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.
Needless to say, these are expensive capabilities. Many are disproportionately costly (and vulnerable) relative to the platforms against which they’re being fielded. And in some cases, particularly anti-submarine warfare and ballistic missile defence, their prospective cost greatly exceeds the operational effect they can be expected to produce. All of this would be exacting for the United States in peak economic condition. In a new era of fiscal stringency, with US debt expanding and the Pentagon looking to save hundreds of billions over the next decade, expecting the US military to do more with less is at best unlikely, and at worst wholly untenable.
It also risks failing to learn from history. Strategic competition in the Western Pacific is beginning to echo the Cold War, only this time the United States is at risk of reprising the role of the Soviet Union. Washington has already repeated Moscow’s mistakes in Afghanistan. With AirSea Battle, Washington is trying to do too much with too little. It’s facing off against an opponent in better economic shape whose smarter, more asymmetric strategy will impose a disproportionate military burden. For Washington, adopting such a maximalist doctrine risks playing into China’s hands and, like the Soviet Union, spending itself into penury.
But cost factors are only part of the danger. An arms race is already underway in Asia. AirSea Battle will accelerate this process, with serious implications for regional stability and crisis management. First, by creating the need for a continued visible presence and more intrusive forms of surveillance in the Western Pacific, AirSea Battle will greatly increase the range of circumstances for maritime brinkmanship and dangerous naval incidents.
Second, AirSea Battle’s emphasis on pre-empting China by striking early against the PLA will continue to compress the time available to decision-makers in a crisis. As military plans become increasingly dependent on speed and escalation, and diplomacy fails to keep up, a dangerous ‘use it or lose it’ mentality is likely to take hold in the minds of military commanders. This risks building an automatic escalator to war into each crisis before diplomatic efforts at defusing the situation can get underway.
And finally, AirSea Battle calls for deep strikes on the Chinese mainland to blind and suppress PLA surveillance systems and degrade its long-range strike capabilities. Such an attack, even if it relied solely on conventional systems, could easily be misconstrued in Beijing as an attempt at pre-emptively destroying China’s retaliatory nuclear options. Under intense pressure, it would be hard to limit a dramatic escalation of such a conflict – including, in the worst case, up to and beyond the nuclear threshold.
Taken together, the costs and risks associated with AirSea Battle spell trouble for US primacy in Asia, and for the sea control and power projection capabilities on which it relies. Yet while Washington’s comfortable hegemonic habits will be hard to kick – especially after so many peaceful, prosperous decades – it’s not all doom and gloom. Primacy, after all, is only a means to an end, a way of preventing China from attaining regional dominance. There are other, more cost effective ways of doing that, including by playing China at its own game. That would involve developing a maritime denial strategy, focused mainly on the use of submarines, designed to inhibit China’s use of the sea for its own power projection. Indeed, the same capabilities that imperil US power projection in the Western Pacific would have an equally profound effect on China’s own fledgling efforts.
This strategy is no panacea for the region’s problems, of course. It wouldn’t be cheap or easy and it would involve Washington making some hard capability trade-offs as well as accepting greater limits on its capacity for intervention in the Western Pacific. But there are benefits as well. In particular, maritime denial would allow the US to continue to play a strong role in the region. It would enable Washington to fulfil its defensive commitments to regional allies, prevent Chinese dominance and, at the same time, by reducing its visible military footprint, give Beijing more political breathing room. To that end, a US maritime denial strategy would also help avoid the worst aspects of crisis instability that AirSea Battle would provoke. And all without breaking the bank.
Raoul Heinrichs is Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and Deputy Editor of Pnyx.