The Senkaku paradox: Preparing for conflict with the great powers

A part of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku isles in Japan, Diaoyu in China, is seen in the East China Sea in this aerial view photo taken in October, 2010. A member of Japan's Coast Guard admitted on Wednesday putting a video of a collision between a Chinese trawler and Japanese patrol boats on the Internet , a development that could hurt efforts to mend bilateral ties. Relations between Asia's biggest economies have chilled since September, when Japan detained the Chinese skipper of the fishing boat after it crashed into Coast Guard ships near disputed isles in the East China Sea. REUTERS/Kyodo (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - GM1E6BA1HB901
Editor's note:

Contemplating a scenario where China and Russia seize territory of marginal importance triggering applicable defense treaties, Washington needs better, less escalatory, and, thus, more credible options, writes Michael O’Hanlon. This piece was originally published by The Hill.

Since roughly 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and China solidified its push to militarize the South China Sea, Washington has been abuzz with worry about war against one or even both of these nuclear-armed behemoths.

The Obama administration’s “Third Offset” strategy and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s 2018 National Defense Strategy made deterrence of great-power threats the nation’s top military planning priority for the first time since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.

But over what issues might war against Russia or China really erupt? While it is important to take many scenarios seriously, an outright Russian invasion and annexation of a Baltic state or a Chinese enforcement of its claims to the entire South China Sea or attempted takeover of Taiwan, seem quite unlikely.

Beijing and Moscow probably understand that the United States and allies could never tolerate such brazen acts; war would almost surely follow.

However, what about smaller efforts to nibble away at the existing world order that Beijing and Moscow often find objectionable? What if China decided to land forces on one of the eight Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea?

These remote rocks are claimed by both Japan and China, uninhabited and effectively worthless except for surrounding fishing waters, but they are covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, as President Obama and Secretary Mattis have both publicly reaffirmed in recent years.

Or, what if Russia decided to fabricate a “threat” to native Russian speakers in a small town in eastern Estonia or Latvia to create a pretext for “little green men” to swoop in (perhaps bloodlessly) to save the day? Scenarios involving the Philippines or other countries can be imagined, too.

Why would Moscow or Beijing consider such actions? China or Russia might like the idea of sowing their hegemonic oats and getting back at neighbors they have not forgiven for past events.

But Moscow’s or Beijing’s real purpose might be to weaken American alliance systems, and with them the U.S.-led global order, so as to increase its own power and dominance, especially in regions near its borders.

For example, a Russian grab of just one small Baltic town could be expected to throw the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance into existential crisis.

Some member nations would likely seek nonmilitary solutions to the threat, whereas others might favor a prompt military response—with the ensuing debate casting into doubt the whole purpose of the alliance. 

The state of military technology and expected trends in future innovation compound the problem. Deployment of large U.S.-led military force packages into the lion’s den near China’s coasts or into the Baltic regions of Europe near Russia is becoming a harder proposition to entertain.T

The spread of the type of precision technology that the United States once effectively monopolized accounts for much of the reason why. The problem is exacerbated by other new or imminent weapons:

  • miniaturized robotics that function as sensors or even weapons, individually or in swarms;
  • small satellites that could function as clandestine space mines against larger satellites;
  • homing anti-ship missiles and various types of superfast hypersonic missiles in general; and
  • threats to computer systems from both traditional human-generated hacking and artificial intelligence (AI)-generated algorithms.

No mid-sized U.S. defense buildup can likely reverse these dynamics.

A scenario of the type sketched above would create a huge dilemma for the United States and allies—a situation I call the “Senkaku Paradox.” Mutual-defense treaty commitments under Article V of both the NATO and U.S.-Japan treaties would appear to commit Washington to defend or liberate such allied territory.

Yet, that could lead to direct war with a nuclear-armed great power over rather insignificant stakes. A large-scale U.S. and allied response could seem massively disproportionate. But a non-response would be unacceptable and invite further aggression.   

Washington needs better, less escalatory, and, thus, more credible options for such limited but serious scenarios. They should not formally displace existing policy, under which there is a strong implication of prompt U.S.-led military action to liberate any allied territory that might be attacked or seized by an aggressor.

This current policy may have deterrence benefits, as well as reassurance benefits for allies, so it should not be formally scrapped. But such commitments may not be fully credible. They also may not give U.S. and allied policymakers sufficiently flexible and smart options in the event of deterrence failure.

The right kind of response would have four main elements:

  1. Reinforcement of U.S. and allied military positions near the point of initial Russian or Chinese attack to deter any further aggression.
  2. A prompt buildup in the size (and cost) of overall U.S. military forces so as to make such new deployments sustainable, unless the crisis were resolved quickly.
  3. A strategy for economic war that applied a mix of sanctions tailored to the scale of the initial attack, including:
    1. a possible mix of broad-based tariffs;
    2. targeted sanctions against the assets and movements of individuals and companies most involved in the attack;
    3. sectoral sanctions against high-tech industries to slow Russia’s or China’s future economic growth; and
    4. possibly financial sanctions as well.
  4. If the aggression continued or intensified, consideration of asymmetric military attacks against Chinese or Russian interests in other theaters such as the Persian Gulf where the United States and allies have enjoyed preeminence and escalation dominance.

Some would view such a strategy, which sought not to fire the first shot against Russia or China as long as possible, as irresolute or weak. It would not be. It would, however, be patient — concerned less about promptly reversing an initial aggression than at ensuring it was punished and that it did not metastasize.   

Adoption of this strategy requires a modest number of near-term actions as well. The U.S. and allies need to be better prepared for possible economic war, particularly against China.They can do so by taking steps to bolster its national defense stockpiles of key minerals and metals (many of which today come primarily from China) and ensuring that their dependence on China within global supply chains for key technologies not exceed a specified percent.

Europe also needs to continue to improve its infrastructure for importing liquefied natural gas as a backup in case energy imports from Russia are interrupted in a future crisis.

In military terms, the U.S. also needs to improve and increase its capabilities in areas such as long-range strike and stealth, hypersonic weapons, missile defense and nonlethal weapons of the type that might be used to incapacitate oil tankers bound for Chinese shores (for example).   

In the new age of great-power rivalry, it is time to get more creative, and more granular, about how we prepare for war—so as to make deterrence more effective and prevent war in the first place.

For the kinds of scenarios considered here, insisting on prompt liberation of the notional small Estonian town or uninhabited Senkaku island after enemy attack could, in effect, destroy the village to save it. Such a direct counterattack might also greatly increase the danger of escalation, including to nuclear war.A Russia or China that found itself decisively losing a conventional conflict might choose to create nuclear risks or even utilize nuclear weapons tactically, in the hope of changing the conflict’s course.

But fortunately, we have good options that avoid the Catch-22 of risking either nuclear war over small stakes on the one hand and appeasement and an ensuing weakening of the global order on the other.