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. The map used here is from Daniel Feher of Free World Maps (http://www.freeworldmaps.net/ocean/pacific/).

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?

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


The center of the Cold War was Europe, and, by extension, the North Atlantic, which latter geographical feature lent its name to NATO. The Age of Atlanticism extended from Columbus’ voyage in 1492 to the end of NATO’s relevance in 1991, or almost exactly five hundred years.

The Pacific was always a Cold War backwater. After the US defeated Japanese sea power in the Pacific, there was no force to rival US dominance of the Pacific, even though the USSR had ports on the Pacific. This is related to the fact that although the East was once Red, the Cold War with China was always different from the Cold War with the USSR. In fact, in the midst of the Cold War China and the USSR fought a war, the Sino–Soviet border conflict of 1969 (like many recent wars, it was not called a war), the underlined the bitter divisions within the so-called “communist bloc.”

Now there is a power rising in the East — several of them, in fact — and as the Atlantic-centered world order of the post-WWII era passes into history, we enter into a Pacific-Centered World Order. While this Pacific-centered world order will not be as closely wedded to the Cold War as events in the Atlantic theater, but will not be utterly divorced from Cold War antecedents either.

While the Cold War with China (if there was one) was never quite the Cold War that was fought with the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless serious business, as Chinese support for North Korea and North Vietnam (later to be Vietnam simpliciter) demonstrated. And while Chinese support for national liberation movements in Southeast Asia mirrored Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, the US had leverage against China: not only Japan, transformed from an enemy into an ally and soon afterward sporting the second largest economy in the world (a status since ceded to China), but most especially Taiwan.

The island of Taiwan is the fly in China’s ointment. Taiwan has been an irritant to China not unlike the way in which communist Cuba was been a near-offshore irritant to the US. Through the late Cold War, moreover, Taiwan had become wealthy, with a growing economy that set it apart from the moribund command economies largely found throughout the region, and its economic dynamism coupled with its position as a trading hub in East Asia gave Taiwan connections throughout the industrialized world.

I bring up Taiwan as one of the major unresolved points of conflict from the Cold War in the Pacific (I have elsewhere called the divided Korean peninsula an ember of the Cold War that periodically flares up) because of the recent talk about the “strategic pivot” of the US in the direction of the Asia-Pacific Region. Hilary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in “America’s Pacific Century”:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

Clinton used the word “pivot” three times in the piece, and although she never actually used the phrase “strategic pivot,” she did use the phrase “strategic turn” three times in this piece. More interesting yet is that Clinton did not once mention Taiwan in this article. China is mentioned throughout the article, and in very moderate if not conciliatory terms. China is called an “emerging power” and a “partner” and even an “ally.”

The President, presumably the architect of these strategic turn, and who has emphasized from the beginning of his Presidency that he would orient US strategic posture toward the Pacific, gave a speech is Australia in November 2011 that underscored this emphasis.

The President’s full speech in Australia can be viewed at Changing fortunes dictate another presidential pivot and can be read in full at Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament. “China” is mentioned only three times in the President’s speech, and Taiwan, as in Clinton’s article for Foreign Policy, is not mentioned at all. Here are a few quotes from the speech:

Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. Asian immigrants helped build America, and millions of American families, including my own, cherish our ties to this region. From the bombing of Darwin to the liberation of Pacific islands, from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to a cold Korean Peninsula, generations of Americans have served here, and died here — so democracies could take root; so economic miracles could lift hundreds of millions to prosperity. Americans have bled with you for this progress, and we will not allow it — we will never allow it to be reversed.

Here, we see the future. As the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that’s creating jobs and opportunity for the American people. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.

As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.

The strategic turn to Asia and the Pacific has been the topic of much comment. Obama’s Pacific Pivot by Joseph Nye (of “soft power” fame) has been quite widely distributed. The “Strategic Pivot” to Asia Now Committed, Pentagon Can Float Allegedly Deep Cuts by Thomas P. M. Barnett is an interesting analysis that ends with the provocative line, “These are delusions stacked upon delusions.”

I find myself rather surprised that Taiwan has been nearly ignored in this discussion. The administration has had nothing to say about Taiwan in the process of executing this strategic turn. A year ago, the U.S. – China Joint Statement (released 19 January 2011) includes a short but explicit passage about Taiwan:

6. Both sides underscored the importance of the Taiwan issue in U.S. – China relations. The Chinese side emphasized that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expressed the hope that the U.S. side will honor its relevant commitments and appreciate and support the Chinese side’s position on this issue. The U.S. side stated that the United States follows its one China policy and abides by the principles of the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués. The United States applauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them. The United States supports the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait and looks forward to efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, political, and other fields, and to develop more positive and stable cross-Strait relations.

Since then, I haven’t been able to find anything. One must say that the strategic turn to the Pacific, where Taiwan was once a central issue, is deeply if not systematically ambiguous when it comes to Taiwan. The ambiguity is further driven home by on-again, off-again arms sales to Taiwan. Taiwan has been repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to upgrade and update its fighters, as well as its attempt to acquire diesel-electric submarines from the US. More recently, however, it has been announced that Taiwan will purchase AH-64D Apache helicopters with Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), becoming the first political entity outside the US with this particular hardware. This is what we call “mixed signals.” In other words, ambiguity.

In an interesting blog with a Taiwan defense focus, The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, the author, J. Michael Cole, concludes his excellent essay, “Facing Reality in the Cross-Strait Balance of Power: What Can and What Can’t Be Done,” with this advice:

Rather than waste their time exploring the idea of waging a doomed guerrilla campaign against the PLA, thinkers should instead focus their energy on the means by which war in the Taiwan Strait can be rendered unthinkable. Unable to compete dollar-for-dollar with China, Taiwan has one option left: An asymmetrical deterrent backed by a modern Air Force.

This is a sober and sensible conclusion. The ambivalent of the US toward Taiwan in its strategic turn to the Pacific underlines the need for Taiwan to attend to its own interests, since those interests do not seem to figure prominently in US plans for Asia and the Pacific.

In its relative isolation and its need to pursue asymmetrical and nonconventional deterrence in the face of a powerful adversary, Taiwan’s strategic situation resembles the strategic situation of Iran, and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. Recently in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I once again looked at a number of innovative and distinctive weapons systems that Iran has pursued in quest of backing up its threat of A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) in the Strait of Hormuz. Many of these possibilities would be open to Taiwan itself, even while A2/AD strategies are more commonly associated with China itself in the Taiwan Strait.

The obvious track for Taiwanese security would be to go nuclear, and given Taiwan’s relative wealth, advanced technology, and robust industrial plant this would be possible, but it would then lose whatever remaining goodwill it has with its sponsors at present. Ideally this would be done is utter secrecy until the deterrent was fully operational, at which time Taiwan could afford to alienate its sponsors, but the resulting damage to relations with the US would be so great that it is difficult to predict what the US would do in this circumstance. The more we consider the scenario, the more it looks like the above quote about a “doomed guerrilla campaign.”

The remaining strategy for Taiwan, then, is A2/AD in the Taiwan Strait. What happens when two A2/AD strategies collide? The answer to this question may determine the future of Taiwan.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: