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How China is Beating the U.S. Without Firing a Shot

Sun Tzu's descendants are trying trying to achieve 'the acme of skill' in the South China Sea. Are the conditions ripe?

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said, “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” His descendants seek to do just that to the United States in the South China Sea today.

Chinese President Xi Jinping pursues a classical dimension of strategy—in which the enemy is subdued, surprisingly, through military ceremony. Such “strategy by ceremony” can achieve victories that outshine success in actual battle.

This works by substituting ritual and symbolic military acts and events in the place of decision through battle—where the enemy concedes its authority. The enemy, in other words, must agree to be “subdued” without going to war. How can this be done? These are parameters:

— The parties in conflict are peer competitors that have fought each other in the past. Neither is eager for another fight.

— The parties in conflict seek to avoid escalation to war.

— Thus, the parties can accept and adhere to informal governing protocols for military engagement at a level less than war. 

— The aggressor succeeds because it knows the other party is more motivated to avoid battle. Several factors combine to make for a willingness to submit.

— There are face-saving avenues available to disguise or ease the reality of submission—which the aggressor offers.

Such ceremonial campaigns can be as significant as any war. These three historical cases show how: 

Great Britain sustains the Confederacy and destroys the American merchant navy (1861-1872). When the U.S. split up, Britain kept the Confederate States of America going with gold and a million rifles. They built state-of-the art cruisers, manned by Jack Tars, that ripped apart Union commerce. This was guaranteed by sending Britain’s Olympian ironclads to Bermuda, sheltering blockade runners and pirates.

Prime Minister Lord Palmerston’s strategy was designed to delay the emergence of the United States as Britain’s peer competitor, with three aims. First, give the CSA the arms it needed to defeat Union armies and secure its independence. Second, failing this, keep the South fighting long enough, so that reunifying America would internally immobilize the nation for a generation. Third, destroy the American merchant fleet: Then the greatest threat to British maritime power.

Success would deal the U.S. an existential blow, without a direct confrontation. In the event, the second and third aims were achieved. Why did it work? Lincoln could not afford a second existential war, or an independent Confederacy. Plus, Britain was willing to pay for the damages (yet any monetary fine was chump change compared to the riches of a British strategic victory).

Great Britain stops the Russians from taking Constantinople. In February 1878, Russian armies were advancing on the prize city of history (and the Ottoman capital). Nothing, it seemed, could stop the Czar’s design. Then, on Valentine’s Day, appearing out of a blinding snowstorm, six battleships anchored in the Sea of Marmara. Six passé ironclads with obsolete guns stopped History.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s strategy was to keep Russia from proclaiming a new Byzantium in the Balkans. Britons were enraged by Bashi-bazouk massacres—the “Bulgarian Horrors”—and would not brook war with Russia, Bulgaria’s savior. Yet the entire British “dark state” wanted Russia brought down, and the Ottomans saved. Hence, ironclads up the Hellespont. Why did it work? Disraeli knew the Romanovs would avoid another humiliating war with Britain rather than risk great triumph in Constantinople. He managed to give both his public and ruling establishment what it wanted. All through elegant demonstration: an ironclad fist in a velvet glove. Yet he also gave Russia a face-saving way out: A commiserating, great power conference in Berlin.

A Third Reich transforms prostrate Germany into master of Europe from October 1933 to March 1939. During this time, Führer Adolph Hitler orchestrated 10 lightning, ceremonial campaigns that transfigured the European balance of power, mixing different forms of leveraged public coercion. Hortatory addresses, military displays, dramatic embassies, and urgent negotiations—always culminating, like a victorious war, in a military triumph: Without a round fired. 

Hitler’ strategy achieved more with ceremony than all Bismarck’s bloody wars. Success depended on his assessment of enemy reaction. Of the 11 ceremonial campaigns launched by the the Reich’s leader, 10 were successful (Mussolini blocked an attempted Austrian Anschluß in 1934). Hitler dismantled the European security order, restored German power, and set the Western allies up for ignominious defeat. Why did it work? Hitler knew the allies, in economic crisis, were unready to fight, but he also sensed their societies could not even begin to wrap their heads around the idea of another great war. It took the Allies six years to make the wrenching paradigm shift from “the war to end all war” to a Second World War. Hitler further delayed this shift by insisting that each concession was a step toward peace.

So, are the parameters in place for Xi Jinping to attain the acme of skill over the U.S. in the South China Sea? Let’s see:

— The U.S. and China are peers, and have fought two wars with each other since 1950. Moreover, the U.S. strategic position, like Palmerston’s Britain, is in decline. In 1861 the U.S. was rising like China, and had fought Britain twice.

— The U.S. and China have intertwined economies—like America and Britain in 1861—and both fear that disputes could escalate into a calamitous war.

— In the contest for the South China Sea, no party has damaged the “rules of the road” beyond repair—yet.

— From 2009-2017, the U.S. sought to appease China. Today, COVID-19 threatens to immobilize American society, much as Britain and France from 1933-1939.

— China can offer few face-saving options to the U.S., but has a range of options to suborn local states if U.S. tensions escalate.

Do Xi’s goals in the South China Sea fit the parameters of a ceremonial campaign? He certainly wants to turn the Sea into a Chinese lake, much as the U.S. did with the Caribbean in the 1890s. He wishes to suborn and intimidate local states into accepting Chinese maritime sovereignty and primacy of Chinese over relations in the “neighborhood,” and ultimately, undermine the U.S.-led coalition containing Chinese power over East Asian seas. Finally, he wants to overturn the Anglo-American global maritime order by undermining its international law and institutions.

China can likely achieve the first and second goals, and possibly, at great risk, the third. China can achieve the last goal only in the remote event of a U.S. world-withdrawal. Historical cases, again, offer important clues as to the state of play.

By not contesting aggressive Chinese island-building from the start, the United States under President Obama effectively conceded legitimacy to Xi’s enterprise. Likewise, the U.S. did not contest the militarization of these islands. China has now moved to phase two, in which its navy and coast guard seek to enforce sovereignty across the entire sea. Ceremonial displays and demonstrations of Chinese control could likely lead to violence and crisis.

China is positioned, however, to offer economic accommodations—essentially, pay-offs —in exchange for “pro forma” acceptance of Chinese sovereign authority. If the U.S. is unable to effectively defend Malaysian or Philippine or Vietnamese claims, without risking war, then the only course available to those countries will be to accept a Chinese pay-off. Of course American warships can go to the mat. Yet standoffs can only be pushed so far before risks spiral out of control. Can Americans stomach daily violence at sea?

The U.S.-led coalition is entering a period of great risk. If we cannot fully represent and defend our allies, they may choose to make their peace with China, on China’s terms. That means American destroyers can cruise up and down, declaiming Chinese aggression all they want. But the bitter reality will be that everyone else will be notifying the Chinese coast guard that ship X will be transiting, on this day, and along this track, and proffer whatever official applications such passage demands. How then can we reassure Japan, South Korea, and especially Taiwan, that we will, for sure, be there for them?

The truth is, our resistance to Xi is running out of options. Pursuing FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) and token military assistance to local states is the weaker ceremonial response; our Navy hand lacks Disraeli’s ironclad trump card. Effective occupation is the mortar of Chinese claims. Possession tout d’un coup will harden into sovereignty.

We can always withdraw and let our allies fend for themselves in the region. But if we want to maintain a strategic position there, we are not helpless. We have, however, squandered early opportunities to confront Xi and mobilize world institutions against the Chinese strategy, so are left with only winnowed opportunities, to be pursued at higher and higher risk:

— We can accept, and prepare for, a violent clash at sea that erupts in crisis, and work to prepare friends and allies to present a united front when it does.

— We can develop Philippine and Vietnamese naval power at a much higher level of energy and investment.

— We can work directly with Taiwan at the peak of our technology, to prevent the island from being slowly encircled by China and finally, intimidated.

— We can jointly invest in, and visibly build up, a network of island sovereignty defenses with Japan and South Korea.

From history, the U.S. position most resembles that of Britain and France in the later 1930s. We have lost the opening rounds, but the nation now is more prepared to deal with China as a strategic threat. Engaging in more aggressive ceremonial military responses tells Xi he pegged us wrong—not we, but he should be the party more motivated to avoid battle.

Michael Vlahos is a writer and author of the book Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World ChangeHe has taught war and strategy at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College and is a weekly contributor to The John Batchelor Show. Follow him on Twitter @JHUWorldCrisis