When China's military modernization hit its stride over the last decade, America’s Asian allies and partners began to wonder how the U.S. plans to respond to the PLA’s growing ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities.
‘Air-Sea Battle’ (ASB) has become a much discussed potential Pentagon response at the level of U.S. warfighting doctrine. While US officials refrain from naming names, everyone in Asia knows that this is about China. In short, ASB is about planning for a potential U.S.-Sino military confrontation in the Asia-Pacific, raising the stakes for allies given that they are expected to play a major role in implementing the concept.
According to some U.S. think tank, alongside Japan Australia is to play a central role. For the most part, the Australian debate – to the extent that there has been one – has either fully embraced or dismissed ASB. However, as I argue here in much more detail, a middle position which identifies both strengths and weaknesses is more fruitful.
Let’s start with the positives. The ASB initiative should be welcomed as an attempt by the U.S. to strengthen its conventional deterrence posture, thus balancing China's increasing hard power by signalling both the intention and the capability to operate in maritime zones increasingly contested by the PLA. Some analysts have argued that ASB is only a military-technological concept which enables a new degree of joint operations between U.S. air and naval forces in an A2/AD environment. But while the concept has certainly a technological dimension to it, it's the political message that matters most. Any Chinese leader would need to calculate the possibility and nature of a U.S. reaction in response to a major military action designed to change the status quo in the Western Pacific.
This deterrence dynamic is particularly important in East Asia, where Taiwan and Japan in particular are deeply concerned about China’s increased military pressure. Not surprisingly, these two countries are the most welcoming when it comes to ASB, given that they are ‘front line’ states in the emerging U.S.-Sino strategic competition.
The concept plays to the strength of the U.S. military when it comes to high-intensity warfare. Indeed, the U.S. Navy and Air Force are likely working on counter-measures against much-hyped PLA capability developments such as its ‘carrier killer’ DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile. ASB could thus make a critical contribution to regional stability by promoting deterrence in Sino-US strategic affairs.
However, the concept appears optimized for deterring a high‐intensity conventional war between China and the U.S. and its allies—extreme cases such as PLA attacks on Taiwan, Japan or forward deployed US forces. Because it's a 'big stick,' it will probably be far less effective against small scale Chinese aggression, like coercive military actions in maritime territorial disputes where the stakes are small enough to (probably) avoid high levels of escalation. The U.S. is thus still in search for a credible deterrence strategy for such cases, especially in the South China Sea. That's why Southeast Asian allies and partners are much more ambivalent when it comes to ASB, and the U.S. would be ill advised to take their participation for granted.
Moreover, it isn’t clear how AirSea Battle fits within a broader U.S. grand strategic framework to deal with China’s military rise. Some analysts have called for the development of a grand strategic framework to guide American Asia‐Pacific defense strategy. Left unaddressed, ASB will continue to suffer from an image problem, and be seen as being designed to militarily 'contain' China. The U.S. thus needs to do more to explain the concept’s rationale to its allies. And it needs to explain it to China as well—the emergence of a military strategy designed to counter China's growing strength hasn't gone unnoticed in Beijing.
To minimize the risk of major power war, ASB should feature in the upcoming Sino-U.S. high-level military talks. This must include a debate on the relationship between ASB and nuclear deterrence. Advocates argue that escalation in an ASB context could be kept at the conventional level. That is a dangerous proposition given that the concept entails deep penetration of Chinese territory to destroy and disrupt PLA command and control nodes used for conventional operations. Beijing might well perceive such attacks as American attempts to disarm China’s nuclear deterrent and could thus be tempted to nuclear pre‐emption.
What is needed is a mutual understanding that as Chinese conventional and nuclear forces grow, a new concept of strategic stability in U.S.-Sino relations is required. While the US can no longer strike China conventionally with impunity, China should not assume that it can increase conventional brinkmanship under a (more) secure nuclear second-strike capability. In an emerging deterrence framework, the U.S. needs to persuade China that ASB is actually part of an ‘escalation ladder’designed to avoid acatastrophic nuclear exchange.
What then about Australia? Given what’s at stake we need to be an active participant in the future evolution of ASB. But that doesn’t mean that Canberra should sign up to a concept which is still in want for detailed explanation about allied participation. After all, Australia is not a ‘front line’ state in U.S.-Sino strategic competition and it could, if needed, provide vital military niche capabilities and ‘strategic depth’ independently of any public commitment. The Pentagon needs to do much more to persuade allies that ASB is the right response to China’s military challenge.
Ben Schreer is Senior Analyst Defence Strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra. He can be reached at [email protected]