Monday, December 01, 2014

What About Our Malacca Dilemma?

Yes, China has a "Malacca Dilemma" of securing oil imports during all-out war. But don't forget that we have our own Malacca Dilemma in conflict that falls short of all-out war with China.

China has a "Malacca Dilemma:

At the heart of the challenge of ensuring energy security is ‘the Malacca Dilemma’. Chinese President Hu Jintao recognised the strategic significance of the Malacca Dilemma in November 2003 noting that “certain powers have all along encroached on and tried to control navigation through the [Malacca] Strait.” [3] The significance of the Malacca Strait is that 80% of China’s energy (in addition to much of its trade) moves through a waterway that at its narrowest point is only 1.7 miles across.

But the notion that some say follows from this geographic choke point is nonsense:

In a recent debate over the effectiveness of the US ‘AirSea Battle’ concept, Thomas Hammes suggested a strategy of Offshore Control that proposes a distant blockade on China and notes that the United States “…could prevent the passage of large cargo ships and tankers. In doing so, it would cripple China’s export trade, which is essential to China’s economy.” [6] The strategy highlights the importance of the Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda straits, and ensuring routes north and south of Australia were controlled such that “these shipments could be cut off”.

It is nonsense because it restricts our only real option of resisting China to enforcing a blockade that assumes all-out general war is the form of any conflict with China.

Remember, if we cease attempts to make sure we can penetrate China's anti-access forces to operate near China, a reliance on exploiting the Malacca Dilemma means that we must immediately escalate to the total war measure of blockade should China seize some territory in the East China or South China Seas, perhaps Taiwan itself--or do nothing.

Is that what we want to do? Have a pre-war 1914 German strategy that assumes total two-front war with the initial offensive aimed at France even if France is not involved in the war-threatening crisis?

If we want to keep our alliances among nations close to China outside of our Malacca defense line, those nations close to China will notice they are on the wrong side of another multi-dashed line:

A blockade can take place well away from China's land-based anti-ship weapons and away from much of China's navy that can't operate away from shore-based air defense umbrellas.

But if the war isn't just a US-China clash, and instead involves a fight with US allies in the shadow of China's power--such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, or the Philippines--we will have no choice but to get close to China (with more than subs, mines, and long-range strikes for a "close" blockade to support a "distant" blockade) and fight for access to our allies in order to help them defend themselves.

In those circumstances, a blockade strategy can only complement our approach to China to directly fight the Chinese. Otherwise, we'd just be abandoning our allies to hope we can starve China into giving back whatever they take while we stand off far from shore.

And they'll make deals with China if they believe our power is insufficient to help them defy China:

But for all those neighbors to be willing to stand up to China's power, they have to be confident that we have the power and determination to use it against China and to be confident that other potential partners won't stop absorbing some of China's power by making deals with China to ally with Peking. If these countries don't have confidence that we will help them, they'll cut a deal with China to protect themselves and turn away from us.

So we have to be careful about maintaining our power in the Pacific and maintaining our reputation for supporting allies and fighting until we win. If any nation, like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, or Vietnam think that they can't count on us for effective military support, they'll withdraw from the potential balancing coalition against China. And once one country defects, the power potential arrayed against China will drop enough to perhaps push another country to defect and align with China rather than with us.

Thus, even a reduction in our military power that may seem marginal to us could be what tips the system against us in a cascade of defections, causing a dramatic drop in coalition power arrayed against China, and denying us the capability of operating in the western Pacific. Instead of being a rear base to support our allies against China, Guam would become an outpost as we are pushed back to the Aleutians-Hawaii line for our line of defense against Chinese naval power.

So don't forget that we have a Malacca Dilemma, too. If we defend only outside that strait, we'll guarantee that eventually we have nothing to defend closer to China.

As an aside, the article notes that China's anti-ship ballistic missiles could be fired south and not just east against our carrier battle groups.