Editor’s Note: Dr. James Holmes, our Naval Diplomat, delivered the following remarks at a panel on “Indo-Pacific: Maritime Security,” Navy League Sea Air Space Expo, National Harbor, MD, April 3, 2023.
Question: On the nature of the Chinese gray-zone challenge to the freedom of the sea and the rule of international law in the South China Sea. How can we “win without fighting,” and how can we best focus our efforts to shift the dynamics at work here?
Answer: I want everyone to undertake an act of imagination this afternoon: imagine how the situation in the South China Sea looks through the eyes of a Philippine or Vietnamese fisherman, coastguardsman, or sailor. It looks grim; to succeed we need to make things look less grim. Our strategic goal should be to give Southeast Asian mariners heart in the face of Communist Chinese coercion. We should strive to give that fisherman the confidence to go out and make a living for himself and his family without undue fear of abuse at the hands of a domineering coastal state that’s asserting itself unlawfully—but effectively—in defiance of international law.
Now imagine what that fisherman sees around him on a daily basis: the Chinese fishing fleet, the maritime militia embedded in it, and the world’s largest coast guard, all backed up by the PLA Navy and shore-based aircraft and missiles. This force utterly outmatches his coast guard and navy, his ostensible protectors. A U.S. Navy task force puts in an appearance once in awhile and looks impressive, only to soon steam away—leaving Chinese maritime forces in possession of disputed waters. Our mariner is once again subject to that abuse we want to guard against. He could well be disheartened.
And our strategy will have fallen short of its goal.
So my basic insight today is very basic: you have to step onto the field of competition and stay there for the duration of the contest if you hope to prevail. It’s the same principle as in sports. I doubt my Georgia Bulldogs would have won two straight national championships had they only shown up on the gridiron once in awhile to display their awesomeness. The same goes for UConn and San Diego State on the court tonight. Similarly, come-and-go operations such as freedom-of-navigation operations and military exercises are helpful in many ways, but they apply a feeble deterrent at best in the gray zone. To embolden that fisherman to ply his trade, and to empower his nation to exercise its sovereign rights at sea, we and our partners need to stage a constant presence in force.
Coming and going is not enough. We have to go and stay.
That’s what Admiral J. C. Wylie meant in his book Military Strategy when he proclaimed that the “man on the scene with a gun”—the soldier, marine, or sailor toting superior firepower—is the final arbiter of who controls something. And controlling something is the goal of military strategy, in wartime and peacetime alike.
Control is how you win.
And it’s only prudent to try to control that something, in this case maritime geographic space, with the least violence possible—preferably none at all. Our Chinese friends are always talking about “winning without fighting.” That sounds cuddly. But make no mistake: aggressors love peace, as Clausewitz teaches and as Chinese strategists confirm. They would love for the aggrieved to give in without a fight, and save China all of the costs, dangers, and hardships warfare entails. Never forget that win takes precedence over without fighting in that simple formula, or that peace is war without bloodshed for China.
Now, we can win without fighting if we convince our opponent, our allies and partners, and third parties able to influence the outcome of the competition that we would win with fighting if it came to that. If we make that absolutely clear to all parties, our opponent should scale back its provocations as a losing effort, and the region can deescalate to beneath the gray zone. Allies and partners would gain the confidence to stand up for themselves. I doubt we can deter China for all time given the importance it attaches to its claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over regional waters and landmasses; but we may be able to deter it day by day. That may be the best we can do.
And who knows, good things may happen if we can do it long enough.
As far as what kinds of forces we should stage in the region to compete to good effect, this is a law-enforcement challenge as much as a military challenge. It’s about sovereignty, meaning who makes the rules, where. So in a sense we should take a page from China’s book and make coast guards—law-enforcement services—and light naval forces our implements of choice, backing them up with heavier naval forces and shore fire support should things go sideways. That’s why recent news of our return to the Philippines is so welcome, as are reports that multinational coast-guard patrols may soon take to the sea. Let’s experiment with how to harness joint and combined maritime forces along with geography for strategic and political effect—giving comfort to our hypothetical fisherman.
Question: The other week you published an article in 19FortyFive examining the recently released Joint Concept for Competing. Tell us more about your reactions to that document and where we need to go from here as we better develop our understanding of maritime competition short of armed conflict in joint and service doctrine.
Answer: I’m going to be like President Truman’s three-handed economist here and veer from critique to praise and back again. My general critique was that it’s hard to judge the concept from what you see on the page. It describes itself as “adversary agnostic,” prescribing a general approach for the joint force to integrate its efforts with fellow U.S. government agencies and foreign partners to face down gray-zone aggression. It’s not tailored to any theater or competitor, and thus it feels unmoored from strategic and operational reality. It’s also service agnostic, treating the “joint force” as an undifferentiated unit rather than an alliance of supported and supporting arms of military might that play their parts in different proportions and different ways depending on the contingency. And it reads as though it’s all about us, much like “capabilities-based planning” and other overly abstract approaches that ignore the fact that the adversary gets a vote in the success of our strategy and will undoubtedly try to veto it. It’s about what we intend to do rather than how we will interact with friends, partners, and potential foes to get our way.
In that sense the concept is astrategic, if that’s a word, neglecting the interactive nature of human affairs.
But don’t get me wrong; there is much goodness here. Strategic competition is a curious beast, isn’t it? Challengers compete for high stakes. In the South China Sea the stakes could hardly be higher; the nature of the international maritime order as codified in the law of the sea is at issue. And yet Beijing deploys minimal means in hopes of accomplishing these grand aims over time. And time is the key. China is prosecuting what Admiral Wylie calls a “cumulative” campaign, an effort that chips away at an antagonist by conducting small-scale tactical actions unrelated to one another in place or time. None of these actions amounts to much on its own, but many small things can add up to something big. Which is the idea. It takes time to wear down an opponent bit by bit. Though the Joint Concept for Competing doesn’t couch things in quite such theoretical terms, the notion that we confront a strategy of gradualism comes through clearly in the document. That’s a tonic for those of us who are used to thinking in terms of a sharp divide between peace and war.
That being said, let me swerve back to critique. One thing that does worry me about the document is that despite describing competition as a seamless continuum, it still makes it sound as though the Pentagon sees an either/or tradeoff between competing strategically and preparing for war. It talks repeatedly about the opportunity costs of competing in terms of operational readiness. It seems to say that if we are competing, we’re not preparing for war. But as George Washington advised, riffing on the ancients such as Vegetius: if you want peace, prepare for war. I would add that you should prepare for war in such a way that you impress on all parties able to influence the outcome of a competition that you would win if a dispute came to blows. If you convince them of that, you gain a strategic advantage. Which is what it’s all about.
So readiness is competing (and vice versa) if we do it right. China must be able to harbor no doubt about our capability and our resolve to use it under conditions we say we will.
In the end, I am reserving judgment about the Joint Concept. We simply don’t know enough to reach a firm verdict on it. I suspect this umbrella document will be followed up by a series of directives tailored to various theaters and competitors, providing the concreteness the concept needs to be actionable. For instance, one would imagine the sea services, including the U.S. Coast Guard, would take the lead in the South China Sea, backed up by ground-based implements of sea power. That division of labor might be quite different from elsewhere on the map. Once we have such a family of documents, we may be on to something.
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.