What Does Sherman’s March to the Sea Teach Us About Dealing With China Today?

The United States needs a sequential strategy for besting Beijing.


Is it possible that — after expending untold brainpower grappling with this problem — America has no China strategy? Yes, says Republican Rep. Randy Forbes. Hard on the heels of a visit to the Naval War College to talk strategy with faculty — including yours truly — the Seapower and Force Projection Subcommittee chairman said that the United States must put in place a “winning strategy” for Asia. This has become a common theme for him of late.

Me, I’d be slightly more circumspect about the state of China strategy in Washington. Call me a hairsplitter and a professor. But in reality, overabundance is the problem. President Barack Obama’s administration has more China strategies than it can shake a stick at, under the aegis of its pivot to Asia. They bear strange labels like “Air-Sea Battle,” “JAM-GC,” “offshore control,” and “archipelagic defense.” What the administration lacks is a settled strategy vis-à-vis the Asian titan.

Paradigm shifts are fitful and messy. U.S. leaders long treated China like Voldemort, as though uttering its name would set loose fearful consequences. Refusing to compete with a rival that’s competing with all its might has a way of retarding strategy-making. Thankfully, Washington now seems to take the China challenge seriously. Voldemort’s name holds less terror. Nevertheless, officialdom must overcome an intellectual lag to catch up with a strategic environment that’s changing at helter-skelter speed.

But getting a late start isn’t the only problem. This strategic drift stems in part from the nature of the U.S.-China competition. Look at Rep. Forbes’s list of five principles for a winning China strategy. (Yep, even congressmen do listicles these days.) Forbes says such a strategy rests on formulating clear objectives, talking frankly to Beijing even when it offends, punishing provocative acts, bulking up the U.S. military presence in the Pacific, and communicating the strategy lucidly to important audiences at home and abroad.

There’s little to quarrel with here. In effect, he prescribes a Theodore Roosevelt strategy: Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far. But whatever their virtues, Forbes’s principles are largely passive and reactive. If he gets his way, the U.S. armed forces will pivot to the Pacific in greater numbers — and then react to what China does until Beijing ceases to challenge the system of maritime trade and commerce over which the United States has presided since 1945.

And, of course, Washington is expected to do all this while trying to keep a lid on the Middle East, help NATO safeguard its eastern frontiers against Russia, and manage the global commons. Easier listed than done. Manifold commitments disperse U.S. forces, thinning out the martial resources and policy energy available for any given hotspot — including East and Southeast Asia.

The manager of the global system, then, is something like a metropolitan government — which enacts laws to protect public well-being, equips itself with police and fire departments to combat lawbreaking and threats to life and infrastructure, and then responds to what happens within its environs. There’s no final victory over crime or fire — just an incremental improvement in the standards of public order and health if government does its work well. Lawmen and firefighters must focus their efforts and resources on the trouble-ridden parts of town, but they never get to stand down.

Nor do global hegemons. Which is why it’s misleading to talk about “winning” in the context of peacetime strategic competition, when fleets, air forces, and armies never slug it out in combat to determine a victor. Winning in this context need not mean defeat for China, insists Forbes. And indeed that’s true. The United States, its Asian friends and allies, and the region as a whole win when nothing happens. When regional waters and skies are quiet for a long time, letting seafaring states go about their business without fear of interference, then it may be fitting to proclaim a type of victory.

Superintending the system is hard; commitments and distractions legion. What about a challenger that wants to amend the system or overturn it altogether? An edge goes to even a physically outmatched challenger, who enjoys the luxury of laser-like focus on well-defined goals in relatively small scenes of action. Indeed, China oftentimes sets its sights on specific parcels of ground or sea. Its leadership prizes those goals enough to spend lavishly to reach them and for as long as it takes. Beijing concentrates effort and resources where it counts, while Washington disperses effort and resources throughout the seven seas.

Who will be stronger at the decisive place and time under these circumstances? Beware of anyone who prophesies too confidently about victory and defeat — one way or the other. Strategic competition pits contenders against each other over long intervals of time. Each is capable and resolute. Each strives to outthink and outmaneuver its opponent — thereby wresting away strategic advantage. Neither can be sure of victory should a trial of arms ensue.

One of my forebears at the Naval War College, Rear Adm. J.C. Wylie, hints at China’s edge and the Obama administration’s quandary in his laconic 1967 treatise Military Strategy. Wylie subdivides strategy into “sequential” and “cumulative” categories. Sequential strategies are easy to grasp and linear in character. Sequential campaigns unfurl from point A to B to C. Each action depends on the last and determines the next.

You can plot sequential campaigns on a map or nautical chart using lines and vectors. Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864 was a sequential offensive. So were Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz’s dual offensives across the Pacific against imperial Japan at the end of World War II.

In a way, China finds itself playing the part of Sherman, Nimitz, and MacArthur today. It operates along two well-defined axes, pointing at the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and at the islands, atolls, and reefs dotting the South China Sea. This lends focus, simplicity, and clarity to China’s efforts to make strategy while amassing forces sufficient enough to execute the strategy. Advantage: China.

Cumulative campaigns are different, vouchsafes Wylie. They’re nonlinear. They’re made up of widely scattered actions, none of which depends on the others for the effects it creates. In all likelihood, each tactical action is inconsequential in itself. Seeing a merchant ship torpedoed is a bad thing, for instance, but hardly a backbreaker for any serious combatant. In aggregate, though, large numbers of minor actions can wear down or dishearten an opponent.

Plotting a cumulative strategy on the map or chart creates a paint-splatter effect rather than vectors, lines, or curves. The Battle of the Atlantic (pick your favorite World War) was cumulative in character. So is aerial bombing. So too, for that matter, are insurgent and counterinsurgent warfare.

Here’s the rub for Wylie, who otherwise likes the buckshot approach: Cumulative strategies seldom constitute winning strategies in themselves. It takes a sequential approach to win decisively. Pounding away at an opponent repeatedly and in the same direction has that impact. Progressively taking territory has a shock effect that pinpricks — even lots of painful ones — cannot replicate. It compels an adversary to stare defeat in the face. Wylie nonetheless insists that cumulative campaigns can make the difference between closely matched opponents — and thus urges strategists to deploy them as an auxiliary to the sequential approach. This is true in general.

Think back to the Pacific War again. U.S. naval commanders turned loose the submarine fleet while the battleship fleet was still ablaze at Pearl Harbor. This was a quintessential cumulative campaign. American boats started making mayhem against Japanese shipping long before the U.S. military was ready to commence sequential drives toward the Philippine Islands and Japan. Nimitz, similarly, dispatched the Pacific Fleet’s few remaining aircraft carriers to prosecute hit-and-run raids in the South Pacific and, in concert with the Army Air Forces, strike at Tokyo. The United States started off cumulatively because that was what it could do after Pearl Harbor, then went sequential to win in 1945.

In a sense, then, today’s U.S. military finds itself back in the spring of 1942: doing what it can while mulling how to add a decisive, sequential component to its strategy. This is tough for the system’s guardian. Status quo strategies are innately cumulative in character. Conserving a system means responding to challenges as they arise — hence the reactive rather than proactive bent of Forbes’s principles for a winning strategy. We’re back to our hypothetical city administration that plays whack-a-mole against public menaces as they pop up and hopes the moles will get the message over time.

So let me add some sequentially minded principles for a winning strategy to those broached by Forbes. One: Set priorities among theaters, freeing up extra air and naval forces for deployment to the Far East. Self-discipline matching commitments with resources could convince China its sequential strategies will fall flat. Two: Enlist U.S. allies and partners to police their own neighborhoods, reducing the load on the U.S. hegemon. If, say, Europe took charge of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, India oversaw the Indian Ocean, and Japan and South Korea set aside their differences to police Northeast Asia, new operational vistas would open up for American commanders.

Three: Devise operations that give the lie to the narrative Beijing has been spinning in recent years — namely that China is the rightful owner of Asian waters and skies, even those apportioned to its neighbors under the law of the sea. Use it or lose it should be Washington’s motto on freedom of the seas. In other words, any nautical freedom U.S. forces don’t exercise to its utmost is a freedom fated to vanish over time.

And Beijing’s island claims? Let’s ignore any claims to island outposts such as Scarborough Shoal or Mischief Reef, both deep within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Chinese forces there are invaders — and are entitled to no legal standing beyond that customarily afforded invaders. Sail right by them early and often to make a point: Occupy these flyspecks if you must, but you have zero rights in adjacent waters or the skies overhead. Likewise, voyages should be charted to deny efforts to change the legal status of geographic features by “reclaiming” sand from the seafloor — in other words, by manufacturing artificial islands.

And four: Settle on a strategy for winning in wartime. Prevailing in peacetime strategic competition demands convincing observers you’d win in wartime. It’s tough to make a potential foe a believer in your capabilities and resolve if he thinks you’re strategically adrift. Strategic competition is a war of perceptions. To do better in that fight, let’s focus U.S. maritime strategy while making it more linear. Will doing so automatically deliver victory in this twilight struggle? Nope. But it’s a start. The more sequential Washington’s approach, the better.

Photo credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

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.


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