11 September 2014

The Challenge of Responding to Maritime Coercion

What is the nature of China’s “tailored coercion”? What sort of a “gray zone” challenge does this “cabbage strategy” pose? How should the U.S. respond? This report offers a wealth of useful ideas.

Particularly valuable excerpts:

“incremental changes could fundamentally alter the balance of power and regional order, and vastly diminish the U.S. ability to undergird an open, rules-based system. The order can break down one reef at a time.”

“This initial paper has explored why China’s tailored coercion is a challenge to regional order and what kinds of steps states could take to impose costs on this behavior. But it has also made clear some of the limitations of a cost-imposing strategy. The actual price of more assertive responses cannot be known in advance.”

“Yet there is also a huge price to be paid for inaction or ineffective and feckless policy. The United States did not solely create a successful regional order after World War II, but no single country played a more decisive role in doing so. Moreover, America’s promotion of universal values and free trade has done more than any other nation to promote globalization. These gains are not set in stone but open to alternative orders. It was a young Winston Churchill, speaking in March 1913, who noted that Britain had through the centuries made the seas ‘a safe highway for all.’ Today, the United States, working with others, aspires or should aspire to make the seas, airways, cyber space and outer space safe highways for all.”

Patrick M. Cronin, The Challenge of Responding to Maritime Coercion, Maritime Security Series (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, September 2014).

China’s determination to become a maritime power to protect its evolving “core interests” and assert its historical claims through incremental actions in its near seas is creating a new security dilemma in the Asia-Pacific region. China is a major trading partner of every country in the region and an engine of the global economy. Few leaders think that current maritime tensions pose a greater threat to their interests than would, say, a sudden slowdown of the Chinese economy. Yet China’s emergent pattern of assertiveness in the East and South China seas is measurably adding to regional strains and disconcerting many of China’s neighbors. Although beyond the scope of this report, political and unconventional warfare, including discrete acts of assertiveness backed by propaganda, legal justifications and economic carrots and sticks, is neither new nor unique to Asia at the present. But the challenge posed by China’s incremental expressions of its maritime sovereignty is threatening to thwart the economic dynamism and development of a regional order based on inclusivity, transparency and the rule of law.

Southeast Asian countries in particular are intimidated by a rising China’s power and military capabilities. Lacking comparable armed forces or adequate coast guards and air defenses, and absent an effective regional security enforcement mechanism, maritime Southeast Asian countries are anxious about China’s “tailored coercion.” Increasingly, countries are looking for partners and policies to help prevent unilateral changes to the status quo through coercion or force. Although in some ways tensions are more acute in the East China Sea, Japan has a more formidable economy and military than do Southeast Asian countries. Moreover, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is resolute and focused on addressing “gray zone” challenges, particularly around Japan’s southwestern islands.

In both semi-enclosed seas, countries are calling on the United States to become more engaged and to demonstrate a firm commitment to maintaining…

For full text of two publications cited here, see:

Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, eds., Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014).

Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2014).