Deterrence is a tricky game. Military analysts will tell you that adopting a strategy of deterrence can be a lot more difficult than it sounds, and doing so requires a keen understanding of the psychology of your opponent and a willingness to think outside of the box.
According to a July 28th article from The Diplomat, the U.S. has been forced into a deterrence strategy against China in the South China Sea, but has been creative enough in its approach to date to keep the Chinese off balance.
Recent U.S. ploy in South China Sea
The U.S. got a leg up in the deterrence game with China when the recently appointed commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, joined a routine surveillance mission in the South China Sea last week. Obviously, four-star admirals do not usually participate in this kind of front line mission.
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From some perspectives, this move could be seen as confrontational and overly risky. According to the Chinese authorities, it was both “irresponsible and dangerous.”
The Diplomat argues, however, that “this was a single well-played move in an iterative and indirect competition with high stakes. The Chinese are understandably upset because it shifts the terms of the next move in their disfavor, creating a circumstance that requires them to adapt expectations.”
Author Van Jackson goes on to say that, unexpected moves such as putting a high-level U.S. commander in harm’s way, but only briefly, help maintain the status quo, which is the primary interest of the U.S. in the South China Sea.
More on deterrence as a strategy in the South China Sea
Jackson highlights that “America’s interest in the South China Sea is stability—not ownership—and the most assured path to continued stability will depend on precisely the balance Swift managed with that P-8 surveillance mission: establishing new precedents that favor the status quo while avoiding circumstances of immediate deterrence. In effect, the United States must shape the context in which future possible confrontations take place.”
Keep in mind that although the U.S. defense community places a great deal of emphasis on deterrence, “deterrence is often a loser’s game.” Jackson argues it’s akin to going to Vegas casino expecting to beat the house at blackjack; it’s theoretically possible, but the odds are stacked against you.
He goes on to explain that the threat of force as a means of convincing someone to not do something is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is not always easy to establish a credible threat to deter. Moreover, even if your opponent believes your threat, they may eventually conclude that the “balance of interests” is worth the risk of violating your deterrence. Jackson also notes that even if you do successfully deter a specific instance, you have very likely generated second-order consequences that create new challenges.
General deterrence is preferred to immediate deterrence
Jackson continues to point out that acts of immediate deterrence are sometimes necessary, and, moreover, that a general posture of deterrence (a position of strength require no specific warnings) is “a reasonable way of inducing caution in a would-be adversary.” He explains that it sometimes just boils down to resolve to fight if pushed: “When something you value is in jeopardy, appeals to community, norms, or the rule of law may be irrelevant in the heat of the moment; sometimes you just have to be willing to fight.”
As a rule of thumb, the best strategy is to avoid immediate deterrence in favor of general deterrence opportunities. That’s why Swift’s ride-along on a surveillance mission move was such a masterstroke. It was not immediate deterrence; it wasn’t “America seeking a fight,” it was long-term psychological warfare.
This kind of general deterrence helps maintain the “facts on the ground” in favor of the status quo. Given that U.S, Southeast Asian allies’ navies are simply not up to challenging the Chinese coast guard or navy. That means if one of these nation tries to push back against China’s aggressions in the South China Sea, it could end up in a confrontation it could not win militarily. The U.S. military can, however, win any confrontation, and the Chinese leadership is quite well aware of this fact despite their constant bluster.