How to Rule the High Seas and Contain an Asian Country That Will Remain Nameless

U.S. naval forces are about to release a revised maritime strategy. The last one, in 2007, didn't mention China. Don't bet on that this time around.


Florentine philosopher-statesman Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that keeping pace with the times is the paramount challenge of statecraft. If so, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, known collectively as the sea services, have embroiled themselves in a truly Machiavellian enterprise.

After a series of fits and starts, sea-service chiefs are preparing to release a “refreshed,” or revised, version of their 2007 Maritime Strategy. Put simply, maritime strategy is the art of using available means — ships, aircraft, ground-pounders, armaments — to fulfill national purposes. The updated strategy, accordingly, should provide clues to how the naval leadership sees the nautical world, and intends to cope with it amid finite and dwindling resources. Assessing that should indicate whether the services are fulfilling their Machiavellian duty to evolve in concert with the surrounding environment.

Soon to be released, the directive will also be worth investigating because the 2007 strategy was ahead of its time: It pivoted to Asia a full half-decade before the Obama administration shifted its own foreign-policy attentions eastward. The 2015 Maritime Strategy, then, may hint at the prospects for success of Obama’s signature policy.

Blandly titled “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” the 2007 Maritime Strategy appeared just months before the Great Recession. Economic distress pinched shipbuilding budgets at a time when costs were spiraling upward and major segments of the fleet — tactical aircraft, nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines — were about to go out-of-date. As a result, the fleet stagnated, limiting the means available to execute the strategy.

This is doubly worrisome considering the proliferation of “anti-access” weaponry, shore-based cruise and ballistic missiles, and other armaments capable of targeting American ships cruising offshore. Aspiring sea powers, great and small, have procured anti-access weapons in large numbers — precisely to deny the U.S. sea services the capacity to execute the Maritime Strategy. Beijing, meanwhile, began swinging its weight around in the China seas, throwing the U.S. strategic position in Asia into jeopardy. Pirates took to raiding shipping in the Gulf of Aden and, to a lesser extent, near the Strait of Malacca. In short, demands on the sea services multiplied as resources faced mounting duress.

How to realign strategy with this brave new world? Enter the refreshed Cooperative Strategy. Its framers, a team drawn mostly from the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard staffs, must answer questions about ends, ways, and means. Here are five big ones:

1. How do the sea services view the international system? Notably, the 2007 strategy elevated guardianship over the liberal system of seagoing trade and commerce to coequal standing with deterrence and combat. Policing the global commons in peacetime, in other words, now has as compelling a claim on sea-service resources and energy as thrashing enemies in wartime.

This breaks with tradition. The Reagan-era Maritime Strategy, for instance, explained how U.S. mariners aimed to pummel the Soviet navy during a hypothetical European war — all battle, all the time. The 2007 strategy, by contrast, instructs the services to “join with other like-minded nations to protect and sustain the global, inter-connected system through which we prosper.” The exigencies of defending North America and winning foreign wars, it says, are “matched by a corresponding commitment to preventing war.”

Such passages prompted critics of the Maritime Strategy to weep and gnash their teeth. Mindful of emerging challenges to U.S. maritime supremacy, they fretted about maintaining a level of combat strength sufficient to overpower prospective opponents. The Maritime Strategy is mostly silent on the question of resources, and fails to specify how many ships and other platforms it requires. Naysayers, consequently, worried that sea-service chiefs were writing checks the fleet couldn’t cash with diminishing resources. Skeptics urged the services to husband resources for their most vital missions. And winning wars is the most basic mission for any armed force.

In any event, whether constabulary missions like counterpiracy, counterproliferation, and counternarcotics remain at the forefront in the updated strategy will say much about the direction of U.S. maritime strategy, and about U.S. foreign policy as a whole. Downplaying peacetime stewardship over the sea lanes for the sake of battle readiness would imply that sea-service chieftains have come to see the world in hardscrabble terms and intend to respond in kind. In short, the strategy’s language will telegraph naval commanders’ worldview while hinting at what they may do in times of trouble.

2. Will the refreshed strategy name names? Military strategies are typically tailored to opponents — not so in the 2007 strategy. China, America’s most formidable potential antagonist, was conspicuously missing from the document. An oversight? Not really. In those days, no one knew whether China would challenge the United States and its allies for Asian primacy. Beijing was prosecuting a charm offensive meant to persuade its neighbors that it was a new, beneficent sort of hegemon. Unlike predatory Western empires, it could be trusted not to use naval power to abuse weak nations. After all, it had exercised self-restraint during bygone ages of nautical glory. And officialdom in Beijing insisted it was fated to do so again.

Beijing’s narrative was that this restraint constituted China’s inevitable path to great power. The message was quiet but clear: Fear not. Was it sincere about this “smiling diplomacy”? Or was it a ruse to keep potential rivals from making common cause against China? In any case, thought Pentagon planners, why not give China a chance to live by its words? Accordingly, the 2007 strategy’s drafters refrained from language that might make an enemy of this rising power.

Since then, however, China has gone out of its way to affront its neighbors, for instance, by claiming waters allotted to them under the law of the sea. If Chinese diplomats once beamed benevolently at fellow Asians, they have taken to glowering at them in recent years — and acted accordingly. Tracking how many times the 2015 update mentions China — and what it says about Beijing’s intentions — will help observers glimpse the future on these contested waters.

3. Will the revised strategy stand by the regional priorities set out in 2007? The earlier document directs the sea services to stage “credible combat power” in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf for the foreseeable future — remaining, in effect, Asia’s seafaring hegemon. Soon after the strategy appeared, however, partisans of other theaters started imploring naval leaders to modify their Asia-centric paradigm or junk it altogether. Europhiles, for instance, beseeched the U.S. Navy to reinstall an aircraft-carrier strike group in the Mediterranean. Libya was aflame, they argued. Refugees were flooding from North Africa into Europe. Russia had started acting out in the Black Sea. And on and on.

It takes self-discipline to set priorities — and gumption to stick with them as commentators and policymakers begin clamoring to siphon off resources to manage the crisis du jour.

Whether the refreshed strategy will keep the sea services fixed on maritime Asia, consequently, remains an open question. And a crucial one. The strongest force in the world can render itself weak by scattering assets throughout the seven seas. If Washington continues trying to manage all events — everywhere, and with overtaxed resources — it’s likely to accomplish little, anywhere.

4. Will the 2007 Maritime Strategy’s emphasis on building alliances and coalitions endure into 2015? Naval officials and officers have few options when commitments outstrip resources. They can go before lawmakers and plead for money to fund more assets, prevail on administration officials to scale back commitments, or coax foreign partners into pooling resources. But it’s doubtful Congress will fund any serious naval buildup in these cash-strapped times. Indeed, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, America’s top uniformed naval officer, worries that a single initiative — replacing our 1980s-era nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines — will crowd out all other shipbuilding programs. Nor does Washington appear prepared to pare back its overseas diplomatic and military commitments. That leaves coalition-building, which featured prominently in what was, after all, billed as a cooperative strategy to bolster maritime security. In the best of worlds, coastal states in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere will help police their offshore waters and skies, easing the burden on the American sea services. Accordingly, marshaling seagoing coalitions is crucial to supplementing U.S. naval power.

Parsing what the revised strategy says about naval diplomacy will give us insight into what may come. If the strategy subordinates custodianship over the commons to warfighting, it may also mute its advocacy of reaching out to foreign navies and coast guards.

5. What will it say about battle? Tucked among the 2007 Maritime Strategy’s passages extolling nautical cooperation are a few breathtakingly ambitious statements about U.S. combat prowess. “We will be able to impose local sea control wherever necessary,” declare the service chiefs, “ideally in concert with friends and allies, but by ourselves if we must.” What this means, in effect: The sea services reserve the right — and will preserve the capacity — to seize control of any navigable body of water on the earth’s surface if their political masters so direct.


Local, unilateral sea command across the globe may have been a realistic goal in 2007. Today, it sounds like bravado — if not outright hubris. Winning sea command from local opponents is no longer that easy, if indeed it ever was. A triumphal afterglow tinges memories of the Cold War, as though the Soviet Navy was a pushover. But American maritime supremacy was never put to the test of combat off Soviet coastlines, where submarines, land-based bombers, and other hardware waited to pounce on U.S. Navy task forces. No one knows how a seaborne clash would have unfolded, or how a similar high-seas struggle would unfold today. How the 2015 strategy’s drafters describe the dangers posed by anti-access measures — again, the proliferation of deadly anti-ship weaponry to great and minor coastal states alike — will indicate much about how the sea services approach their warfighting duties in the coming years.

The good news is that sea-service potentates appear to take the access-denial challenge seriously. They are grooming a new generation of maritime strategists, bolstering the human factor in naval warfare. On the operational and material sides, they’re exploring concepts for operating and thriving in fiercely contested settings. In all likelihood, then, the refreshed strategy will adopt a more sober tone than its predecessor took toward such matters. The attitude thus conveyed will ripple throughout the ranks, engendering new humility about the limits of American sea power. That’s all to the good.

What’s less good is that Chinese military and naval officials will impute the worst motives to any Maritime Strategy, no matter how circumspectly worded. They interpreted the 2007 strategy as a scheme for containing and thwarting China’s rise — even though it said nothing about China. It’s doubtful the 2015 update will remain silent about China — and thus safe to say the strategy will set Beijing to caterwauling. Again.

China Photos / Stringer

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola