Most of the debate that has surrounded the emergence of China as a major military player in the Asia-Pacific has focused on the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) development of an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) strategy and its potential impact on a U.S.-led regional security architecture that remains anchored to old concepts.
As China expands its military capabilities and, alongside those, its claims to various territories within the region, the PLA has developed and fielded a variety of platforms that are intended to deter and delay external intervention by U.S. forces in, say, an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The much-discussed Dong Feng 21D (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which could theoretically threaten a U.S. carrier battle group on its way to the region, is at the core of such a strategy.
Far less discussed, however, is the fact that China’s A2/AD strategy, or the likelihood that it will directly affect the course of a conflict, is contingent on a U.S. or allied response along conventional lines. In other words, China’s deterrence/denial efforts assume two things: first, that outside forces would seek to deploy closer to China in order to conduct operations; and second, that such deployments would involve traditional warships, aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft and bombers — in other words, everything that the ill-defined Air-Sea Battle strategy promises to include.
This “asymmetrical” approach provides China with a relatively inexpensive way to counter an opponent’s superior platforms: the PLA can afford to build and deploy several DF-21D launchers, while the U.S. would be loath to risk losing modern surface combatants, let alone a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier.
Now a new report by the RAND Corporation proposes turning the tables on China by creating a regional A2/AD alliance, relying principally on anti-ship missiles (ASM), to impose a “far blockade” on China should the latter threaten regional security. Under the plan explored in Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific, U.S. forces and partner countries would respond to Chinese aggression by deploying land-based anti-ship cruise missiles with operational ranges of between 100 km and 200 km at various chokepoints — among them the Strait of Malacca, the Straits of Sunda and Lombok and the Java Sea Routes, waters between Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as sea areas between Japan and South Korea — to keep the PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels (and presumably merchant ships) bottled inside the first island chain.
The presence of such missiles, the report argues, would undermine the ability of PLAN warships, transport vessels, and amphibious craft to safely carry out sea operations in those areas while denying them access into the West Pacific. In addition, the size of the aggregate territory involved in the proposed alliance (optimally Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and perhaps Australia) as well as the number of islets on which ASM launchers could be dispersed, would severely challenge the PLA’s ability to locate such systems and render them inoperable using ballistic missiles, air strikes or sabotage.
By resorting to such a plan, small regional powers would be in a position to wage their own A2/AD strategy against China and to threaten, at a relative low cost, more formidable and far more expensive Chinese naval platforms such as warships, landing helicopter docks, and carriers.
However, creating a multinational ASM strategy would not be without its challenges, nor can its formation be taken for granted. Although a number of ASM systems are currently available and their acquisition within the financial means of even the weakest of the partners involved, their effectiveness would depend on the ability of member states to also receive cueing and targeting data from U.S. sensors, which creates challenges (by no means insurmountable) in terms of ensuring that all the platforms involved can communicate.
Moreover, to avoid fostering the impression in Beijing that the U.S. and regional countries are seeking to keep it bottled in, ASM units probably could not be deployed permanently, and instead should be pre-positioned (presumably on U.S. territory) for rapid deployment amid rising tensions resulting from Chinese aggression or threat thereof. Access to heavy lift capabilities and operational airfields in partner countries would therefore be crucial elements for the success of this strategy.
For obvious reasons, proposing such an alliance would be controversial. Nor can it be assumed, as the report notes, that countries in China’s periphery would be willing to risk Beijing’s ire by joining the effort, unless conditions in the region deteriorate dramatically and the PLA’s posture becomes more aggressive than it is currently.
Moreover, an ASM component alone would be insufficient to ensure the ability of a member country to counter a Chinese attack. While “far blockade” would make the operations of the PLAN more difficult by denying its surface combatants the ability to expand beyond the first island chain or to approach enemy waters, it would have little value against other branches of the Chinese military, such as its air force and the Second Artillery Corps.
That said, as an instrument of deterrence, a flexible multinational ASM partnership could achieve much more, and at a much lower cost, than the longstanding approach of sales by the U.S. of highly expensive (and oftentimes vulnerable) conventional platforms like fighter aircraft and warships to regional allies.