Michael O'Hanlon on "The Senkaku Paradox"
Cory Diamond CMC '20 interviewed Michael O'Hanlon on Feb 17, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. O'Hanlon on behalf of Brookings Institution.
What is the Senkaku Paradox, and what makes situations like Senkaku dangerous?
It's a general problem in international relations when countries face a limited challenge to their interests but also feel that all-out war—or even the risk of all-out war—would not be commensurate with the stakes. Sometimes the stakes are as simple as national pride or personal pride of a leader. Other times, though, there’s a more legitimate worry that if you give an inch you might end up giving a mile. The dynamic between Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler at Munich in 1938 is a classic example. But at this point in time, there's a new dimension. Russia and China have begun probing attacks over pieces of territory that they don't particularly care about for its own sake. That said, they would love for a small act of limited aggression to put the US in a conundrum with one of its allies. In these situations, what is at stake is not worth the threat of war, but the US giving in a little bit may embolden the adversary to take even more.
Thus there's an inclination to fight over very small pieces of territory, like the Senkaku Islands, because it’s important to be resolute in their defense. That mentality, which is partly logical and understandable, could lead the US into a conflict. China and Russia don't care about the Senkaku islands, but they would like to weaken commitments like the US-Japan Alliance or NATO Alliance by finding a wedge issue that one of the allies finds important, but others do not. This could leave the alliance itself in a paralyzed state. I worry that there's a higher probability of this sort of attack than we recognize.
The stakes are also different, because in the Cold War, the worry was about the Soviet’s expansionist Communist ideology. Any place we gave them would have emboldened them to take more. And so we felt it was necessary to face them down in Berlin or Cuba or Korea. But the dynamic is different now because Russia doesn’t have that same type of expansionist ideology. Now it is more interested in chipping away at the credibility of our alliances, and our psychological preparation has not adjusted to this new reality. In the modern day, without understanding the intent and proper response to probing attacks, we could easily find ourselves confused and end up either doing too little or too much in response to a calculated attack designed to test our alliances.
In my book, I examine this kind of scenario head on in order to understand the mentality of the countries that use these strategies. I propose how a conflict could begin, why it would be dangerous, and if there are ways for the US to show resoluteness without having to fire the first shots in a direct superpower confrontation. If we rely on drawing first blood, we may lose our alliances, especially NATO, over a limited crisis. Alternatively, we may accidently wind up in an escalating shooting war over uninhabited rocks or another equally insignificant piece of territory. But there are other ways to show our resoluteness without risking war quite so immediately and directly. The paradox is that we're risking all-out war over very limited stakes, stakes that we ourselves recognize as limited! However, we've gotten ourselves into this conundrum where our obligations to our alliances lead to that sort of response.
What territorial advantages and disadvantages does the US face when responding to adversarial great power aggression, considering that these scenarios are likely going to be near the borders of Russia and China?
Part of the idea behind my approach is that we would not necessarily have to respond with military force right away, unlike some of the national military strategies of the Trump administration. That approach involves slowing an enemy assault before the enemy can consolidate its position. That strategy is reasonable if the attack was on, say, the main islands of Japan. In response to a Senkaku scenario, I would prefer not to shoot at all in the first incident. But this does not preclude bringing trip-wire forces there later to ensure the aggression doesn't go any further.
The concern is less about being able to stop or reverse an initial attack and more about trying to make sure it doesn't go too much further. For instance, in the Senkaku Islands, our forces are quickly deployable and capable of occupying other islands in the chain. We could also increase over time the deployment of the 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific Waterways, but not necessarily with the purpose of reversing the aggression.
You propose that the US needs a new strategy to deal with relatively small-scale incidents in order to avoid being pulled into an unwanted and ill-advised conflict. What are the benefits of integrated deterrence over a more aggressive military approach?
Integrated deterrence, as I use it, is the concept of using economics as your main punitive tool. Direct military force is thus reserved as a way to prevent things from getting worse. In this strategy, economic measures are the hammer and the military is the anvil against which you do the hammering, but is not itself applying force. In the book I go into the details about options for economic pressure and which kinds of sanctions will have the intended punitive effects. It depends on the scenario. Since it would be tedious--and impossible--to anticipate the particulars of every scenario, the book outlines the functioning of the Chinese and Russian and global economies and categorizes different types of sanctions in order to have basic framework to apply to a given situation.
Are you concerned about economic sanctions having the potential to escalate a Senkaku type situation?
Yes. But sanctions are applied slowly and take effect gradually over a longer time period. Since the conversation happens much more slowly, it is more amenable to cool headed thinking for all parties involved. This allows for the bureaucracies in the relevant countries to develop alternative options and potential compromises. I’m not necessarily saying that leaders are going to choose to de-escalate given time, but they are going to have the capability to figure out how to de-escalate if they want. In contrast to shooting wars, where everything happens so fast—especially now, in the era of cyber—the pace of sanctions can help slow down the action.
Kinetic incidents are dangerous because they force actors into operating out of fear, despite the possibility that their warning systems are malfunctioning or compromised, and despite imperfect information, and other unknowns. With the pace of the action in shooting confrontations, you don't have time to double check. It’s hard to overstate how dire these dynamics can be in a crisis. But you don’t quite get these issues with an economic sanctions policy. I suppose the closest equivalent with economic warfare would be trying to hoard supplies before you're cut off. But even that's going to happen over a period of weeks and months rather than seconds and minutes. Just the fact that the time horizon is so much slower means that economic warfare is inherently less risky than kinetic warfare. It is also essential to recognize that most aspects of economic warfare are reversible, but killing people is not. So although it’s true that economic warfare can itself develop escalatory dynamics, it's an entirely different kettle of fish from actual warfare.
How can the US ensure that it maintains a capacity for credible threats when Russia and China know that the US is pursuing a strategy for non-escalation?
I’m not necessarily advocating for non-escalation, but just not escalation in military terms. If I were the US, I would be more than happy to hound China economically for years if it seized the Senkaku Islands, even though I don't care about the Senkaku Islands at all.
Certain challenges warrant a substantial response in order to demonstrate resoluteness. I put it this way in the book: if there were an economic benefit to the possession of the Senkaku Islands, we could calculate it. And then if the Chinese took one of the islands, I would be in favor of punishing them five or ten times more than the value of whatever the interest is taken. I would rather carry out the punishment in economic terms, though. So it's not really a de-escalatory strategy. It's just trying to avoid the military response as long as possible. And at some point, Russia and China are actually going to have to start firing the first shot themselves, because one part of the response would be to fortify a forward defense position to prevent further aggression.
It would depend on the scenario, but with the case of the Senkaku Islands, if the Chinese took one of them, then I would favor putting US and Japanese forces on the other seven islands in the chain and increasing the patrols of the area. If the situation were Russia taking a small town in eastern Estonia whose inhabitants are primarily Russian speaking, then I would favor putting NATO forces in the nearby towns.
To broaden on the Russia case, I would dribble in the NATO forces slowly, avoiding the escalatory optics of coming in with a huge tank column. The intent is not to provoke escalation, but to develop a posture such that Russia couldn't do this to second or third or fourth town. The overall concept is that you use your military force in the first instance, not to punish the aggression and not to take back the seized territory, but to limit the potential for subsequent aggression.
As we move into 2020, what are the best steps the US can take to prepare for an escalatory war now or in the future?
One necessary step is to have these types of conversations in leadership circles such as Indo-Pacific Command, European Command, Central Command, NATO headquarters and among the parties of the US-Japan alliance. Beyond this mental preparation is the economic preparation for things like having national defense stockpiles of critical materials that are necessary to survive a certain amount of economic warfare. Another part is limiting our dependence on China, in particular for any kind of crucial commodities without which our economy could not thrive. By reducing these dependencies, if we do end up in an escalating economic war with China, we can ensure that we are at least in a position to tolerate pressures to our economy for as long as they can, if not longer. Some of this would entail looking at our economic dependencies right now, particularly on China. But in the case of Russia, Western Europe is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy, and thus we need to make progress in giving Western Europe other options for energy. For example, I would use NATO infrastructure funds to subsidize the construction of liquid natural gas terminals so there are more options for Europe to get energy, in the event of Russian supplies being cut off.
Depending on the scenario, I propose some asymmetric military response options such as interfering with shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf to make it harder for China to access oil. If, for instance, China attacked Taiwan, or imposed a naval blockade of the island, I would suggest rather than directly defending Taiwan, we try alternative measures to put the economic squeeze on China. But this strategy is not going to work as well in the future. China is already trying to mitigate this vulnerability. The reason it's doing so is because it has the vulnerability right now. We need to have military options that could look to a different theater, ideally further from the homeland of China or Russia, should we decide that we have to respond militarily. Likewise, I would prefer to engage against specific aspects of their economic dependencies, rather than against large formations of Chinese or Russian military personnel or civilians. Under this model, we would use military force asymmetrically as a way to reinforce the punishment that comes with sanctions, as opposed to being used to seize territory or to destroy enemy combat units.
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