The U.S. isn’t “returning” to the Asia-Pacific, it never left in the first place. Here, in the world’s most strategically and economically dynamic region, China is already demonstrating great potential to undermine American strategic interests and the efficacy of the global system – and is doing so in practice. Though Beijing and Washington have considerable shared interests and potential for cooperation, the most difficult period for them to achieve “competitive coexistence” may already have begun. Assuming that high-intensity kinetic conflict can be avoided – fortunately, a highly likely prospect – China’s greatest challenge to U.S. interests and the global system might thus be the already unfolding strategic competition, friction, pressuring, and occasional crises in the three “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas).
China is already a world-class military power – but not in the ways that many have charged. Beijing’s “blue water” naval expansion beyond the Second Island Chain, which isn’t proceeding at the highest level, does not pose a serious problem for Washington. Indeed, as a growing great power, it is only natural for China to develop an increasing presence in this realm, and in many respects it should be welcomed.
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The United States has and will continue to have many viable options to address any problems that might emerge in this area, at least with respect to a high intensity kinetic conflict. For instance, Chinese forces themselves are highly vulnerable to precisely the same types of “asymmetric” approaches (e.g., missile attacks) that they can employ to great effect closer to China’s shores. In fact, there’s substantial room for cooperation beyond the Near Seas. This potential may even be said to be growing, as China’s overseas interests and capabilities increase, thereby allowing it to contribute in unprecedented ways. In this area, which covers the vast majority of the globe, Beijing appears to be cautiously open to Washington’s ideas about “defense of the global system” – which offer excellent opportunities for “free riding” off U.S.-led public goods provision.
The problem is that in the Near Seas themselves, and possibly beyond them over time, Beijing is working to carve out a sphere of strategic influence within which freedom of navigation and other important international system-sustaining norms do not apply. Indeed, China already has some ability to engage in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) operations within the Near Seas/First Island Chain and their immediate approaches, assisted in part by the land-based Second Artillery Force; as well as longer-range precision strikes and global cyber activities. This A2/AD challenge threatens U.S. naval platforms, but is far more than just a Chinese navy-based threat.
The U.S. military has many options to prevent the People’s Liberation Army from paralyzing its forces, yet it will fail if it continues business as usual. It could already be difficult to handle kinetically with current American approaches, and the situation appears to be worsening rapidly. The U.S. may not have years to develop new countermeasures and prepare to address the most difficult aspects of the problem; in a sense, “the future is now.”
Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a core founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute.This entry is based on remarks made at Harvard University during The Diplomat's Pivot to the Pacific panel.