AMTI has asked some of its favorite maritime strategists—BJ Armstrong, Scott Cheney-Peters, James Holmes, Peter Mattis, and Bryan McGrath— to weigh in on the Pentagon’s new Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy for Asia. What does the report contribute to existing US national security strategy, and does it meet the mandate set out in the NDAA? What would each author’s favorite maritime strategist have to say about the document? Our strategists weigh in below.
The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy performs two valuable services. First it distinctly identifies what the Department feels are the most pressing challenges and openings. The clear identification of problems with the People’s Republic of China is matched by recognition of the opportunities for cooperation with partners like India and the ASEAN nations. Second, it pulls together the specific military initiatives being pursued in the region. While these have been available to interested parties, they have been discussed in disparate places and the document finally brings them together. In completing these tasks it keeps within the bounds of its charter and generally fulfils the NDAA’s requirements.
However, the bounds of its charter may be too narrow. At the turn of the 20th century the great American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan recognized that the Asia-Pacific region was going to become more important to America’s interests and prosperity. He wrote that planning for that importance required a distinctly maritime strategy, but one that looked beyond just the military implications.
Today’s strategy recognizes that the rise of China creates “political, economic, and military” considerations, which fits neatly into Mahan’s thinking on national power and grand strategy. Yet the document makes no real effort to tie its military discussion to those other considerations or to a larger effort. The Departments of State, Commerce, and Homeland Security, and other national security agencies, will have critical roles in forwarding American goals in the Asia-Pacific. This requires more than just staff coordination. The DoD strategy is an important step forward and adds nicely to the Asia-Pacific discussion in the recently released Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. There is, however, still more to be done, and a broader maritime strategy to be written, if the nation is going to use all elements of national maritime power in the region.
The Pentagon’s new Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy is a welcome document, with credit due in part to the originating NDAA legislative language. Instead of asking for a maritime strategy with an objective focused on countering China as its starting point, Congress asked for a report that first “outlines the strategy of the Department of Defense with regard to maritime security” and second assesses how China’s actions and military capabilities are impacting that strategy – in ways both positive and negative. The documents succeeds in this and goes one further, making a case for the importance to the United States of maritime security in Asia and of three supporting national security objectives.
But the document does not focus solely on China’s actions. In a well-written and even-handed “Strategic Context” section, the strategy untangles the regional mess of claim disputes. By detailing the range of excessive claims with which the United States takes issue, such as Malaysian and Vietnamese attempts to restrict military activities within their EEZs, it serves as a good resource for countering charges the United States “takes sides” in disputes or singles out Chinese actions. In a contrast with the situation in the East and South China Seas, the Strategy also highlights the peaceful manner by which India’s maritime disputes have been resolved or lie dormant. The net effect is to show what it is about China’s actions that are particularly upsetting to the U.S. strategy, namely the speed and scale of unilateral changes to the status quo undertaken at the expense of efforts for peaceful resolution of the underlying disputes.
The second half of the strategy is similarly useful in providing a rundown of DOD programs and initiatives. But it will disappoint “ends-ways-means” strategy purists due to the at-times muddled relationship between the overarching goal: “to preserve security in this vital region,” the “three maritime objectives in the Asia-Pacific region,” and the four “Lines of Effort” (LOEs). This matters because when clouded, gaps can appear.
Much has been said of the ability of China to exploit coercive techniques short of war to advance its goals. Yet DOD’s objective of “deterring conflict or coercion” and several LOEs similarly conflate conflict and coercion, meaning the strategy ends up avoiding discussing whether coercion can really be deterred in the same way conflict can, and whether tailored measures are needed for the deterrence of coercion. This matters less if you believe the United States has been as successful at deterring coercion as it has been at deterring conflict, or if no further coercive acts are likely to be undertaken. But the document itself ably puts this to lie in the first section. So while the objective of deterrence is naturally conservative, the status quo has already been upset, and the Strategy neither makes clear which of the enumerated efforts are meant to halt the campaign of coercion underway nor how success in coercion deterrence would be measured.
This is not to say the LOEs will have no deterrent effect on coercion, but in treating coercion as indistinguishable from conflict, the strategy misses an opportunity to provide a stronger strategic underpinning for dealing with the range of challenges the U.S. faces in the Asia-Pacific.
Alfred Thayer Mahan would applaud the purposes impelling the Pentagon’s new maritime security strategy, while J. C. Wylie might voice qualms about how Washington will deploy power at sea to fulfill those purposes. On balance there’s much to like here.
Now, Mahan might grouse about the document’s discarding his description of the seas as a “wide common.” That metaphor has been a staple of U.S. strategic documents for years now. Yet he would instantly acknowledge and embrace its advocacy of keeping open commercial, political, and military access to this contested region, and of shaping a maritime consortium to defend that access while preserving freedom of the sea—the legal order that keeps the commons a commons.
The problem of Asia remains acute a century-plus after Mahan held forth on the topic, although the challenges now stem from within the region rather than from seaborne Western conquerors. The Mahanian solution—open-ended cooperation among seagoing nations devoted to the rule of law—also remains much the same.
And American methods? Wylie makes “a system of measures” for gauging progress a core, indispensable element of strategy. The maritime security strategy is vague on the numbers of ships, planes, and armaments the sea services will station in the Asia-Pacific, although far more specific than previous strategies. The standard figure—that 60 percent of sea-service assets will call this theater home by 2020—reappears. How X number of widgets or Y number of soldiers, sailors, or airmen will yield operational and strategic effects remains mostly unstated.
Wylie might note, however, that dispersed, “cumulative” campaigns like policing the sea are vague and ethereal by their nature. One hopes Pentagon strategists are working behind the scenes to devise ways to defeat—not just manage—overt challenges to freedom of the sea. The region’s future depends on it.
The new Department of Defense (DOD) Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy outlines U.S. objectives and supporting activities in a clear document, expanding in detail on the themes in the White House’s National Security Strategy. The new strategy also offers a necessary explanation for the American public of how and why the United States is committed to Asia.
In contrast to the authorizing legislation, the Pentagon avoided making the strategy document China-centric, acknowledging that Beijing is not the only bad regional actor with excessive claims or threatening to interfere with free passage. China is just the biggest. Even the China Daily had to pivot away from the strategy itself to imply Washington was stirring up trouble. On the negative side, however, the Pentagon failed to answer Congress’s question about the specific effects of the U.S. military’s engagement with their Chinese counterparts. DOD missed an opportunity to identify how the sometimes controversial U.S.-China military-to-military relationship benefits this strategy and broader U.S. approach to China apart from more dialogue channels — now more than 90, according to Xinhua.
The structured ends, ways, and means approach suggests a focused, well-coordinated U.S. government effort to engage Asian states on maritime security issues. This may be true for the Defense Department; however, the rest of the government is less coherent. FON may be a matter of principle for DOD, but the White House’s willingness to reduce or halt FON exercises to signal Beijing undermines the principled U.S. approach the strategy explains. Moreover, breaking anti-access/area-denial systems historically requires a diplomatic effort beyond strengthening the military edge, as promised in the Third Offset.
U.S. policy is evolving by degree—increased engagement, military presence, capacity building, etc.—but Asia’s maritime environment seems less stable. One wonders, then, if this strategy works. Good strategy requires the ability to assess its effectiveness and revise as necessary.
The Department of Defense effectively and methodically answered the tasking required of it in the 2015 NDAA. The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy lays out in a straightforward and informative manner what the issues are, what the United States’ equities are, and to the extent that an unclassified document can, specifies a generalized approach to reconciling the two. It is concise, well-written, pleasing to the eye, and possessed of sound strategic logic.
My reservations stem not from the logic of the strategy so much as they do from the pace and content of the implementation thereof. To this point, I turn to General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (CSA) as my default “navalist” of note to further evaluate the document, a sign both of my pitiful background in classical naval theory and my deep interest in the Civil War. Jackson once said, “To move swiftly, strike vigorously, and secure all the fruits of victory, is the secret of successful war”, and while what is underway in the Indo-Pacific is not war, it is clearly competition, Great Power, as well as regional.
One side—the Chinese—is moving at a pace that is relatively quicker than the other, broadly represented by the United States. And while precipitous moves by either side would be unwise, the pace of implementation of the United States’ desire to strengthen its military capacity in the region is lagging. Most of the initiatives cited in the document have been underway for years and largely represent the redistribution of a shrinking force. New thinking should be applied with alacrity, such as a program to build a large number of missile patrol boats for U.S. Navy and partner operation in co-located or even hybrid squadrons in the region, a force that could counter the maritime “mass” China uses to intimidate and coerce.
All opinions expressed here are the authors’ own.