Like the opening moves on a hundred million square kilometer chess board, great and smaller naval powers have once again begun to maneuver for Indian Ocean and Western Pacific naval infrastructure. The Southeast Asian underdogs in this match are outgunned and outspent so creativity is the order of the day. As various nations modernize and build up combat forces in the Pacific, it is worthwhile to examine alternatives to conventional naval power which could be used to thwart any real or perceived PRC threat. For an illustration of this creativity using irregular warfare, see this article penned by NWC Professor James R. Holmes analyzing an idea to establish a Vietnamese naval militia in order to defend the Paracels. Here, J. Noel Williams suggests another alternative to a new bilateral naval arms race.
China is surrounded by littoral nations interested in balancing China’s new assertiveness. We should look for ways to establish co-binding relationships with these nations to assure sovereign access to the region beyond the more easily challenged access to the commons. The threshold for China to strike these sovereign nations is certainly higher than the threshold to attack our warships in the commons. We should make use of this advantage by encouraging the use of “dual use” infrastructure that would improve their port facilities for commerce but would also facilitate the use of these ports for basing or periodic use by our sealift and combatant naval forces. For example, a large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship from a maritime prepositioning squadron would show commitment while offering tangible benefits for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the host country or the region.Conversely, China is building up her own strategic "dual use" infrastructure across the Indian Ocean. This "string of pearls" can be put at risk through irregular warfare. In keeping with Professor Holmes’ war of the flea theme, Mao also argues to “attack dispersed, isolated enemy forces first; attack concentrated, strong enemy forces later.” An illustration of an isolated force is Myanmar, a strategically important country to the Chinese, who rely on the Strait of Malacca as a narrow thoroughfare for 80% of their petroleum imports. Planned pipelines will move millions of tons of crude oil and billions of cubic feet of natural gas from Myanmar to China, circumventing the need to transit the Strait. This infrastructure represents a vulnerability to China for those countries who might consider warfare via surrogates – of which there are several possibilities in Burma – or other indirect means. Similarly, weaker nations might focus on the former East India Company outpost Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which has been discussed as a possible terminus for the Trans-Asian railway, another means for China to mitigate its shipping risk.
IW presents numerous other opportunities to those countries - including the United States - who wish to dissuade any PRC hegemonic intentions without bankrupting themselves in the process. How else could under-resourced countries confront major naval powers via unconventional means?