As to the Pentagon’s assertion that the plan is not aimed at a particular adversary—there are only two countries with advanced A2/AD capabilities: China and Iran. China is by far the strongest challenger to unfettered U.S. domination of the seven seas, while Iran comes in a remote second place, and according to the CBSA, “cannot hope to match China when it comes to developing an advanced A2/AD network.” When reporters inevitably ask about ASB’s connection to China, its planners respond that “the inclination to narrow down on a particular scenario is unhelpful.” Note: Not false or misleading but – unhelpful to the military’s desired message. Off the record, officials have allowed that “Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”
The main flaw Air-Sea Battle is not merely that it is a particularly aggressive military response to the anti-access/area-denial challenge. The problem is that ASB is developing in a foreign policy vacuum. If the U.S. were to conduct a thorough review of China’s military capabilities and its regional and global ambitions—and found that the Chinese were planning to forcefully expand their territory or unseat the U.S. as the global power, perhaps Air-Sea Battle might be deemed appropriate.
There are few signs, however, that China is on this path. China’s leaders have embraced a foreign policy of “peaceful development” and are moving the country toward greater participation in the prevailing world order rather than trying to undermine it. It participates in the United Nations where it often votes “absent” rather exercise its veto power; it plays by the World Trade Organization rules and increased its contribution to the IMF; and it has used legitimate channels to resolve most recent trade and territorial disputes. Moreover, the U.S. and China have surprisingly many complimentary interests that could serve as the basis for cooperative relations, including counterterrorism, economic stability, preventing the spread of pandemics, and environmental protection.
Even if such a review concluded that a military clash with China was a possibility, then the U.S. would still very likely have the time and space to pursue alternatives before embracing a strategy as risky as ASB. One possible way forward is a policy of “Mutually Assured Restraint” modeled after the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Under MAR, the U.S. and China would agree to place verifiable limits on weapon systems (especially anti-ship, space and cyber capabilities) and refrain from seeking to pull China neighbors into their sphere of influence, treating them instead as neutral buffer states.
In contrast, Air-Sea Battle not only makes war with China more likely; it shifts attention and resources from where they are needed most—suppressing the ongoing threat of terrorism in the Middle East and Africa and contributing to nation building at home. For now, it would be best to turn ASB into what the Pentagon says it is: the work of a tiny office, with a few officers, laboring to improve coordination and communication among the services.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.