Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific

  • Published

Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific. 2nd revised edition, by Robert J. Haddick. Naval Institute Press, 2022, 320 pp.

Robert Haddick’s Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific is a retrospective as well as prospective look at the United States, China, and its surrounding nations and their foreign policies. Originally published in 2014, this second revised edition takes a rather foreboding look at the East Asian subcontinent, especially its coastlines. Though rather dry and often repetitive, the book reads as a bit of a mindbender as it compels readers to recall if the predictions the author identified in the first edition have in fact come true for both sides and to consider what the current repercussions of those truths are.

A visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Haddick pulls from his years of service as a former US Special Operations Command contractor and former US Marine Corps officer. Throughout the book, Haddick raises many ideas that run counter to his own but discusses their fallacies as well as their legitimate points. He supports his arguments with many sources—including previous white papers and historical speeches as well as past events—to prove his theories that America needs to strengthen its stance and speed up its use and creation of new technology. He points out that creative collaborations with nations bordering China or otherwise geographically within—or in danger of—its ring of influence are needed. This is not only to strengthen those countries or deter China by the United States’ presence, but also to help US public perception of the United States’ status in the region. By wielding its humanitarian arm, the Department of Defense can open doors and minds in ways that cannot be done by combat maneuvers alone.

One of the book’s surprising aspects was the author’s point about keeping the enemy close at the table rather than outside of the discussion. He argues that the United States needs to ensure China’s presence at some of the summits and exercises along with the surrounding nations with whom it partners, not only to prove US presence and to ensure buy-in from the other countries, but also to assure those nations that the United States is not trying to take away any of their legitimate territory or trade access.

Haddick makes the ominous argument that in the future, air superiority will be nonexistent. Even on the water, power will be kept to denial of access. The way previous wars have been fought will no longer work in this new era of greater technology, treaties that hamstring the United States’ capability to create and evolve long-range missiles, and an ever-increasing dependence on the realm of space for communication. He argues that the increasing use of high tech in many fields means that the United States cannot maintain the status quo. What worked during the Vietnam War or even Afghanistan will not work in an all-out battle with China, a vast and diversely-equipped nation. Haddick contends that the dollars need to be allocated now for longer range aircraft and the capabilities of those aircraft. In addition, the Navy will need to make significant progress in the delivery of those aircraft and the use of seapower in general. Haddick further asserts that at some point, ideas of non-engagement will only result in future large-scale engagement and that military strength and communication can help ease tensions and mitigate some of the acts that might provoke larger scale aggression.

One of the most interesting concepts he uses throughout the book is the idea of “salami-slicing”—China’s efforts in past decades of claiming new pieces of territory or undermining a nation’s sovereignty in ways that were small or subtle enough it did not raise that nation’s ire or did not cause other nations to feel the need to step in. Over the years, seemingly inconsequential islands and atolls that used to be claimed by other nations—are now under the direct control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and are actually being built up for military use, slowly swallowed up by China, whose area of dominance steadily increases. Surrounding nations are having to play a dangerous game of balancing on a tightrope: not allying with the West too closely so as to anger the PRC, but also strengthening ties with those nations that will push back on PRC aggression. In addition, civilian targets have increasingly become under threat such that the simple act of fishing in certain waters can get one in trouble. The United States has strong alliances with friendly nations such as Japan, India, and Australia, but such ties by no means will save it from further involvement in some way with China’s communist regime. In response, Haddick suggests various ways to undermine China’s advances while maintaining lines of communication to avoid provoking the nation into adverse action.

Clearly an avid historian and an advocate for learning from the past, the author provides many examples of past battles to demonstrate how war was once waged, and then analyzes their fallacies or weak points to suggest changes for the future. He explores areas of soft power and diplomacy and not just longer-range missiles. In return, readers are asked to not rest on the laurels of yesterday’s victories or even to rely on today’s doctrines or white papers but to open their minds to the reality of China’s growing threat and venture forth with a new perspective.

Fire on Water will not hold everyone’s attention on every page, but its message certainly needs to be taken seriously. The threat of China’s military aggression will not disappear, and steps need to be taken and discussions had on how to contain it. The lessons of the past and current events combine to show that change is happening, and it is incumbent upon the United States as a nation to rise to meet this change. Haddick suggests that by being flexible and not remaining entrenched in old and outdated doctrine, the United States can hopefully continue to avert and then eventually successfully confront China’s military force. As an officer in the Air Force, I find it sobering to see where our weaknesses lie but also heartening to understand that there are real answers to a way ahead. We just need leaders to be courageous enough to pave the way.

Major Rachel J. Stevenson, 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."