Grand Strategy in the Pacific

22 May 2012


The Pacific Ocean is the largest unified geographical area on the surface of the planet. Covering more than a quarter of the globe, it is, “almost equal to the total land area of the world” (according to the CIA Factbook), and is twice as large as the Atlantic Ocean. This vast realm of water has recently been the object of elevated strategic interest since a “strategic pivot” toward Asia was announced by the current US administration, perhaps heralding the first signs of a shift toward a Pacific-centered world order.

The strategic pivot to Asia has been accompanied by admirably clear strategic guidance for the current US Pacific Command (Pacom) commander. The admirably succinct (3 page) UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, authored (or at least signed by) outgoing Pacom Admiral Robert F. Willard, mirrors the January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (almost as succinct as the former at 16 pages, including several title pages and introductory material, which narrows the content to a mere 8 pages).

PACOM Change of Command – Adms Locklear (incoming/left) and Willard (outgoing/right)

There was an interesting story on the DOD website from the American Forces Press Service about the United States Pacific Command incoming Pacom Commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III — Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance (which I previously wrote about on Tumblr). Admiral Locklear was quoted as saying, “…the president and the secretary of defense have given me through their strategic guidance clear direction on what they want [and] what they expect to see.” Every commander should be so fortunate.

U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III

This strategy is as much a political strategy as a military strategy, though in the present case implemented by the military forces of the US (as no Clausewitzean would be surprised to hear, given the fungibility of political and the military exertion). Both the strategic guidance referenced above and Admiral Locklear himself (as quoted in the above-linked article) prominently discussed developing military-to-military cooperation between the US and Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and Singapore. The Pacom website has an article and many pictures from recent joint Royal Thai Navy and US Navy exercises. China, of course, gets a section of its own in the strategic guidance. Here is what the UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE says about China:

2. Mature the U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relationship

i. Sustain a consistent military-to-military relationship to prevent miscommunication and miscalculation.
ii. Pursue opportunities for increased military cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
iii. Monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly.

Some time ago on Tumblr I wrote in The Pacific Theater, Then and Now that, “It would be difficult to imagine the US and Japanese military forces gathering in the late 1930s for defense consultative talks.” The US and China, however, have held Defense Consultative Talks. Of the DCT gathering in Beijing in 2011 I wrote:

“One cannot but wonder at the feeling and atmosphere of the room at such meetings. It has become a parlor game among strategists to play off the US and China in a confrontation, with the US being the world’s only superpower and China being the superpower presumptive, however far it is from actual superpower status. Also, much can happen in the period of time that need to elapse for China to bring its military forces even roughly to par with those of the US.”

It is certainly a good thing that these two powers are at least talking to each other, however little comes from such meetings. These two powers — the two largest economies in the world — face each other across the North Pacific, and they are vulnerable to what the strategic guidance document diplomatically calls “miscommunication and miscalculation.”

As the two largest economies on the planet, and the two great powers on the Pacific, the US and China will have interests in common (“areas of mutual interest”) and interests in conflict. This is inevitable. Great powers have a bias to stability, and while China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community is actually a form of instability in the international system, it is an instability with a bias toward a future bi-polar world order with China and the US both desiring to preserve their status while not greatly disturbing the other through “miscommunication and miscalculation.” The Chinese are as eager as the US to keep the sea lanes open to international trade, as China’s burgeoning trade with the world is the lifeline of its resource-hungry, export-led economy.

China’s first aircraft carrier is built upon the unfinished former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag. (Wikipedia text)

But there is a fly in the ointment, and that fly is Taiwan. The US officially maintains a “One China” policy, but it also gives Taiwan security guarantees (though it remains coyly ambiguous about whether the nuclear umbrella covers Taiwan) and occasionally sells the Taiwanese advanced military hardware when it feels like poking a stick in the eye of the Beijing regime. For its part, China has floated its first aircraft carrier, rumored to be named the Shī Láng (施琅, formerly the Admiral Kuznetsov-class Varyag), and I do not think that it is merely coincidental that Shī Láng was a Ming-Qing Dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681.

Taiwan: the fly in the ointment of North Pacific peace

The Pacific Ocean has the distinction of being the only ocean on the globe to host the only major aircraft carrier engagements in planetary history. Aircraft carriers have been deployed in all the world’s oceans, but only the in the Pacific during the Second World War were there major military engagements between peer or near-peer fleets of multiple aircraft carriers. In The Pacific Theater, Then and Now I wrote, “Anyone who wants to understand carrier operations and carrier warfare studies Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. These are the only examples that we have.” I have moreover elsewhere stated that aircraft carriers are the premier instruments of force projection in the world today, and in light of this the entry of China into the lists of those nation-states operating aircraft carriers (a list about as short as the list of nation-states possessing nuclear weapons) suggests a re-run of historical naval arms races. Starting in 1922 with Hōshō (the first purpose-built aircraft carrier), the Japanese rapidly built a carrier fleet that was prepared to take on the US in the Pacific by 1941. That was a period of less than twenty years.

The Pacific Ocean is a relatively well-defined region that is not a nation-state. As such, it perfectly exemplifies that I recently wrote about in regard to regionalism. After posting my initial formulations of regionalism I realized that one way to define a region would be as a geographical area isolated from other geographical areas by choke points. The choke points of the Pacific Ocean are surprisingly few for a geographical region of this extent.

Chokes points that control entry to and egress from the Pacific Ocean

In the map above (if you click on it, it should get bigger) I have attempted to outline in red some of the obvious choke points that connect the Pacific Ocean to the rest of the world. The Bering Sea is the choke point for access to the Arctic Ocean; the Panama Canal and the Straight of Magellan are the choke points for access to the Atlantic Ocean. There is a particularly interesting buffer of southeast Asian islands interposed between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. One could regard this as a series of closely spaced choke points, or as something strategically distinct from a choke point, reticulate in nature, like a permeable barrier. Such an area would be difficult to transit in large capital ships or a fleet, but affords numerous hiding places (and re-supply opportunities) for small vessels that can safely negotiate the shallow seas and narrow straits of these islands.

Should the world begin to approximate a Pacific-centered world order, this world order would be at the mercy of the choke points noted above. In an A2/AD world, these choke points would dictate the dissemination of Pacific commerce to the rest of the world. Any power wishing to dictate terms to the world would seek to control these choke points, since by controlling the choke points, the entire Pacific Ocean becomes the subject of anti-access and area denial. One CSG per choke point would go a long way toward control of the Pacific. Whose carriers will it be?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Grand Strategy in the Pacific”

  1. But China does not see the World or even Asia-Pacific from the west coast of United States. And, it has ancient traditions about strategy that suggest an asymmetric approach to gaining leverage and defeating United States influence in the Asia-Pacific. So how would China defeat the United States without firing a shot?

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