What Should America Do in the South China Sea? Ask a Fighter Pilot

What Should America Do in the South China Sea? Ask a Fighter Pilot

Colonel John Boyd, to be specific.


The next step in the Clausewitzian algorithm: “We must gauge the character and abilities of its government and people and do the same in regard to our own.” In effect, Clausewitz prescribes a venture in comparative politics, cultures, and societies. A society typically cares more about what transpires in its environs than any outsider does—especially when, as Chinese officialdom never seems to tire of doing, the leadership can shroud its political aims in history, sovereignty, and other emotionally laden concepts that concentrate the popular mind.

Think about the competing narratives. Beijing claims that the South China Sea has belonged to China for centuries and was stripped from the nation by seaborne conquerors. Powerful stuff. By contrast, Washington’s rallying cry in Southeast Asia is “status quo!” Try leading soldiers over the top with that. Ergo, it’s at least conceivable that China holds an edge in uniting government, people, and military for long-term strategic competition against America and its Asian allies.


And lastly, says Clausewitz, “we must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect the war may have on them.” To borrow from General Patton, people love a winner while shying away from likely losers. U.S. leaders must calculate strategy and diplomacy with regional audiences in mind, including friends and allies, bystanders, and third parties able to influence the competition’s outcome. If the United States appears unable or unwilling to compete over the long term, China’s neighbors may well start accommodating themselves to Beijing’s wishes in Southeast Asia. They may have no other recourse with no strong external patron to back them.

Am I counseling despair? Hardly; more like a sense of urgency. As Boyd and Clausewitz teach, fathoming the nature of a struggle constitutes the beginning of strategic wisdom. For the United States, this is a campaign far from home, for seemingly abstract goals, against a rival that prizes its purposes and thus—by Clausewitzian logic—has undertaken an open-ended effort involving a heavy expenditure of resources to achieve those purposes.

The time for acting is long overdue. Let’s get serious about observing, orienting, and deciding so we can act.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Flickr/RA.AZ