war on the rocks

Balancing China: How the United States and Its Partners Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion

November 15, 2017

For 70 years, the U.S. military has dominated the seas and skies of East Asia, enjoying almost total freedom of movement and the ability to deny such freedom to enemies. Now, however, China has acquired advanced missiles and launch platforms that may be able to destroy U.S. ships, aircraft, and bases within 500 miles of China’s territory and disrupt the satellite and computer networks that underpin U.S. military power throughout East Asia. Many U.S. analysts fear that China could use these anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to hold the U.S. military at bay while enforcing its expansive territorial claims, which include most of the East and South China Seas. Left unchecked, some fear, China will eventually become the hegemon of East Asia and start projecting military power into other regions, including the Western Hemisphere.

How should the U.S. military respond to China’s A2/AD capabilities? One option would be to gear up by preparing to wipe out China’s offensive forces at the outset of a conflict. Another would be to give up by withdrawing U.S. forces from East Asia, abrogating U.S. alliances in the region and granting China a sphere of influence.

Both of these options have drawbacks.  Preparing for preemptive strikes on Chinese A2/AD forces would not only be expensive, but also might increase the risk of war by encouraging the United States and China to shoot first in a crisis.  Retrenchment, on the other hand, would not only reduce U.S. influence in East Asia, but also might embolden China to try to conquer parts of the region.

Does the United States have a third option? In a new article in International Security, I make the case for what some analysts call an “active denial” strategy that splits the difference between gearing up and giving up. Under this strategy, the United States would abandon efforts to command maritime East Asia outright and, instead, focus on helping the countries around the East and South China Seas deny China sea and air control in the region. In peacetime, the United States would bolster the A2/AD forces of China’s neighbors by providing them with aid and arms. In wartime, the U.S. military would back up China’s neighbors by providing intelligence, logistics, and, if necessary, limited air and missile strikes on Chinese forces operating beyond China’s shores.

This strategy maintains deterrence by denying China the possibility of a decisive military victory while enhancing crisis stability by reassuring China that it will not suffer a massive attack on its homeland on the first day of a war. The potential Achilles’ heel of the strategy, of course, is that it requires China’s neighbors to hold the line against Chinese expansion for extended periods of time and perhaps indefinitely. Are they up to the task?

My main finding is that many of China’s maritime neighbors have, in fact, developed A2/AD capabilities that can plausibly deny China sea and air control throughout most of its near seas. Moreover, China cannot afford the power-projection capabilities it would need to overcome these A2/AD forces, because power-projection forces are more expensive than A2/AD forces by an order of magnitude, China’s economy is losing steam and has racked up massive debt, and homeland security operations consume large shares of China’s military resources. For the foreseeable future, therefore, China is unlikely to be able to redraw the map in East Asia by force – as long as its neighbors remain willing to use their A2/AD forces and the United States continues to bolster and backstop them.

Obstacles to Chinese Naval Expansion

Only two nations in modern history have established regional maritime hegemony: the United States from the 1890s to the present and Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s. Both cases suggest that China would need two things to enforce its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in East Asia: a military presence on the coasts surrounding the East and South China Seas and a regional monopoly of naval power. China, however, is nowhere close to achieving either of those objectives.

First, the United States and Imperial Japan took control of their near seas by occupying the surrounding landmasses, lining the shores with military bases, and barring neighboring states from building independent navies. China today, by contrast, has no prospect of controlling the coasts of East Asia. Its maritime neighbors are densely populated and possess modern militaries, and amphibious invasions have become extremely difficult, if not impossible, in an age of precision-guided munitions.

Second, the United States and Japan built and maintained a monopoly of naval power, accounting for 80 to 99 percent of the naval tonnage in their respective regions. Today, China’s navy accounts for less than 30 percent of Asia’s naval tonnage, and the Asian nations that contest China’s maritime claims have been collectively matching China’s procurement of modern submarines, ships, aircraft, and coast guard cutters over the past two decades.

China’s navy may be the most powerful in Asia, but its maritime neighbors border contested portions of the East and South China Seas whereas China is, in many cases, hundreds of miles away. In most scenarios for war, Chinese air and naval forces would need to cycle between the combat theater and bases on mainland China, a commute that would severely limit the number of military assets China could sustain on the battlefield, whereas China’s neighbors could operate from home bases adjacent to the combat theater and, thus, have their full arsenals at their disposal.

Many of China’s neighbors have capitalized on these geographic advantages by developing A2/AD capabilities comprised of shore-based missile batteries, diesel-powered attack submarines, swarms of small surface combatants, and fighter aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles and mines. As a result, the East China Sea and the western and southern sections of the South China Sea are now bordered by forces potentially capable of denying China sea and air command.

In the East China Sea, Japan maintains a formidable force. Japan has announced plans to string a line of missile launchers along the Ryukyu Islands that can target all naval and air traffic across a 200-to-300 mile band between mainland Japan and Taiwan, an area that includes the Senkaku Islands. Japan is expanding its submarine fleet, acquiring fifth-generation stealth fighters armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, and maintains world-class anti-submarine warfare forces and an extensive network of underwater sensors that can track Chinese ships and submarines as they leave port. The balance of naval tonnage is shifting in China’s favor, but Japan still has nearly twice as many large surface combatants as China. Its 15 smaller coastal patrol craft and frigates, though outnumbered by China’s 57 frigates, would be able to refuel and reload at ports along the Ryukyus and thus maintain a higher tempo of operations in a war in contested areas of the East China Sea than China’s missile boats and frigates.

On the west side of the South China Sea, Vietnam has acquired mobile shore-based anti-ship cruise missile batteries, Kilo-class submarines, advanced surface-to-air missiles, and dozens of fighter aircraft, and surface ships armed with advanced cruise missiles. Collectively, these platforms enable Vietnam to destroy ships and aircraft operating within 200 miles of its coast – an area that encompasses the western third of the South China Sea and China’s military base on Hainan Island.

On the south side of the South China Sea, Indonesia and Malaysia also have developed capabilities to deter Chinese expansion. The two nations’ militaries are not impressive by Chinese standards, but they have dozens of naval and air bases near the southern section of China’s nine-dash line, whereas China is more than 1,000 miles away from that area. In a war, Indonesia and Malaysia could bring the full force of their navy and air force to bear. China, by contrast, would have trouble sustaining more than a dozen ships and submarines and a few dozen combat aircraft in the combat theater.

Limited Opportunities for Chinese Expansion

China faces a budding containment barrier in many parts of East Asia. Nevertheless, there are several areas where it could easily defeat local opposition and establish sea and air control.

One of these areas is the Taiwan Strait. China has 1,500 accurate missiles pointed at Taiwan and more than 1,000 advanced fighter aircraft. If China catches Taiwan off-guard – with its missile batteries, aircraft, and ships parked in the open – it could carry out surprise air and missile strikes and wipe out Taiwan’s long-range air defenses, ground Taiwan’s air force, and sink Taiwan’s large naval ships in a matter of hours. The good news is that China still probably could not conquer Taiwan, even without U.S. intervention, because it lacks the capabilities to pull off an amphibious invasion or sustain a serious blockade. Moreover, the United States has an array of options for disrupting a Chinese invasion or blockade that play to U.S. strengths and would not expose U.S. surface ships or non-stealth aircraft to Chinese A2/AD forces or require U.S. strikes on the Chinese mainland. Taiwan thus probably remains safe from Chinese conquest for now, but it will need to ramp up investments in A2/AD forces and civil defense if it is to remain so in the decades ahead.

A second area of vulnerability is on the northeast side of the South China Sea, which is claimed by the Philippines, a country that has failed to develop any meaningful naval power. While the rest of the region has acquired precision-guided munitions and advanced platforms to fire them, the Philippines has spent its meager military budget on internal security. Evidently, leaders in Manila believe that the United States will bail them out if China parks its navy in their exclusive economic zone. The U.S. military probably could destroy a Chinese naval task force near the Philippines at moderate risk to U.S. forces, but there is no guarantee it would do so. Washington would likely risk serious blood and treasure only if vital U.S. interests were at stake. While a Chinese Monroe Doctrine in East Asia would meet this standard, Chinese infringement on Philippine fishing rights would not. The northeast quarter of the South China Sea thus remains vulnerable to Chinese expansion.

Finally, China may be able to expand on the sly via a “cabbage strategy,” in which it wraps disputed waters in layers of coast guard, maritime militia, and fishing vessels. This tactic has already enabled China to assert a prickly peacetime presence in some small portions of the South China Sea, however it is unlikely to allow China to command significant areas of maritime East Asia. One reason is that China’s neighbors have collectively matched Chinese procurement of coast guard cutters. China’s fleet remains the largest in Asia, but it is spread thin defending China’s expansive claims, which encompass nearly 2 million square miles. China’s neighbors, on the other hand, concentrate their fleets around their more limited claims. More importantly, China’s neighbors have started using military force against China’s civilian vessels, firing on them, chasing them down, and, in the case of Indonesia, blowing them up on national television.

Constraints on Chinese Military Modernization

This balance of military power in East Asia will remain stable for years, because the state of military technology heavily favors the defending nations, China’s economic growth is slowing, and homeland security operations drain China’s military resources.

First, defense is dominant, at least within maritime East Asia, because precision-guided munitions enable even relatively weak countries to sink surface ships and shoot down aircraft near their homelands. Previously, China’s neighbors might have had to contest Chinese sea control symmetrically, by sending battleships to blast away at China’s fleet, a contest they would almost surely lose. Today, these countries can counter Chinese expansion asymmetrically, by launching precision-guided munitions from a variety of simple platforms that are 50 times cheaper, on average, than the Chinese power-projection forces they could credibly threaten to destroy.

Second, China’s economy – the engine powering its military modernization – is losing steam. Since 2007, China’s economic growth rates have fallen by half, and its debt has quadrupled and now exceeds 300 percent of GDP. Theoretically, China could free up money for military modernization growth by gutting social spending. In reality, such cost-cutting will be impossible, because China is about to experience the most rapid aging crisis in human history, with the ratio of workers-to-retirees shrinking from 8-to-1 today to 2-to-1 by 2040. By that point, China will have $10 trillion to $100 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Add to this rising medical costs associated with having one of the oldest societies on the planet, and it becomes clear that China would be fortunate just to maintain current levels of military spending in the future, let alone to increase them.

Third, homeland security costs drain a substantial portion of China’s military resources. China shares sea or land borders with nineteen countries, five of which fought wars against China within the last century; its northern and western borders are porous and populated by disaffected minority groups; and its government is bedeviled by significant domestic unrest. To deal with these threats, China’s military devotes more than 1 million troops (roughly 45 percent of the active-duty force) to internal security and border defense. The cost of maintaining these units drains at least 35 percent of China’s military budget, a chronic “domestic drag” that puts robust power-projection forces further out of reach for the PLA.

An “Active Denial” Strategy for the United States

The United States should exploit the existing East Asian military balance by adopting an active denial strategy consisting of two main elements.

First, the United States should bolster the A2/AD capabilities of China’s neighbors by providing them with loans, arms, training, and intelligence. The goal would be to turn China’s neighbors into prickly “porcupines,” capable of denying territory to China but not to take and hold territory themselves. The United States already provides some assistance to its Asian partners, but not enough and not always the right kind. For instance, the United States has donated counter-insurgency capabilities to the Philippines, but not negotiated the deployment of U.S. capabilities that could actually threaten China’s navy and air force, such as U.S. Army anti-air and anti-ship missile batteries. To take another example, during the Obama administration, the United States sold Taiwan a few decommissioned ships and some anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, but not any items that could bolster Taiwan’s surveillance, undersea, air, or long-range strike capabilities – arguably the four most important factors in any China-Taiwan war scenario. The arms sales package recently approved by the Trump administration includes radar upgrades, air-launched missiles, and torpedos, but no tangible assistance for Taiwan’s fledgling submarine-building initiative. In short, the United States could do much more to turn the First Island Chain – stretching from Japan to Indonesia – into a formidable containment barrier.

Second, in wartime, the United States should backstop the local balance of power, but do so gradually. In minor conflicts, the United States would try to convince China to back down by using nonmilitary forms of coercion, including financial sanctions, embargoes, or cyber operations. If the conflict escalated to war, the United States could initially “lead from behind,” supporting local forces with logistics, intelligence, and, if absolutely necessary, limited air and missile strikes on Chinese forces operating in the combat theater rather than those stationed on the Chinese mainland. These strikes could be conducted from submarines, stealth-aircraft, or road-mobile shore-based missile batteries strung along the first island chain – all of which are far less vulnerable to Chinese A2/AD forces than surface ships and non-stealth aircraft. If the United States needed to ratchet up the pain, it could escalate horizontally before doing so vertically; that is, by opening new geographic fronts (e.g., by blockading the Strait of Malacca) rather than pouring U.S. forces into the main combat theater.

This strategy obviously sacrifices military effectiveness for the sake of enhancing crisis stability. The U.S. military could gain a major advantage over China’s military if it simply unloaded on China’s mainland bases at the outset of a conflict. Such an offensive posture, however, is not only expensive to maintain, but also risks turning minor disputes into major wars. China might be tempted to shoot first during a crisis, in a desperate attempt to stun the United States before the U.S. military wipes out China’s offensive forces.

If China were poised to overrun East Asia, it might make sense for the United States to risk major war to check Chinese expansion. My study, however, shows that China is incapable of going on an Imperial Japan-style rampage across East Asia. The stakes for the United States in a war between China and its neighbors, therefore, would be moderate, and the main danger would be doing too much rather than too little. Instead of rushing into a war with China, the United States should pick its battles selectively, escalate gradually, and let local actors do most of the heavy lifting.


Michael Beckley is a fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. This draws from his study “The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion,” published in the Fall 2017 issue of International Security.  

Image: U.S. Navy/Ronald Gutridge