The following is a translation of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies assessment of the recently released U.S. maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. The China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College made the translation.
The Prelude to All-Encompassing Maritime Competition Between China and the U.S. is about to Begin—An Appraisal of America’s Newest Maritime Strategy
By Shi Xiaoqin and Liu Xiaobo
On December 17, 2020, the U.S. Navy (USN), U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) jointly issued a new maritime strategy entitled Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. This tri-service strategy is a follow-on to A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which the three services jointly issued in 2007 and 2015. Two characteristics of the document deserve attention: one, it directly regards China as an opponent and two, it simultaneously classifies China and Russia as opponents. Compared with the U.S. maritime strategy issued at the height of the Cold War in 1982, this document might be regarded as the first maritime strategy document issued after the inauguration of Sino-U.S. strategic competition.
This strategy strives to unify thinking for all of America’s maritime forces, namely, that the U.S. no longer has command of the global commons and that the strategic guidance that forward presence can shape regional security and prevent conflict is now obsolete. All of America’s maritime forces must now shift to great power competition with China and Russia, fight for command of the sea, and gain the advantage.
I. The Specific Content of America’s New Maritime Strategy
Comprising four parts, the document covers America’s maritime security environment, strategic aims, strategic approach, approach to military construction, and tactics for responding. Part one summarizes America’s maritime security environment and the challenges America faces. Part two elaborates on how integrated all-domain naval power can handle these challenges. Part three describes how to employ sea power throughout the whole continuum of competition including day-to-day competition, crisis, and conflict, in order to achieve national objectives. Part four explicitly presents the guiding principles for maritime force modernization and all-domain naval development and integration in order to ensure the U.S. can access the sea unimpeded and reverse the erosion of the U.S. military advantage.
With respect to assessment of strategic opponents, the maritime strategy emphasizes that China and Russia are the two biggest threats, with competition from China being of primary concern. The strategic document declares that China’s continuously growing military capabilities are eroding America’s military advantage at an astonishing rate. Thus, U.S. maritime forces will take actions to reverse this trend.
The document proposes five ways to implement the strategy: 1) fully exploit and integrate the particular advantages of the three services, in order to create a comprehensive, all-domain maritime force; 2) strengthen relations between the U.S. and its allies and partners, in the belief that this is America’s primary strategic advantage in long-term strategic competition; 3) adopt more resolute actions in day-to-day competition in peacetime in order to stop America’s strategic competitors from conducting military operations; 4) during conflict, the goal of U.S. maritime forces will be sea control; it will defeat the enemy’s military forces and protect the U.S. while defending its allies; and 5) conduct bold modernization and reform of the future maritime force in order to maintain credible deterrence and keep America’s maritime advantage.
Overall, the strategy has two characteristics that deserve attention. First, U.S. maritime forces once again emphasizes the traditional [notion of] fighting for command of the sea. Second, the U.S. will strengthen its struggle in the “gray zone.” This includes operations falling below the intensity of war and operations that seek to make incremental gains, such as weaponizing social media, infiltrating global supply chains, and engaging in space and cyber conflict, etc.
II. The Core of the Strategy is Maritime Competition with China, So We Should Stay on High Alert
If we were to summarize the goal of the strategy in one sentence, it would be that in the next ten years the USN, USMC, and USCG will come together to shape a maritime balance of power favorable to the U.S. in order to offset China’s advantages.
First, the U.S. once again emphasizes great power maritime competition and not cooperation, and [the need to] fight for command of the sea. Overall, the 2007 version of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and its 2015 revision emphasized the shared global nature of the ocean and supported maritime cooperation between great powers. This was closely related to the “liberal interventionism” embraced by the U.S. at the time. “Liberal interventionism” argues that preventing war and winning war are equally important. That is, the U.S. believed that it could use means other than war—including deterrence, ocean management, law enforcement, patrols, and low-intensity operations—to safeguard the international order. The new maritime strategy document shows that the American conviction has changed to “principled realism,” which emphasizes seizing the advantage and using traditional military power to safeguard the international order. In the past, the U.S. believed that it could achieve cooperation at sea with China. Partners for maritime cooperation were not always U.S. allies, and even China could be a cooperative partner. Aside from identifying China and Russia as strategic opponents, the new document proposes that the U.S. pay attention to freedom of navigation, port security, control of maritime choke points, fighting for command of the sea, and strengthening alliances. Sino-U.S. maritime competition is global in scope.
Second, America’s assessment of its forces compared to China’s has changed. The title of America’s new maritime strategy is clearly stated: obtaining advantage at sea. The Foreword mentions that America’s advantage at sea is no longer unrivalled, that it faces challenges from China. It cannot be ruled out that with this strategy the U.S. seeks to give the impression of weakness or is exaggerating the threat from China to gain a larger national defense budget. However, based on the speeches of high-level U.S. officials and those involved in the U.S. political and military spheres it appears that the U.S. firmly believes that it is losing its advantage at sea. During a 2019 Congressional testimony, the Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, gave a speech entitled “regain the advantage.” Clearly, believing that China is gaining advantage vis-à-vis the U.S. and the U.S. is losing its advantage has become the consensus of the U.S. strategic community. Based on this judgment, the U.S. will focus on weakening China’s advantage and regaining advantage at sea.
Third, the strategy guides preparations for war. Cooperation is the theme of the 2007 and 2015 iterations of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. There was a belief that in the age of globalization maritime threats were the common threats faced by all states using the sea, and given that these threats cannot be resolved by one single county it advocated for engaging in global maritime cooperation. The corresponding guiding principles proposed reliance on forward presence in shaping the peacetime environment and controlling crises. The means discussed in the new maritime strategy focus not on shaping but winning victory.
Lastly, and of great importance, the strategy exhibits a major defect. It does not touch on the most important strategic issue in the sea power struggle, that is, how to simultaneously confront two great powers, China and Russia, all around the globe. How the U.S. allocates its forces between the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean will be the biggest problem for the strategy. Moreover, how the U.S. would simultaneously handle the strategic struggle in the west and the east if China and Russia were to form an alliance is an issue that the U.S. maritime strategy does not consider.
III. The Strategy’s Impact on China’s Maritime Security
At first glance, it seems that China has finally been thrust into the dangerous tempest of modern maritime competition as a great power. Keeping in mind China’s vulnerable position in the maritime order since the age of sail, that China is now seen by the U.S. as an evenly matched opponent, whether for good or ill, means that we cannot just turn a blind eye and sit back and wait for death.
First, the end of the Trump administration strategy does not mean that the strategy will quickly become a historical document. The keynote of America’s new maritime strategy is strict implementation of America’s newest “National Security Strategy” and “National Defense Strategy.” In the present context, in which Sino-U.S. strategic competition has become the high level consensus of the two political parties in the Congress, it is certainly unlikely that major adjustments will be made to the strategy after the new administration takes office. Before the document was released, adjustments to U.S. maritime forces had already begun in order to implement the strategy. For example, the USN Chief of Naval Operations proposed the recreation of the “1st Fleet” in order to fill the force gap between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, and the U.S. Coastal Riverine Forces changed their name to the Maritime Expeditionary Security Forces, emphasizing “blue water and high-end operations,” in order to meet the needs of great power war.
Second, [since] the strategy aims to weaken China’s advantages and fight for command of the sea, it will intensify confrontation between Chinese and U.S. sea and air forces and might spark a conflict or even a regional war. Considering the U.S. combatant command-level “Indo-Pacific Strategic Report” and the visions of the combatant commander, [one can conclude that] the U.S. efforts to weaken China’s advantages will be implemented in conjunction with “pushing back against China.” The U.S. will continuously engage in saber-rattling [lit. “flaunt its muscles”], it will strengthen medium- and long-range power projection capabilities, and striking China’s maritime forces will drive its construction. As a result, U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific will be more frequent, more robust, and more focused on strike capabilities.
Third, the U.S. will also introduce a new style of struggle, namely, it will bolster competition in the “gray zone.” That is, the U.S. will take greater action in the domains of social media; supply chains, especially defense industry chains; and space and cyber. A fairly obvious early indicator of this was that the USCG—which traditionally operates in the vicinity of the U.S. coast to defend the security of U.S. territory—has recently moved forward into the South China Sea region. It is preparing to conduct military operations in the South China Sea, with the aim of striking China’s maritime forces as well as bolstering joint law enforcement with regional states in the South China Sea, in order to respond to China’s South China Sea rights protection operations.
In the face of this severe maritime security challenge, China should strive to control potential maritime conflicts with the U.S., doing so in these four ways. First, it should maintain strategic restraint, making every effort to urge the U.S. to reduce its hostility [towards China]. Second, it should maintain the smooth operation of strategic communications channels and crisis control mechanisms, in order to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that might give rise to conflict or an inadvertent armed clash. Third, it should take substantive actions to unite neighboring states to jointly safeguard regional security and peace. Fourth, it should promote global and regional maritime governance to restrain America’s impulse to militarize maritime security.
1 师小芹，刘晓博 [Shi Xiaoqin and Liu Xiaobo], 中美全方位海上竞争的序幕即将拉开——美最新海上战略评析 [“The Prelude to All-Encompassing Maritime Competition Between China and the U.S. is about to Begin—An Appraisal of America’s Newest Maritime Strategy”], 中国南海研究院 [Website of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies], December 29, 2020, http://www.nanhai.org.cn/review_c/506.html.
2 Shi Xiaoqin is a researcher in the World Naval Research Institute at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. A retired PLA Senior Colonel, Shi has worked at the PLA Academy of Military Science, Central Military Commission Department of Strategic Planning, and the Office of the National Security Council. She researches sea power, maritime security, and naval strategy. Source for her bio: https://rwsk.zju.edu.cn/rwskdj/2018/0522/c30587a1260995/page.htm
Liu Xiaobo is the Director of the World Naval Research Institute at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. A former naval officer, Liu worked at the PLAN Naval Research Institute from 2007-2017. From 1993-2007 he was assigned to the first destroyer detachment of the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet. Source for his bio: http://www.nanhai.org.cn/team_c/193.html