Cat-and-Mouse Off Hainan Island


Several weeks ago, a U.S. Navy survey ship, the Impeccable, was harassed by the Chinese in waters off Hainan Island. The Chinese have built a major submarine base on Hainan Island, and the newest classes of Chinese nuclear submarines are based there. The Impeccable’s obvious mission was to collect intelligence, including sonic and other “signatures,” on the new Chinese submarines.

Legally, there is no doubt or question the Impeccable was in the right and China in the wrong. The ship was in international waters, where it had every right to be. China’s claim that it was in her Exclusive Economic Zone is irrelevant. Impeccable was fishing for information, not fish. An EEZ is not the same thing as territorial waters. Beyond the 12-mile limit, every navy can legally spy on any other navy as much as it wishes.

However, to say the U.S. Navy’s actions were legal is not the same as saying they were strategically wise. On the contrary, the incident looks like another case of elevating tactics over strategy, on the part of both the U.S. and China.

Tactically, it is easy to understand why the U.S. Navy wants to collect as much information as it can about Chinese submarines, especially boomers. In a war between the U.S. and China, that information would greatly facilitate American anti-submarine warfare. Boomers represent the greatest Chinese naval threat to the American homeland, and Chinese attack subs are probably the second most dangerous threat to the ships of the U.S. Navy (I would rank attacks on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers by nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at the top). Information on oceanographic conditions around Hainan Island, for which Impeccable surely was also trolling, would be critical for any attempt to bottle Chinese submarines up in their base.

I’m sure these arguments were used by the U.S. Navy to sell Impeccable’s mission. But whoever bought the sales job forgot about strategy. America’s strategic interests dictate that we avoid, rather than prepare for, a war with China. Such a war could end up destroying both countries as powers. More, in a Fourth Generation world, America needs China to be a center and source of order. If China lost a war with America, there would be a real danger that China’s internal unity might also be lost. If China came apart internally, as she has so many times in her history, she could end up a vast, bubbling cauldron of Fourth Generation war. Few outcomes would be worse, from the standpoint of all states.

The U.S. Navy might respond that a Chinese-American war is unlikely to start over harassment of a survey ship, and it would be right. But missions such as Impeccable’s send a message that we see China as a likely enemy. Such messages, if repeated often enough, can establish a dynamic that is difficult to reverse. It took almost half a century for just such a dynamic to bring war between the U.S. and Japan – I think the first U.S. Navy “Plan Orange,” for war with Japan, dated to 1907 – but eventually it did the trick.

The way Washington works, it would take courage for someone in OSD or the State Department or the White House to tell the U.S. Navy to swallow the tactical disadvantages and avoid missions we know will antagonize China. But that is what sound strategy requires. Anything else elevates tactics over strategy, an elementary blunder that almost always brings unfortunate results.

The same critique applies to the Chinese. Tactically, it is understandable that the Chinese navy wants to give its submarines every possible advantage. Protecting its boomers is important strategically as well as tactically. While China has more submarines than America, its fleet is far inferior qualitatively, in personnel as well as hardware. In any naval confrontation with the U.S., China is very much the underdog. She needs every advantage she can get.

But the wise and prudent strategy of China’s leaders, ever since the end of the disastrous reign of Chairman Mao, has been to avoid military conflicts while building up China’s economy. The Chinese leadership has understood that economic power must precede military power if the latter is not to be shallow and brittle. China needs at least 20 to 30 more years of peace and rising prosperity before she dare think about war. From this perspective, the harassment of Impeccable was putting tactics ahead of strategy, the same error the U.S. made by sending the ship on her mission. No less than America, China must avoid establishing a dynamic of conflict between the two powers.

Here again we come to the central requirement dictated by the rise of Fourth Generation war. States should avoid conflicts with other states, because the winner will most likely be the non-state forces of the Fourth Generation. Rather, states should seek an alliance of all states against non-state elements. The fact that this most basic of all strategic requirements is understood neither in Washington nor in Beijing may not surprise us, but it should trouble everyone who dares hope the 21st century will not see the end of the state system and its replacement by a world of bottomless chaos.


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