The fishing vessels arrived one and two at a time, dropping anchor off the disputed Whitsun Reef near the Philippines. As the Chinese-flagged fleet grew larger, the vessels tethered themselves together, hunkering down for a gray zone standoff that has captured policymaker interest throughout the Pacific region.
And with that, Beijing burst Washington’s deterrence bubble.
In congressional testimony last month, officials advocated for new, multibillion-dollar investments in long-range strike capabilities and a sophisticated missile system in Guam. These new platforms, it was argued, are essential to reassuring our regional allies and deterring China.
And yet, the Whitsun spectacle lays bare that Washington’s continued embrace of a costly, conventional deterrence strategy is alone unlikely to prevent Beijing from achieving many of its security objectives.
What’s more, China is banking on America’s prioritization of traditional deterrence at the expense of a robust, and potentially more effective, asymmetric strategy.
No doubt, American military supremacy has deterred China from achieving many of its goals. Nevertheless, Beijing has continued its incremental march forward in Hong Kong, in the Taiwan Strait and at various overseas ports.
Washington’s predictable non-response to China’s gray zone activities in places like Whitsun does more than erode U.S. credibility. It increases the likelihood of a military confrontation by permitting China to solidify its gains while neutralizing our diplomatic and economic leverage. Thus, through a process of elimination, military force becomes the only viable option to resolving hardened disputes.
Building back better deterrence requires an entirely new approach. While the military should prepare for the possibility of a traditional conflict in the future, it must mobilize now for the asymmetric war that we are already fighting. At the center of that mobilization must be a clear-eyed view of America’s desired end states, which, contrary to the White Houses’ rhetoric, cannot be reduced to “competition.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., rightly argued that the administration’s recently released 2022 defense budget offers the first clues about the White House’s Asia strategy. This includes plans for the newly established $2.2 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative — a promising program, albeit one dwarfed by the tens of billions spent on high-end conventional warfare capabilities.
But budgets alone will not tell the whole story, nor do they ensure victory.
To be successful, the Defense Department must rethink its entire approach to gray zone warfare and embrace the notion that combat is no longer binary, particularly when confronting China’s maritime pursuits. The department must also jettison outdated, phased and overly rigid operational planning for a more flexible strategic framework that better addresses the reality of asymmetric competition. Just as Beijing need not launch an assault on Taipei to exert control over the island, neither must we wait until military hostilities have commenced to engage U.S. forces.
Key to those efforts should be establishing a civilian-led task force charged with overseeing enterprisewide asymmetric deterrence operations. Rather than simply responding to China, the department should strategically assess Beijing’s specific interests in the region, leading to a cleareyed calculation about the steps needed to undermine Beijing’s confidence in achieving those ends.
At Whitsun, China’s interests appear twofold: to establish a persistent presence, which could one day lead to a military outpost, and to demonstrate that traditional U.S. deterrence means little if Beijing can disregard norms without consequence.
While improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance could help avoid strategic surprise, additional freedom of navigation operations or a more robust U.S. presence at the reef are unlikely to deter Beijing. In fact, they could invite Beijing to take additional steps to erode the American deterrence narrative.
One option would be to aggressively target China’s fishing armada, as well as its lucrative commercial fishing fleet, with punitive financial measures, like sanctions. Another step could include a campaign to deny these vessels with docking privileges at regional ports, something certain to get Beijing’s attention.
Other options include strengthening ties between Vietnam and the Philippines, including proposing a joint security framework aimed at repelling China’s fishing militia. The U.S. could also prod Vietnam to proceed with a lawsuit against Beijing for violating a 2016 ruling negating China’s regional maritime claims. As this month’s rotating U.N. Security Council chair, Vietnam should be coaxed to hold meetings on Whitsun to ratchet up the diplomatic pressure.
Doubling down on a conventional deterrence strategy at the expense of improved gray zone capabilities runs the risk the U.S. will be prepared to fight a war that may never come, while losing the war it is fighting now. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct China fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank.