I have an extended feature at the Diplomat on American grand strategy and the Battle of Java Sea. This represents my effort to find some sort of happy ground between “offshore balancing” and “deep engagement,” by combining one word from each and connecting the argument to an obscure historical event.
America is in the throes of yet another debate about grand strategy, with terms like “deep engagement” and “offshore balancing” coming to characterize complex sets of policies towards allies and antagonists alike. Although the precise nature of the terms varies along with the preference of the author, Deep Engagement advocates tend to prefer robust, forward deployed U.S. military capability of the sort that we currently enjoy. Advocates of offshore balancing argue that the United States can significantly draw down its military and political commitments and rely on normal balance of power politics to ensure that no state gains complete control over the Eurasian landmass.
“Avoid another Pearl Harbor,” recently amended to “avoid another 9/11” has animated U.S. security strategy since World War II. It might be more useful to think of grand strategy as a way to avoid another Battle of Java Sea. Predominance is one way to accomplish this; if the United States can defeat any enemy without the assistance of a coalition, then the coalition becomes militarily superfluous. But predominance is expensive, and often convinces allies to shirk their own commitments.
Offshore balancing certainly may force U.S. allies to pick up the slack, increasing defense expenditures to match the perceived Chinese threat. Together, forces nominally allied with the United States could conceivably outmatch the PLAN and PLAAF in material terms. But offshore balancing runs the risk of creating conditions that would allow a repeat of the Battle of Java Sea, where a single committed opponent managed to outwit and outfight a coalition on strategic, operational, and tactical grounds. Despite its material advantage, the ABDA never worked out a strategic conception that could concentrate force and bring it to bear against the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Your thoughts are altogether welcome.