Fire on the Water: China, America and the Future of the Pacific

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Fire on the Water: China, America and the Future of the Pacific. By Robert Haddick. Naval Institute Press – £22.39. ISBN 9781 6125 1795 7.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Till

I MUST admit that when I opened the packet that plopped through my letter box and read the note that our Editor had inserted, I thought like him that this was yet another American book about the rise of the Chinese Navy and what it all meant.

Nor were we entirely wrong, since the expansion of China’s capacity to secure its interests in the Western Pacific is very much a major assumption of the book. But there’s much more to this seriously good and seriously thought-provoking book than that increasingly banal conclusion.

The author’s main preoccupation is to explore what America and its allies and partners should do about China. Robert Haddick argues that increased competition between China and America is inevitable, that the risk of war is rising, and posits four possible alternative futures for the region, which depend fundamentally on the nature of the American response to the situation.

The first possible future is a continuation of America’s forward presence and stabilising role in the region. This will be increasingly hard for Washington to sustain, unless it radically changes the way it goes about things.

The second assumes that America withdraws from the area, which then degenerates into what he calls a grim ‘Hobbesian’ situation of escalating conflict between China and its neighbours.

The third sees a process of growing economic inter–dependence, absorbing China into a cooperative rules-based Pacific community rather like the European Union writ large, but still with a stabilising US presence to some degree.

The fourth possible future assumes a US withdrawal to its own side of the Pacific ocean and the emergence of a Sinocentric hierarchical system that is, in effect, a 21st Century replay of the tributary system of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ that until the last couple of centuries characterised the region, give or take, for 2000 years.

The second of these would be the worst of all possible worlds since it would lead to the nuclearisation of the region and every prospect of catastrophic global conflict. The third, European ‘model’ future is dismissed as being completely impractical given the high level of nationalist competition in the area. The last option of a return to a traditional China centred system is what Robert Haddick thinks Beijing wants; would be unacceptable to China’s neighbours, and would imply an accretion in Chinese strategic weight that would endanger long-term American interests in much the same way as Soviet dominance of western Europe would have done.

So the first option is the only even remotely palatable one for Washington, but how to make it sustainable given the dramatic increase in China’s economic potential and its rising military capacity to deny the ‘forwards military presence’ that America’s current level of strategic engagement depends on?
Firstly, says Haddick, America should take the threat much more seriously than it has until very recently and should redress the decay in the conventional and nuclear maritime power of the United States that has resulted from it.

Secondly, the US Navy and Air Force should wean themselves away from the outmoded operational assumptions that have been in play since the end of World War II. These are characterised by a reliance on forward bases (in the shape of a few aircraft carriers and fixed airbases along the Euarasian rimland), concentrated nodes of military force, and strike forces that are overwhelmingly short-range. Chinese anti-access capabilities make all this far too vulnerable and so a poor guarantee of the ‘forward engagement’ that the US has relied on for so long.

Instead the US should move its bases out-of-range, diffuse rather than concentrate its military force and develop its capability for long range strike (in the shape, particularly, of missiles and long-range bombers). This places the author firmly in the camp of America’s military radicals with their emphasis on off-setting technology, reconnaissance and long-range precision strike complexes and networked and defended decentralisation.

The role of the Marines should be to massage the area before things turn nasty. The Navy likewise should do its bit to rally America’s allies and partners in the region and deter Chinese adventurism by withdrawing from the East and South China Seas when conflict threatens but turning it into a strategic no-mans land while holding the Second Island Chain for as long as it takes.

Robert Haddick makes his case cogently and well. His style is clear, business-like and very easy to follow – a model of clarity in fact, the author’s military-analytical background showing at every stage of the argument. But is he right? That’s for the reader to decide. Personally I thought his representation of China’s hegemonic aspirations overdrawn (not least because there is some considerable diversity of view and interest in that perplexing country about what should be the way forward) and, paradoxically, his portrayal of the way in which a China-centric solution could be opposed seems over optimistic from the US point of view.

These days, there are a instead a growing number of analysts, who think the China-centric solution in the South and East China Seas is now pretty unstoppable (for evidence of that look at the string of defeats the Philippines has suffered over the past 10 years) but that outside the first island chain, China’s policy would in any case be no more hegemonic than anyone else’s.

That being so, small countries will need to do what Thucydides and quite a few Chinese commentators recommend – accept the inevitable. Their reward will be unimpeded access to the Chinese market and regional stability – just as it was in the old days. And from the US point of view, in practical and realistic terms, what would be so bad about that? Sufficiently accommodating but still powerful medium-power buffer states – Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia – could still hold the deterrent line against an over-mighty China when supported by a long-range US Navy and Air Force.

I am not for one moment suggesting that this view is right and Haddick’s wrong – merely that some of these less apocalyptic future outcomes, both political and military, deserve more treatment than they get. Nonetheless with this quite slight caveat, Fire on the Water is strongly recommended. It is, quite simply, one of the most interesting and clearly argued books on the subject I have read for a very long time. These are views that need to be thought about seriously even if not, in the end, fully accepted.

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