Why the US Navy needs to be in the South China Sea


I was a ghost in the hallowed halls of the US Naval War College in Newport this gap year. But I snapped and moaned on my way to campus late last month to give a talk at Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups Annual Symposium. Participants in this year’s workshop explored “grey zone” competition at sea, mainly in areas like the South China Sea.

My bottom line was glaringly obvious that a competitor must take the competition field and stay there in order to compete.

That you had to be there to win seems pretty simple, right? I rather doubt that the legendary University of Georgia Bulldogs football team would have beaten Alabama for the national championship last January if the Dawgs had only shown up in the first half of the championship game. A contestant must show up – and stay for the duration of the contest – if they hope to control the field and win the game.

The strongest team accomplishes little if they don’t compete. And we have to stay the course.

And yet, American forces have shown a disturbing propensity to violate this simple precept, especially in irregular warfare and gray-zone competition. They show up and take control of the field, then advance in search of the next battle or engagement. In the process, they surrender control to such outmatched enemies as the Taliban or the North Vietnamese communists. No wonder victory is proving elusive.

The same precept that applies to open combat applies to the dark realm of strategic competition between great powers. If China deploys the largest maritime militias, coastguards and navies in the world and supports the maritime forces with land-based military power, and if its forces are on the scene all the time, it exercises control disputed lawn. No Southeast Asian Navy or Coast Guard can surpass it.

And foreigners? US naval contingents can show off anything they want to mount a show of force or freedom of navigation cruise. No matter how impressively they perform, they cede control to China when they leave the stage, as they usually do after a brief period. And Chinese forces are starting to bully Southeast Asian neighbors again when they leave, in a bid to do good for China illicit pretend to be sovereign over approximately 80 to 90% of this body of water.

If you lose control of something important, don’t be surprised when a rival grabs it. And don’t complain when you see L listed on your won loss log.

Here’s the recap. During the Q&A, a banal question came up: why do you have to be there? In other words, why does America have to be in theaters off the coasts of rival great powers? However, the question constitutes a sleight of hand, displacing a discussion on the How? ‘Or’ Whats of gray area strategy and operations and make them Whys. But whatever. Here’s how I answered if I’m deciphering my event chicken scrape correctly:

The military sage Carl von Clausewitz could I agree that a contestant should not enter a competition unless he cares enough to win. He observes that the value that a candidate attaches to his “political object” – his goal – must determine the “magnitude” and the “duration” of the effort he exerts to achieve this goal. In other words, how much he cares about his goal should dictate how much he spends on the goal and for how long.

If you don’t like something, don’t spend much on it, or anything at all.

Clausewitz also observes that three elements make up any society, namely the people, the government and the army. The people are usually the source of the passion for a war enterprise, the army its executor, and the government its rational overseer (suppress your laughter). If the top political leaders cannot align the people, the military and the government towards a worthwhile goal, it is probably best to give up trying to seize it.


To be there is a conscious political and strategic choice, but not to be there too. It is a choice of the supreme moment. Accordingly, senior leaders in Washington DC must put Indo-Pacific issues to the American people in the strictest possible terms. The stakes are high and should be non-negotiable. They are worth an effort of substantial magnitude and duration, in Clausewitzian parlance.

Let’s stick with the South China Sea for today, though the same goes for any semi-enclosed sea lane coveted by a strong coastal state. In fact, three successive presidential administrations representing both political parties agreed that the freedom of the sea is a goal worth fighting for and investing generously. It’s not hard to see why. The basic principle underlying the freedom of the sea is that no one owns the sea, with very limited exceptions codified by treaty. This principle forms the basis of the international legal order of maritime trade and commerce.

China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea amounts to a claim to state ownership of nautical territory. It stages a direct attack on the global order that the United States has presided over since 1945 and which has benefited all corporations, including China.

The freedom of the sea is indivisible. It applies to all the oceans and seas of the world. But if Beijing gets its way, the rules governing what happens in the South China Sea will be made in China no matter what. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seathere “constitution for the oceans”, says, or what authoritative decisions international courts on territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. The freedoms sanctified by treaty will cease to exist or, at most, will be granted to the tolerance of the Chinese Communist Party.

Preserving the freedom of the sea is therefore a goal of paramount importance, but the Southeast Asians have no chance of preserving it from the greed of Big Brother. This leaves guarantors outside the region, the United States in the forefront of which. That’s why we need to be there, and that’s why Washington needs to get the electorate on board.

If not America, who?

But again, the problem does not stop at the South China Sea. If the international community shrugs its shoulders and lets China get away with stealing this maritime space from its neighbours, there is no reason in principle why China cannot do the same in other areas of which it wants, including the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea. Nor is there any reason why other wrongdoers cannot do so in waters they consider their own, for example Iran in the Persian Gulf or Russia in the Black Sea or the ‘Arctic ocean.

If it drops the South China Sea, the international community will have consented to the abolition of a time-tested principle, namely that the sea belongs to no one and to all, and restored the bad old principle that the strong do what they want in world politics while the weak suffer what they must. And the foundation of the maritime legal order will begin to crumble.

Leave the freedom of the sea, moreover, and America’s century-old grand strategy will crumble. Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, the United States has based its grand strategy on securing commercial, diplomatic, and military access to important trading regions, primarily the outlying regions of the East Asia and Western Europe. Access is the goal and main driver of US strategy.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, catches an arresting gear wire while landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in the Atlantic Ocean, Nov. 2, 2019. 4, 2019. The John C. Stennis is underway performing routine operations in support of Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Grant G. Grady)

Yet commercial and diplomatic access will be in jeopardy if powerful coastal states begin to take over the offshore waters. Nor will the United States be able to intervene militarily in peripheral countries if a dominating power or alliance claims martial supremacy there, and if local powers – many of whom are American allies and long-time friends date – proved unable to repel the will. -to be hegemon by themselves.

After all, US maritime forces will not be able to travel to the coastal regions to deal with great power antagonists if they cede control of offshore waterways. If America is not there for its allies in these difficult times – if it betrays them, cutting and running rather than honoring longstanding commitments – fatal consequences are likely to follow. He will have shown that his solemn promises are in vain.

Law, geopolitics and strategy, that’s why we have to be there.

A collaborating editor from 1945, Dr. James Holmes is the JC Wylie Professor of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. A former US Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to angrily fire the big guns from a battleship, in the first Gulf War in 1991. He won the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate of his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a staple on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis considers it “annoying”. The opinions expressed here are his own. Holmes also blogs at naval diplomat.


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