Don’t Knock Yourself Out: How America Can Turn the Tables on China by Giving Up the Fight for Command of the Seas
Editors note: This essay is the second in a series of eight articles, “Maritime Strategy on the Rocks,” that examines different aspects and implications of the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. Be sure to read the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh essays in the series. We thank Prof. Jon Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College for his assistance in coordinating this series.
The United States should give up its quest for command of the maritime commons in the Western Pacific. The struggle is based on a false premise — that if the United States loses command of the seas, China will step in the fill the vacuum. In fact, even if the United States loses command of the maritime commons, China is not positioned to gain it. However, by positioning China as an existential threat, the United States is boxing itself in politically. The United States courts disaster when it overextends itself by seeking military primacy in the region. There is one fundamental reason: the tyranny of distance. The maritime nature of American power is a double-edged sword, specifically when it comes to its competition with China. American command over the maritime commons allows the U.S. military to project power globally, but when that power is projected at a great distance from U.S. shores, as in the Western Pacific, U.S. forces are particularly vulnerable to measures designed to raise the costs of access. First, a strategy of maintaining command of the maritime commons in the face of anti-access measures exposes U.S. dependence on allied territory to support deployed forces through basing, infrastructure, and logistics. Second, as the costs and risks of maintaining access increase, the asymmetrical stakes become more constraining for the United States than for China. Overcommitment has historically been endemic to U.S. grand strategy, but it is especially dangerous now that China is capable of inflicting heavy costs upon the United States. Instead, the United States should, together with its allies and partners, focus on denying China command of the Pacific maritime commons. It is cheaper and easier to deny command of the seas than to exercise it. If China cannot gain command of the seas, the Western Pacific will remain a contested environment — one that China cannot break out of. China would either be forced to accept the status quo or make a first move in which it overextends itself. While giving up command of the seas may seem unpalatable, it need not be fatal to the United States and its allies and partners’ collective goal to maintain the regional balance of power. The alternative is unlikely to end well for them.
It is no accident that the United States finds itself in its current predicament. China’s strategy over the past decades has deliberately targeted the physical and political constraints that remoteness places on the United States. China’s military planners have invested in building up the number of Chinese surface ships and submarines as well as specifically towards developing its air-, sea-, and land-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Together with sensors and command and control, these missiles make up China’s so-called anti-access/area denial capabilities with which it plans to target not only U.S. aircraft and surface ships, specifically its aircraft carriers, but also its air bases and ports, including Guam. Other weapons are continuously added to the arsenal. In effect, China has pushed what constitutes a hostile coastline far out into the Western Pacific and undermined the ability of the United States to intervene in its proximity.
U.S. officials have grasped for military-technological solutions to maintain or regain command in the region. The new tri-service strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, and the Navy’s Battle Force 2045 plan are the latest attempts to overcome China’s cost-imposing strategy. The tri-service strategy continues the emphasis on the growing costs of access in the previous strategies from 2007 and 2015. The 2020 iteration explicitly names China as the pacing threat. It points toward a need for longer-range, so-called “stand-off” weapons to avoid operating within striking range of Chinese capabilities. It proposes increasing the number of ships while also de-emphasizing the role of more powerful but expensive and vulnerable assets, such as aircraft carriers. The strategy is in line with the Battle Force 2045 plan recently introduced by former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. This plan also proposed drastically increasing the number of ships in the U.S. Navy from the current 297 to 500, beyond the previous goal of 355. Both documents mostly foresee this increase through the construction of more unmanned ships.
The strategy represents an improvement over previous plans. Yet, as with the Battle Force 2045 plan, it is arguably too little, too late. For the foreseeable future, the United States lacks the capacity for that scale of naval shipbuilding, including for repair, logistics, and sealift. The U.S. Navy also lacks sufficient resources to execute this strategy (now or in the foreseeable future) without cutting into the resources of the Army, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently noted. Furthermore, current naval force structure is stretched to a breaking point.
More importantly, in their reliance on military superiority, the tri-service strategy and the Battle Force 2045 plan build on a flawed grand strategic foundation. The pursuit of “strategic primacy” through military superiority, as the recently declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” advocates, plays to Chinese strengths. Sino-American competition would be decided by the outcome of a military confrontation in the waters close to China in which it can largely set the terms. For now, it is unclear whether the administration of President Joe Biden will follow through with these plans, designed and released as they were by the previous administration. In any case, without fully addressing the implications of China’s geographical advantages over the United States, the current maritime plans instead represent the best attempt to execute a faulty grand strategy.
As the tri-service strategy rightly underscores, the United States is a maritime power. Naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan envisioned the world’s waterways functioning as highways that allow for the movement of goods and people over huge geographic distances. Because it has command of this global maritime commons, as Barry Posen notes, the United States can project its military power across the globe. However, large bodies of water can also protect a state. John Mearsheimer refers to this as the “stopping power of water.” The United States is largely insulated from events in Eurasia and unthreatened in its own hemisphere. World War II was the last time the United States was seriously challenged in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. Like Great Britain before it, the United States enjoys more security than other great powers. This leaves the United States free to decide when and where to use military force. It could therefore — in theory — act as an offshore balancer, as retrenchers argue it should.
Yet, the advantages the United States has as a maritime power paradoxically also presents itself with serious disadvantages. As I recently argued in a special issue in Security Studies on maritime competition, insularity is a mixed blessing. Due to its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, the United States is more secure than any great power in history. This includes Great Britain, which was still close enough to the European continent to be at risk of invasion or blockade. The United States, therefore, has far less at stake than its adversaries and allies in Eurasia. The United States must retain command and be capable of crossing hemispheres without great difficulty precisely because its potential adversaries are already in the other hemisphere. However, the mobile nature of its maritime power ensures that the United States can also easily leave, which makes it more difficult to credibly reassure its Eurasian allies and deter its adversaries. America requires a forward presence to not only facilitate command but also demonstrate it has “skin in the game.” Along the same lines, the United States requires significant technological superiority to feasibly win at low costs.
In short, the United States ends up overcommitting abroad to compensate for the inherent asymmetry in the balance of interests. Simultaneously, American policymakers inflate and oversell threats at home to justify military commitments to a domestic audience. The experience of the United States in Europe during the Cold War is revealing: The United States became more and more entangled in Europe, as well as in peripheral conflicts, to demonstrate its credibility, while at home, its leaders presented the conflict in ever-starker ideological terms. As a consequence, the United States built up commitments in multiple Eurasian regions. It is not only retrenchers who now see the risk of these commitments in an era of great-power competition.
In contrast to their U.S. counterparts, Chinese planners are essentially only solving one military problem against one adversary. As the United States looks to decisively defeat China, China simply focuses on raising the costs of U.S. power projection. By doing so, it can create fissures between the United States and its allies. China does not need to win a possible shooting war, but it must deny the United States a clear victory in one. In other words, China is preparing to do in the seas and archipelagoes of the Western Pacific what insurgents have done over the past two decades in the hills, valleys, and alleys of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The political constraints the United States faces due to its remoteness interact with the physical constraints. The ability to win quickly by breaking the will of the adversary through a paralyzing attack, while keeping U.S. casualties low, has long been part of the American approach to conflict. More than the policymakers of other great powers in history, U.S. leaders deem a high likelihood of a quick victory to be necessary to maintain credibility. Yet, the United States relies on the territory of allies for air bases and ports, pre-positioned fuels and munitions, and supporting personnel for in-region repairs and maintenance. China has ensured it will be dangerous and costly for U.S. armed forces to fly, sail, land and dock, restock, refuel, and resupply.
The interaction between political and physical constraints creates a dynamic that pushes the United States into overcommitting. To avoid taking heavy damage, the United States would seek to destroy the land-based launchers and command and control in the initial phase of a conflict with China. The doctrine previously referred to as AirSea Battle, now renamed Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, captures this approach. The 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept underlines the circular logic, as only the credible ability to “project military force into any region of the world” can “serve as a reassurance to U.S. partners and a powerful deterrent.” If it fails to achieve a quick victory, the United States can always be tempted into moving offshore. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has already floated the idea of reconsidering overseas bases with U.S. service personnel and their families. Along with the emphasis on long-range stand-off weapons, these discussions unintentionally send a signal to U.S. allies that the United States seeks to extract itself from the risks that they themselves will continue to face.
The United States is backing itself into a corner. It has hinged deterrence in the Western Pacific on the outcome of a sharp, sudden war to be won by military innovation and painted the stakes of Sino-American competition in increasingly existential terms. To mobilize domestic opinion, the administration of President Donald Trump described China as a “threat beyond comparison,” comparing it to Nazi Germany and President Xi Jinping to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. (The Biden administration has used less charged language thus far.) There is no need to underestimate the forces of nationalism within China or China’s willingness to go to war over Taiwan. In addition to constraining options, the historical analogies also suggest inappropriate strategic solutions. The Western Pacific is not the North European Plain through which armies can rampage and quickly consolidate cumulative gains. Also, unlike Cold War Europe, there is no buffer of Warsaw Pact states between U.S. forces and their adversary. China perceives the South China Sea and the East China Sea as its backyard. There is also no clear red line like the inner German border. At what point should the United States be willing to risk conflict with China? China already exploits that ambiguity through incremental acts of aggression by paramilitary groups.
If current U.S. grand strategy remains in place, four possible outcomes present themselves if deterrence fails. The first possibility is that the United States is defeated and must then decide whether to fight its way back into the region. Second, the United States wins a hard-fought victory while incurring heavy losses. In both scenarios, the United States would be constrained by its currently highly limited ability to surge repaired or new ships into the region, (i.e., overall “system brittleness”) and by its political will to continue a now even more costly fight. Third, the United States could win an easy victory, destroying China’s long-range strike capabilities. But, as Caitlin Talmadge notes, U.S. doctrines that target Chinese land-based capabilities may lead to inadvertent nuclear escalation. Fourth, the United States could win an easy victory without deliberate or inadvertent nuclear escalation. Without assigning concrete likelihoods to each outcome, it is obvious that U.S. experts themselves highly doubt that the fourth and best-case scenario is still likely. Nor would allies appreciate potentially being in the middle of a shooting war with long-range stand-off weapons, one from which the United States can extract itself while they cannot. A conflict is more likely to give China exactly what it wants: the imposition of massive losses and costs on the United States, whether in victory or defeat, and making prolonged U.S. commitment less likely. The United States ends up in a similar position as if it were to lean back now, except at this point, it must rebuild and surge into the region while it lacks the industrial capacity to do so.
Is there a way out from this predicament for American planners that addresses the asymmetry in interests and the constraints of distance? First, the problem is misstated: If the United States cedes command of the Western Pacific, this does not mean China gains it. The forces that constrain the United States and make power projection costly do the same for China. As Michael Beckley notes, China is incapable of going on an “Imperial Japan-style rampage across East Asia.” The Marine Corps, together with the Navy, has been busy generating innovative solutions to the problems of amphibious operations in an era of precision strike, yet it has to be sufficiently acknowledged such operations would also be incredibly dangerous for China. The U.S. Navy would retain command in the rest of the Indo-Pacific along with the ability to deny Chinese access. China would need decades of unopposed expansion to rival the infrastructures in place. During this time, China would remain economically dependent on the wider maritime commons that it does not command and to which it cannot deny the access of others.
Second, the United States, rather than positioning itself to go toe-to-toe with China, could give China just enough rope to hang itself. China’s belligerence in the region and its “wolf warrior” diplomats have already damaged whatever decades of “lying low” accomplished. The United States should ensure that regional partners and allies have access to precision weapons to build their own defensive bubbles. The Biden administration seems to be leaning in that direction. These bubbles would not only deny China command in the Western Pacific but also present Chinese officials with multiple problems to solve rather than one large one. Moreover, the United States could encourage the multilateralization of other dimensions of maritime security with Asian and European states in the wider Indo-Pacific to ensure that China will have to actively decide to transgress existing shared norms. Furthermore, the United States could de-emphasize the military aspects of competition with China and instead focus on the economic and technological aspects.
Finally, if the United States continues to want to actively uphold deterrence and reassurance in the Western Pacific, it should prepare for a war of attrition. The United States needs more shooters rather than more ships. Some of the proposed measures in the tri-service strategy go in that direction, specifically putting “greater numbers of distributable capabilities over fewer exquisite platforms,” relying more on unmanned vehicles, and investing in sealift and logistics. Yet, stand-off weapons alone will not suffice to reassure without a simultaneous land-based physical presence to address the asymmetry in stakes. The United States would need to accept its vulnerability over a prolonged period of time to demonstrate its willingness to incur costs, or simply to ensure it has enough forces and materiel in the region. Indeed, the new defense secretary seems to believe that more bases are required. Dispersion across more locations within the region, as well as mobile launchers, would increase the survivability of U.S. forces without lowering the American stake in the region. However, it remains unclear whether the American public would or should accept such risks.
In short, the United States should not trap itself by framing the rise of China as an existential struggle between two titans that depends on the United States retaining command of the Western Pacific. Continuing on the current path allows China to focus all of its capabilities in its backyard, while the alternative forces China into solving multiple problems. In any case, the United States should avoid placing all its bets on a decisive confrontation or one where escalation is unpredictable. Against a near-peer competitor that can bring both its land- and sea-based assets to bear, this is unnecessary and too great a risk. The American ship would be a fool to fight a Chinese fort.
Paul van Hooft is a senior strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, the co-chair of its Initiative on the Future of Transatlantic Relations, and a former postdoctoral fellow at the Security Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.