The officer, a senior leader in US Pacific Command, looked down, fumbled with his papers and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was 2009, and he was answering a question about whether, in a Taiwan Straits crisis similar to that which occurred in the mid-1990s, the United States could confidently respond by again deploying aircraft carrier groups around Taiwan. ‘No,’ he conceded after a long pause, ‘and it’s the thing that really keeps me up at night.’ It was a telling response.
Indeed, while China’s new aircraft carrier grabs all the attention, the People’s Liberation Army’s maritime denial strategy is quietly maturing, leaving the United States facing some difficult choices. As submarines and precision-guided strike capabilities accumulate in Chinese arsenals – and are woven into war plans – the US capacity for sea-control and power projection in the Western Pacific, long taken for granted, is steadily being eroded. As a consequence, new doubts are emerging about the credibility of certain US strategic assurances, particularly in relation to Taiwan, which other US allies use as a barometer of Washington’s regional commitment. In this regard, China’s denial strategy is undermining the military, and hence political, foundations of US primacy.
This situation hasn’t arisen overnight. The most pronounced shifts in the military balance have, however, occurred while the United States has been preoccupied elsewhere – and in the context of a longstanding but unrealistic expectation on Washington’s part that China would be a different sort of great power, one that eschews power politics, like Japan, in favour of a more deferential posture.
Today, all aspects of that situation are changing. The advent of certain high-profile Chinese capabilities, together with Beijing’s newly uncompromising demeanour, suggests that China is under no illusions about the means to success in international politics, and is cut from the same cloth as its great power predecessors. It also means Beijing can no longer maintain such a low-profile in US strategic headlights.
With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drawing to a close, US attention is gradually refocusing on Asia. As it does, some strategists have begun re-evaluating the centrality of power projection in US strategy. In particular, they are asking: what does it mean for the United States and its allies to lose military primacy in the Western Pacific? Does US credibility depend on the ability to dominate China’s maritime periphery? And what are the implications of a military no-go zone in the Western Pacific?
These are questions that Washington will, in time, be forced to answer. In the meantime, the US Navy and Air Force have begun preparing AirSea Battle contingencies, a war-fighting doctrine aimed at countering China’s denial strategy. By denying China’s capacity for anti-access, the United States intends to preserve its options for sea-control and power projection, reinforcing its primacy and role as the region’s guarantor of free navigation. This decision, in turn, reflects a deeper, more quixotic judgement that such an objective is both vital to the United States and attainable at a level of cost and risk commensurate with US interests in the region.
On both counts, though, there are reasons to be sceptical. First, the cost of AirSea Battle is likely to be prohibitive. Though it remains a largely notional concept, AirSea Battle will depend on an expansive set of upgraded capabilities: a hardened and more dispersed network of bases and C4ISR systems; more and better submarine, anti-submarine and mine-warfare capabilities; and new, long range conventional strike systems, including bombers and anti-satellite weapons. Then, of course, there are the aircraft carriers and other major surface combatants, strike-fighter aircraft, and possibly even amphibious ships.