Trans-Pacific View | Security | East Asia

Getting the Pacific Deterrence Initiative Right

The PDI will undoubtedly set the groundwork for U.S. defense posture in Asia for the foreseeable future. Getting it right matters.

By Benjamin Rimland and Patrick Buchan for
Getting the Pacific Deterrence Initiative Right
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Aaron B. Hicks

America’s “Pacific Pivot,” promised by three administrations, has at last found consensus in popular and policy circles thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coming on the heels of years of Chinese coercion in the South and East China Seas, information warfare, and “lawfare,” U.S. INDOPACOM has proposed a supplementary budget to put financial and hardware muscle into rhetorical commitments that the Pacific is the United States’ “priority theater.” The coalescing of both U.S. popular and elite opinion on the threats that China poses to Asia’s regional order has given space for this initiative to leap from op-ed page speculation to real-world policy. With news that INDOPACOM has officially submitted its “regain the advantage” supplementary budget, that policy has begun to take shape. 

The request spells out several lines of budgetary effort to be accomplished over several years. Among them are improvements to defensive systems in Guam and Hawaii, the full funding of the Maritime Security Initiative, a new pool of money for exercises, and the pre-positioning of munitions stocks. The request also lays out notional ideas for new data fusion centers for the United States and its Pacific allies, as well as money to support a more resilient basing structure in the Pacific. The budget can be thought of as the Pacific version of the successful European Defense Initiative (EDI), a similar program undertaken after the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. Like “regain the advantage,” EDI freed up funds for pre-positioning munitions and equipment, and similarly broadened the scope and scale of exercises. 

Reports that INDOPACOM’s supplementary budget has met with support on Capitol Hill come as welcome news. The funding and hardware infusion that will likely arrive as a result of the consensus (and budget request) — the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” (PDI) — will lay the groundwork for the U.S. Pacific presence for decades to come. Though just an initial step, getting U.S. future Asia defense strategy right will require tough choices about the security environment that PDI will help shape. 

Threading this needle will not be an easy task. Coming on the heels of the PDI is another seismic change to Asian security: U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in August 2019, allowing the United States to field ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles for the first time in decades. With U.S. territory only extending to the so-called second island chain, delicate negotiations with allies are underway to see what exactly American missile deployments might look like. 

Broadly speaking, the PDI and INF withdrawal presents the United States and its allies with two strategic options. On the one hand, the U.S. could adopt a so-called “deterrence by denial” doctrine. This would see the United States and its partners focus on deterring Chinese aggression by making it clear that any PLA actions would be defeated before accomplishing a fait accompli. Simply put, U.S. and allied military action would be limited to “denying” China its immediate objectives; denying the transit of PLA navy ships across the Taiwan Straits, for instance, or similarly denying the PLA air force the ability to land troops on the Senkaku Islands. 

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The second option is utilizing the PDI and INF withdrawal to create a “deterrence by punishment” framework. This would see the U.S. and its allies not only focus on strike missions on PLA military targets, but further threaten Chinese commercial shipping, impose harsh economic sanctions, and undertake other measures. The goal would be to broaden an immediate conflict into one that not only aims to defeat the PLA’s immediate military objectives, but also “punishes” Chinese political and economic leadership. 

How might this look in practice? Certain aspects of the PDI will remain constant no matter the choice. Upgrades to Guam’s missile defense infrastructure and moves to pre-position munitions will go forth regardless of which doctrine the United States chooses. Both courses will involve potentially fraught negotiations with allies — whether with Japan over stationing U.S. missiles, or with the Philippines on implementing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), for example. 

The differences would lie in declaratory policy, emphasis, and focus. A PDI informed by deterrence by punishment would focus on laying the groundwork for installing previously banned intermediate-range missiles capable of hitting mainland China, while a PDI focused on denial would instead see the U.S. focus on anti-ship missiles designed to close off critical bodies of water like the Miyako Strait. Exercises in a deterrence by denial PDI would focus on rapid dispersal, runway repair, and operations to deny transit through critical sea and air passages. Exercises in a punishment-informed PDI would instead focus on destroying adversary maritime commerce and hitting mainland targets. 

Getting the PDI right means understanding which model is more strategically stable and palatable to U.S. allies without spooking them into thinking that the PDI is too overtly antagonistic. Deterrence by punishment would be fundamentally destabilizing and create more problems than it would solve. Allies are unlikely to offer to host U.S. missiles if they understand that those missiles will be targeting dual-use facilities on the mainland rather than clear military targets in the maritime or aerial theater of battle. Punishment would also raise significant credibility issues: Would the United States and its allies hold all maritime traffic at risk, even when some of that may be supplying energy or goods to the U.S. or its allies themselves? With the United States currently dependent on China for manufacturing of several types of critical goods, threats of a broader, punishing economic boycott will also lack credibility. “Displays of resolve” like aircraft elephant walks or carrier maneuvers carry little weight when the damage wrought by such platforms will rebound on the United States.

Utilizing the resources provided by the PDI to formalize a deterrence by denial doctrine would be the far more stabilizing and diplomatically realistic option. Many U.S. allies and partners already follow a denial doctrine themselves, giving U.S. planners a solid basis to argue for building upon already existing capabilities. Using the new “exercises, experimentation, and innovation” tranche of funds within the PDI, the United States could lead an allied dispersal exercise in the model of Resilient Typhoon — a fundamentally defensive tactic that would deeply complicate PLA planning. U.S. and Japanese aircraft could practice transporting American marines or Australian ground forces to austere operating bases in the western Pacific, for instance. 

While allies and partners play a major role in a PDI informed by denial, they are largely bystanders in a PDI informed by punishment. Only the United States has the targeting infrastructure and missile systems available to prosecute major missions like the destruction of all Chinese maritime shipping or mainland communication hubs. In that scenario, allies hosting U.S. punishment forces will gain little security while bearing the brunt of the inevitable retaliation. 

With the U.S. defense budget likely to take some form of adjustment due to COVID-19, the PDI’s focus on less expensive partner capabilities pairs naturally with a denial doctrine. A fully funded maritime security initiative under the PDI could allow the United States to more fully build partner capacity to resist aggression independent of U.S. forces. Focusing on partner capacity will also help the U.S. to overcome the tyranny of distance involved in any attempt to project power into the Western Pacific theater. Greater partner capacity in a denial situation means less need to surge big-ticket weapons systems from the continental United States and more time for U.S. policymakers to inject both diplomacy and de-escalation off-ramps into the strategic calculus.    

Adopting a denial doctrine through the PDI would further dovetail with the newly released Marine force structure “force design 2030” plan. This plan envisions the Marines undertaking a total divestment of heavy armor and reductions in combat engineering bridging capabilities and large helicopters in favor of a major increase in rocket artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles, and a redesign of infantry battalions. This proposal, like the Navy’s “distributed lethality” concept, envisions a reduction in large, powerful platforms in favor of a greater number of smaller, more nimble units. Coupling these changes with the PDI proposals like expanded construction authority and more fuel dispersal will give the future Marine Corps the foundation to truly exploit the limited range but major firepower of its rocket artillery force. Tying these smaller forces to major objectives like the destruction of all maritime commerce bound for China or the bombardment of inland Chinese targets would be a deliberate mismatch between limited resources and unlimited objectives. 

Lastly, the diplomacy of a “punishment PDI” fits much closer with the deeply problematic “clash of civilizations” narrative that all U.S. allies so deeply abhor. With punishment’s focus on broadening an immediate conflict to encompass all of Chinese commercial or political activity, it is difficult to see how U.S. allies would see an American push to accept a common punishment doctrine in the Pacific as anything short of a declaration that any conflict with China, no matter the scope, will inevitably evolve into existential struggle for the future of order in the Pacific. Meanwhile, denial ensures that the PDI will not create zero-sum diplomacy. Indeed, Japan’s armed forces are largely oriented in a denial posture toward China, which has not stopped a thawing of relations between the two countries — despite frank acknowledgement of the continued territorial tensions between the two. 

With the attention of Congress, the U.S. national security establishment, the military, and the public focused on the Pacific, the PDI will undoubtedly set the groundwork for U.S. defense posture in Asia for the foreseeable future. Thinking through major doctrinal differences and their effects on allies and partners will have tremendous impact on how the United States protects its interests and those of its allies in a post-COVID Asia. Though comparatively modest in the scope of the U.S. defense budget, the PDI may end up being simply the first salvo in a long U.S. effort to further shore up its Pacific presence. Getting Asia defense strategy on sound footing — ensuring strategic and fiscal stability, buy-in from partners, and rejecting absolutist views of civilizational conflict — means getting the PDI right. 

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Benjamin Rimland is a research associate in the Alliances and American Leadership Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

Patrick Buchan is director of the U.S. Alliances Project and fellow of Indo-Pacific Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).