The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes

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The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes by Michael E. O’Hanlon. Brookings Institution Press, 2019, 258 pp.

In the event of a limited incursion by Russia or China against a small and seemingly unimportant piece of a US ally’s territory, what would Washington do? It could choose inaction, which might jeopardize the United States’ reputational interests and potentially unhinge the same global order it has helped sustain since 1945. Or the US-led alliance could embark on a counteroffensive campaign and risk a nuclear conflict over a small piece of territory, even though there may be little to no strategic value warranting such a gamble. Are there other viable options? The Senkaku Paradox by Dr. Michael E. O’Hanlon, in both its narrative and theoretical frameworks, confronts this specific problem.

With an extensive background in military and strategic policies, and as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dr. O’Hanlon is no stranger to US national security and the challenges associated with its extended deterrence posture. The Senkaku Paradox does not attempt to deliver a comprehensive blueprint capable of solving all the United States’ deterrence posture issues in Asia and Europe. Rather, it proposes a pragmatic solution combining the economic and military tools of statecraft—a strategy meant to reduce the possibility of blunders that could lead to great power war over a so-called small stake.

Essentially, the crux of O’Hanlon’s thesis is that the US emphasis on offensive and counteroffensive military maneuvers is inherently too escalatory and costly to deter “limited acts of aggression.” Instead, this emphasis creates inherent doubts regarding the credibility of the US security commitment and the efficacy of its deterrence posture. As for “small stakes,” these are territories or assets that possess little strategic significances but are high in political values. In the event of deterrence failure, the United States would require a wide variety of methods to produce desirable outcomes. This argument seems similar to the Kennedy administration’s debate on the adoption of the “flexible response” strategy versus the Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” doctrine. The concern back then was over the nuclear parity between East and West. Modern concerns focus on the fast-approaching economic and conventional parity, which are both prominent features and important topics of discussion throughout the book.  

There are two appendices in The Senkaku Paradox that should merit particular attention from those interested in the art of defense analysis. Their location in the book, however, feels out of place in regards to the flow of information. Perhaps a more ergonomic way for the reader to capture the available information would be to read each appendix before its associated chapter.  For example, one might read “The So-Called Revolution in Military Affairs, 2000–20” before chapter 2, and then read “Forecasting Change in Military Technology, 2020–40” in conjunction with chapter 3.

The highlights of this book lie in the author’s vision of future conflicts and his recommendations for reducing the probability of unnecessary escalations. O’Hanlon’s most notable proposal is that of incorporating the two pillars of deterrence, punishment and denial, into a strategy called “asymmetric defense.” The denial aspect of his proposal calls for a gradual build-up of a military bulwark near a site of initial aggression, meant to dispel any appetite for further expansion. The punishment aspect would simultaneously integrate military and economic instruments of warfare to compel the aggressor into abandoning the occupied territory. The idea would be to incorporate economic tools into existing operations plans and contingency measures; this would be accomplished by embedding economic experts from a variety of US governmental institutions into planning teams at various COCOMs. The overarching intent of O’Hanlon’s thesis is to create additional time and space for diplomacy needed to induce a compromise before the situation escalates beyond its initial scope.     

For the most part, the author has done an excellent job of identifying a potential gap in US efforts to deter aggression across all spectrums. However, there are two potential fallacies in the book’s main argument. The first is the lack of definition on what Washington would consider a “limited act of aggression” and how to communicate this delineation to allies and potential adversaries. On one hand, deterrence rests on the ability of the aggressor to understand what, exactly, the defender is going to do. On the other hand, there is also value in the stability provided by a strategically ambiguous posture. While O’Hanlon’s recommendation is neither risk-free nor the cheapest strategy to pursue, it is still much less costly and dangerous than a kinetic great power conflict. However, is it not the absurdity of this devastating outcome that keeps Russia and China turning the author’s fear to reality?

The second fallacy is assuming that the United States, China, and Russia would agree over what to consider small stakes. While it is believable, to a certain degree, that the intent of these “limited acts of aggression” would be to weaken trust in the United States’ security commitment and to solidify Russia’s or China’s regional dominance, it is difficult to assess if Moscow or Beijing would take that leap of faith in assuming how Washington would react. Perhaps, their interests in controlling territory are much larger than what the United States perceives. This makes the argument of small stakes less substantial. 

The Senkaku Paradox is neither science fiction nor an outcry to displace existing policies. It instead offers an interesting “third avenue” that marries the economic and military instruments of national power in the DIME model. Even though it is difficult to fathom how directly the United States could actually act upon the author’s recommendations, readers should nevertheless be inspired by the conversation this book attempts to start. It is a worthy book for those with an eye toward future conflict scenarios in policy, intelligence, or operational capacities across the US government.

Capt James H. V. To, USAF







"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."