Small Wars Journal

Deterring and Defeating Chinese Neo-Imperialism

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 8:37am

Deterring and Defeating Chinese Neo-Imperialism

Gary Anderson

China and the New Imperialism

China is waging a small war for control of the South China Sea (SCS) under the guise of protecting a ridiculous definition of its territorial waters in a manner designed to turn the SCS into a Chinese lake. She has militarized the area by using her Coast Guard to harass ships exercising the right of innocent passage and has built artificial islands in areas of disputed ownership. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Republic of the Philippines have had vessels destroyed, detained, and otherwise intimidated. If a real large-scale shooting war breaks out, China has developed an anti-access/ access denial (AA/AD) anti-navy capability built around precision strike guided by unmanned aircraft and space-based assets, submarines, and massive land-based air attack to keep the United States out of the SCS. To date, the United States has responded with freedom of navigation (FON) operations, but what is needed is a proactive and integrated approach including all elements of US national power to include diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) actions. China has opened a new era of imperialism through its actions in the SCS and in its predatory Great Belt Road initiative. This article suggests an Indo-Pacific anti-imperialist strategy designed to counter China’s overreach.

Any such strategy should address itself in four key areas:

Diplomatic. From a diplomatic standpoint, the United States needs to support our current allies, and bring new ones into the fold. American grand strategy in the Pacific region has -since World War II- been a pragmatic blend of bilateral agreements. Nations such as Japan and South Korea which don’t necessarily like each other are bound to us for purposes that serve their own national interests.

The Republic of the Philippines is the only nation currently aggrieved by Chinese bullying in the SCS with a bilateral military agreement with us, but China seems dead set on driving Malaysia and Vietnam into our arms as well. We should welcome that embrace. By crafting anti-aggression, access assurance treaties with both states, we could lay down the diplomatic framework for a political-military strategy aimed at denying China hegemony in the SCS.

Taiwan is a separate case. Both China and Taiwan currently maintain the fiction that both are part of a greater China, and a Taiwanese declaration of independence would be a red line for Beijing. However, a Red Chinese attempt to forcibly occupy Taiwan would likely result in a major regional conflict with the United States. Finding a way to ensure Taiwanese democracy and security short of instigating a declaration of independence should be part of any anti-imperialist strategy.

President Xi is making a huge mistake in retreating to the traditional policy of regarding his regional neighbors as tributaries rather than potential allies. This represents a strategic opportunity that the United States should exploit.

Information. China’s misbehavior in the SCS along with its exploitive actions in its Great Belt Road initiative which are bankrupting several African and West Asian nations also provides us with an unprecedented propaganda opportunity. This can be done world-wide by actively highlighting China when it acts as a regional and international bully as opposed to an even-handed American policy of recognizing law of the sea and non-exploitation of weaker and less prosperous nations. China is currently blaming the US for its missteps against Hong Kong, Taiwan, and its own Muslim population.

This should be contrasted with American handling of disagreements with neighbors and friends such as Mexico, Canada, and NATO allies. We have had serious disagreements, but they have been handled diplomatically rather than threats of military violence. Regarding Muslims, unlike China’s handling of indigenous Muslim populations, the United States Constitution allows elected Muslim-American officials to make statements critical of the nation and its government without fear of being arrested or muzzled. The president may criticize them, but free speech is assured. We need to highlight that difference in our information operations.

Military. The detailed military actions required to develop an anti-Imperialist strategy regarding China will be discussed later in this essay, but General David Berger in his guidance to the Marine Corps upon becoming its Commandant summed up what is needed when he stressed that America should shape the emerging strategic environment rather than merely reacting to it. One of the ways to shape that environment would be in pursuing a concept of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) which should be the military basis for the grand strategy of Asia-Pacific anti-imperialism. General Berger also mentioned EABO in his guidance document.[1]

Economic. Many experts believe that China will overtake the United States as the world’s great economic superpower in the next few decades. If that happens through fair competition, so be it; but of late, China’s economic approach has been both unfair and predatory. The Trump administration has addressed this, and successor presidents of whatever party would to well to continue to push back when China plays unfairly in the economic realm. China’s slowing growth, housing bubble, aging workforce, and non-transparent legal and banking systems may well work to impede eventual economic dominance. It is not America’s job to block China’s economic growth, but it is in our nation’s best interest to help ensure that China plays well with the other children in the world’s economic sandbox.

Crafting an Anti-Imperialist Strategic Approach

The charge of imperialism has usually been leveled at the United states and its European allies due to Nineteenth Century colonialism and US support for anti-Communist regimes during the Cold War. Asian states -with the notable exception of World War II era Japan- have usually been painted along with Africa and Latin America as victims of imperialism. China was one of the primary targets of European and Japanese imperial aspirations before the Communist takeover; since then, she has portrayed herself as the leader of the anti-imperialist movement in the emerging world. But the rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping, all that has changed.

Under Xi, China has become an international bully. The aforementioned misconduct in the SCS and along the Great Belt Road have combined with intimidation in Hong Kong and Taiwan to make China the first 21st Century neo-imperialist power. Preventing Chinese imperial overreach should be a key national security interest of the United States.

In many ways, the “new China” resembles a juvenile. She is just realizing her own potential, but she is not yet mature enough to realize how to productively employ it. Like all teenagers, if limits are not set, trouble will follow. As the leader of the free world, the United States should be the primary actor in setting those limits with a firm but fair counter-imperialist doctrine. The Trump Administration has taken actions across all elements of DIME to impose limits on China. Economic sanctions against predatory actions were a good first step in imposing such limits, but those boundaries should be formalized into a Trump Doctrine that includes all elements of DIME in an integrated approach.

One of China's most egregious forms of bullying in the SCS is her building -and then militarizing- artificial Islands around shoals barely above sea level in disputed places such as French Frigate Shoals and the Spratly Islands. This would appear to be done under the theory that presence is none-tenths of the law. In essence, they have created -to use a Cold War paraphrase- an " artificial island gap". The US could counter this by assisting our bi-lateral partners in building and defending such edifices of their own. This has problems and opportunities.

The problem is that several of our potential partners have competing claims to the same real estate. The opportunity is that, if we can help them to agree to joint use, we can set a diplomatic precedent that will further delegitimize the Chinese approach.

The Military Component of an Anti-Imperial Strategy

A good peacetime military deterrent strategy must be credible enough to successfully transition to war if peace fails. That credibility is actually critical in avoiding war. If shooting does occur, China believes that her AA/AD approach will keep the US out of the SCS giving Beijing effective control of the sea in the region by keeping vulnerable US ships -particularly aircraft carriers and amphibious vessels- at arm’s length. This is where EABO can become critical.

The precursor of EABO has been around since the turn of the Twentieth century when the Navy and Marine Corps developed an advanced base concept. During the Cold War, some naval thinkers advocated placing Marine Corps Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) at key choke points as unsinkable aircraft carriers to bottle up Soviet fleets from deploying to the open ocean.[2]

Today’s EABO concept is an updated version of the advanced base concept. It would would use forward deployed MAGTFs to defend and reinforce advanced bases using precision strike in addition to the existing assets of MAGTFs of varying sizes combined with joint forces to assist in neutralizing adversary AA/AD capabilities. This would assist in maintaining sea control while enabling follow-on offensive operations. The joint EABO concept is still a work in progress, and would likely see the MAGTF as the naval component protecting a joint forward deployed precision strike complex.

Advanced Naval Base Operations in World War II; Some Lessons. Some critics argue that an EABO approach leaves such forward advanced bases vulnerable to being isolated and overwhelmed if they cannot be quickly reinforced by mobile naval forces. There is some justification to this as demonstrated by the fate of Wake Island early in the Pacific theater during World War II; but the later battles of Midway and Guadalcanal demonstrate the other side of the risk coin.

America had advanced bases in the Pacific prior to World War II in the Pacific, and they should have been useful early in the war. They included Guam, the Philippines, Midway, and Wake Island. The assumption was that these outposts would slow and damage Japanese naval forces enough soften them up for and American battle fleet deploying from Pearl Harbor and the west coast to defeat the Japanese in the great naval battle envisioned by the Orange plan for a Pacific War.

That assumption failed for two reasons. The first was obviously Pearl Harbor where the bulk of the American battleship force was destroyed. The second is not so self- evident. In late 1941 and early 1942, the US Navy was inferior to the Japanese in naval aviation, gunnery and torpedoes. It is quite possible that if the two fleets had met in a battleship-heavy Pacific version of Jutland in early 1942 that the US force would have lost. Pearl Harbor may well have been a blessing in disguise for our navy.

In addition, the execution of advanced base defense proved to be inept in several cases. General MacArthur’s preparations for the defense of the Philippines were inadequate and he allowed his air force to be destroyed on the ground even after having had fair warning flowing the Pearl Harbor fiasco. Guam was never adequately garrisoned and fell quickly. Wake Island proved to be a tough nut for the Japanese to crack; but lacking reinforcement, it eventually fell.

Despite those setbacks, the advanced base concept did prove decisive in two major campaigns early in the war. When the Japanese finally did get around to attacking the advanced naval base at Midway, the Americans were able to scrape up enough carrier strength to fight the decisive naval battle that the Orange Plan envisioned. Midway did not end the war, but it stopped Japanese westward expansion and crippled the Japanese aircraft carrier capability. Midway was the end of the beginning in the Pacific. However, it was a close-run thing that could have gone either way had it not been for some excellent intelligence work on the part of the American side. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

In the Southwest Pacific, what we would now call a MAGTF successfully captured the weakly held island of Guadalcanal and established an advanced naval and air base aimed at blocking the Japanese thrust toward Australia. What resulted was a grinding naval campaign of attrition as described by Benjamin Jensen and Brigadier General William J. Bowers USMC in a recent article as a “cost imposition” campaign in which the Japanese lost invaluable naval and aviation assets in attempting to remove the American roadblock. Japan never recovered from Midway and Guadalcanal.[3] Although these two were naval campaigns, they involved elements of all services in a joint effort.

What is Needed to Make EABO Work?

Without the ability to protect and reinforce them, modern advanced base forces would suffer the same fate as the Philippines, Guam and Wake island in World War II in an SCS conflict with China. Unless the Chinese believe that such bases can be adequately defended, their deterrent value becomes negligible. The current Marine Corps Commandant has committed his service to making the MAGTF component of EABO truly capable, but the concept will need the support of the entire defense establishment to make it a truly credible deterrent to Chinese imperial expansion. This must include the following:

Credible Defense of Artificial Islands. Artificial Islands -if and when built- are obvious targets for precision strike. However, once built, they must be credibly defended as a deterrent in peace and to keep the SCS free from Chinese control in the event of war. Because they will be necessarily small, such bases will have to be heavily fortified. Cramming a lot of defensive troops onto a small island as the Japanese did in places like Tarawa, Eniwetok, and Iwo Jima in WWII is no longer viable; if it ever was. A MAGTF built to defend such artificial constructs would likely be heavily automated with both unmanned ground systems (UGVs) and unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in order to minimize human casualties under the threat of precision strike attack and to defend against an attempted amphibious landing. General Berger alluded to wider use of such systems in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance.[4] The extensive use of unmanned systems also offers intriguing possibilities for self-reinforcement. The advent of 3-D manufacturing opens up the possibility of replacing unmanned battle assets on-site.[5]

In addition, the reinforcement and resupply of these mini advanced bases will be a part of any joint and naval sea control campaign. Avoiding a repeat of our failure to reinforce Wake Island will be a key to success in any future SCS naval campaign, but the advantages of forcing the Chinese to expend a large amount of their AA/AD munitions on fixed installations rather than on aircraft carriers and amphibious shipping early in a conflict has enormous potential. It would prepare the battle space for more conventional naval operations as the war progresses. Reinforcement and resupply will likely require the innovative use of smaller robotized vessels and submersibles.  

Making Artificial Islands the Centerpiece of a Precision Strike System. Artificial islands would also lessen the burden on places such as Guam, Okinawa and mainland Japan for basing our strike assets in a potential SCS conflict. At the present time, too much of our naval and air power in the region resides on bases in those areas as well as on aircraft carriers as guided missile combatants and submarines. Adding an additional layer of basing would greatly complicate the Chinese AA/AD problem and give us arsenal space which will be badly needed to degrade the Chinese AA/AD complex.

Quick Reinforcement of Taiwan. Permanent US basing on Taiwan in the absence of a clear Chinese provocation would obviously be a red line that Red China could not ignore. However, the rapid reinforcement of Taiwan if China gives unambiguous signs of attack -or actually launches an invasion- is a capability that would increase both deterrence and warfighting capacity, not to mention protecting a vibrant democracy. Here again; smaller, heavily automated MAGTFs and stealthy, robotized means of reinforcement/resupply would greatly increase the challenge to mainland Chinese AA/AD and power projection capabilities.


A robust anti-imperialist strategy as a deterrent to Red Chinese aggressiveness in the SCS would serve two purposes. First, it would help deter the worst angels of mainland China’s nature. Second, it would send a strong signal to other potential maritime bad actors (read here Russia and Iran) that the United States remains a strong supporter of freedom of the sea.

End Notes

[1] Commandant’s Planning Guidance, General David Berger, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps

[2] The author wrote several articles in the 1980s advocating using MAGTFs to block Soviet naval forces at choke points in the event of war for the MARINE CORPS GAZETTE and NAVAL INSTITUTE PROCEEDINGS

[3]  World War II Battle Holds Key Lessons for Modern Warfare, Benjamin Jensen, American University School of International Service and Brig. Gen. William J. Bowers, U.S. Marine Corps, NAVY TIMES, July 25th, 2020

[4] Obviously, the primary responsibility for defense of a shoal expanded into and artificial island would rest with the nation that claims it, but none of the nations involved would have the military capability for serious defense against a Chinese attack without US support

[5] Something similar to this was recently suggested by Marine Corps LtCol Dave Pinion in this publication jrnl/art/marine-corps- postmortem


Categories: South China Sea - China

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.



Sat, 09/25/2021 - 8:11am

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