Are we witnessing a new form of naval confrontation, with escalating numbers of vessels converging to one static spot on the ocean? One that doesn't involve fast charging and fast shooting so much as a floating standoff? A striking common feature of the recent China vs. U.S. confrontation off Yulin Island about ambiguous peactime oceanic territorial privileges, and the tense standoff between U.S. Navy warships and Somali pirates holding cargo ships and crewmen hostage for sizeable ransom demands, is that temporarily everyone closes in -- and then nobody moves.

In the non-lethal "Battle of Yulin," Chinese patrol boats finally let the unarmed sonar survey ship USNS Impeccable leave the area when the guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon drew near, intimidating the 5-boat Chinese swarm that surrounded Impeccable. In the case of the USS Bainbridge versus Maersk Alabama lifeboat rescue, which had seen pirate warlords trying to send in other captive ships and crews as human shields, it was unclear for several days what might happen next; dozens of lives were on the line with no easy way out.

This could be the emergence of a hybridization of unconventional warfare and soft-power conflict at sea. Unconventional warfare relies on asymmetric guerilla methods. Soft power is the art of influencing an adversary to achieve non-military goals (say, political or economic) by means short of blowing up something or someone.

This trend calls for a stronger, broader repertoire of USN and U.S. Coast Guard maneuver tactics and rules of engagement, equipment, training -- and funding. It's been suggested that from now on, unarmed USN surveillance ships inside China's 200-mile EEZ might need armed escorts, which would put more operational strain on the Fleets providing and supporting such warships. On the anti-piracy front, do we need to go back to multinational convoying, again with armed escorts, as in the Persian Gulf Tanker War in the 1980s -- despite how expensive for all involved this practice would be?

Putting more privatized commando teams aboard individual merchant ships, as is happening to some degree now, might not be enough. Skill at hostage negotiating has become directly relevant. Should every deployed warship carry such talent? Wise men have said that war is the conduct of politics by other means, and that all wars are basically economic struggles. Political, economic, and military concerns are intertwining here. For a nation with sizeable overseas trade like the United States wants to continue enjoying, economic success and robust seapower often tend to rise or fall together.

-- Joe Buff

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