Gunboat diplomacy without the gunboats sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Here’s how small-stick diplomacy works. A country whose armed forces decisively outmatch a competitor’s can afford not to openly display those forces in international controversies. It can make the weak an offer they can’t refuse, and they have little recourse. It can hope to win without fighting—and get its way without even looking like an aggressor before the court of world opinion. Why unlimber the big stick when virtual coercion or deterrence promises the same results?
Small-stick diplomacy involves communication as well as power. If the stronger power’s leaders publicly stake their reputation for upholding national honor and dignity on something—say, by declaring a certain sea area or geographic feature sovereign territory—they put rivals on notice that they will deploy whatever means necessary, including the big stick, to defend that object. Superior forces in being coupled with obvious resolve to use them lets Beijing transmit an unspoken yet unmistakable message to weak antagonists like Manila—do as I say or suffer terrible consequences.
To this the inferior contender can make little reply unless it augments its own strength or attracts help from powerful outsiders—evening the lopsided balance of forces. It has no military option of its own. Hence Southeast Asian countries’ newfound eagerness for an American presence in the region.
So long as all contenders understand that configuration of forces underlying power politics, then, the stronger party can refrain from overt gunboat diplomacy. Beijing can dispatch unarmed ships like fisheries enforcement vessels to patrol Chinese-claimed waters that lie within fellow Asian states’ EEZs. As is often the case: China claims most of the South China Sea  , including waters apportioned to other coastal states under the law of the sea.
By relying on law-enforcement ships, Beijing creates the appearance of matter-of-factly enforcing Chinese law in places that have belonged to China since antiquity. Navies fight for objects that are in dispute; law-enforcement craft police sovereign territory, much like a cop walking his beat. Beijing can paint Manila, Hanoi, or other contenders as lawless countries flouting law and order. Best of all from China’s standpoint, it can do all of this without appearing to bully the weak. Hence its reliance on unarmed ships backed up by the virtual presence of People’s Liberation Army forces over the horizon.
So much for China. It appears that the United States is whittling a small stick of its own—whether it realizes it or not. Washington recently struck a deal with Singapore to station a rotating detachment of lightly armed Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) in the city-state to defend maritime security in seaways like the Strait of Malacca. These unprepossessing craft hold considerable promise for maritime security missions, but they pose little threat to the PLA Navy. Being unprovocative represents a good start.
There are striking differences between the Chinese and American varieties of small-stick diplomacy, though. First and foremost, Washington must decide what it wants to accomplish in the maritime-territorial conflicts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta insist that the parties to these disputes negotiate peaceful settlements for themselves. The United States insists only on freedom of navigation as customarily understood.
It’s fitting for administration officials not to take sides over which country holds title to the Spratly or Paracel islands. These landmasses lie in the middle of the South China Sea, beyond any coastal state’s EEZ. They are ambiguous cases. Quarrels over them thus fall into another class from Scarborough Shoal, which lies deep within the Philippine EEZ—or, for that matter, from Mischief Reef  , another islet within the Philippine EEZ. Chinese forces occupied and fortified the reef, also well within Manila’s EEZ, in the mid-1990s. The same goes for Beijing’s auctioning off sea areas within the Vietnamese EEZ  for petroleum exploration, as it announced it would late last month.
These cases are not ambiguous at all; just look at the map. Nor should they be negotiable. Yet Washington is urging its friends to negotiate about what is clearly theirs—and implying strongly that they should be prepared give part of it away at the bargaining table, simply because they are physically inferior to the rival claimant.
That might buy some peace. But U.S. officials must ask themselves whether they are bartering away fundamental principles on which the law of the sea is built—and admitting that might makes right in international affairs—when they urge Manila or Hanoi to negotiate the status of waters and islands that clearly fall within their jurisdiction. Chinese officials may ask themselves what other principles U.S. leaders are willing to compromise for the sake of regional tranquility. This prospect should give Washington pause. It’s high time to acknowledge such unpleasant realities.
Second, the United States needs a big stick of its own at the ready. Without heavy forces positioned nearby as a backstop, the logic of small-stick diplomacy will work against the U.S. sea services. As the U.S. Navy "pivots” or “rebalances” from Atlantic to Pacific, U.S. leaders should search out new basing options. For my money Australia offers a central geographic position at the juncture of the Pacific and Indian oceans, just outside the island crescent that forms the southern boundary of the South China Sea. Stationing a good part of the Atlantic Fleet in Australia (or some other regional partner like the Philippines) would let Washington harness the logic of the small stick, backing up Southeast Asian friends and allies more effectively than it can when the closest units are at Japan or Guam. Again, alliance diplomacy will be at a premium. Creating a new normal for the region means convincing Asian leaders to grant generous basing rights.
The good news for U.S. leaders is that small-stick diplomacy takes patience—and forbearance toward weaker rivals is seemingly in short supply in Beijing these days. As I wrote this the news broke  that a PLA Navy frigate was aground at Half Moon Shoal, only 70 miles from the Philippine island of Palawan. It has reportedly been shooing Filipino fishermen out of these waters  . That a warship was patrolling these waters suggests that Chinese leaders may have decided to risk foregoing the benefits of small-stick diplomacy for the swifter and surer, if more politically hazardous, results offered by the big stick. If so, they will further clarify the situation—driving Southeast Asian countries toward the United States, and easing the challenges of alliance diplomacy. If Beijing wants to discredit its own policy, who are we to object?
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. These views are his own.