‘Fire on the Water’, an important book for strategists
14 Jan 2015|

9780870210532Young strategists are often in the market for book recommendations. Though I’m not particularly inclined to write reviews, I’d strongly recommend Robert Haddick’s Fire on the Water: China, America and the future of the Pacific to those interested in big-picture strategic issues in the Asia-Pacific. This may be the most important book to read this year; Fire on the Water has already had a powerful influence in policy circles in the US. If future policy decisions were to follow Haddick’s logic and recommendations, we’d see new opportunities to move the strategic debate forward and strengthen US and allied strategy.

Haddick does three things remarkably well in this book. First, he answers the question, ‘Why are the South and East China Seas so important to strategy?’ Though many other authors have done this and it seems obvious to those involved in strategy, Haddick’s work stands out because he writes in a style readily comprehensible to the non-strategist while still speaking to strategy and policy professionals. Haddick explains China’s ‘salami slicing’ and its investment in military hardware that exploits the vulnerabilities of US and allied military power.

Second, Haddick addresses the major theories and strategic recommendations that have effectively played a part in the discourse over US and Chinese strategy. He’s both eloquent and concise in explaining the different perspectives on China’s rise, but also highly critical. For example, Haddick discusses Christopher Layne’s prescription for ‘off-shore balancing’ and also takes on Australia’s own Hugh White. Haddick criticises White’s China Choice for its ‘overly optimistic assumptions’. Though Haddick praises White for demonstrating that the current US-led status quo is unsustainable, he concludes that ‘White’s attempts at accommodating China would achieve little good while inflicting great harm’. According to Haddick, Layne’s and White’s proposals would result in the ‘descent into a multisided, Hobbesian security competition resembling pre-WWI instability that finally resulted in great power war’. (Readers interested in this debate might want to read White’s China Choice and Layne’s The Peace of Illusions, the better to understand the authors’ different perspectives.)

Finally, Haddick offers his own cogent strategic policy recommendation for a US competitive strategy with a surprising and welcome level of detail and specifics. Though one may not agree with Haddick’s conclusions, the reader will come away with an appreciation of the different schools of thought. He argues that the US must make significant changes that’ll challenge the national security establishment and encourage allies and partners, like Australia, to play a key role in ensuring the peaceful rise of China through credible deterrence. According to Haddick, the US must adopt a competitive strategy, which uses the strengths of the US and its allies against China’s vulnerabilities and specifically seeks to shape the decisions of the Chinese leadership.

Unfortunately, the recommendations put forth by Haddick face institutional barriers within the organisational cultures and systems of the US defence bureaucracy, which are similar to those faced in Australia. Recent US responses such as the Asia Pacific rebalance, have stumbled because they continue to expend defence resources against China’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. Haddick rejects the US military’s Air-Sea battle concept and calls for investing more in long-range strike weapons and less in large vulnerable platforms like carriers and expensive fighters that are the darlings of the defence acquisition community. Haddick’s recommendations are remarkably similar to those described in the third offset and include the ‘rebirth of land based naval strike warfare capability’ (something we’ve previously discussed at ASPI, here and here).

Fire on The Water will certainly not be well received by everyone in the Australian defence community. Those who reject the logic of a strong US alliance will feel that it misses the point and argue against its premise and its assumptions. Still, many strategists believe that the South and East China Seas are to world order in 2015 as the Balkans were in 1910. While the US alliance remains a central part of Australian strategic policy, Haddick’s recommendations will matter to Australia.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. These are his personal views. Image courtesy of the book’s publisher, USNI.