Three decades ago, Gen. Liu Huaqing, the military commander who modernized China’s navy declared, “Without an aircraft carrier, I will die with my eyelids open.” When he passed away in 2011, China had finally started building an aircraft carrier and it took to the seas the next year. If recent trends were to hold, it is doubtful whether the U.S. Navy could preserve its longstanding supremacy for sea control — especially within Asia’s first island chain — even a decade or two into the future.
The loss of U.S. global maritime dominance would put at risk fundamental national interests, effectively most of what we as Americans take for granted. Certainly, it would call into question the ability of the United States to command offshore lines of communication. That perceived or actual loss of sea control would undermine the movement of the U.S. armed forces in support of operational plans to counter provocation and proliferation, preserve the independence of democratic allies and partners, ensure the free flow of commerce, and keep potential adversaries on their back foot and far from our shores.
Yet by all appearances American maritime power is steadily eroding. Partly this is a natural consequence of structure: new rising centers of power resulting from a worldwide redistribution of wealth and technology. But we cannot ignore agency. China — historically a land power — has clearly and deliberately sought to challenge U.S. maritime power. The rise of China’s blue water navy is backed by a formidable precision long-range strike capability and key enablers in cyber and outer space, all in turn supported by comprehensive instruments of power. This trend, which can be likened to America overtaking British seapower, should capture the attention of U.S. officials and, to the extent they still exist, strategic planners. The United States is being outmaneuvered in China’s near seas. The resulting pressure to fall back could result in severe limits on future U.S. power projection in the world’s most consequential region — what Nicholas Spykman called the “Asiatic Mediterranean.”
A decision to resist or effectively counter China’s strategy of indirection and its emergence as a maritime power must be addressed within the larger context of U.S.-China relations. Is it possible to fashion a sustainable and successful American foreign policy that seeks to preserve U.S. national power — particularly in the maritime domain — without falling prey to the myriad pitfalls put forth by scholars (Thucydides’s trap, security dilemmas, escalating crises, regional polarization, and technologically unwinnable deep engagement)?
A forceful response that does not catalyze world war, takes into account China’s core interests, allows for de-escalatory measures, doesn’t forsake cooperation with Beijing, and counters the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) precision-strike regime, is indeed possible. Cooperation through strength is based on maintaining a balance of power as articulated by realists in U.S. foreign policy, such as Henry Kissinger, Robert Zoellick, Richard Armitage, Robert Kaplan, Kurt Campbell, and Michael Green, among others. It is possible to craft a mainstream foreign policy in which bounded competition and peace-through-strength are steadfast principles. If such an American strategy can develop and take hold, it will spring from these mainstream realists and others like them.
The American aim is not to fight a war with China but to contest the peace. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia sought to shore up U.S. economic, diplomatic and military power across the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. This objective endures. The alternative is to give China unimpeded strategic influence to shape the most populous and increasingly most powerful region of the world to its liking at the expense of American interests. This competition represents a struggle over the regional and global operating system that was largely devised and sustained by the United States after World War II.
But even if we agree that we should be preparing for heightened competition with China, the United States should admit that it has been careless and ill-prepared to run that race. The United States has not yet taken the challenge seriously and as a result Washington has not thoughtfully, let alone brutally, prioritized policies, budgets and organizations to give the United States the best chance of success.
President Donald Trump appears willing to devote more resources to maritime power. I applaud that, but call on the administration first to formulate a coherent, comprehensive national security strategy. This basic requirement of strategic planning is all the more urgent after Washington’s willingness to conduct major missile strikes in Syria without first articulating our long-term foreign policy objectives.
Where is the serious debate about how the United States can intelligently tackle its foremost long-term competitor? Many officials have been satisfied with annually adjusting our expectations downwards, acquiescing to expansive claims, accepting creeping assertions of Chinese sovereignty, and allowing mounting Chinese capabilities supported by propaganda, capital and law fare. As a nation, the United States seems satisfied with losing influence provided it happens gradually.
Assuming the United States wanted to be serious and self-interested, it should craft a strategic vision that emphasizes competition with China over the long term. Chinese commentary supporting a new model of great power relations with the United States is in decline. Instead, Chinese commentators prefer to accelerate China’s leading role, an approach centered on economic rubrics such as “One Belt, One Road.” But the approach is also interwoven with Chinese ambitions to develop maritime power that dominates the San Hai (the Three Seas — Yellow, East China, and South China) and includes a global reach by ensuring access to two major oceans.
So too, the United States should forego the liberal conceit of thinking it will persuade China into a convergence of interests, or that it can ever provide Beijing with sufficient strategic reassurance to give up on competition. This does not mean Washington should give up altogether on strategic reassurance, but rather that it should not make that activity the single pillar on which U.S. strategy rests. The United States should instead embrace a realistic U.S.-China relationship in which both heightened competition and cooperation are adjustable elements.
Geopolitical competition with China should not and cannot mean containment of the world’s second largest economy. But it should mean that the United States adopts an overall foreign policy designed to preserve a favorable economic, political and military order. That means defining a national economic policy that supports higher growth and parallel investment in the sinews of comprehensive power. It also means keeping pace with joint military power —especially in maritime and air power — supported by nuclear deterrence, ballistic missile defense and superior space and cyber systems. Finally, it means maintaining active and compelling diplomatic engagement, including inter alia the retention of effective allies and the fostering of a broad network of capable security partners to check Chinese adventurism or aggression.
Provided the United States invests sufficiently in the maintenance of deterrence, the military competition will remain bounded. In practice this might mean no more than periodic skirmishes over gray-zone situations in the contested peacetime environment. Seeking cooperation where it can and avoiding conflict where it must, the United States can help to narrow down the salient of geopolitical competition. Further, because the United States can live with a non-zero sum general balance of power, it can decide when and how to press its advantages, holding at risk China’s strategy of slow-motion hegemony and key vulnerabilities to include a critical dependence on chokepoints.
Nor should Washington hold out hope for Moscow’s cooperation given its campaign of active measures against American democracy. The United States cannot significantly separate Vladimir Putin’s Russia from pursuing a global foreign policy in cooperation with China. Putin seeks to supplement resurgent Russian national power by taking coordinated actions with China to weaken America’s residual dominance over the international system. But there are specific areas where cooperation at China’s geopolitical expense may be possible (missile control regimes, for instance), and over time (and after Putin) further areas of cooperation may emerge.
Dan Blumenthal’s idea of ensuring that China must contend with “unsafe zones” at sea suggests the need to preserve or build American military advantages in the maritime domain. This would be more feasible if done in tandem with capable allies and the implementation of serious partner capacity-building programs. A more vibrant network of security partners would allow for more dispersed access, greater distributed lethality, and heightened political-military uncertainty to induce greater caution on the part of Beijing officials.
This competition with China will not be limited to the Indo-Pacific region, but over the next two decades the biggest implication of China’s blue water navy capabilities could well be its potential for complete dominance of the Yellow, East, and South China Seas. An India that fails to develop faster would expose the Indian Ocean to Chinese domination. Arresting the trend of growing Chinese maritime power across two oceans should spur further U.S.-India security cooperation.
The U.S. armed forces (especially the U.S. Navy in tandem with allies) would have to find a way to check China from dominating the near seas bounded by the first island chain, and be able to hold the chokepoints leading out to the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans. This geostrategic maritime capability would have to retain qualitative edges in key areas such as submarine and anti-submarine warfare. It would depend upon an industrial base sufficient to sustain and maintain necessary numbers of qualitatively superior forces needed to check a technological peer with greater numbers of forces.
While there is no single scenario for how this might be executed, it would require — at a minimum — joint and combined military power to be able to mobilize quickly enough to threaten critical chokepoints that in turn would compel China to seek non-military paths to achieve its objectives. It would also require willingness to assume sufficient risk at sea to engage in quick, short skirmishes that reinforce this standoff without escalating into wider conflict or collapsing global markets. This is, of course, generally a page from the Cold War playbook, albeit with increasing importance placed on electronic warfare and with space and cyber warfare added to the mix.
Paul Giarra has written trenchantly about how to think about, and possibly counter, China’s maritime salient while searching for ways to guarantee control over vital chokepoints leading out of the South China Sea. The strategy envisioned in Giarra’s thinking would require a top-down decision to prioritize sustainability and resilience. It would not allow budgets to drive the strategy, but would require finding ways to pursue a strategy despite fiscal constraints. The military costs would not be small but would require both near-term sustainment and long-term technologies that preserve competitive capabilities in critical areas. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s emphasis on a third offset strategy highlights the need for innovative defense acquisition. However, pursued in isolation, it could constitute our own Assassin’s Mace, lulling us into a false sense of security that we could win a short, sharp war, as though a more assertive, confident and powerful China will always back away at the first blush of high-tech pressure.
The Trump administration’s call for a larger defense budget, which in and of itself appears politically difficult, would be but the first of many necessary steps. These steps include the purchase of such basics as more naval munitions, which will be required to maintain maritime power to contest gray-zone situations and, if necessary, wage war at sea.
However, at present America is a victim of its own historical success. Over the last 75 years when the United States had to fight at sea it prevailed, both during World War II and throughout the hotly-contested Cold War submarine competition with the Soviet Union. Washington has come to assume — without convincing levels of scrutiny — that it can dominate, hold and exploit the first island chain and reach the Asian landmass at will. But as suggested above, that assumption is increasingly open to question and provides a dangerous basis for future planning. This is where a deliberate campaign of net assessment and “red team” gaming must ensue.
Yet the military services and Beltway brain trust seem determined to let budgets drive strategy. This is a warning sign that we are preparing to fail. In its determination to succeed, the United States must be unremitting in the pursuit of brutal prioritization of its finite national assets. We should be determined to compete in the 21st century’s most vital maritime theater as foreseen by Nicholas Spykman as the Mediterranean of Asia, with all the centrality that metaphor implies. The alternative will be to draw back east of Hawaii, focus on the homeland and Western Hemisphere, and allow others to drive the world’s future at the expense of freedom, prosperity, and our own fundamental security.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the bipartisan Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Devin M. Langer