Zachary Keck

The Political Utility of China’s A2/AD Challenge

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Zachary Keck

The Political Utility of China’s A2/AD Challenge

Anti-Access/Area Denial is often seen purely in military terms. It’s much bigger than that.

At The Diplomat and elsewhere, much ink (digital and otherwise) has been spilled on China’s burgeoning anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. This is perfectly sensible given the importance of the Asia-Pacific to the 21st Century geopolitical order, and the fact that China’s A2/AD capabilities are just the most prominent example of a larger global trend.

As a military doctrine, A2/AD largely gets analyzed by military professionals and civilian defense analysts. And one result of this is China’s A2/AD capabilities get analyzed abroad largely through a military lens. Thus, discussion in the U.S. of China’s A2/AD capabilities seems to center around scenarios in which Beijing uses A2/AD to deny the U.S. military the ability to operate in its littoral waters during a crisis such as a Chinese invasion of the Taiwanese Strait.

Strategies and operational concepts for countering China’s A2/AD therefore tend to focus on ways the U.S. can gain access to China’s littoral waters during said crisis contingencies. It is assumed that if the U.S. is able to penetrate Chinese waters during such crisis scenarios than Beijing’s A2/AD doctrine will have failed. All of this is largely sensible too. China may in fact seek to use its A2/AD capabilities in this manner and if it is successful it would be to the detriment of the United States (and especially its allies).

At the same time, it is widely recognized that China, certainly to a greater extent than the United States, doesn’t compartmentalize its different sources of national power. As the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies’ (CSBA) Barry Watts has noted: “the overarching aim of the PLA’s military modernization is to contribute to China’s comprehensive national power (综合国力 or zōnghé guólì) rather than to field military capabilities per se.”

By comprehensive national power, Watts explains, China means the “sum total of the powers and influence of a country as measured by its economic power (gross domestic product), knowledge and technological resources, human capital… natural resources, capital resources (such as domestic and foreign investment), government’s ability to mobilize resources, military power, and international resources.”

And there are political uses for China’s A2/AD capabilities beyond simply denying the U.S. military access to China’s littorals during hot conflicts such as an invasion of Taiwan. Namely, A2/AD encourages the U.S. military to develop capabilities to fight over longer ranges, out of reach of China’s medium-range missile capabilities. This indeed is one of Watts’ recommendations for dealing with China’s budding long-range precision strike capabilities.

While this method may be effective in overcoming A2/AD challenges during actual conflicts, it proves less useful in times of peace. Not wanting to put expensive naval assets like aircraft carriers at risk of China’s missiles even during peacetime, and having long-range aircraft that can strike at distances over 1,000 kilometers, the U.S. Navy may drastically reduce its peacetime presence in the Asia-Pacific.

This doesn’t in reality reduce American military power in the region, since the U.S. would retain the ability to surge military force when it is actually needed. However, not having a substantial U.S. military presence constantly operating in the Western Pacific would create the perception of American retrenchment. It would also give China a freer hand in conducting its small-stick diplomacy against weaker neighbors, which has served it so well in places like the Scarborough Shoal.

Both functions advance China’s goals of sowing doubt in the minds of U.S. allies about America’s commitment to the region, and reorienting the status-quo in ways that are favorable to Beijing. It is consistent with Sun Tzu’s maxim about the preference for winning without fighting — or, in modern terminology, “peaceful rise” — and China’s recent strategy of changing facts on the ground. These factors therefore need to be kept in mind when devising the U.S. and allied response to China’s A2/AD capabilities.