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Sea Wars in Asia

By: Matt Noland
October 29, 2018

s Xi Jinping cements his leadership of the Chinese Communist party in ways unthinkable since the death of Mao, contemplating the rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China offers an opportunity to dust off the old masters for insight. The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu admonished that “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is.” China seems to be taking Sun Tzu at his word as it moves towards strategic goals without provoking an armed response from the United States, or anyone else.

The great-power dynamic in the Pacific has changed since the Cold War, especially in the wake of America’s two-decade long preoccupation with the Middle East and central Asia. Yet there is no war or even the imminent prospect of one, and goods and services flow. Both Chinese and American leaders espouse peace and economic interdependence.

Even so, tension grows between the United States and China as their strategic goals diverge, and both sides bolster their military capabilities and presence in the Pacific. Journalist Michael Fabey opens his new book, Crashback, with the claim that the United States and China are actually at war in the Western Pacific. His evidence: China has rapidly built a powerful navy, tailored to exploit perceived U.S. Navy vulnerabilities and weaknesses, which China uses as economic and military leverage to menace its neighbors, flout international norms, and advance its plans to create a new international order in East Asia.

Fabey reviews Sino-U.S. enmity in naval terms, although the full title of his book—Crashback: The Clash between the U.S. and China in the Pacific—hints at his conclusion that the tension goes beyond navies and extends to the highest levels of both governments. While Fabey’s war proceeds unbeknownst to most, thousands of American sailors—and their Chinese counterparts—are at its sharp end. Their actions, miscalculations, or misjudgments could lead to combat in the Western Pacific.

Fabey unfolds his argument over ten chapters, including an excellent synopsis of the deeper maritime and geo-political history behind the current situation. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) still seethes over the “century of humiliation” (1839-1949), when Western colonial powers ran roughshod over a failing imperial dynasty and incompetent republic, and offended a population whose cultural and institutional memory reaches back thousands of years. The PRC also displays a selective approach to China’s past. Fabey notes, for instance, China’s newfound adoration of 15th century Admiral Zheng He, whose naval adventures marked the previous apex of Chinese seapower. Based on Zheng’s legacy, the PRC has somewhat speciously framed itself as an historical seapower and uses aspects of his voyages—along with claims made by the Kuomintang government in 1947—to lay claim to the South China Sea.

Fabey details encounters between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft, including the infamous emergency landing of an EP-3 Aries signals intelligence aircraft on Hainan Island in 2001 after a fatal collision with a Chinese fighter jet. More recent was the 2013 near collision between the Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser, USS COWPENS (CG-63), and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea. Fabey was onboard COWPENS at the time and recalls that it was the American ship rather than the Chinese that backed down and left the area.

His presence onboard that ship is important. Fabey benefits from a long career building relationships with naval officers. He leveraged these contacts to provide readers with incredible access to senior naval leadership. His time with then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert gives title to the “Panda Huggers” chapter, where Fabey outlines the policy preference of accommodating China, prevalent during the Obama administration. Conversely, he uses the perspective of the Commander of Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, to introduce readers to the “dragon slayer” camp of China experts, who are less sanguine about cooperating with a China they view as untrustworthy and advocate confrontation as a means to preserve the international order.

Fabey is at his best when he uses the voices of naval officers to report on events and perspectives. His journalistic approach makes for easy reading, and though he provides an appropriate level of technical and theoretical detail, the writing is never overly academic or pedantic. Fabey’s book should take its place alongside Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (2010) by Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, which takes a more scholarly approach to China’s naval buildup. Crashback will likely appeal to a broader readership and potentially inform more Americans about what their navy is doing in the Pacific and the challenges it faces daily.

Fabey’s impressive networking notwithstanding, the book’s reliance on personal perspectives hampers the book’s effectiveness. Most of the officers interviewed have retired, including Admiral Sam Locklear, whose tenure as Commander of US Pacific Fleet ended almost three years ago and Admiral Harry Harris who is no longer PACOM. Some naval leaders are also noticeable by their absence, such as the former PACFLT commander, Admiral Scott Swift, who is respected as a deep thinker on China. Fabey’s telling of COWPENS’ Commanding Officer’s fall from grace makes for salacious reading, but his specious attempt to connect one man’s professional and moral shortcomings to a deeper Navy-wide malaise does little to advance his argument.

Fabey is convinced that China and the United States are moving towards a crisis, and that both governments are positioning their fleets to precipitate something sinister. The implications are sobering. The two most powerful nation-states on earth are using sailors to reinforce strategic policies in an increasingly tense maritime environment where an individual miscalculation could precipitate war between nuclear powers. Fabey’s unspoken argument is that the American people should understand the geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific because the relationship between China and the United States is the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world.

Fabey implies that China and the United States are caught in the “Thucydides trap,” so named for the ancient historian of the Peloponnesian war. Recently popularized by Harvard Professor Graham Allison in his book of the same name, the concept acts as a warning of the risk of conflict between status-quo and rising powers. In the sixteen historical cases examined by Allison, opposing contestants avoided war only four times. Thucydides argued that “It was the rise of Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” and, if Fabey is correct, so too may it be for China and the United States in the Pacific. 

Consider China’s controversial reclamation of land, reefs, and the like (“contested features”) in the South China Sea. The United States has little reason to care who possesses these or how they choose to exploit the geography. China’s outposts in the South China Sea are more of a military liability than a value. Second-order effects are the more important worry for the United States. China might be welcome to its objectives and acquisitions in the South China Sea and elsewhere if pursued through existing international mechanisms. China’s embrace of such legitimate processes would only strengthen the current world order. By contrast, when international actors use coercion or force to achieve their ends—as did Russia in Ukraine—American prestige diminishes, and faith in the international order erodes. America’s paramount international interest is the continued functioning of this multilateral “world order,” even at great cost. But how much?  Fabey does not venture an opinion on the matter.

China, thinks Fabey, is not pursuing war with the United States any more than the United States wants war with China. Both sides understand the gravity of that outcome. Taking a page from Sun Tzu, China would prefer to win without fighting—a largely successful strategy for them over the last two decades. Perhaps China’s current advantages are not all of their own making but due to the cumulative effects of American strategic choices—as when Pericles warned the Athenians that he was less worried about the Spartans’ actions than the Athenian’s own mistakes. Nonetheless, the difference between China and the United States, Fabey argues, is that, though neither side wants war, China’s rulers are betting that they are more willing to fight than the American people, and have built a navy that they believe is prepared to do the job.

The book’s biggest shortcoming is Fabey’s failure to consider the tension between the United States and China holistically. Fabey sticks doggedly to his realm of expertise in military and naval journalism. He reports what he sees. In so doing he ignores other methods of statecraft—namely the diplomatic and economic levers of power that will likely figure as largely in navigating the great power relationship with China as encounters between two fleets will over the coming years. Navies do not enter into conflict with one another. Nation states do, and the limited naval perspective offered by Fabey diminishes his book’s potential. Crashback may appeal to practitioners unfamiliar with current operations in the Western Pacific, and to laypeople interested in naval affairs, but it is unlikely to interest policy makers or senior decision makers within the navy because it never ventures a value judgment, and never offers a fresh idea about how to approach the relationship with China at sea in the coming years.

Nonetheless, should it come to war, any conflict between China and the United States would have a distinctly maritime character, and Americans should acquaint themselves with their navy and how it is preparing to do the most difficult job that the nation could ask of it. The United States Navy is a reflection of American history, values, and geography—indeed, of the entire republic. Much is at stake in its readiness to perform—both in the maintenance of peace and in the conduct of warfare.