The United States Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, conveyed an ambivalent optimism about the Navy-to-Navy relationship with China and cautioned against inflating the threat from Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities at a recent think tank discussion about Asia strategy hosted by the Center for American Progress. His remarks implied a recognition of limits on what engaging with the Chinese Navy can achieve, but that while the United States simultaneously cooperates and competes with China, the former can help build mechanisms to minimize needless risk from the latter. He also pushed back against the tendency to see A2/AD systems as a “panacea” against U.S. power projection without understanding the technical and operational difficulty China faces in actually implementing A2/AD systems successfully.
Engagement With China “Complicated”
Admiral Richardson began by comparing the U.S.-China relationship to the Facebook relationship status “it’s complicated.” He emphasized the importance of cooperating with the PLA Navy in areas where the United States and China have common interest and the necessity of including China meaningfully into the region’s security architecture to ensure common prosperity. He cited examples like Chinese participation in the biennial RIMPAC exercise and his frequent meetings with the head of the Chinese Navy (he’s had five this year). But he also recognizes that there are areas the U.S. and China disagree, like the South China Sea, that carry risk, and so prioritizes finding ways to minimize that risk, such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) rules for professional conduct between U.S. and Chinese ships and aircraft:
We’re there [the South China Sea] now and we’re going to remain there… we will advocate and enhance those areas where we have common interest and then we’ll work towards resolution where we have differences in a way that minimizes the chance of a miscalculation that could go quickly from a tactical type of a thing up to a strategic thing.
Some analysts are deeply skeptical of engagement with China. Retired Captain James Fanell, a controversial former top intelligence officer on the U.S. Pacific Fleet staff, wrote an op-ed in the September issue of the independent U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine criticizing China “engagers.” He dismisses the CNO’s bilateral meetings with his Chinese counterpart, and disputes the notion that engagement with the Chinese navy has any diplomatic value at all since this relationship has not prevented China’s assertive behaviors in the South and East China Seas. But this caricature of current U.S.-China engagement bears little resemblance to Admiral Richardson’s open-eyed descriptions of honest, interest-based discussion that recognizes disagreements and attempts to mitigate risks surrounding them.
Naval War College Professor James Holmes and East-West Center Fellow Dr. Denny Roy have more nuanced criticisms of China engagement that seem consistent with the CNO’s limited goals. Holmes believes the Navy’s engagement can help ameliorate tactical-level issues, disagreements, and tensions, but can’t solve fundamental disagreements between U.S. and Chinese strategic goals. Roy contends that engagement intended to build trust might actually have the opposite effect by revealing just how intractable some of those U.S. and Chinese objectives really are, warning that “transparency would not dispel mutual suspicions, it would confirm them.” However, he believes that the United States and China can still cooperate in many areas in the absence of genuine strategic trust, and that they can find mutually beneficial ways of managing tensions when they arise.
A2/AD as “Aspiration”
While recognizing the extraordinary advances that long-range sensors and precision weapons have made, Richardson described A2/AD as “sort of an aspiration rather than any kind of a strategy,” and suggested that the idea was a fundamental dynamic of war, rather than something new. In particular he rejected simple threat characterizations that simply look at a missile’s range and location on a map, and then assume that nothing can enter that radius without being targeted and potentially destroyed. He said that “while it’s easier to detect things at distance, it’s still difficult,” and the technical and procedural complexity of the sequence of events required to actually achieve a “kill” at great distances can be exploited and disrupted.
This is a consistent theme for Richardson, who told The National Interest in an August interview that though A2/AD was a goal of some competitors, “achieving that goal is much different and more complicated.” It is also consistent with recent studies of potential war with China that I described, which found that A2/AD systems’ potency would rapidly diminish the further away from shore one got. The result is that neither the United States nor China are likely to achieve control or enjoy freedom of movement over the seas between them in the Western Pacific as A2/AD systems mature. But at least for now, Richardson believes the U.S. can still operate within China’s A2/AD umbrella, and the U.S. Navy is exploring “creative things” to do offensively within that environment should there be a conflict.
Richardson closed with an admonition against viewing China as a unique or deranged threat:
China is this tremendous growing nation…. as nations grow… we shouldn’t be surprised that China is moving to become global, to continue to prosper, and part of that global move is going to be a move to the sea… It’s no surprise that they should have interests in the maritime domain not only for economic reasons but right behind that is security reasons.
Understanding this obviously does not mean war is impossible (as the U.S. and Japan found in World War II), or, as Roy warned, that understanding will lead to strategic trust between the U.S. and China. Instead, appreciating the limitations of both engagement and of the potential military threat clarifies how to best put roadblocks to war in place. In March, Richardson told the New America Conference that he wanted to be “the world’s expert at not going to war [with China].” By cooperating with China where he can, working to minimize the risk that tensions contribute to a broader crisis, and building the means to deflate local military advantages China may believe it has, Richardson wants to ensure the U.S. Navy does its part to preserve a mutually acceptable peace.