Needed: A Viable Strategy for The Indo-Pacific

Harlan Ullman | 14 May 2024
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Let me be clear: the United States and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region do not yet have a viable strategy to meet the challenges, dangers and uncertainties there. One is needed.

The aim of a new strategy must be to assure peace, stability and prosperity while not falling into the trap of allowing a possibly exaggerated perception of the Chinese military threat to displace sound strategic thinking. To be effective, strategy must go beyond military boundaries and be based on geopolitical and economic realities.

The plan for the United States and Britain to help Australia acquire eight nuclear attack submarines under AUKUS is not a strategy. The agreement was made to counter China’s growing military power and increasingly aggressive posture. Unless armed with nuclear weapons, eight submarines are not a strategy and may not be affordable.

In basic terms, strategic goals must be to convince, cajole or coerce the other side at the lowest possible cost and risk to do what we want or to stop taking actions harmful to us. That strategy must be achievable and affordable in terms of physical, human and financial resources. History guarantees failure unless the country implementing the strategy can precisely define its fundamental interests and has sufficient knowledge and understanding of the other side, not falling prey to ignorance.

The United States plays a leading role in the Indo-Pacific region. However, since World War II, US strategy has been stained by an absence of sound aims and sufficient knowledge and understanding of conditions in which force is to be used. In August 1964 the United States blundered into Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed with only two dissenting Congressional votes, was a de facto declaration of war, triggered by erroneous reports of an attack by North Vietnamese PT boats against two US destroyers in international waters. No such attack occurred.

President Lyndon Johnson wanted to stop the Communists on the Mekong instead of the Mississippi. The flawed concept of a monolithic, godless Communist threat underwrote fighting the war. And, consistently, the United States failed to understand the commitment and strategy of North Vietnam and the weaknesses of South Vietnam.

The 2001 Afghan intervention likewise failed over the absence of realistic aims and knowledge and understanding of that country and its people. The objectives of nation building and imposition of democracy were absurd in these cases. But that was no more absurd than attacking Iraq for possessing weapons of mass destruction it did not actually possess.

In Asia, how sufficient is US knowledge and understanding about China? Next, how well does the US understand regional perceptions? And, last, does the current US (and Western) strategy for the Indo-Pacific and China take into account answers to these questions?

Overall US military strategy is to compete, deter and, if war comes, prevail—over China, in this case. But none of these criteria has been defined in terms that can be turned into actions. Further, where and how should the US and allies compete? Is China deterrable as it builds its military and influence? And who can win a thermonuclear war?

For the United States, this strategy is unaffordable. The more the US spends, the more its military force shrinks. And the United States cannot recruit and retain enough people for its current force. Many of these trends also apply to US allies and partners.

Step one requires a comprehensive, objective analysis of China and its strengths and weaknesses. One can argue that, given its demographics, exploding debt, weakening economic growth, excessive savings rate, and other constraints, China could suffer from massive civil unrest. Some may think that could make China more dangerous. But history shows otherwise.

China’s ‘unprecedented military expansion’ needs to be more closely assessed. For example, its navy has nearly 100 Type 22 missile boats. They give it a numerical advantage but hardly a capability advantage.

Step two is redefining the aims of an Indo-Pacific strategy in relation to China. First must be to engage with China in the many areas defined by mutual interest. Second must be economic negotiations to relieve unnecessary tensions where possible. Third, it is unduly provocative to declare China as the leading or major threat but rely on only a military strategy in facing it, not a broader one.

The core of the necessary strategy is prevention, applying porcupine defence as its key military construct in close conjunction with regional allies and partners. Porcupine defence will make any initial attacks by an adversary too expensive in terms of losses to contemplate. Why Taiwan has not fully adopted this strategy is inexplicable. In the unlikely event of war, China’s access beyond the first island chain would be denied by blockade. And expeditionary forces would roll up China’s overseas Belt and Road facilities, imposing further unacceptable costs.

The submarine project is Pillar 1 of AUKUS. Pillar 2, for other technology exchanges, should be expanded to appropriate regional states. A smart, affordable and effective strategy for the Indo-Pacific based on complete knowledge and understanding of the geostrategic and economic conditions combined with porcupine defence is needed now. The question is whether these first principles will take hold or remain ignored.

Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at Washington at the Atlantic Council, Washington, DC, and the prime author of the doctrine of shock and awe. 

This article was originally published on The Strategist — The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Blog.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.