As territorial frictions involving China and many of its neighbors persist in the East and South China Seas, the US needs a clearer regional strategy. The US must simultaneously uphold its interests and alliance commitments and avoid counterproductive confrontation, or even conflict.
Doing so will be difficult, especially because it is not clear whose claims to the region’s disputed islands and outcroppings should be recognized, and the US has no intention of trying to impose a solution.
At the same time, the US must modernize its armed forces in response to new challenges — particularly China’s rise. As China develops advanced precision weapons to create a so-called anti-access/area-denial capability, the US must consider how to respond to the growing vulnerability of its bases and naval forces in the region.
There is no easy answer to these challenges. What is needed is a nuanced approach, which is what we develop in our new book Strategic Reassurance and Resolve.
Our approach is an adaptation of the US’ longstanding “engage but hedge” strategy, through which the US and its allies have used economic, diplomatic, and sometimes military instruments to give China incentives to rise peacefully, while maintaining robust military capabilities in case engagement proves unsuccessful.
The problem is that hedging has typically been interpreted to mean sustaining overwhelming US military superiority. However, China’s development and acquisition of advanced weapons, including precision anti-ship missiles, makes it implausible that the US can maintain its forces’ decades-long invulnerability in the region, including the ability to operate with impunity near China’s shores. Given China’s own history of vulnerability to foreign intervention, unilateral US efforts to maintain overwhelming offensive superiority would only trigger an increasingly destabilizing arms race.
Some US strategists advocate a largely technological solution to this dilemma. Their approach, a concept called “Air-Sea Battle,” implies a mix of defensive and offensive tools to address the new challenges posed by the proliferation of precision-strike weaponry.
Officially, the Pentagon does not direct the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” against any particular country. For example, Iran’s possession of precision-strike capabilities — and a much more hostile relationship with the US — would warrant new US initiatives to cope with growing security vulnerabilities.
However, it is clearly China, which has the resources to develop a credible anti-access/area-denial strategy, that most worries US military planners. Some Air-Sea Battle proponents propose tactical preemptive strikes on missile launchers, radars, command centers, and perhaps also air bases and submarine ports. Moreover, many of these attacks would be carried out with long-range weapons based on US territory, rather than at sea or on the territory of regional allies, because these assets would be less vulnerable to preemptive attacks themselves.
Unfortunately, Air-Sea Battle’s underlying logic poses serious risks of miscalculation — beginning with the name. Air-Sea Battle is, obviously, a concept for battle. Though the US clearly needs war plans, it also needs to be wary of sending China and regional partners the message that its hottest new military ideas base deterrence primarily on the ability to win a war quickly and decisively through large-scale escalation early in a conflict.
Air-Sea Battle recalls the AirLand Battle idea that NATO adopted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to counter the growing Soviet threat to Europe. However, China is not the Soviet Union, and the US’ relationship with it needs to avoid Cold War echoes.
“Air-Sea Operations” would be a much more appropriate name for a more effective approach. Such a doctrine could include classified war plans; but it should center on a much broader range of 21st-century maritime activities, some of which should include China (such as the ongoing counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and some military exercises in the Pacific).
Moreover, war plans need to avoid depending on early escalation, particularly against strategic assets on the Chinese mainland and elsewhere. If a skirmish erupts over a disputed island or waterway, the US needs to have a strategy that enables a favorable resolution short of all-out war. Indeed, in the broader context of Sino-American relations, even “victory” in such an encounter might be costly, because it could trigger a Chinese military buildup designed to ensure a different outcome in any subsequent skirmish.
Instead, the US and its partners need a broader range of responses that would enable them to adopt effective measures that are proportionate to the stakes involved — measures that demonstrate a willingness to impose meaningful costs without triggering counterproductive escalation.
Likewise, the US’ military modernization agenda needs balance. Responding to the threat that China’s growing arsenal of advanced weapons poses to many of its assets does not require greatly expanding the US’ long-range strike platforms. In fact, doing so would inevitably create incentives for US war planners to emphasize preemptive options in contingency plans and deemphasize American forces’ day-to-day presence in forward areas near China, where they contribute significantly to maintaining deterrence. Also, it would create a powerful incentive for Chinese war planners to develop further their country’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities.
Continued US engagement in the region requires it to heed the lesson of the Cold War: No technological fix provides complete invulnerability. Economic and political measures, as well as a sustained US military presence, would be more effective than reliance solely on offensive escalation, should the US need to counter Chinese actions that threaten important American interests. Indeed, relying on the capacity to attack the Chinese mainland to defend freedom of navigation and alliance commitments in East Asia could tempt China’s leaders to test the US’ willingness to risk Los Angeles to defend the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) in China and the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in Taiwan.
A more balanced US strategy to increase regional stability requires a judicious combination of resolve and reassurance, and a military posture that reflects this mix. This approach would give the US the best chance to induce China’s leaders to adopt a more cooperative approach to the region’s territorial disputes.
James Steinberg, a former US deputy secretary of state, is dean and professor of social science, international affairs and law at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships. The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) —
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