Guiding China: A Three-Dimensional Approach that PACOM Should Pursue Today

Authored by:  Daniel T. Murphy


“Within a few years, as tight budgets shrink America’s amphibious fleet, an inexperienced Chinese task force will leave port, intent on projecting amphibious power well-beyond the narrow confines of the first island chain and into sensitive, geopolitically contentious waters.”[1]

In recent years, leaders have come to view DoD as uniquely equipped and adequately resourced (through the combatant commands) to deliver elements of national power that other agencies cannot.  According to the Capstone Concept, the joint force can “help shape the international political environment in support of U.S. interests.”[2] According to Owens, the COCOM is “responsible for shaping the theater in hopes of advancing US interests.”[3] A COCOM commander, working in concert with regional ambassadors can exercise the full spectrum of national power, not only in a single country, but across a region.

PACOM’s role in our relationship with China is an excellent example.  Within the next decade, China will become the world’s largest economy, the largest importer of natural resources, and a growing military competitor.  China’s rapid growth will occur in a world where the rules of international relations are being rewritten, and where the definitions of sovereignty, national interest, and just war are in flux.  World demand for food, water, energy and other natural resources will outstrip available supplies, and the greatest demand will come from China.[4]  In today’s world, conflict between major powers over access to natural resources could result in catastrophic effects, worse than any previous war.  The ripple effect of a conflict between major powers could tip the balance in several developing countries that are already on the brink of chaos.

Because today’s stakes are high, we need to utilize all elements of national power to reduce the risk of conflict, especially with China, as they become our nearest peer competitor.  While our executive leaders engage China at the top-most levels, PACOM can deliver valuable effects at the theater level.

National Strategy Alignment

PACOM’s first priority must be to ensure that theater-level strategy supports our national strategy.  The 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) provides PACOM with specific guidance:

— Welcome a China that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the United States and the international community to advance priorities like economic recovery, confronting climate change, and nonproliferation.

— Monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that U.S. interests and allies, regionally and globally, are not negatively affected.

— Encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security, and prosperity as its influence rises.

— Improve communication between militaries to reduce mistrust.[5]

Our current National Defense Strategy (NDS), while published by Secretary Gates in 2008, prior to the NSS, supports the NSS, and provides additional guidance for PACOM.  For example, it states that our interaction with China will be long-term and multi-dimensional and will include peacetime engagements between our defense establishments.[6]

Our National Military Strategy (NMS), informed by the NDS, and published by the JCS, is even more specific.  The NMS tells PACOM that our joint forces will pursue a deeper military-to-military relationship with China to improve common understanding, reduce misperception, and prevent miscalculation.  It explains that we will work with China in countering piracy and proliferation of WMD, and preserving stability on the Korean peninsula. The NMS states that we will monitor Chinese military developments and capabilities in the Taiwan Strait, Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea, and in space and cyberspace. The NMS also states (implicitly) that we will use force, if necessary, to maintain access to the global commons.[7]

Supporting the NSS, NDS, and NMS, the 2009 PACOM Strategy document and posture statement emphasize specific means and resources, such as: bi-lateral and multilateral alliances, mutual defense treaties with PACOM AOR nations; and military exchanges and exercise programs.[8]  In support of the NSS, NDS and NMS, I believe PACOM should focus specifically in three areas: (a) diplomacy and strategic communication, (b) interoperability and security assistance, (c) deterrence and readiness.

Diplomacy and Strategic Communication

As emphasized by George Schultz, DoD and DoS have a history of partnering successfully in the PACOM area of responsibility (AOR).[9]  PACOM must build on this history by engaging closely with embassies in the PACOM AOR to align objectives regarding China.  Hooper and Slayton have called for a diplomatic surge and a NATO-like organization in the Pacific Basin to dissuade China from overreacting to ethnic violence in the Solomons, Papua New Guinea and other islands where Chinese expatriates are migrating.  They believe China is well-equipped with a new LPD amphibious assault vessel, and are growing increasingly impatient with recent anti-Chinese violence.  Hooper and Slayton see “nothing in place to dissuade China from transforming an operation to protect Chinese nationals into an annexation” (ala Germany in Qingdao in 1897).[10]  If DoS cannot support a diplomatic surge, PACOM can help close the gap with military diplomacy by increasing joint exercises, port visits and mobile training team visits with Pacific island nations.  Hooper and Slayton even suggest equipping the new Littoral Combat Ship or the new U.S. Coast Guard National Security Cutters with “diplomatic mission modules to serve as gap fillers in isolated, representation-starved islets.”[11]

Putting DoS budget issues aside, military diplomacy should always play a significant role.  If diplomacy is viewed as wholly owned by DoS, then we will have only a half dialogue with China.  To have a whole conversation, and to address the whole spectrum of relational issues, PACOM leaders and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) leaders must also have regular dialogue to collaboratively understand the dynamics at play in the region, agree on areas where we can work together for mutual benefit, and agree on how we can each bring complementary military capabilities to bear on regional challenges.  Along with one-on-one conversations, security conferences, and port visits, PACOM should continue the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer exchange program that was initiated in 2008, and pursue more formal exchange programs between U.S. and Chinese service academies and training programs.

As PACOM leaders engage with their Chinese counterparts, unity of effort will be critical to success.  In the spirit of strategic communication, PACOM communications themes, objectives and timing need to be harmonized with communications coming from the White House, DoS, and other members of the interagency.  And harmonization must occur, not only horizontally, but vertically as well – From the top level talking points used by PACOM admirals, to commanding officers and deckplate sailors who will be quoted by Chinese newspapers during port visits.  The PACOM Influence Working Group (PIWG) has had significant success in this area, most notably during the 2004 Asian Tsunami response.[12]

Interoperability and Combined Security Assistance

As Europe has demonstrated in the decades since the Second World War, nations that create operational interdependencies typically avoid serious conflict.  There are a variety of common-interest missions where PACOM-PLAN interoperability makes sense – Most notably humanitarian assistance.  Improving PACOM-PLAN interoperability would build common operational understanding, and reduce the potential for accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations.  Understanding each other’s intentions is less dangerous than guessing at each other’s intentions, at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.

Improving PACOM-PLAN interoperability also makes economic sense.  Together, the PLAN and PACOM can obtain significant economies of scale by working together rather than duplicating capabilities and racing to be the first responder, especially in response to a humanitarian crisis.

Improved interoperability may eventually lead to combined PACOM-PLAN shaping operations in PACOM and other AORs.  According to Reverton, “A major goal of shaping is to reduce the drivers of conflicts.”[13]  Reduced regional conflict means increased economic activity, which is important to both the U.S. and China.  Especially in lesser contentious geographies, PACOM and the PLAN could deliver greater leverage as a combined force.  PACOM brings to the table well-practiced and highly repeatable shaping capabilities (e.g., time-tested processes, experienced personnel, mobile training teams, extensible exercise scenarios, etc.).  The PLAN brings to the table a growing defense budget, local skin in the game, a growing appreciation and excitement in their responsibility in shaping the future.  China no longer seeks to spread an economic or political ideology that is counter to the West.[14]  If China is willing to support Security Assistance operations, anti-piracy operations, counter-narcotics operations, etc., PACOM should not only say yes, we should teach them how to do it with us, and how to do it well – In other words, PACOM should be shaping how the PLAN conducts shaping.

Deterrence and Readiness

As Admiral Crowe emphasized, the landscape can change suddenly.  “Soft power” does not always work.  As stated in the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, PACOM must continue to convince Chinese leadership that the use of force against the U.S. or our allies, including Taiwan, will not achieve the desired effect, that the cost of such actions will be too great, or that acceptable situations can be achieved without the use of force.  PACOM must accomplish deterrence through continued forward presence, and demonstration that the United States is willing to use force, if necessary to achieve our national security objectives.  Cooper and Slayton suggest having a Marine task force on-board a Joint High-Speed Vessel or Littoral Combat Ship capable of rapidly deploying and landing in lightly contested conditions to “dilute an unwanted unilateral Chinese incursion,” and to dampen the PLAN’s appetite for risk-taking.[15]

In Summary

China’s rapid rise is occurring in a world of increasing complexity and evolving norms.  To guide China toward a path that aligns with (or at least does not conflict with) our own national security agenda, the U.S. will need to exercise all elements of national power – diplomatic, informational, military and economic.  To that end, given their unique ability to pull a wide variety of strategic levers, PACOM commanders will continue to play a significant role in constructively engaging Chinese leadership, and in dissuading and deterring that country from actions that adversely affect U.S. national security or the security of our allies.

Copyright 2012:  Daniel T. Murphy

[1] C. Hooper and D. Slayton, “The Real Game Changers of the Pacific Basin,” Proceedings, April 2011, page 42.

[2] Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, page 10.

[3] Owens, “Strategy and the Strategic Way of Thinking,” NDSM Selected Readings 19-1, June 2007.

[4] “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” November 2008, NSDM Selected Readings 20-1, page vi.

[5] National Security Strategy, page 43.

[6] National Defense Strategy, page 3.

[7] National Military Strategy, page 14.

[8] PACOM Strategy, page 9.

[9] W. Crowe, “U.S. Pacific Command: A Warrior-Diplomat Speaks,” NDSM Selected Readings 21-2, page 74.

[10] C. Hooper and D. Slayton, page 45.

[11] C. Hooper and D. Slayton, page 46.

[12] S. Perkins and G. Scott, “Enabling Strategic Communications at the Combatant Commands,” NDSM Selected Readings 23-4, page 28.

[13] D. Reverton, “Shaping the Security Environment,” NDSM Selected Readings 21-1, page 1.

[14] H. Harding, “China,” NDSM Selected Readings 31-1, page 32.

[15] C. Hooper and D. Slayton, page 46.