The Obama administration recently announced plans to forward-deploy some of the U.S. Navy’s new, lightly armed Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to the South China Sea. The news conjures up images from a century ago, when the itinerant U.S. Asiatic Fleet lumbered from port to port, patrolled Chinese rivers and strove to defend the PhilippineIslands.
This was no battle fleet, nor was it meant to be. It was an implement of diplomacy, plain and simple.
Properly configured,an LCS flotilla would be a worthy successor to the Asiatic Fleet. The 2007 Maritime Strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” designates non-combat missions like coalition-building and maritime security as “core capabilities” of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. A latter-day Asiatic Fleet could perform such functions admirably despite — indeed, because of — its lack of combat punch.
That is, U.S. sailors could do their work without fanning paranoia — well, much paranoia — in nearby China.
Upheaval in fin-de-siècle Asia warranted stationing a fleet in Far Eastern waters. China’s Qing Dynasty tottered during the 19th century before collapsing into civil strife in 1911. Predatory European and Japanese empires seemed poised to divide the country among themselves, barring competitors such as the U.S.
Historian Alfred Thayer Mahan likened China’s predicament to carrion birds’ descent onto a tasty “carcass.”
The Asiatic Fleet’s first purpose was to keep order in China, chastening warlords and other ne’er-do-wells menacing American citizens or trade. It was adequate to this task. Few in China could resist the firepower of even obsolescent men-of-war.
Its second purpose was to telegraph resolve, upholding Washington’s “Open Door” policy in that beleaguered land. Standing policy implored the imperial powers to keep all of China open to commerce. The fleet was woefully unequal to guaranteeing U.S. access against encroachment from the likes of Japan or Germany.
The faraway fleet would have been forced to dispatch reinforcements if the great powers slammed the “Open Door” shut.
A motley assortment of warships constituted the Asiatic Fleet. Its flagship was a heavy cruiser such as USS Augusta, once skippered by Capt. Chester Nimitz, or USS Houston, immortalized by historian James Hornfischer in “Ship of Ghosts.” The flagship’s entourage included low-end combatants such as light cruisers, destroyers and gunboats. Think USS San Pablo from the Steve McQueen film, “The Sand Pebbles.”
The Imperial Japanese Navy made quick work of the Asiatic Fleet following its December 1941 onslaughts on Hawaii and the Philippines. Crews fought their ships valiantly, but in a foredoomed cause. That’s the usual result when a fleet meant for non-combat missions encounters a fleet meant for battle.
What do the life and death of the Asiatic Fleet tell us? Historical similes are never exact. As Navy officials contemplate maritime strategy in the South China Sea, they must recognize important differences between Asia then and Asia now.
Then, the U.S. Navy could use castoff ships to overawe a fractured Chinese populace while brandishing the combined might of the Asiatic and Pacific fleets to face down — for a time — external competitors. Today, the dynamics have reversed. No longer does a power vacuum draw outsiders in. Instead, a strong China is pressing outward, oftentimes at the expense of U.S. allies like the Philippines.
Rather than fend off rapacious outsiders, Washington intends to help friendly outsiders right the regional balance vis-a-vis a strong central power. Geographically speaking, U.S. strategy is more peripheral than it was during the Asiatic Fleet’s heyday.
Then, Pacific Fleet reinforcements were based too far away to backstop Far Eastern forces effectively in wartime. Today, heavy Pacific Fleet forces reside in relatively nearby Japan and Guam. They could move even closer if Washington negotiates access to Australian seaports for U.S. Navy carrier or surface action groups.
Then, outdated ships could accomplish U.S. goals. Today, ships designated for overseas service remain modest in combat power, but they’re brand-spanking new rather than retirement age. It will be harder to consider an LCS contingent expendable in wartime than it was to think of the Asiatic Fleet that way. Navy officials must fight the temptation to pile defensive armaments onto the LCS or forward-deploy frontline combatants to Southeast Asia for protection.
Lavish improvements would discredit the LCS squadron in Chinese eyes. Such a force will be valuable precisely because it can perform diplomatic and constabulary missions alongside regional sea services — and because it can do so without appearing to encircle and contain China. Stationing a battle-worthy fleet in Southeast Asia could set in motion a mercurial, escalatory cycle of American action and Chinese reaction.
The chief lessons from Asiatic Fleet history: Keep diplomacy at the forefront of the LCS squadron’s endeavors while arranging new basing options should conflict threaten.
This phantom from the Navy’s past still renders good service.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of “Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy.” These views represent only those of the author’s.