apt to follow. It will have shown that its solemn promises are hollow.

Law, geopolitics, and strategy—that’s why we have to be there.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. 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.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

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. pagar

    July 16, 2022 at 6:29 pm

    US Navy in SCS is biggest nightmare since… gulf of tonkin incident of 1964 thay led to bloody bloody nam war.

    But humans never learn.

    Current heavy and very obtrusive Navy presence AND provocations have resulted in serious arms race, a tinderbox waitin’ for someone with a feebly disconnected mind to strike it and light up the reguon. Like a 80-yr-old with brain affected by alzheimer or bse or dementia and scrapie.

    Now congress has imposed 800+billion gazillion bucks for DoD and looks like ww3 not too far away with recent reports that militaey has ssome success wuth its hypersonic tests. Hyper ww3 then.

  2. Jacksonian Libertarian

    July 16, 2022 at 7:43 pm

    China’s strategic position is bad with all of it’s shipping and trade moving through the China Sea which is surrounded by US allies. A blockade would end China’s trade, and reduce China’s GDP by at least 40%. The fact that a blockade would permanently end China’s world market share that took 40+ years to build seems like a huge incentive to be non-belligerent (Authoritarianism is stupid).

    The US and it’s allies in the China Sea should make their intention, the annihilation of China’s illegal militarized islands. By focusing on sinking these islands beneath the sea, China will be forced to defend a small location that can’t move, and is barely above sea level. These islands are therefore extremely vulnerable in the “mature precision strike regime”. High Explosives can destroy anything they can hit, and smart weapons can hit anything they can locate.

    By forcing the Chinese Navy to localize it’s ships and abandon mobility, they can be forced into putting all their eggs into one basket which the US can strike at will. I don’t know how many B-2’s loaded with 200+ Small Diameter Bombs it would take to destroy one of these islands. But even one strike would ruin the runways, and destroy many of the defenses and ships protecting them.

    China has no allies, having alienated nearly every neighbor. It has attempted to purchase allies but, those kind of allies only last until they can get a better price.

  3. Error402

    July 16, 2022 at 8:56 pm

    Virtually nobody remembers the yinhe incident of 1993 (or thereabouts) when the US Navy chased/shadowed the freighter from the south china sea to the Arabian sea accusing it of smuggling contraband.

    After being held hostage in the Arabian sea for weeks the freighter consented to a search and zero contraband was found onboard.

    CIA-linked operatives or agents in Tianjin port (its loading point) misread the ship’s manifest and concluded items labeled as ‘playing cards’ and ‘toys’ were merely euphemisms for banned items.

    After the freighter was thoroughly searched and it’s containers were pried open and ransacked, and no banned items were found, US Navy simply and absolutely refused to apologize or pay compensation.

    This is actually a real story or incident, not some figment of wild runaway imagination or a after-a-heavy-lunch midday dream.

  4. pagar

    July 17, 2022 at 2:05 am

    US Navy has no business in SCS or persian gulf or indian ocean, for that matter, cuz these are calm places or placid waters.

    US Navy should go to places like caribbean especially Haiti where there is never ending general unrests and social havoc and numerous harbor gangs and port looters.

    Where is biden when the people of haiti need him most. Biden is jetsetting to the middle east after trips to europe and east asia. Opening his mouth when it’s uncalled for and issuing ugly dark hellish threats against ‘boogermen’.

    Where’s biden? Missing in action. Loitering in places where he isn’t needed. Exactly just like carter, LBJ, obama and clinton. No wonder world’s in a BIG BIG BIG mess.

  5. TrustbutVerify

    July 17, 2022 at 9:01 am

    The secret to combating “grey zone” actions is to ignore them – the islands China created, for instance, have not status. They don’t need to be taken out now, because in any war they are sitting ducks. In any other cases, enforce international law when grey zone actions are taken – and put the onus on the Chinese to start a war. Don’t let the grey zone activities have any force by recognizing them. For instance, in the Crimea the Russian forces (little green men) were going about unarmed. Ukrainian forces, with perhaps some help, should have gone in to clean them up – forcing the Russians to either arm up and start a war (which they probably would have) or to retreat.

    However, it can be intuited that by using grey zone tactics the actors (China and Russia) are trying to avoid open conflict and its costs. Don’t let them.

    We need to place a DESRON on permanent station, supplemented by and cooperating with regional navies from Australia to Japan. We need to continuously rotate in two ARGs with F-35Bs and MAGTAF that can react immediately to any overt actions by the Chinese.

  6. cobo

    July 17, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    “US Navy has no business in…” The US Navy has its “busnitat” wherever it chooses to have it. The war with China should have begun and ended long ago. When it finally comes, the politicians, financiers and business leaders that allowed China to develop as a peer competitor need to be dealt with. And the war needs to go down hard for adversaries, no? The US population has been exposed to enemy psyops for decades. It’s time to shut that down. Begin universal conscription, everybody in. I advocate the creation of Aztlan brigades to enroll all those who want to become citizens of the US. The politat will play like this… traitors hang, fellow warriors bind tight and build the future.

  7. Owen t

    July 17, 2022 at 10:24 pm

    America is crumbling and our citizens cannot afford basics like healthcare. And we are $30 trillion in debt. It’s time to roll up the empire and re prioritize. The world can take care of itself.

  8. Chris Cha

    July 17, 2022 at 11:15 pm

    I like the idea of having a couple of US ships permanently deployed in the Taiwan Strait – destroyer and frigate – supplemented by an occasional visit by an aircraft carrier. The ships can share constant navigation through the South China Sea with our allies – Japan, South Korea, Australia, and all of our seafaring European allies.

    This makes the seizure of Taiwan very expensive for the ChiComs and maintains a constant presence in the S. China sea to thwart bad behavior by the ChiComs.

  9. wizwor

    July 18, 2022 at 2:15 am

    The US Navy is the largest single line item in the US budget. It is amazing and worth EVERY PENNY, but it’s time to bring our troops home. The US Navy should not operate outside US waters unless a US merchant ship is attacked. It’s time to end the endless wars.

  10. Hoi Polloi

    July 18, 2022 at 1:58 pm

    In 1945, at the dawn of the current global order, the US Navy operated thousands of ships with an overall composition geared toward sea control. 70 Years later, the US Navy’s mission and capabilities have transformed dramatically into a force primarily focused on projecting combat power ashore. This is great for smashing other countries when the need arises, but not so able to protect far flung merchant shipping throughout every corner and crevasse of the world’s oceans. This was the central element of the Bretton Woods compact the US and Europeans agreed to at the end of WWII: The European powers would abandon all imperial asperations that had been the rule since the middle ages, and in exchange the US would be the single-source provider of a security environment where any nation could trade with any other, to participate in a new globalized economic system in whatever way and to what extent made sense to each nation. The US asked for nothing in return, except to aligned with the US against the common threat of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1990’s and the strategic threat diminished, America’s strategic calculus began to shift, and Americans started to become less interested or invested in holding up the ceiling of global trade. That is what we are witnessing now in the SCS, in Ukraine. Much of the world is in the process of de-evolving into a pre-WWI Darwinian nightmare. The only relative safe haven will be North American which enjoys strategic autonomy, energy and food independence, and within this decade manufacturing supply chains contained almost entirely within the Western Hemisphere.

  11. cobo

    July 19, 2022 at 2:18 pm

    “sea control” -It will be a bloody mess getting it all back, and it requires the combined effort of all the NATO aligned nations, but as long as we swear to keep it, and slowly reconcile and work with former adversaries, we can build a world – I’m for it

  12. Mark J. Valencia

    July 25, 2022 at 4:09 pm

    This article epitomizes militarist advocacy regarding the U.S. and the South China Sea. Such warmongering has resulted in many past US military disasters. But in this case it is also based on false assumptions.
    It seems that Dr. Holmes’ general default solution to international problems involving the U.S. is military force– or more of it. His view is that “a contender has to take the field of competition and stay there in order to compete”. He gives the cavalier analogy of an American college football game. “I rather doubt the legendary University of Georgia Bulldogs football team would have defeated Alabama for the national championship last January had the Dawgs only shown up in the first half of the championship game”. But the situation in the South China Sea is not a game with superficial and meaningless consequences in the real world. ‘Competing’ there means risking war and its attendant lasting disastrous effects on Americans and Asians.
    Dr. Holmes means that to ‘win’ in the South China Sea, the U.S. has to put more military assets there– and keep them there. He laments what he says is the US pattern of ‘showing up and taking control of the field only to move on in search of the next battle or engagement.’ He says that this helps explain the US defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
    But the issues in the South China Sea and their possible solutions or stabilization are more complicated than stepping up the US threat or use of force. For starters it involves the national security interests of China- a near peer, nuclear armed competitor .
    Dr. Holmes tries to answer the fundamental policy question of “why does America have to be there at all”?
    As usual he liberally cites early 19th century Prussian general and military theorist Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clauswitz. He summarizes a Clauswitz dictum as “if you don’t prize something don’t spend much on it –or anything at all”. Dr. Holmes asserts that “if top political leadership can’t align the people, military and government toward some worthwhile goal, it is probably best to forego it”. I agree. But despite efforts like his and the US government to whip up such support for a US military confrontation with China in the South China Sea, it does not seem that many ‘people’ in America and especially in Southeast Asia are convinced that the U.S. should risk nuclear war with China to maintain its hegemony there.
    He goes on to say that “Top leadership in Washington DC needs to put the stakes in the Indo-Pacific to the American people in the starkest terms possible”. Again I agree –as long as those ‘stark terms’ include the possibility of generating a nuclear war and the annihilation of a good part of the human race in China, the U.S. and the region– as well as a convincing explanation of why China’s actions there are a direct threat to US national security.
    But I disagree with Dr. Holmes’ foregone conclusion that [the stakes] ”are worth an effort of substantial magnitude and duration in Clauswitz parlance”.
    Dr. Holmes provides a series of specious arguments to defend his conclusion.
    First he says that China claims sovereignty over the South China Sea and that threatens freedom of navigation there. The details of what China claims in the South China Sea are unclear. But its nine-dash line historic claim is likely not to sovereignty over the waters inside the line but more likely to the features and [a share of] resources within it. Illegal as this may be, it does not directly affect US national security interests.
    Although Dr. Holmes refers to the need to keep the sea lanes open for ‘trading’, China has not threatened freedom of commercial navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. The U.S. purposely conflates freedom of commercial navigation with the ‘freedom’ of its warships and warplanes to spy on and intimidate China and its defenses. China does think that some US warships and warplanes violate the due regard provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) when they place devices in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or undertake live fire exercises there.
    The U.S. itself has undermined “the world order” by refusing to ratify UNCLOS. It has little credibility or legitimacy in unilaterally interpreting and enforcing with gunboats key UNCLOS provisions to its benefit. This includes its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) kinetically challenging with gunboats the claims of China and other Southeast Asian countries that the US says violate the Convention. The U.S. is not and cannot credibly be the world’s self appointed policeman especially when it comes to interpreting and enforcing a Treaty that it has not ratified.
    While China is understandably wary of and surveils US military assets off its shores–just as the U.S. surveils Russian military vessels off its shores– China is not challenging the right of presence and transit of US military assets in and through the South China Sea—as long as they pay due regard to its rights and obligations in its EEZ. Indeed, it has not tried to prevent the seemingly almost continuous deployment of warships and warplanes including aircraft carrier strike groups to and through the region.
    Dr. Holmes concludes with a hyperbolic rant. If the U.S. “cedes command of offshore waterways __ if America is not there for its allies in their time of need—if it betrays them, cutting and running_ _ “fateful consequences are apt to follow.” This is a gross exaggeration of the situation.
    He finishes with the pithy “Law, geopolitics and strategy—that’s why we have to be there”. I would add from China’s perspective “and to maintain US hegemony in the region—wanted or not”.
    The situation does not call for an ‘all or nothing’ military solution as Dr. Holmes would have it. There are many other dimensions of US power that are being brought to bear that do not risk war for what is not a direct core US national security interest.
    It is no wonder that –according to Dr. Holmes–former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis deemed him “troublesome”. I suspect he did not mean “troublesome” in a favorable way. It is this type of thinking that has squandered much US blood, treasure and moral capital with little to show for it –and which may lead America and humanity down the primrose path to Armageddon.
    Mark J. Valencia
    Adjunct Senior Scholar
    National Institute for South China Sea Studies
    Haikou, China

  13. David Chang

    July 30, 2022 at 5:10 am

    You are wrong about your history.

    People in T.P.K.M. and mainland China is living in one-China.

    But you get socialism and evolution education.

    So you have to obey Ten commandments and have faith to suffer your injury or death in war, if you are alive after war, should take the responsibility of war before God.

    God bless people in the world.

  14. David Chang

    July 30, 2022 at 10:19 am

    To Mark J. Valencia:

    God bless people in the world.

    Because of sin,
    if we take moral responsibility, we will avoid nuclear war with negotiation.

    First, United States restate one-China policy is the future of pacific security, but acknowledge People’s Republic of China and Republic of China, then accuse Taiwan independence movement and socialism, because of socialism and communist manifesto, many people advocate Taiwan independence movement.

    It is also the history of German and Korea.

    Moreover, with the suggestion of former Japan Prime Minister Abe,
    the nuclear sharing policy shall be the policy of Pacific security. Let United States, People’s Republic of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and Republic of China share moral responsibility for strategy miscalculation.

    May God has mercy on our souls.

  15. Victor

    August 6, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    Why is it that Russian savages cand do absolutely any thing to Ukraine , any thing the want bomb civilian, hospitals castrate people , rape females and males, assassinate people by shooting in head or back, can indiscriminately fire on civilians and civilian homes shopping centres. It seems they can stoop as low as the want and flatten Ukraine but Ukraine cannot attack Russian terrirtory , seems to me US and NATO are so weary of Russia, NATO and US should give Ukraine all the long range weapons needed to strike Moscow St petersburg and so on. US should tell Russia to get out of Ukraine now and if they don’t Russia will be nuked ,let them feel what its like to be pummelled and be threatened its no less than they deserve so for fucus sake give Ukraine what the need to batter Russian terrortories and drive them out of Ukraine also make the Russian savages surrender you know the rest.

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