Passing a Chinese Maritime 'Trump Test'

Passing a Chinese Maritime 'Trump Test'

If the past is any guide, China may test the new administration early on. Beijing's “maritime militia” could play an important part.

A Test for Trump? Prevent China from ‘Gulliverizing’ an American Destroyer:

In light of abundant clear and present evidence, China’s Maritime Militia can only be as deceptive and plausibly deniable as we allow it to be—through our own silence and inaction. Before China is able to put the United States, or one of its regional allies or partners, in a misleading but precarious position of appearing to confront “innocent civilian” fishermen, American officials must publicly reveal the Third Sea Force’s true nature and deeds.

At stake is not only the very best of the current president’s vision and legacy, but also the situation that he leaves for his successor, and for American interests in the Asia-Pacific. It is deeply regrettable that the Obama Administration has known about China’s Maritime Militia for years yet has ignored it in public—despite concerted urging in Congressional testimony and elsewhere that it do so. The Administration’s apparent dismissal thus far of repeated recommendations that it at least mention China’s Maritime Militia by name to begin raising awareness can only have emboldened Beijing. To safeguard his Asia-Pacific legacy and to support America’s future in the region under his successor, President Obama should finally direct his administration to address this vital issue while he is still in office.

The one U.S. official to discuss China’s Maritime Militia substantively in public, Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift, rightly recommends: “Let’s acknowledge that it’s there. Let’s acknowledge how it’s being command-and-controlled.” Much more is needed: Swift has attempted repeatedly to bring up the Maritime Militia with Chinese interlocutors, but—unsurprisingly—“can’t get anyone to acknowledge the veracity of who they are. I can’t get that conversation started.” To pierce the veil cloaking China’s Third Sea Force, Washington-based officials and public U.S. government publications such as the Pentagon’s China report must clarify that the U.S. government knows what is going on, has vetted the information, stands by the information and considers it important, and is willing to share it to ensure “mass enlightenment.” Such a whole-of-government approach is needed to clarify that Maritime Militia awareness is no mere Navy “hobby horse” but rather is essential to ensuring an international community based on international rules and norms that transcends might making right, and in which authoritarians such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin cannot simply bully their neighborhood and treat it as their personal sphere of influence.

If this administration uses the opportunity it has now to go on the record and document publically the reality, the nature and the approach of China’s Maritime Militia, it can help to inform all the relevant stakeholders and the public, including China. Showing that Washington is wise to Beijing’s game will create a measure of deterrence, and could help to dissuade China from ever engaging in a Maritime Militia-based test. Even if China were to engineer such a test, it would still give the United States time to prepare organizationally, raising awareness within its fleets, readying government public-affairs officers, and informing the media and public. This way, when reporters and anchors at the various television and news networks who are not specialists in military issues spring into action, they will have had time to learn. At worst, they will be able to find clearly reliable information rapidly on the Internet. China’s Maritime Militia is only as deniable for China as U.S. officials allow it to be, and they can conclusively remove plausible deniability once and for all. This is a force that thrives in the shadows; the more it is exposed to sunlight, the less effective it will become.

If U.S. officials do their homework and act well in advance, they can portray the facts accurately, enjoy a powerful narrative in their favor, and deter Chinese poking and predations. But should they neglect their homework and wait for China to pose problems at a time and a place of its choosing, it could generate a dilemma with China dispatching a media disinformation campaign. This would be a potent example of Beijing wielding what Chinese strategists term the “three warfares” (三战): primarily public opinion warfare (舆论战), but also psychological warfare (心理战) and legal warfare (法律战). Absent adequate preparations and leadership, the result could be officials and citizens across America and Asia alike being misled, confused, or dispirited; and difficult real-time choices for a new President who has never before held public office.

Perhaps particularly important in this unusual presidential transition, allowing for a non-partisan approach that can span two different administrations will give a solid authority of U.S. government confirmation that will transcend personalities and politics—both volatile concerns of late. In the spirit of President George H. W. Bush’s thoughtful note to President Clinton, this offers a constructive stakeholder approach to passing the baton and leaving President Trump—upon whom American interests and regional stability increasingly depend—in the best possible position. Regardless of what leadership and stewardship President Obama ultimately demonstrates in this regard, however, Trump and his team must prepare to pass their China test. If Obama fails to leave such a legacy, it will be all the more urgent for Trump and his coalescing administration to address this and related issues proactively.

Appointing experienced Asia-Pacific advisors with a track record of supporting a robust, enduring U.S. presence in the region is an essential foundation. One of the best choices Trump could make to underwrite strong U.S. Navy development, reassure allies, and discourage any Chinese adventurism would be appoint the highly capable Congressman J. Randy Forbes to serve as the next Secretary of the Navy—a move that would inspire an increasingly challenged service.

Regardless of who ends up initiating a long-overdue response to China’s potential gray zone challenge, American policy-makers must now do three things to avert a potential setback or crisis: (1) ‘call out’ China’s Maritime Militia officially in public, (2) share information with countries at risk, and (3) communicate clearly to Beijing that any ships ignoring repeated warnings by U.S. vessels to desist from disrupting or harassing them will be treated as military-controlled and handled accordingly.

The United States faces growing challenges in the South China Sea. China’s Maritime Militia is one of the simplest to begin to address: its plausible deniability is one of its greatest strengths, and it has many exploitable vulnerabilities. By informing the public of what China has done (and is capable of doing) and making clear that any such behavior will be met with a vigorous response, Washington can help to inoculate itself against a particularly trying crisis. American officials can quickly unmask China’s Third Sea Force by putting a clear U.S. government stamp of authority on already-available information before Beijing parlays ongoing ambiguity into presidential probing. But time is running out—Trump and his incoming administration may soon be tested. With the world watching as almost never before, failure would come at a terrible cost. To begin averting disaster, it’s time for change that American allies and China alike can believe in: proactive presidential leadership. The first step is simple: mention the Maritime Militia.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson (@AndrewSErickson) is Professor of Strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He blogs at The views expressed here are his alone.

Image: Personnel aboard Fugang Fisheries Company Trawler F8399, of the Sanya Maritime Militia, attempt to grapple USNS Impeccable’s towed array cable (8 March 2009). U.S. Navy photo. Detailed analysis available here.