There was a strange inversion between how Chinese commentators and U.S. Navy commanders interpreted the navy’s dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea this week. A columnist for the Communist Party-affiliated tabloid Global Times portrayed the junction of the USS Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike groups as “symbolic” and as having “more political than military meaning.” Strike-group commanders, meanwhile, stressed the maneuvers’ tactical value while soft-pedaling their political import. “Our operations are not a response to any nation or any event,” declared Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 11 embarked on board Nimitz.
Why does it have to be one way or the other? Strategist Edward Luttwak notes that fleet maneuvers serve political purposes alongside their strictly military functions. “Naval suasion,” says Luttwak, means deploying forces to cast a “shadow” across decision-making in foreign capitals. Even a modest deployment can be politically potent if the target audience believes that the combined might of the force casting the shadow stands behind the force actually on the scene. That political leaders would order overbearing power brought to bear to enforce their pronouncements, in other words. The twin carrier groups were an emblem of U.S. resolve to deter aggression against China’s neighbors. Whether their exploits were impressive enough to fulfill their deterrent mission is a question for Chinese Communist magnates.
During its imperial heyday Great Britain excelled at using token deployments—even the dispatch of a single frigate to a contested scene—to make statements about British power and purpose. Target audiences knew the Royal Navy would show up in force if they defied the symbolic ship or formation. That knowledge—the conviction that defeat was the cost of flouting London’s will—was Luttwak’s naval-diplomatic shadow made manifest.
Strategic grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz might well agree. Judging from his writings, Clausewitz had little sense that large bodies of water existed. Rivers and streams make appearances as obstacles to be surmounted or exploited by land armies. Still, in passing the Prussian master contends that certain tactics and operations “have direct political repercussions” (his italics, to punctuate his observation’s importance). If we undertake operations with outsized political impact, we may disrupt or paralyze an opposing alliance, attract new allies to our cause, or otherwise shape the political scene in our favor.
So, U.S.-China amity comes to the South China Sea at last: everyone is right! There was tactical and political and symbolic moment to this week’s dual-carrier exercise. Whether it lived up to British standards remains to be seen.
A few supplemental points. One, it does little good to maintain that showing up in one of the world’s most consequential and contested expanses with twenty-odd percent of U.S. naval aviation’s fighting power is an apolitical act. In fact, it could do positive harm. Official China knows full well it was the foremost audience for the deployment, followed by U.S. allies and partners the Biden administration would like to impress with American power and steadfastness. Competitors have a weird habit of refusing to name one another. Chinese strategists commonly refer to “a certain country” (or some similar phrase), then add enough detail that it’s glaringly obvious who that country is. On this side of the Pacific, the U.S. military often assign the red team a fictitious name in wargames. No one names names.
What’s the point? No one is fooled by such wordplay. It comes across as transparently and clumsily disingenuous. Candor is a virtue to my mind—not just with domestic constituents and foreign friends but with potential antagonists. This week’s exercise announced to the region and the world that the U.S. Navy can show up in the China seas to do battle, and that navy leaders are confident about its prospects for success. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stages military maneuvers in the same waters and skies to rebut the sotto voce statements underlying U.S. demonstrations of martial prowess. Dissembling about such matters does little more than increase the likelihood of misunderstandings and miscalculations. Theodore Roosevelt might advise U.S. leaders to carry a big stick and hold forth softly yet frankly about the circumstances that will prompt them to unlimber the stick.
Let’s bury the “a certain country” artifice for all time.
Two, the more multinational the character of seaborne exercises, the better. Unilateral fleet movements have political value, helping one sea power deter or coerce one another through artful shows of force. Multinational demonstrations of capability amount to statements that allies and partners will stand together in times of storm and stress, and that together they can assemble the physical might to get their way. It may be, furthermore, that multinational operations have more impact in Beijing than unilateral operations because of China’s history. Imperial powers worked together at China’s expense during the “century of humiliation,” including landing amphibious forces, marching to Beijing, and occupying the capital city to put down the Boxer Uprising (1900). Such episodes left an indelible imprint on Chinese political and strategic culture.
Allied solidarity, then, acts as an amplifier for messages broadcast to Beijing. The more tending Washington affords its Asian partnerships, the better off the region will be.
And three, let’s not kid ourselves about the amplitude of the signal sent to China this week. The aircraft carrier battle groups came, cruised together briefly, and left the South China Sea on separate errands. Veni, vidi, vici this was not. In a sense the carrier strike groups were like U.S. Army “mobile training teams,” or MTTs, during the Vietnam War. MTTs would seize ground thought to be valuable to Vietcong insurgents, hold it for a time, then move on to other endeavors—in the process yielding that ground back to the foe. This did little good. In effect army operations were too mobile and transitory to advance the purposes of the war, whereas seizing and holding real estate may have achieved the strategic effects senior commanders desired.
A lesson from army history: to impress upon Beijing that the U.S. military would prevail in a South China Sea war, U.S. expeditionary forces need to prove that they can go, win, and stay. They must do away with the come-and-go rhythm peculiar to past operations. That need not mean maintaining a standing aircraft-carrier presence in Southeast Asia. It does mean designing naval force deployments and methods to cast Luttwak’s shadow across Beijing.
To stick with the Vietnam War analogy, better inspiration for South China Sea strategy would come from U.S. Marine Corps “combined action platoons,” or CAPs. Small marine units fanned out in the South Vietnamese backcountry, living in villages and working with local forces to deny the Vietcong access to the villagers—their chief source of supplies, and thus of their ability to sustain field operations over the long term. Rather than come and go, CAPs went and stayed—until, alas, senior commanders ordered the experiment terminated for supposedly being too static, defensively minded, and inglorious.
Admiral J. C. Wylie notes that the point of military strategy is to control what needs to be controlled to prevail in war. That oftentimes means turf. In the final analysis, he concludes, it is the soldier “on the scene with a gun” who constitutes the decisive determinant of victory and defeat. Superior—and persistent—strength rules. If the Biden administration wants to make a genuinely resonant statement about power and purpose in the region, it should heed Wylie’s wisdom—and develop strategy, force deployments, and alliance relationships with staying power. Let’s show Beijing the allies can emplace more firepower where it matters than the People’s Liberation Army can—and that they can keep it there long enough to safeguard common interests.
Wisdom from U.S. Marines past.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, a work listed on the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Professional Reading Lists. The views voiced here are his alone.