James Holmes

The State of U.S.-China Competition

“The mainland can concentrate all of its military might against a fraction of U.S. strength…in its own geographic environs”

"My way of learning," quips legendary film noir detective Sam Spade, "is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery."  After that, advises Spade (a.k.a. Humphrey Bogart), you watch where the "flying pieces" go. Learning comes from studying the wreckage. "It's all right with me," he tells client Brigid O'Shaughnessy, "if you're sure none of the flying pieces will hurt you." That's the difference between active and passive learning, I suppose. You can lay back and wait for wisdom to emerge from others, or throw a wrench into entrenched orthodoxy and see where the shrapnel takes you. Which seems like a fitting way to open the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Meeting, here in the famed private detective’s haunt of San Francisco. Hey, you take your wisdom where you find it. Let's heave away!

Here's a capsule summary of my opening-day panel. I briefed my chapter on "The State of the U.S.-China Competition," from last year's Stanford University Press volume on Competitive Strategies in the 21st Century. My overall prognosis on the competition is so-so from the American standpoint. A Spade-inspired hook for the presentation: what if they gave a competition and only one team showed up? The team that never took the field would forfeit, even if it enjoyed enough material supremacy to crush its rival. As in sports, so in geopolitics. China started competing militarily with the United States after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, stepping up its exertions following the U.S. naval deployments off Taiwan during the island's 1995-1996 election cycle. Central to the PLA's efforts was fielding inexpensive weaponry that would make another such intervention prohibitively expensive for Washington. You don't have to win outright to prevail in strategic competition. Convincing the other guy to stand down works just as well, if not better. After all, you triumph without suffering through the injuries, trash-talking, and other headaches that come with full-contact sports.

Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War had denuded the U.S. military of its strategic purpose. After the fall of the Soviet Union, no new enemy arose to focus American energies and resources. Strategic drift took hold. Few took China's military buildup seriously until recent years. Few wanted to even think about competition against Asia's traditional central power. Even today, it's far from uncommon for scholars and practitioners to hold forth grandly, proclaiming that it will be decades before China can seize Taiwan. Or they repeat factoids, pointing out for example that the U.S. defense budget exceeds the next 16 countries' combined, or that the U.S. Navy is bigger than the next 13 navies combined. That being the case, why worry?

Here's why: because the mainland can concentrate all of its military might against a fraction of U.S. strength, and it can do so in its own geographic environs — a zone on the map where it commands superior numbers, nearby bases, intimate familiarity with the terrain, and a host of other advantages. This negates much of the U.S. advantage on paper, making for a more even contest in the waters and skies that matter. Does this mean the game is lost? Hardly. Nothing is fated. If it were, I would counsel evacuating the region and leaving allies to their own devices. China has the advantage of competing on its home field. But U.S. allies hold fixed positions on that field, known as offshore island chains and marine passages. The U.S. Navy retains sizable advantages in such domains as undersea warfare (although the submarine force could sorely use more boats, lest it find itself overmatched by dint of numbers). It should preserve and expand those advantages, making a maritime challenge unthinkable.

Not least, the character of the opposing team bestows competitive advantages on America and its friends. China comports itself like Sun Tzu's Hegemonic King, an imperious power that expects to overawe others into submission. That's a good rallying point for an alliance-builder like Washington. Few peoples relish kneeling before Zod! But U.S. leaders must take the challenge seriously, and make the conscious choice to compete in earnest. Let's hunt for low-cost ways to impose high costs on the other competitor — and deter him from taking his game to another level.