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China and the remaking of the global commons

June 8, 2011

Bryan McGrath at Information Dissemination has an important post out about a new maritime strategy – one that also touches on a grand strategy of preserving the US role as the guarantor of the global commons and renewing the credibility of the American military in upholding globalization. Read the post in full. It takes the important step of linking the relation of the abstract ideas that so often show up in policy documents – such as the political-spatial notion of the commons – with concrete military, diplomatic, and economic measures.

Because there was no serious threat around which to wrap one’s intellect in 2007, we chose to focus on a narrative centered on the global system, and Seapower’s role in eliminating, mitigating, or preventing “shocks” to that system.  I believe we can now with sufficient certainty identify the most relevant naval threat to the smooth functioning of the global system is the ability of littoral powers to deny access to the maritime commons.  Why is this so troubling?  Because the prospect of the “Balkanization” of the commons is by definition a threat to globalization, the force that has raised billions of people from grinding poverty and the primary delivery mechanism of prosperity to the American public.  The global system depends on the smooth functioning of the global commons, and if nation states claim national sovereignty or regional suzerainty over the commons–and militarize in order to back up those claims, the very existence of the global system is in doubt.

A new maritime strategy would shift from a strategy of cooperation to one more evenly balanced between cooperation  and competition–in this case, competition with China.  Many readers will chuckle aloud and shake their heads as they read this, looking at the size and capability of China’s naval forces and comparing them to ours–today.  The will see that our force dwarfs theirs, in size and capability.  They will cite articles such as this one, declaring the Chinese aircraft carrier to be a “…piece of junk…”   They will cite the continuing lack of clear evidence that the PLA-N seeks to challenge our position as the world’s dominant Navy.  And they will completely miss the big picture.  

These are vital points. It should be obvious at this point that there is a difference between the way that China accepts certain international norms and embraces certain international practices, and the way it would actually prefer to behave if it had a larger stake in managing the global system. The embrace of globalization and the trading system is a case of mutually reassuring, and probably inaccurate, perceptions of the other partner’s behavior. Many Western commentators who extol the pacifying powers of globalization assume that other countries, whether at the level of leadership or the populace, perceive its historical effects (of turning backward, poor, autocratic states into modern, prosperous liberal ones) in the same way, and that they understand that adhering to the current political-military distribution of power is the necessary price of admission. What globalization means to the PRC includes a chance for China to participate as an equal nation, entitled not simply to the privileges of international law and trade, but of military capability and political power.

Indeed, even China’s interpretation of the principles of economics differ significantly from Western models. So too do its interpretations of maritime international law. On top of its irredentist claims in the South China Sea, China’s basic interpretation of the relationship between territory, sovereignty, and state power is increasingly departing from the Western world’s interpretation of the same. To China, an Exclusive Economic Zone ought exclude much more than simply economic activity – it also should give China scope to limit foreign military activity, which China sees as a threat to its own sovereignty and commerce. The relationship between the long-distance striking power of modern naval forces (particularly in comparison to the era of naval gunnery during which standard maritime law emerged), China’s dependence on maritime shipping, and its need to establish a stalking ground for a credible SSBN-based nuclear deterrent all play a part in Chinese interpretation of the new norms of globalization.

McGrath’s point about the misleading focus on the carrier is an additional important point. Both those who look at the new Chinese carrier as proof China cannot seriously challenge the US and those who view it as proof China’s navy is a deadly threat are mistaken. The ability to project power might pose a problem to China’s weaker neighbors, but it is obviously not a threat to the US. If China were to imitate Imperial Japan and re-enact a WWII carrier duel with the US, the US would probably crush China if that battle were fought outside of the range of China’s continental forces. That has never been the problem. China’s carrier has been part of lobbying efforts from the increasing power of Chinese navalists and nationalists. The dream of a blue water carrier fleet is to Chinese naval nationalists, as Robert Ross called them, as the dreadnought and battleship were to the acolytes of Mahan. They are as much political symbols as actual weapons platforms, representing the ascendance of a massive and growing Chinese shipbuilding industry and maritime lobby, as well as the aspirations of Chinese nationalists who believe China cannot truly join the ranks of the great powers without the accoutrements of modern naval power.

To the extent China chooses a path of a carrier based fleet and expeditionary warfare, it is setting itself up for failure against US forces. In the likely scenarios of US-China conflict in the near future, an aircraft carrier would be a marginal addition to China’s air power compared to its land-based capabilities. Its sea denial capabilities are more potent, because they subvert the notion of the global commons as the possession of the best blue water fleet. New technologies have enhanced the potential of littoral powers to confront sea powers, and increased the geostrategic importance of SLOC choke points. The commons will remain mostly the purview of the Untied States, but in some of the areas where command of the commons truly counts for the functioning of the world economy – the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Malacca, the South and East China Seas – the ability to challenge the global US fleet comes into question.

China, or any other state seeking to “Balkanize” the commons, does not need to be able to win an all out war against the US to seriously challenge US maritime strategy. It needs only to target US willpower through making the cost of upholding the commons at a decisive point unpalatable. Those who fear China ruling the waves, or dismiss the Chinese challenge because they cannot, do indeed miss the point. The entire emphasis of the navy as a “global force for good,” with the ability to assure mutually beneficial trade the world over, conduct littoral operations to support humanitarianism, state-building, counter terrorism, and other operations, depends on the ability of the US to maintain sea control. Just as the lack of power projection may have bounded Europe’s ability to enforce R2P norms outside of Europe’s area of influence, the notion of a truly global system will break down when states such as China, or Iran, can render power projection’s costs risky enough that ostensibly universal international norms and laws become dead letter within China’s sphere of denial.

Consider that China’s views of deterrence, or weishe, depart from some traditional Western concepts of the term:

This view is consistent with Chinese views of weishe, since deterrence and war-fighting are seen not as opposites, but as complements. Wars can serve to underscore deterrence, and deterrence may occur within war. As important, the ability to “fight and win wars is the prerequisite for constraining wars.” In essence, the PRC believes that being able to fight and win wars, and making sure an opponent knows that, is the key to deterrence.

Weishe also does not recognize a distinct difference between deterrence and compellance. In other words, the traditional assessments of US maritime power, when combined with the mutual normative misperceptions surrounding globalization and the global international systems, will indeed miss points about Chinese grand strategy, particularly in the naval realm. China’s naval strategy is not perfect, to be sure. However, its imperfections should not blind the US to the challenge the PRC and countries which will follow it pose to the interlocking assumptions of US worldviews, grand strategy, and maritime strategy. McGrath’s strategy may not be the only way to confront these challenges – after all, the US may soon have to rethink the feasibility of its views of the commons entirely – but it is a vital step.

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