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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

China’s Imperialist Foreign Policy

Do all of this, and we might blunt the worst excesses of China’s imperial foreign policy—and spoil the Chinese Dream. 

China Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Editor’s Note: These remarks were  delivered at Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups Maritime Symposium, Middletown, RI, June 28, 2023. 

The Chinese Communist Party wants big things in the Indo-Pacific, yet on a daily basis it is expending a minute amount of force, largely in irregular fashion, in order to get them. That seems to cut against strategic logic. Intuitively it makes sense to pour resources into a venture that seeks major results. To go big or go home! And so Chinese strategy and operational methods warrant our attention. 

Clausewitz sketches the classic formula for how to devise ways to achieve political ends using available means, telling us that the value a combatant places on its “political object,” or goal, should determine the “magnitude” of the effort, meaning the rate at which it expends militarily relevant resources to acquire that goal, and the “duration” of time it keeps making the investment. Multiply the rate by the time and you have the total price tag you must pay to wrest your political object from an unwilling foe. 

In other words: how much you want something dictates how much you spend on it, and for how long. It’s like buying your goal on the installment plan. 

So, far from insisting that you go big or go home, the Clausewitzian formula suggests that a competitor has a range of options if it wants its political goal a whole lot. It can go big, doing its utmost in terms of magnitude in hopes of succeeding while keeping the endeavor short. It could mount an effort of medium effort while accepting that the duration will be longer. Or, at the far extreme, it could stage an effort of minor magnitude that consumes a very long time. A lot depends on the degree of resistance the enemy puts forth. The victor does have to outmuscle the vanquished, and that sets the minimum threshold of military might for an enterprise. And a lot depends on how patient the government, society, and armed forces are about attaining their goals. 

To date China has pursued a strategy of patience, especially in Southeast Asia, deploying coercion against outmatched neighbors short of armed conflict while building up the military means to do something more bold, decisive, and conventional should party leaders so choose. 

So in my judgment China’s leadership has opted for a low-magnitude, long-duration effort to achieve goals party chieftains ardently covet and have promised—time and again, and in the strongest, most unequivocal terms—to deliver to the Chinese people. Beijing calls its goals the “Chinese Dream.” That’s General Secretary Xi Jinping’s banner phrase for his policy of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts,” to borrow his words from the 20th Party Congress last October. On all fronts covers an enormous amount of ground, from constructing a prosperous socialist society to gaining control of Taiwan to overthrowing the regional order in the Western Pacific and perhaps beyond. 

The Chinese Dream is to Make China Great Again.

These are grand aims warranting the utmost effort by the Clausewitzian metrics of magnitude and duration. They’re also imperial aims. That’s a term I use advisedly. Imperialism is one of those words that—as George Orwell wrote of the word fascism—have been used so sloppily for so long that they have come to mean little more than “something not desirable.” It’s a loaded term. But back in the 1940s Professor Hans Morgenthau, in his classic “realist” text Politics Among Nations, defined an imperialist foreign policy as “a policy which aims at the overthrow of the status quo, at a reversal of the power relations between two or more nations.” That’s a precise and more neutral definition. 

By Morgenthau’s definition China is a quintessential imperialist competitor. 

And it’s worth noting that aspiring to an imperial foreign policy is nothing new for Communist China, even if the party had to put its aspirations on hold for many decades. In fact, on page one of her book on the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, my friend and colleague Sally Paine writes that the Japanese victory over China’s Qing Dynasty turned the world upside down in Asia, enthroning imperial Japan atop the regional order while ousting China from its accustomed place. China has been trying to overturn the result of the Sino-Japanese War ever since. Chinese leaders might go along with the status quo while the country was too weak to amend it, but they always envisioned doing away with the status quo once strong and replacing it with another under Chinese predominance. Beijing might bide its time, to borrow former party chieftain Deng Xiaoping’s words, but that was an expedient—an interim phase to be put behind the nation once a favorable balance of power made that possible.  

That says something about China as a strategic competitor. Continuing to struggle over a limited regional war’s outcome 128 years later takes the Clausewitzian maxim that “in war the result is never final” to extremes! And it’s not just China against Japan. Fulfilling China’s dream necessarily has baneful implications for the United States, a resident power in the Western Pacific since 1945 and the world hegemon since 1991. Resuming its place at the apex of the Asian order means dislodging America from its strategic position in the region, which means loosening or breaking the U.S.-Japan alliance that Chinese leaders see as containing their rightful aspirations and national clout. 

In short, China’s imperial foreign policy aims at restoring the nation to the top of the Asian pecking order after China’s long “century of humiliation” at the hands of European and Japanese empires. That means demoting others. In Morgenthau’s parlance it aspires to reverse power relations with Japan and evict U.S. forces from the region, clearing the way for China to resume its historic station as the region’s central power. 

Making China’s dream come true is a pretty ambitious program

And yet to date Beijing has not done anything dramatic to bring about its aspirations. Instead, creeping encroachment on its neighbors’ territory, the law of the sea, and the regional order presided over by the United States is the leadership’s method of choice. The Chinese Communist Party is waging revolutionary warfare, by increments, over time, preferably without resort to violent force. That’s kind of a mindbender, which is undoubtedly part of its appeal for the party. It’s tough to combat a mindbending strategy. 

Six years ago, over at Orbis, I and Toshi Yoshihara ran an article likening China’s “gray-zone” strategy in the South China Sea to the French counterinsurgent theorist David Galula’s notion of a “cold revolutionary war,” a murky phase before the fighting when an insurgent group starts working to topple the incumbent regime but refrains from violence until it’s ready. The government hesitates to crack down preemptively on what could be legitimate political opposition. Its restraint opens maneuver space for an incipient insurgency. 

That analogy casts the United States, the guardian of the rules-based order at sea, as the incumbent regime, and China as the revolutionary challenger that is actively working toward its ends but has not yet taken up arms. No one wants to crack down on China unless forced to it. That hesitance grants Beijing freedom of action so long as it exercises self-discipline, keeping its challenge just beneath the threshold of violent force. 

Such are the quandaries of the gray zone. 

This approach comes naturally to the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army, which bring an insurgent mindset to everything they do. It also fits with the Maoist doctrine of “active defense,” which the party’s 2015 Military Strategy touts as the “essence” of how it sees the strategic environment and envisions using military power to shape it in China’s favor. 

In effect active defense instructs the weaker contender to remain on the strategic defensive while it remains weaker, but to work actively to make itself strong while doing things to cut a superior opponent down to size. During that early phase in the struggle it should wage irregular warfare against the foe while raising manpower and militarily relevant resources to help it field regular forces. If successful Mao’s Red Army would achieve strategic parity over time. Ultimately it would achieve strategic superiority, letting it go on the strategic offensive and win a conventional battlefield triumph that would make Clausewitz proud. 

Chinese Communists would have flipped the script. 

And so China’s gray-zone strategy—using irregular means by increments to achieve sweeping political ends—makes sense after all. China’s strategic leadership believes a bold move against the U.S.-Japan alliance would be premature and dangerous. But it also realizes that gray-zone methods and forces are adequate to make gains against lesser opponents such as the Philippines or Vietnam. That means deploying the fishing fleet, the embedded maritime militia, and the China Coast Guard, all backed up by People’s Liberation Army forces over the horizon, to stake its claims to maritime real estate and defy others to reverse them. 

It’s an approach that has paid off thus far. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea, meaning it claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in that body of water along with the right to make the rules governing what goes on there. The Chinese Communist Party decides, others obey. And using law enforcement to uphold its political claims represents sound strategy. If you assert sovereignty over geographic space, you are claiming the right to enforce the law there. And if your law-enforcement services outmatch rival claimants’ coast guards and navies by a wide margin, why not start using them to police that geographic space as though the question of sovereignty were already decided in your favor? 

You keep the big stick of military force over the horizon and use the small stick of law enforcement as the primary implement to pursue your aims. 

If China acts like the regional sovereign for long enough, meeting no effective pushback within or from outside the region, then acquiescing in its claims, however lawless, might become the default stance in Southeast Asian capitals. Over time China’s control of South China Sea waters and islands would come to look like international custom—and the practice of states, meaning what they do, is a viable source of international law. 

Acquiescence looks like consent. A local heavyweight can proclaim an extralegal policy, put superior power behind it, and remain hardheaded about it for so long that its rivals eventually give up opposing it out of exasperation. The policy takes on a sort of quasi-legal status because no one sees a vital stake in investing national resources for a long time to contest it. Just ask the United States during the age of the Monroe Doctrine. China would love to replicate that precedent in its drive for indisputable sovereignty. 

So irregular warfare at sea constitutes a major strand in China’s imperial foreign policy. How do you combat it? 

Well, we’ve postulated what Chinese want and how they intend to go about getting it. Let’s do the same for ourselves and our regional allies and partners. What should be our goal in the gray zone? Simple: if China wants to dishearten its neighbors, we should design our strategy and force deployments to give them heart, helping them stand up for the rights and privileges guaranteed them under the law of the sea and reaffirmed by authoritative international tribunals. 

Here’s how this works. I want everyone to undertake an act of imagination this morning: 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, the U.S. sea services and potentially our allies, need to make things look less grim. Our 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 regional waters. 

Now imagine what that fisherman sees around him on a daily basis: the Chinese fishing fleet, the militia embedded in it, and the world’s largest coast guard, all backed up by the PLA Navy, also the world’s largest force of its kind, along with shore-based aircraft and missiles. This force utterly outclasses 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 and free to bully China’s neighbors. 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. Lesser contenders like Alabama and Tennessee would have had their way the rest of the time. 

Similarly, come-and-go operations such as FONOPs and occasional military exercises are helpful in many ways, but they apply a feeble deterrent at best in the gray zone. They provide a kind of virtual presence, but as the old joke goes, virtual presence is actual absence. 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. Controlling something is the goal of military strategy, in wartime and peacetime alike. Control is how you win. And you have to be on the scene to exercise control. 

We might add that it’s only prudent to try to control that something, in this case maritime geographic space, with the least violence necessary—preferably none at all. Our Chinese friends get this. They are always talking about “winning without fighting.” But make no mistake: they are not talking about peaceful diplomatic compromise. They do not ride around Beijing or Shanghai with COEXIST stickers on their bumpers. 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 winning 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 antagonist, 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, making believers out of them, our opponent should scale back its provocations as a losing effort, letting the region deescalate to beneath the gray zone. Allies and partners would gain the confidence to stand up for themselves. 

Now, 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, and the fervor with which it chases the Chinese Dream. 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, which again boils down to who makes the rules, where on the map. So in a sense we should take a page from China’s playbook 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—emboldening our hypothetical fisherman. 

Do all of this, and we might blunt the worst excesses of China’s imperial foreign policy—and spoil the Chinese Dream. 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. 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.”