The Chinese fleet review, April 2018 in the South China Sea. More than 10,000 service personnel, 48 vessels and 76 aircraft took part in the review, including the Liaoning aircraft carrier, high-tech submarines and warships as well as advanced fighter jets. More than half of the vessels were commissioned after the Communist Party’s National Congress in 2012, when Xi became the party’s general secretary.
Naval fleets 2011
Designing and implementing an effective strategy for China will be an especially demanding task for U.S. policymakers. Almost every dimension of the problem adds difficulty and complexity to the challenge.
Within a decade, China’s economy, and the potential for that economy to support military power, will constitute a rival the size of which the United States has not faced since it emerged as a global player over a century ago. Comparisons with recent large military competitions reveal the size of the looming challenge. World War II required the United States to mobilize for a global war effort. But once it did so, its production, combined with that of its allies, including the Soviet Union, easily swamped that of the Axis powers. By 1944 success in that war was not in doubt. During the Cold War, U.S. economic and technical advantages over the Soviet bloc permitted a military competition that little strained the United States but bankrupted the Soviet Union.
With China, by contrast, the United States could by next decade face a rival with substantially equal economic output and potentially comparable military spending. Unlike the Soviet Union, China, with a much larger economy, will very likely be capable of sustaining an arms race on roughly equal terms for as long as it chooses. For the security balance in East Asia, China, as we have seen, gets much more out of its military spending because it is the “home team.” The effectiveness of U.S. military investment by contrast is diluted both by U.S. global security responsibilities and by the nation’s need to project its military power to a far-off “away game” in East Asia. The United States will be able to add the military potential of its partners in the region to its side of the ledger. But others in the region may bandwagon with China. The result is a security challenge in East Asia the potential magnitude of which U.S. policymakers have not faced in the modern era.
Second, as much of this book has sought to explain, the structure of the military problem in East Asia seems only now to be dawning on policymakers in Washington responsible for the design of U.S. military forces. Overconfidence in an assumed lead in U.S. military technology and attention drawn to nearly two decades of small wars have led policymakers and planners to lose sight of technological developments—most of them ironically first developed by the United States—that are now nullifying previous U.S. military advantages in power projection and strategic mobility. With the PLA’s military strategy now placing much of America’s tremendous investment in naval and aerospace power at risk of irrelevance, U.S. military planners and commanders must now cobble together new ways of performing basic missions in a region they previously took for granted.
America’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region are its most valuable asset; but they are also an especially challenging lot for U.S. diplomats. In Western Europe during the Cold War, former enemies were able to put the past behind them and coalesce around NATO and the concept of collective security. The bald Soviet threat, the brashness of which China has yet to fully replicate, certainly provided much of NATO’s glue. France’s early obstreperous behavior toward NATO is just one example that not all was harmonious inside the Atlantic alliance. But today’s American diplomats would surely welcome that relative unity of purpose compared to what they must wrestle with in East Asia.
Unlike Europe, bitter memories in Asia from last century and before remain unforgotten, with multilateral security cooperation suffering as a result. Moral hazard, the temptation by allies to let America do the heavy work, remains strong; for all of the talk about China’s military modernization, defense spending in frontline places such as Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan is shockingly slight. Schizophrenia over either U.S. abandonment or entrapment in a military misadventure still plagues many of America’s allies in the region. With little prospect of any permanent and effective security institutions developing in the region, U.S. diplomats will continue to face uncertainty and ambiguity; partners may plead for U.S. protection while simultaneously hedging to keep their options open.
At home, the American public and policymakers have yet to sort out just what to make of the new China. A poll conducted in 2012 by Pew Research showed that while 52 percent of the U.S. general public viewed the emergence of China as a major threat, the concern centered on China’s economy rather than its military potential; only 28 percent of the public rated China’s military might as the greatest concern. A parallel poll of government executive and legislative branch officials found just 31 percent perceived China as a major threat. A 2013 Pew poll asked respondents from the general public to rate various international security issues. While 59 percent assessed North Korea’s nuclear program a major threat, 56 percent said the same of Islamic extremist groups; China’s power and influence, number five on the list, was rated a major threat by 44 percent of the respondents. With economic anxiety lingering in the United States in the wake of the recent economic recession, many in the U.S. public register more concern about China’s economic competitiveness than its military modernization, a topic which has received scant media attention. So although we have argued in this book for major reforms to U.S. security strategy in Asia, most of the U.S. public seems unaware of the need for a change.
Adopting a more assertive stance toward China is also likely to create frictions inside the United States. The 2012 Pew poll showed a broad disparity of views between the general public and some elites regarding China. For example, 71 percent of the general public perceived a loss of U.S. jobs to China as a very serious problem, a view held by only 15 percent of the business and trade leaders Pew interviewed.
Even as a security competition between China and the United States continues to grow, trade and financial linkages will continue to deepen. Commercial and financial interaction with China creates winners and losers inside the United States. Although overall economic welfare benefits from this trade, those losing from trade with China—say workers and investors in some industries—might view a more assertive stance against China favorably. By contrast, those who currently benefit—those with large exports and investments in China—may argue against a more assertive U.S. security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Because of the deepening trade and financial linkages between the two countries, a debate over U.S. security strategy in the region could pit many domestic interests against each other.
It has been two centuries since the United States last faced a country that was simultaneously a potential adversary and a large and vital trade and financial partner. The misbegotten War of 1812 divided the southern and western states, which saw the war as a chance to expand the country into Florida and farther west, against the New England states that had deep commercial and financial ties with Great Britain and that therefore strongly opposed President James Madison’s war policy.8 Strong economic ties to an adversary, concentrated in mainly one region of the country, resulted in a deep internal split over foreign policy. Should the security competition between China and the United States accelerate in the years ahead, we should expect to see interests and factions inside the United States clash over America’s China policy. An internal competition over China policy will only increase the subject’s complexity for political leaders responsible for fashioning that policy.
Finally, the gravity of U.S. interests at stake in the Asia-Pacific region will magnify the stress on America’s policymakers. No less than America’s standard of living, the future of its relationships around the world, and its status as a great power are in the balance. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” is both a reflection of this gravity and an antecedent for follow-on actions in the region by his successors. With the China security competition, U.S. policymakers will be forced to deal with a true peer competitor, a confounding military challenge, quarrelsome yet vital allies, clashing domestic interests, and a public that is understandably conflicted about the issues in play. Because the stakes are so large, no security issue will be more consequential for American interests. China policy will be a great challenge for a long time to come.
The United States Needs a New Approach
For the United States and its allies, the current trends are too dangerous to be allowed to continue. By early next decade, China’s leaders could conclude that they, and not the United States and its partners, possess escalation dominance. Those leaders could perceive that China’s leverage would improve during a crisis in the western Pacific, the more that crisis escalated. During such escalation, the PLA could put into readiness, and perhaps into action, more and more of its land-based access-denial air and missile power. Under these conditions, U.S. commanders would not relish the prospect of sending their naval and airpower into such tactically unfavorable circumstances. They would presumably have to report this analysis to policymakers in Washington, who would similarly have to ponder the consequences of a visible and substantial military setback. For the policymakers, attention would inevitably shift to face-saving de-escalation of the crisis, done with a lack of negotiating leverage.
Needless to say, such a scenario would be unfamiliar ground for U.S. policymakers and commanders who have held, in most cases since World War II, the advantage of escalation dominance. Policymakers in the Lyndon Johnson administration believed (incorrectly as it turned out) that escalating the employment of airpower and ground forces would compel North Vietnam to end its military operations in South Vietnam and its support for the Viet Cong resistance. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush resisted attempts to arrange a negotiated settlement even after the monthlong preparatory air war had begun; Bush and his advisers wanted more escalation, with the employment of U.S. and coalition ground combat power against Iraqi forces.10 In 2002 and 2003 President George W. Bush and his advisers again favored escalation in order to achieve the employment of what they believed was U.S. military superiority over Iraq.
Perhaps the most interesting and, for current U.S. planners, the most disturbing parallel, is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In that case, President John Kennedy and his team employed conventional military escalation—the visible buildup of air, naval, and amphibious forces opposite Cuba—to persuade Soviet leaders that a military clash in the Caribbean was hopeless for Soviet plans. In this case, Soviet forces, in the role of the expeditionary power, faced poor odds against the American and continental “home team.” The result was a withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.
An adversary’s possession of escalation dominance will be strange territory for U.S. policymakers, one that could lead to either costly miscalculation or an embarrassing climbdown in a crisis. Most dangerous of all would be a situation in which each side perceived it would benefit from escalation. In that case, a conflict would be virtually certain. By next decade, such a disturbing scenario in East Asia is plausible. By that time, PLA commanders might have great confidence in the missile and aerospace power they will have built. On the other side, the confidence of U.S. policymakers in a crisis could rest on comforting, but possibly mistaken, memories of military dominance. Needless to say, it can’t be the case that both sides will benefit from escalation. We can hope that it won’t take a clash of arms to prove this point.
Should U.S. policymakers and military planners take little effective action to change the current trajectory, we should expect other players at risk in the region to take their own actions, with unpredictable consequences. For example, in July 2013 the Japanese government, led by the nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe, released a new defense policy white paper. Reflecting a trend of increasing Japanese anxiety about the regional security situation, the white paper called attention to China’s “dangerous acts,” including intrusions by Chinese air and naval forces into Japan’s territory. Perhaps most notable was the white paper’s call for Japan to develop the ability to execute preemptive attacks on enemy bases abroad and an amphibious assault capability, presumably with the clashes over the Senkaku Islands in mind. As a result, the Japanese government increased defense spending in 2013 and directed more of Japan’s defense resources toward the Chinese threat to the Japan’s southwest.
U.S. policymakers should obviously be pleased that Japan is doing more for its own defense. The much more assertive content of Japan’s 2013 defense white paper is largely a response to China’s own military assertions, even into Japanese territory. As a consequence, Japan’s defense policy is now much more hawkish, a substantial change in policy and military latitude from just a few years ago. This trajectory is likely to keep going should the security situation in the region continue to deteriorate. Without a new American strategy, the still-modest defense buildup now under way in Japan could metastasize into a much more intense regional arms race, with destabilizing consequences to follow. Indeed non-Chinese defense spending in the region is expected to leap 55 percent in the five years ending in 2018. This budding arms race could turn dangerous should players conclude that they need more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles or should they perceive that adverse trends and time pressure are eroding their strategic positions.
It matters who runs the western Pacific. Because the United States is an outsider, most countries in the region trust it to be the region’s dominant security provider, a role they will not trust to a local great power like China. As a corollary, it is very unlikely, and indeed too risky, to contemplate East Asia finding a stable balance of power on its own. The Asia-Pacific is the globe’s economic dynamo and the direct source of nearly a tenth of America’s economic output; the consequences of a large conflict in the region would be disastrous. Thus, the United States needs to maintain its security presence. But it also needs a new and better way to do so.
Sustaining an Effective Peacetime Competition
The goal of America’s strategy for the region should be to preserve the region’s security while also maintaining the existing rules-based international order. With China’s interests and those of the United States and its partners increasingly coming into conflict, a successful strategy must first attempt to persuade China’s leaders to accept—to China’s benefit—the existing order and to dissuade China’s leaders from attempting to replace it with an alternative that privileges China over its neighbors. Developing effective persuasive and dissuasive leverage will require a much deeper understanding of Chinese decision making. It will also require assembling a full range of political, diplomatic, economic, and military tools that can both provide rewards for favorable Chinese behavior while also threatening to impose costs for unfavorable actions. China has interests and vulnerabilities that can be sources of leverage for a competitive coalition strategy. U.S. and allied policymakers and planners need to understand these sources of leverage and design a strategy that takes advantage of them.
The first and most important element of an effective American strategy is America’s partners in the region. In most respects, the security interests of the United States and its partners are in alignment; China’s rising military power and its territorial assertions are a common concern. These partners in the region, especially those on the front line such as the Philippines, Japan, India, and Vietnam, add political legitimacy to the effort of resisting China’s assertions in the region. The larger the partnership network, the greater its overall legitimacy and the more difficult the task for China’s decision makers. No U.S. strategy can hope to succeed without the participation of these partners. For these reasons, the partnership network should be the key pillar of any U.S. strategy for the region. This means that all other elements should support this pillar. And in order to do that, U.S. policymakers and diplomats must listen carefully to the interests and concerns of the partners.
The United States and its partners face an open-ended competition with China. All the players have an interest in avoiding conflict. But that outcome will not happen without active “preventive maintenance” by policymakers. For the United States, that means creating persuasive and dissuasive leverage designed to influence Chinese strategic behavior along a favorable path. An effective and sustainable U.S. strategy will engage the partners to contribute to this effort.
Persuasive and dissuasive leverage comes in many forms. China’s breathtaking economic growth over the past three decades should be evidence enough to China’s leaders of the rewards for cooperating with the existing international system. That success has resulted in more diplomatic power for China and greatly increased prestige for the CCP. China’s continued access to these benefits should be persuasive.
China’s military modernization now hangs like a cloud over this universally beneficial success. This means the United States and its partners need to develop dissuasive tools that could impose costs on China and that would promise to negate much of the large investment China has made in its military strategy. The coalition’s dissuasive tools should hold at risk those assets and conditions China’s leaders value most. These dissuasive tools should encompass a very broad range, from political and economic pressure up through potential military options. As we have seen throughout history, the more the United States and its partners are prepared to employ these tools, the greater will be their credibility and thus the less likely their need to be used.
Much of the recent discussion inside Washington defense circles regarding China and the Pacific has focused on Navy and Air Force programs and plans. But regarding the peacetime security competition in the region and bolstering deterrence, the contribution made by U.S. ground forces—the Army, Marine Corps, and special operations forces—may be the most valuable. These services will have the lead role in assisting America’s security partners in the region as they build their own capabilities to resist China’s pressure and assertions. The actions of China’s neighbors to defend their sovereignty will enjoy increasing political legitimacy and will be key to preserving the existing rules-based order.
U.S. ground forces can provide assistance with internal defense, building conventional combat power, air defenses, antiship missile systems, command and control, intelligence gathering and sharing, amphibious capability, and many other important military functions. Ground forces will also have an important role preparing for various forms of defensive and offensive irregular warfare, which could occur as the security competition intensifies. The assistance provided by U.S. ground forces will boost the confidence of America’s partners while displaying to China’s leaders the rising costs for potentially bad behavior. Such an outcome would bolster deterrence and improve regional security.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force naturally must prepare as well for a security environment in the western Pacific that now challenges the operating practices these services have long taken for granted. China’s land-based air and missile power, and a “reconnaissance-strike complex” with ever-increasing range and targeting ability, have resulted in bleak prospects for the U.S. Navy’s surface forces in the region, at least until advanced missile defense technology arrives at the end of the next decade. The Navy will thus increasingly rely on its submarines to hold China’s navy at risk; the Navy must make sure that this remains the case.
Meanwhile the United States needs to ensure that it has enough long-range strike capacity to hold at risk those targets China’s leaders value most. High on this list should be China’s land-based “anti-navy” capabilities. The U.S. Navy will not be able to maintain freedom of navigation in the western Pacific without the capacity to suppress these forces. In addition U.S. long-range strike capacity should hold at risk targets and assets valued most by China’s leaders. Creating these capabilities will be technically challenging and will not be cheap. Suspending the purchase of systems such as aircraft carriers and short-range tactical aircraft that don’t have much use in the region could help pay the bills. Meanwhile, expanding America’s long-range strike capacity will be an important dissuasive tool and will be critical to maintaining deterrence.