If China is engaging in a maritime insurgency to impose its rule within its illegitimate claim to the nine-dash line in the South China Sea, what ought the United States do about it? To enable allies and partners to withstand and expose Chinese coercion and fully assert their sovereignty at sea, U.S. maritime forces must think, act, and operate differently, in a deliberate campaign proportionate in response and duration to that of the opponent.
The current U.S. approach to China’s maritime insurgency is succinctly characterized as episodic high-end presence. Ongoing freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and intermittent challenges to the most blatant instances of maritime coercion typify this approach. Rather than reassuring allies and partners, however, these activities sometimes alarm them, because FONOPs raise concerns that the United States is disproportionately “militarizing” the situation by employing high-end assets to deter a low-end threat.1 Further undercutting U.S. efforts, allies and partners may perceive episodic presence as strategic unreliability, which feeds into China’s narrative that the United States is an undependable partner that stirs up trouble and then sails away. The solution to this paradox is to balance episodic high-end operations with persistent low-end presence to deter escalation, bolster partner nation capacity, and catalyze regional will to oppose China’s coercive maritime activities.
Though it is tempting to think the United States might somehow give its allies and partners a “magic bullet” that will provide them with the will and capability to stand up to Chinese maritime coercion on their own, history shows that this is exceedingly improbable. More FONOPs and/or one-off response options are not likely to change appreciably the behavior of Chinese paramilitary maritime forces either. China’s campaign to wrest control of the South China Sea goes back to at least 2013, and China has thus far successfully parried challenges to its unlawful behavior. As the “indispensable nation,” the United States must be present on the water all day, every day, 24/7/365, to lead a maritime counterinsurgency campaign.
The Outline of a Campaign
The new National Defense Strategy makes a cornerstone of campaigning, which joint doctrine defines as “a series of related operations aimed at achieving strategic and operational objectives within a given time and space.”2 In contrast to operational or contingency plans, campaigns focus mostly on nonlethal operations, activities, and investments over time to further U.S. national security objectives in pursuit of a more favorable strategic environment. Campaigning is not a single operation, but multiple, mutually reinforcing efforts that seek to affect multiple adversary centers of gravity while bolstering those of allies and partners and protecting one’s own.
The 2020 triservice maritime strategy Advantage at Sea provides additional guidance to consider when developing a South China Sea campaign. Specifically, it charges the naval service to partner, persist, and prevail across the competition continuum, employing integrated all-domain naval power to advance global maritime security and governance, strengthen alliances and partnerships, confront and expose malign behavior, expand information and decision advantage, and deploy and sustain combat-credible forces.
Given national defense and Navy strategic direction, several objectives should guide a South China Sea campaign. First, regional allies and partners must be able to fully exercise sovereign maritime rights in accordance with international law and free from Chinese coercion.3 Second, allies and partners should over time be able to take the lead in maintaining the rules-based international order at sea. Third, China must be convinced to abandon its policy of maritime coercion to advance its illegitimate claims. Indeed, it is not so much China’s excessive claims that are the main issue, but the coercive actions Beijing takes to enforce them. Thus, a counterinsurgency campaign should focus on dissuading China or rendering its activities counterproductive to its strategic objectives. Fourth, the United States must maintain strategic credibility, build access, and position itself to deter and respond to Chinese escalation, while retaining significant diplomatic and military freedom of action in international waters.
In developing a South China Sea campaign plan, it is important to heed the advice of naval scholars who have studied this problem in depth. In their 2019 book China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson offer “options for the definitive use of U.S. sea power in the gray zone” and recommend bolstering the ability of allies and partners to assert their own maritime sovereign rights by sailing alongside them, rather than engaging in direct U.S. actions against Chinese paramilitary maritime forces. Specific suggestions for “definitive” actions include escorting fishing/resource exploration vessels, assisting with visit, board, search, and seizure activities, and prosecuting Chinese ships for poaching and conducting illegal activities. U.S. forces also should provide information, as well as nonlethal and lethal overwatch. A South China Sea campaign that translates these principles into action in a resource- and diplomatically constrained—but feasible and effective—manner should be organized around the following lines of effort and accompanying messages:
• Beat Cop. Persistent low-end presence—“The United States has skin in the game.”
• Neighborhood Watch. Build a regional coalition— “We are stronger together.”
• Vigilance. Information sharing—“We are always watching.”
• Name and Shame. Coordinated strategic communications—“We will hold you accountable.”
Persistent Low-End Presence
Currently, the U.S. Navy operates like a SWAT team in the South China Sea. From time to time, it rolls through the rough parts of the neighborhood, during which time the local troublemakers keep a low profile. As soon as it sails away, the hoodlums return to coercing neighborhood residents. The people who live there do not like this but lack confidence in the police’s ability to protect them and their livelihood should they choose to defy the will of the criminals. Needed is the “beat cop” who senses what is going on in the neighborhood day-to-day, earns the trust of the people through persistent presence and engagement, and can credibly call in backup.
Such an approach would involve a task force built around at least one expeditionary sea base (ESB), amphibious transport dock (LPD), or dock landing ship (LSD) to serve as a flagship constantly on station in the South China Sea, positioning itself to address the worst of China’s malign behavior.4 This flagship would act as a mothership in support of a flotilla of smaller offshore patrol vessels, such as the Navy’s new “40 PB” patrol boats, Naval Special Warfare combatant craft assault boats, and Coast Guard assets such as fast response cutters when available.5 Chartered and/or federalized U.S.-flag offshore support vessels (OSVs) could provide additional presence and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity and offer the United States a proportional counterforce to the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. Combined, these would introduce significant uncertainty into China’s calculus.6
All flotilla assets would have U.S. Coast Guard legal liaisons on board to provide subject matter expertise on international maritime law; maritime forensics; illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; environmental regulations; and other specialized knowledge areas. In addition, flotilla ships would be equipped with intermediate force capabilities and specially trained in nonlethal tactics such as ship-to-ship shouldering.
The flagship should embark helicopter and tactical unmanned aerial vehicle detachments that could provide graduated response and messaging ranging from search and rescue to surveillance to armed reconnaissance.7 In addition, an embarked expeditionary intelligence detachment would function as an afloat maritime information center to process, exploit, and disseminate information to regional allies and partners on accelerated timelines.
Command and control of this effort ideally would fall to a joint-interagency task force (JIATF) under U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (IndoPaCom) that could bring to bear interagency authorities in support of integrated campaigning. Alternatively, given its expeditionary and littoral mission, Task Force 75 could provide the command element, which would keep it squarely under the authority of the Pacific Fleet joint force maritime component commander (JFMCC/PacFlt). Logistics support could flow through Singapore, Guam, and Palau but ideally would be supplemented through regional ports such as Puerto Princessa and Subic Bay when diplomatic conditions allow.
As a proportionate response to Chinese maritime coercion, persistent low-end presence would effectively support allied and partner efforts while moderating regional concerns about the United States militarizing the dispute.8 It also would free high-end combatants to deter Chinese Navy opportunism while remaining a “quick reaction force” to respond to specific incidents. Some may think small-boat operations near Chinese paramilitary forces pose too great a risk to U.S. forces and increase the chances of kinetic attack. However, the Navy has a strong tradition of small boat operations, typified by Operation Market Time in Vietnam, and U.S. ships “swapped paint” with their Soviet counterparts multiple times during the Cold War without unintended escalation.9
Empower a Regional Coalition
Having established a persistent presence in the South China Sea, the next step should be to empower a “neighborhood watch,” so allies and partners can take back their own maritime environs and assume lead responsibility for challenging malign Chinese actions. One way to do this would be to extend the on-station time of allied and partner offshore patrol vessels through replenishment at sea and other logistics support. While U.S. ships can stay at sea for weeks or months at a time, many regional partners lack sophisticated underway replenishment capability and lose weeks of patrol time transiting to and from port to resupply. Given the demand on U.S. fleet oilers, using the flagship and chartered OSVs for at-sea sustainment of U.S. and allied patrol boats should be considered.
To mitigate overlapping claims, coordinate across jurisdictions, and ensure unity of effort, the flotilla flagship should embark international liaison officers, and partner nation patrol vessels should implement a robust multinational shiprider program. Patterned after the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative, regional legal detachments could break their colors on U.S. Navy yardarms to challenge illegal activity within their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs). “Lawfare” is a cornerstone of China’s gray zone approach; cross-decking legal authorities among U.S. and partner vessels could counter this tactic and would add complexity to China’s calculus.
The persistent low-end presence facilitated by a U.S.-led flotilla would complement other multinational maritime security efforts in the region such as the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement focused on the Sulu Sea and the Malacca Straits Patrol. Working in conjunction with security cooperation equipment and training programs such as the Maritime Security Initiative, this effort could be scaled with like-minded partners such as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and others providing assets and support as policy and resources allow.
Having built bonds and trust with regional partners, the multinational flotilla should be prepared to escort and provide a credible backstop to local constabulary ships as they challenge and prosecute Chinese activities that violate lawful maritime sovereignty. Through a combination of information, nonlethal, and lethal overwatch (with attendant rules of engagement), the flotilla would empower Southeast Asian states to take back their rightful EEZs in the South China Sea, while over time permitting the United States to adjust its posture accordingly as regional capacity and capabilities grow. Unlike on land, counterinsurgency at sea is inherently mobile and scalable. The flotilla would flow to where it is needed most and could be retasked or dispersed if no longer needed.
Vigilance is the key to maintaining strategic credibility over the long haul. Allies and partners must believe the United States is always watching and stands ready to assist in the event of escalation, even if U.S. forces are not visibly present on scene. The local residents must have confidence the cops will show up when called.
Effective strategic communications are perhaps the most critical component of a maritime counterinsurgency campaign in the South China Sea. “Naming and shaming” is widely considered a primary counter–gray zone tactic to negate an adversary’s plausible deniability for its coercive actions. Deliberately publicizing maritime coercion would seize the initiative in the information space and start to hold China accountable in the court of public opinion, similar to the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Though contrary to military preferences for operational security and classification, a South China Sea flotilla should strive to be as transparent as possible through an ample embarked public affairs detachment. A joint combat camera team should produce high-quality video of coercive and unlawful Chinese activities for maximum distribution through the region’s preferred social media outlets. Going further, the public affairs detachment should run a robust civil embarkation program that puts regional media, politicians, and activists on the front lines to witness how the “Middle Kingdom” treats less powerful nations and the environment.
These robust public activities should be complemented and reinforced by carefully phased diplomatic efforts. The United States with its allies and partners should present a united front in challenging China with official demarches for every violation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and hold China accountable at annual Military Maritime Consultative Agreement summits, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, and other international fora. Key leader engagements by senior government and military figures throughout the region would further assure allies and partners of U.S. commitment to their maritime sovereignty, allow for frank discussions about how best to campaign together, and ensure unity of messaging. It will be essential to monitor the information environment for feedback on how the campaign resonates with those who live in the neighborhood through attaché reporting and local social media and to incorporate lessons.
To implement a South China Sea campaign, policy-makers should consider the following:
Formally direct development and execution of a South China Sea functional campaign plan in the Joint Strategic Campaign Plan. Given the task saturation of assigned forces, it is unrealistic to assume that IndoPaCom will execute a campaign without formal tasking.
Gather expeditionary sea bases and the U.S. Navy’s patrol boat capacity for duty in the South China Sea. Accelerate full acquisition of 160 Metal Shark 40 PBs and consider acquisition or interservice transfer of Coast Guard Sentinel-class fast response cutters. Charter U.S.-flagged OSVs for presence, ISR, and logistics support.
Provide additional operations and maintenance funding to Pacific Fleet. A South China Sea campaign would not qualify for overseas contingency operations funding but would entail an increased operational tempo beyond what is covered by the base budget.
Provide additional manpower to support a South China Sea campaign. Without mobilization authorization, consideration should be given to employing authorities granted as part of Operation Noble Eagle for individual augmentations, as maritime domain awareness and maritime security contribute to homeland defense and counterterrorism efforts in addition to maritime counterinsurgency.
Significantly expand foreign disclosure officer capacity and training through an OpNav instruction governing the program at the service level.
Winning the Narrative
In the end, the rules that prevail on the waters of the South China Sea will be the ones that manifest in the day-to-day reality of the maritime populace. Currently, China’s narrative is ascendant: “The Americans talk a big game, stirring up trouble with their FONOPs, and then we drive them away. They are reckless and only in it for themselves. The nine-dash line is Chinese territory, and China is not going anywhere.” To empower allies and partners to exercise their maritime sovereignty free from coercion, the United States must plan and conduct a campaign equal to China’s challenge.
Through persistent proportional presence, multinational collaboration, vigilance, and public accountability, the United States can write a better story for the South China Sea: “The U.S. Navy has had a persistent presence in Asia since 1835, more than twice as long as the People’s Republic has existed.10 The United States stands shoulder-to-shoulder with allies and partners in opposition to China’s illegal claims, unlawful activities, and bullying behavior. The struggle is not about the United States versus China, but about the rules-based international order versus ‘might makes right.’ The United States is a loyal and reliable friend that honors its commitments, and the U.S. Navy remains a global force for good.”
Since 2016, the United States has invested more than $425 million through the Maritime Security Initiative to help Indo-Pacific countries develop the ability to “sense, share, and contribute” to a regional recognized maritime picture (RMP). While some of these funds have purchased secure communication systems, the standout success story has been the U.S. Department of Transportation’s unclassified web-based SeaVision maritime domain awareness and coordination tool. Drawing on government and commercially contracted datastreams, SeaVision fuses information from terrestrial and satellite Automated Identification System data, the satellite Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, satellite synthetic aperture radar, and—soon—satellite electronic signal detection to form a high-quality unclassified RMP that could support a countercoercion campaign in the South China Sea. Indeed, naval services throughout Southeast Asia already use it—with the notable exception of the U.S. Navy.
Understandably focused on high-end threats and the necessity of maintaining a high-quality common operating picture, the Navy prioritizes classified datastreams. Operational collaboration typically occurs across closed, tightly controlled classified systems, even with close allies. Although DoD is getting better at “writing for release,” the production of intelligence and planning material at releasable levels for non-Five-Eyes partners and foreign disclosure officer capacity remain critical bottlenecks to effective multinational collaboration.
However, the naval cooperation and guidance for shipping (NCAGS) cadre is well-versed in bridging the gap between unclassified and classified systems. NCAGS provides situational awareness to civilian traffic to help ensure its safe passage and the safety of naval vessels in a contingency. NCAGS is the Navy’s lead community for international maritime domain awareness vice naval intelligence collaboration. But this capability is currently unavailable to support a South China Sea campaign because the community and mission are entirely resident in the Navy Reserve, which IndoPaCom and Pacific Fleet currently lack the authority to mobilize. This is a self-imposed limiting factor that should be overcome.
1. “High-end” assets can be considered gray-hull warships such as corvettes, destroyers, and cruisers. “Low-end” assets include maritime militia “fishing vessels” and coast guard, constabulary, and navy patrol boats, offshore patrol vessels, and offshore support vessels. Rizal Abdul Kadir, “‘Mahathir Doctrine’ Keeps South China Sea Peaceful,” New Straits Times, 5 May 2019.
2. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Planning, December 2020.
3. Of South China Sea allies and partners, the Philippines is the most important to support. It is the only South China Sea treaty ally currently confronted by China’s maritime coercion, and other claimant states will see U.S. support for it as a bellwether for U.S. commitment in the rest of the region.
4. The Navy has been operating ESBs since 2017, but Pacific Fleet did not receive its first, the USS Miguel Keith (ESB-5), until 2021, and it has yet to conduct persistent operations in the South China Sea. The John L. Canley (ESB-6) was christened on 26 June 2022 and is expected to be delivered by year’s end.
5. The U.S. Coast Guard is the preferred maritime security partner of many South China Sea claimant states because it is viewed as diplomatically “safer” than the Navy, but it is not structured or funded to support more than a small, periodic “away game.”
6. 10 U.S. Code § 261: U.S. vessels are eligible for federalization when the President “determines that the security of the United States is threatened by the application, or the imminent danger of application, of physical force by any foreign government or agency against the United States, its citizens, the property of its citizens, or their commercial interests.”
7. A detachment comprising an MH-60S and MQ-8C would be ideal, though the air detachment also could be provided by Marine Corps UH-1Ys.
8. Malaysia, in particular, has been reticent about “warships attracting warships.”
9. Similar to the U.S.-Russia Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Seas agreement signed in 1972, the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement between the U.S. and China provides a mechanism to discuss the safety and professionalism of air and maritime interactions to reduce the risk of misunderstanding and unintended escalation.
10. The East India Squadron was established in 1835 with the deployment of the USS Potomac and Peacock.