The U.S.-China Military Balance in the Western Pacific
he security condition in the South and East China Seas has worsened over the past few years as territorial disputes have increased and mistrust deepened. China has grown increasingly assertive in each of the seas, which has caused suspicion among key states in the region. Moreover, regional institutions have had little impact, international law is being disregarded, and Sino-American relations appear increasingly driven by competition rather than shared interests.
The stakes for the United States in the South China Sea are high. Freedom of navigation through the sea facilitates $5.3 trillion in global trade each year, $1.2 trillion of which passes through American ports. The South China Sea is considered by many to be a “strategic bellwether” for assessing the future of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to some analysts, whether the Western Pacific remains a peaceful maritime commons or a flashpoint for conflict between the U.S. and China, reminiscent of Cold War tensions, is likely to be decided in the South China Sea. The U.S., therefore, must preserve free access to these critical sea-lines of communication (SLOC) to maintain peace and prosperity throughout the region. However, the inability for the U.S. to project sufficient military power into the South China Sea would dramatically alter the state of affairs for the entire Asia-Pacific region. The balance that must be assessed is the ability of the U.S. military to project whatever military power it might require to prevail in a future armed confrontation with China. Equally, China’s ability to disrupt or deny U.S. force projection must also be assessed.
A cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy since World War II has been the ability to rapidly project military power worldwide to protect the nation’s interests. These interests include, but are certainly not limited to, spreading and protecting democratic governance, preserving access to strategic trading partners and resources, and reassuring allies and partners who cooperate with the United States in protecting common interests. Throughout the Cold War era, the Soviet Union presented a formidable military challenge to American power-projection capabilities. Fortunately, the superpowers succeeded in avoiding a major conflict. Even so, the U.S. military’s unrivaled ability to project and sustain large military forces around the globe was demonstrated in wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, as well as in numerous other, smaller conflicts. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s downfall the U.S. military’s power-projection abilities in defense of the nation’s interests were essentially uncontested.
This state of play is clearly coming to an end, with major implications for U.S. national security. With the diffusion of innovative military technologies to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, the U.S. military’s ability to maintain military access to the Western Pacific region is being increasingly tested. While China proclaims nonthreatening intentions, “it is an old military maxim that since intentions can change overnight—especially in authoritarian regimes—one must focus on the military capabilities of other states.”
Without question, preserving the U.S. military’s power projection capabilities will be crucial to maintaining military preeminence well into the twenty-first century. Since force projection remains foundational to U.S. defense strategy, the nation’s rebalance to the Asia- Pacific region not only revalidates this posture, but it also marks a shift that stresses the necessity for far-reaching naval and air force capabilities. This shift was made clear in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which stressed that “U.S. maritime forces will be characterized by regionally concentrated, forward deployed task forces with the combat power to limit regional conflict, deter major war, and should deterrence fail, win our Nation’s wars as part of a joint or combined campaign.”
There were two events in the 1990s which served as the impetus for China to develop an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. First was the overwhelming success of the U.S.-led 1991 Persian Gulf War. PLA analysts were forced to rethink their ability to fight an adversary armed with technologically advanced weapons. Operation Desert Storm did conform to the Chinese view of modern wars as being fast and intense. However, the effectiveness with which the U.S. military employed airpower and joint operations to destroy an Iraqi army that was sometimes armed with Chinese weapons caused worry within the PLA that it was grossly ill prepared (both in terms of technology and military doctrine) to fight and prevail in a similar kind of war. According to one Chinese analyst:
[w]hat PLA analysts saw was not a war of the future, but a war as it could be fought today by a post-industrial power. Little the PLA had achieved by reorganization, modifying its force structure, building a better educated officer corps, reconceptualizing the manner it planned to conduct future wars, and more realistic training could offset the impact of technology on operations by well-trained, properly organized joint forces exploiting the technological sophistication of their armaments and supporting systems.
The PLA study of the Gulf War devoted significant attention to the role of the U.S. military’s intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets. The role of airpower garnered attention for its ability to destroy air defense and command-and-control (C2) nodes, while the U.S. use of stealth aircraft and cruise missiles underscored the problems the PLA would have in defending against an attack from a technologically advanced air force.
The U.S. reliance on force projection and forward deployment to prosecuting that successful campaign was not overlooked by PLA planners. Should a technologically and militarily superior adversary such as the U.S. be allowed to “arrive in force and on time, it will almost certainly prevail.”12 Moreover, for the U.S. to arrive in force and on time, it must have the “ability to deploy forces into theater with little risk of hostile interference.” Likewise, should war occur with the United States, PLA planners have concluded that “The U.S. military deployment process must be disrupted or neutralized and [the PLA] have successfully developed and fielded military capabilities designed to fulfill this need.”
The second event motivating the development of A2/AD strategies was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Furious that Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui had been granted a visa to speak at Cornell University, China, fearing promotion of his nation’s independence movement, conducted missile tests in the Strait to deter the island nation from promoting its pro- independence inclinations. Consequently, the U.S. responded by deploying two aircraft carrier strike-groups into the area as a reminder of its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of hostilities. The U.S. response “lit a fire under the Chinese military and civilian leadership,” which convinced them to develop “a variety of capabilities intended to target American aircraft carriers.” Therefore, China concluded that it was necessary to “limit America’s access to critical battlefield areas.”
The means for the United States to project sufficient military power in response to a new crisis in the South China Sea or anywhere else along China’s littorals rests largely on three pillars: carrier strike-groups, bases in Okinawa, Japan and the U.S. island territory of Guam. As China continues to invest heavily in new A2/AD capabilities, all three will become increasingly vulnerable.16 Therefore, it is worth recalling the warning issued by US Pacific Command (PACOM) in 2010:
China continues to develop weapons systems, technologies and concepts of operation that support anti-access and area denial strategies in the Western Pacific by holding air and maritime forces at risk at extended distances from the [People’s Republic of China] coastline. The PLA Navy is continuing to develop “Blue Water” capability that includes the ability to surge surface combatants and submarines at extended distances from the [Chinese] mainland.
Some ways to measure the balance
A. What are the long-term strategic goals of the U.S. and China in the Western Pacific?
B. Is it possible for both to achieve its goals short of armed conflict?
C. How has China’s A2/AD strategy developed since 1995 and how has the U.S. responded militarily, economically and politically?
D. What will the competition will look like in 5-10 years based on the previous twenty? Who has/will have the advantage?
E. How would the U.S. and Chinese fight? Knowing how critical force projection is to the U.S. military, would China attack preemptively to deny U.S. access to regional basing? Should the U.S. attack preemptively to ensure access to basing?
F. Have the Chinese embarked on a cost-imposing strategy vis-à-vis the U.S. by pitting inexpensive missiles against expensive missile defenses?
G. What is the role of U.S. allies and partners in the region?
The nature of China’s emergence as a strong regional power has presented the United States with a major challenge. Although China has been a great beneficiary of the U.S.-led international order in the Asia-Pacific, it has been reluctant to embrace all aspects of that system. Indeed, China perceives aspects of the system as threatening and objectionable, and because of its growing power it is increasingly willing to challenge the status quo – from unification with Taiwan to territorial claims and maritime rights in the South China Sea – make
China a formidable rival. China’s external objectives are clearly to exercise greater control over its periphery, achieve unification with Taiwan and to become the dominant power in Asia – objectives that will necessitate the diminishment of U.S. power and influence throughout the region. China’s achievement of these objectives would severely damage U.S. security by enabling China to become the first East Asian power to threaten the Western Pacific and the U.S. homeland since 1941.
The U.S.-China strategic competition is therefore driven by competing visions for Asia and how to achieve national security. The objectives of the U.S. are to preserve the post-war status quo in the Asia-Pacific. That is, a region that consists of strong, independent, democratic, and free-market states that are free from domination by China or any regional hegemon. Alternatively, China’s overriding objectives are to safeguard the Chinse Communist Party’s (CCP) hold on power; maintain domestic stability; sustain economic growth and development; defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity; secure China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence; and safeguard China’s interests abroad. It has seemingly determined that these key strategic objectives are best served by completing its task of recovering territory lost in past wars, controlling its periphery, and slowly becoming the dominant power in Asia – for reasons of strategic culture China believes this is a position it should naturally assume.
Should China succeed in becoming the dominant hegemon in Asia the consequences for the U.S. could be quite severe. An Asia-Pacific dominated by China would likely develop economic and military spheres of influence where the U.S. would be essentially “boxed-out” – an outcome that would radically alter the international economic and security orders.24 The U.S. therefore has a vital interest in both preventing a hegemonically dominated Asia and in promoting an Asia “whole and free,” consisting of democratic nations trading among themselves and incorporated into the international economy. For the foreseeable future at least, the U.S. will need to maintain its role in preserving the status quo in the Asia-Pacific. For it to do so, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to develop new and innovative ways to continue to deter conflict and coercion, reassure allies, and to project military power into the Western Pacific in the event of conflict.
If the U.S.-China strategic competition is about competing visions for Asia, then it is also about access. China’s objective is to deny the U.S. access into many critical areas of the Western Pacific where the U.S. military will need to continue operating. The primary implements for the U.S.-China military competition will be maritime and shore-based forces with the ability to influence events in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese have two mutually supporting concepts that appear to drive their strategic approach to areas on their periphery. First, the PLAN’s objective is to establish “control” over the waters extending 200 nautical miles out from China’s coast to freely conduct what it calls “independent operations.” These operations include the ability to attack Taiwan for the purposes of reunification and to secure and develop claims to maritime resources in those waters. Second, the Chinese have been shifting slowly to an “offshore defense strategy” meant to engage potential enemies at greater distances from its major urban areas along its coast. This strategy not only emphasizes the Second Artillery Force’s (SAF) missile-centric approach to both denial and coercive operations but also its so- called string of pearls strategy of establishing relations along the Indian Ocean to lay the foundation for greater control over the Malacca Strait and other critical transit nodes (air, sea and land) into East Asia.
Considering China’s aggressive military modernization plans and its stated objective to “contest” the “second island chain,” it is wise to expect that China will seek to develop capabilities that both deny U.S. access to areas within the Western Pacific and pose a credible conventional threat to the U.S. homeland to discourage U.S. intervention in a potential Chinese sphere of influence closer to China’s littorals.
Indeed, one of the key takeaways for China from the Taiwan Strait crisis was that “aircraft carriers [are] a key element of the U.S. ability to project power.” Therefore, considerable effort is being dedicated to ways of neutralizing the combat effectiveness of carrier battlegroups. Chinese analysts are studying what they believe to be key vulnerabilities of carriers and their supporting vessels. According to these analysts, carrier battlegroups are especially vulnerable when being redeployed, during resupply, transiting a narrow waterway, [such as the Malacca Strait] or during poor weather conditions. The PLAN has observed that the U.S. derives as much as 80 percent of its airpower from carrier based aircraft during combat operations in littoral areas. Consequently, the PLAN describes U.S. carrier battlegroups as “a great threat to anti-air operations in littoral areas and should be resolutely countered.”
Looking out to 2020-2025, the military competition will be characterized by increasing Chinese efforts to control its periphery for extended periods, to intimidate U.S. allies and attempt to weaken U.S. influence, and to project power to defend its increasingly widespread economic interests.The U.S. will work to preserve its position in the region, reassure allies of its willingness and ability to defend them, and complicate China’s capability to project power in ways that threaten U.S. interests.
Trends and asymmetries
China is making substantial investments in military programs and weapons designed to improve extended-range power projection, anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), and operations in emerging domains such as cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. China’s military modernization has already weakened the U.S. ability to project power into the Western Pacific, a trend that will be difficult to reverse given the prevailing technological, geographic, and financial constraints. Recent trends in China’s weapons development not only improve China’s capabilities to deal with contingencies along its periphery, such as a new Taiwan crisis, but will also allow the PLA to conduct a range of military operations in Asia outside China’s traditional territorial claims. According to one China analyst, "A key trend in [Asia-Pacific] is the shift from a traditional focus on territorial defense towards power projection – [t]his is new for the region and is likely to increase military-to-military contact between states."
China's defense spending is expected to balloon to $233 billion in 2020, up from $123 billion in 2010, according to a new report by IHS Jane's. Important systems that either have been fielded or are under development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship versions), anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, new surface ships, nuclear submarines, and an aircraft carrier.
The necessity to protect key trade routes, principally petroleum supplies from the Middle East, has driven the PLAN to conduct counterpiracy operations around the Horn of Africa. Clashes with Japan over maritime claims in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian claimants to all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea have caused increased tensions in these areas. Volatility on the Korean Peninsula such as the collapse of the North Korean regime could also produce a regional crisis involving the PLA. The CCP has also tasked the PLA with developing the expertise required for missions such as UN Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKO), Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR), and counterterrorism operations. These capabilities will enhance China’s options for using its military influence to support its diplomatic agenda, press regional and international interests, and resolve disputes in its favor. Simultaneously, China is surrounded by other regional powers that likely have an incentive to balance against its rise, many of whom are already U.S. allies or emerging strategic partners. Furthermore, even more so than the U.S., China is confronting a number of challenges (social, economic, demographic) that cast doubt over its ability to sustain its decades-long growth – challenges that could spark widespread internal dissent.
As of this writing U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump maintains that his goal of abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be his first order of business upon entering the oval office in January 2017. TPP (which excludes China) aims to deepen economic ties between its twelve member states, reducing tariffs and promoting trade to spur growth.
Members had also hoped to develop a closer relationship on economic policies and regulation. The agreement was designed to potentially create a new single market, something akin to the EU. TPP members have a population of roughly 800 million people (nearly twice the size of the EU market) and presently account for 40% of global trade – therefore the significance of the agreement is difficult to understate.
Although TPP is an economic agreement it is considered by some in the U.S. defense community to have significant security value. In a speech delivered on April 6, 2015 regarding the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter commented on the strategic value of the agreement to the U.S.:
[TPP] is probably one of the most important parts of the rebalance, and that’s why it has won such bipartisan support. In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier. It would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific. And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.
In fact, Carter may be understating the strategic value of TPP in that the agreement is probably as important as several aircraft carriers. The collapse of TPP leaves a void in Asia that certainly undermines U.S. economic power and possibly its military power as well – a void that will certainly be filled by China. The objective of TPP was always partially strategic. The U.S. and others alongside it, from Australia to Singapore, hoped the agreement would allow them to shape the structure of international trade in Asia and beyond. It was also meant to signal the U.S.’s long-term commitment to the region – something that allies and China are now understandably questioning. Consequently, the collapse of TPP may represent a fait accompli for China in damaging U.S. power and prestige in the Asia-Pacific.
Asymmetries to Consider
Although it is outside the scope of this writing to provide a complete and comprehensive assessment of all the trends and asymmetries defining the U.S.-China military competition, the author believes there are two that are especially challenging to U.S. forces and thus deserve special attention. First, is the transformation of the Second Artillery Force (SAF) – the branch of the PLA responsible for most of China’s conventional and nuclear ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles – one of the pillars of China’s military modernization effort. China has rapidly advanced from a limited and vulnerable nuclear ballistic missile capability to one of the most imposing nuclear and conventional ballistic missile programs in the world. According to a recent U.S. Department of Defense report on the PLA, “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile programs in the world.” In doing so China has managed to exploit restrictions placed on the U.S. under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. As a signatory to the treaty, the U.S. (and Russia) is prohibited from producing nuclear and conventional ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 300-3,400 miles and was forced to destroy existing stockpiles. Chinese ground launched cruise missiles at the upper limit of these ranges have the ability to hold at risk or attack fixed bases and ships at distances well beyond the second island chain.
With the overarching goal of denying the U.S. military access to the Western Pacific in mind, the PLA has paid particular attention to acquiring systems with the capability to detect, track and engage U.S. carrier battlegroups at greater distances from its littorals – increasing the costs of entry for the U.S. at minimal cost to China. According to the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), China is “developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading certain missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.” To accomplish the goal of increasing the cost of entry China has embarked on a cost imposing strategy vis-à-vis U.S. carrier battlegroups. According to U.S. naval strategist James Holmes, the U.S. is burdened by a huge cost disadvantage in its maritime competition with China. In The State of the U.S.-China Competition, Holmes points to the estimated $10.5 billion cost of building the next generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford – not including its air wing or escort ships. He estimates that if the average PLA antiship cruise missile (ASCM) costs as much as a U.S. Navy Harpoon Block II ASCM (which he doubts) the PLA Navy could afford 8,750 missiles for the price of a single Ford-Class carrier.
This is clearly an unfavorable ratio and considering the cost of the USS Gerald R. Ford has ballooned to nearly $13 billion since Holmes’ writing, it is even more so.
Second, the Chinese have made significant investment in various types of antiship mines with an arsenal estimated to range from 50,000 to 100,000 individual weapons. Sea mines are growing more sophisticated and their development is outpacing countermeasures in mine detection and clearing technologies. Modern sea mines possess stealthy shapes and nonmagnetic materials to prevent detection, delayed activation timers, ship counters, rocket propulsion, and sophisticated multisensory detonators. More advanced versions will have the capability to bury themselves in the seabed and reposition after initial planting, while others will target ships with torpedoes.
The U.S. Navy has acknowledged the severity of the sea mine threat. According to the 2010 Navy Operations Concept (NOC), the sea mine is considered “the greatest area-denial challenge in the maritime domain … capable of constraining maneuverability from deep waters past the surf zone to the maximum extent of the littoral.” James FitzSimonds agrees. A research professor with the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College, FitzSimonds posits that “among all the naval warfare areas, the mine versus mine countermeasures competition might represent the most radical war-fighting asymmetry and the most disproportionate offense-defense cost exchange ratio.” That is, a mine costing a few thousand dollars has the potential to achieve at the very least a “mission kill” against a U.S. aircraft carrier costing several billion dollars. Even so, U.S. and Chinese mine capabilities are moving on opposite trajectories as the U.S. has significantly underinvested in this area. Although the U.S. confronts a potentially severe mining threat from China, it has no comparable capability either to deter China or to divert China’s military resources. FitzSimonds concludes that the principal reason for this huge disparity is a culture within the U.S. Navy that has failed to embrace mine and countermine operations as a primary focus. Unlike surface ships, aviation and submarines, there is no officer career path in mine warfare and therefore no established body of expertise that is developed and maintained within the U.S. Navy officer corps. Consequently, it may require the outbreak of hostilities to incent the U.S. Navy to develop a competitive mine warfare strategy vis-à-vis China.
HOW CHINA VIEWS THE MILITARY BALANCE
The History of the U.S.-China Maritime Competition
Although the U.S.-China strategic competition dates back to the Chinese Civil War when the U.S. (1945-1949) directly supported Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces against Mao’s communists, the military competition as we understand it today began in earnest for the Chinese in the early 1990s. As was noted above, there were two events that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership regarded as pivotal to its long-term strategic competition with the U.S. – the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis – the latter event fully exposing PLA weaknesses vis-à-vis the U.S military. It was the Chinese response to these events a quarter century ago which largely defines today’s U.S.-China military competition in the Western Pacific.
The overwhelming success of the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War forced PLA analysts to rethink their ability to fight an adversary armed with technologically advanced weapons.
Although the war did conform to the Chinese view that modern wars were fast and intense, the effectiveness with which the U.S. military employed air power and joint operations to destroy an Iraqi army that was sometimes armed with Chinese weapons, caused worry within the PLA that it was grossly ill prepared (both in terms of technology and doctrine) to fight and prevail in a similar kind of war. Chinese strategists studied the failings of the Iraqi army in great detail and concluded that China must build a professional, mechanized, and “informatized” military to compete with the U.S. in the Western Pacific.
As surprising as the outcome of the Gulf War was to the PLA, it was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis that set in motion today’s maritime competition. In an attempt to intimidate Taiwanese voters who were preparing to elect pro-independence presidential candidate Lee Teng-hui, the PLA Second Artillery Force lobbed several ballistic missiles into the Strait.
Consequently, the U.S. responded by deploying the USS Nimitz and USS Independence aircraft carrier battlegroups into the area to deter further Chinese aggression. The PLA found itself unable to detect or even target the enormous U.S. task forces patrolling the waters of Taiwan. The U.S. response “lit a fire under the Chinese military and civilian leadership,” which convinced them to develop “a variety of capabilities intended to target American aircraft carriers.” Determined to prevent a repeat of this humiliation, the Chinese military concluded that it must deny the U.S. Navy some control over its coastal waters and deter it from intervening in future crises. Therefore, from the perspective of China’s leadership, the long-term competition with the U.S. has already been underway for several decades.
How China Views U.S. Maritime Strategy
The 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, stresses that “U.S. maritime forces will be characterized by regionally concentrated, forward deployed task forces with the combat power to limit regional conflicts, deter major wars, and should deterrence fail, win our Nation’s wars as part of a joint or combined campaign.”
Although China is never mentioned specifically, many Chinese strategists, such as Lu Rude, perceive U.S. maritime strategy in the Western Pacific as part of a ploy for “implementing strategic encirclement of different kinds of maritime flashpoints and ‘potential enemy’ through military deployment in ‘chokepoints’ of navigation and strategic nodes.”
Furthermore, Chinese experts view the 2012 U.S. rebalance from Europe to Asia “as an offensive policy meant to contain the rise of China as a world power.”77 China’s 2013 defense white paper explicitly mentioned the U.S. in this way, indirectly criticizing the U.S.’s growing presence in the Asia-Pacific region as well as stressing the growing complexity of international relations:
There are signs of increasing hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism. Local turmoils occur frequently. Hot-spot issues keep cropping up. Traditional and non- traditional security challenges interweave and interact. Competition is intensifying in the international military field. International security issues are growing noticeably more abrupt, interrelated and comprehensive. The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers. The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes. ….
Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser. On the issues concerning China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some neighboring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation….
Major powers are vigorously developing new and more sophisticated military technologies so as to ensure that they can maintain strategic superiorities in international competition in such areas as outer space and cyber space.
China’s media and population have also voiced apprehension over the US rebalance to Asia. China does not publish official assessments of U.S. military strategy and plans like those the U.S. Department of Defense publishes on Chinese strategy and military forces. At the same time, China does firmly dictate what its press is allowed to publish, and the following quotes – characteristic of many comparable examples – suggest that China’s strategic patience with the U.S. has limits that are important in considering how China may view the military balance:
Renmin Ribao, January 30, 2013:
The United States is boosting old military alliances, damaging the political foundation of East Asian peace, sharpening the territorial sovereignty contradictions between China and the countries around it, building a united front aimed at China, forcibly pushing the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, and disrupting the self-determined cooperation and regional integration process between the East Asian countries…in order for China to achieve strategic balance in the Asia Pacific region, it must greatly increase its military presence…. [China] should give full play to the strategic role of Russia and DPRK.
People’s Daily Online, April 10, 2013:
Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama proposed the high-keyed “return to the Asia- Pacific” at the end of 2011, the U.S. has begun to frequently organize joint military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region. For those exercises conducted in 2012 by the U.S. in the Western Pacific region alone, there were as many as 17 code names. Why is the U.S. so interested in Asia-Pacific region? Why does it frequently conduct such “exercises”? In a geostrategic sense, containing China in the Asia-Pacific region is the basic content of the U.S. policy toward China. There are three major means for the U.S. to conduct deep involvement in the Asia-Pacific region: first, wide alliance to win over various countries in the Asia-Pacific region; second, military forward deployment to realize strategic “rebalancing”; and third, occupy a “leading” position in the region to play “pro-active role.”
Scenarios and implications
Although it is beyond the scope of this assessment to cover the full breadth of possible scenarios in the U.S.-China military balance, this section will briefly examine one of the most persistent: a major conflict with China over Taiwan
Taiwan appears to represent an imbalance of sorts between the U.S. and China. For China the matter of Taiwan is clear – it considers Taiwan a breakaway province and it wants the island unified with the mainland. For the U.S. the issue is one of strategic ambiguity. Policy statements say little more than committing the U.S. to the peaceful resolution of differences between China and Taiwan. Therefore, an imbalance exists in how the U.S. and China view the value of Taiwan and to what extent each will go to achieve its objectives. For China there appears to be far more at stake, which would affect its decision calculus to go to war over the issue as well as the capabilities it may bring to bear in a war.
As the U.S.-China competition intensifies, however, it is possible that Taiwan could play a more prominent role in U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy in the years ahead. President-Elect Trump’s recent telephone call with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen challenges the decades-long “One China” policy and it could mark the beginning of an increasingly confrontational U.S.-China relationship under the new U.S. administration. According to An Fengshan, a spokesman for China's policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, he has warned of more serious consequences should the U.S. alter its policy. Mr. An commented:
Upholding the "One China" principle is the political basis of developing China-US relations, and is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," he said."If this basis is interfered with or damaged then the healthy, stable development of China- U.S. relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted."
The circumstances under which the CCP has historically warned it would use force have evolved over time in response to Taiwan’s declarations of its political status, changes in PLA capabilities, and China’s view of Taiwan’s relations with other countries. These circumstances have included:
• Formal declaration of Taiwan independence
• Undefined moves toward Taiwan independence
• Internal unrest on Taiwan
• Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons
• Indefinite delays in the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue on unification
• Foreign intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs
• Foreign forces stationed on Taiwan
Article 8 of the March 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that China may use “non-peaceful means” if “secessionist forces… cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China,” if “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession” occur, or if “possibilities for peaceful reunification” are exhausted. The ambiguity of these “redlines” preserves China’s flexibility.
For U.S. allies and partners in the region, the forcible reunification of China and Taiwan could be seen as an advanced warning that China may also use force to settle other disputes. China scholar Dan Blumenthal suggests that an attack on Taiwan could be perceived as an attempt to alter the balance of power in Asia for four reasons. First, although U.S. policy toward Taiwan is intentionally ambiguous, allies in the region have long considered Taiwan an ally of the U.S. and the Taiwan Relations Act essentially as a defense commitment. A scenario in which China forcibly unifies with Taiwan may be viewed by allies as irreversible Chinese domination. Second, key allies such as Japan could view the prospect of Chinese control over Taiwan as a serious threat to Japanese security. Should China militarize Taiwan, it could pose a direct threat to Japan’s sea-lanes of communication and on the Ryuku island chain. Third, control of Taiwan would enable China to exert far greater control over the South China Sea. Lastly, China’s concept of operations concerning Taiwan may have the effect of forcing the U.S. into a war.
Although China could try to limit an attack to Taiwan, it could also carryout preemptive strikes against U.S. bases in the region and Japan to prevent forces from these countries from intervening. Indeed, China could carry out air and missile strikes on the Kadena and Iwakuni air bases in Japan, despite the escalatory risks of striking Japanese territory. Should China deem it necessary to engage U.S. forces to prevail in Taiwan, the PLA will certainly execute a sea denial strategy that threatens U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups. China can use land-based attack aircraft to launch cruise missiles, attack submarines, and land-based ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable warheads against ships at sea. The PLAN is likely to use submarines armed with ASCMs and torpedoes to attack carrier battlegroups operating within tactical aircraft range of China’s mainland. The PLAN’s submarine force could also try to execute a blockade that threatens commercial shipping in and out of Taiwan. In conjunction with its sophisticated mining capabilities, PLAN submarines have the capability to effectively cutoff maritime trade to Taiwan.
Because China has developed effective air and missile capabilities, the U.S. cannot rely upon purely defensive measures to end an air and missile assault against Taiwan. The U.S. Navy and Air Force would likely be forced to “shoot the archer” rather than the arrow to stop or at least limit those assaults. This scenario raises the risks of serious escalation. Shooting the archer requires striking a large number of targets on mainland China (command and control nodes, storage facilities, ISR, airbases and industrial facilities) that directly support PLA air and missile operations. Carrying out deep strikes against a nuclear China might represent the sort of risk that the U.S. may be unwilling to take.
For China to carry out a successful operation against Taiwan, it may have to inflict extensive damage on the U.S. and Japan. Successful strikes against U.S. bases and maritime forces would force the U.S. to project power from distances beyond the second island chain to suppress China’s air defenses and air and missile forces. For the U.S. to mount an effective
counterattack it may have no alternative to striking targets on mainland China.
Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese should assume a high nuclear threshold in such a scenario. Punishing strikes on the mainland or on U.S. bases and maritime forces that inflict heavy losses could increase the potential for miscalculation leading to potentially grave consequences.
Overall, the balance of power between China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the first and second island chains, and the ability of the U.S. to project power into the Taiwan Strait to defeat a Chinese attack, has significantly shifted, and in a way that raises doubts about strategic stability. China has the capability to carry out devastating preemptive strikes against U.S. forces throughout the Western Pacific and on Taiwan. It can raise the costs of entry considerably for U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups and other forces attempting to intervene in the conflict, conduct a blockade against Taiwan, and shield its strike assets behind a sophisticated air defense system. China may determine that these capabilities will prevent the U.S. from defending Taiwan. However, it is also possible that the U.S. will view a Chinese attack on Taiwan through the lens of increased Chinese assertiveness and a perception that China is attempting to dominate the Western Pacific. In this scenario, the U.S. retains several advantages it can leverage to sustain its power projection capabilities. Among the most important are its numerous allies and partners who share U.S. concerns about an aggressive and potentially hegemonic China.
Conclusions and final thoughts
China’s apparent goal of exercising military control over significant parts of the Western Pacific is certain to be the cause for increased regional tensions and instability in the coming years. China has invested heavily over the past two decades in order to challenge U.S. military dominance in the Asia Pacific. During this time the U.S. has been focused mostly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has only responded in recent years to the shifting military balance. The overall assessment is that the military balance in the Western Pacific has shifted dramatically in favor of China and against the U.S. and its allies.
Although it is generally believed that the U.S. combined with its allies far outspends China in overall defense, this net assessment briefly analyzed two key asymmetries in the areas of ASBMs and sea mines that reveal a disturbing trend in the military balance – large U.S. defense expenditures may not translate into military effectiveness. Naturally this raises not only serious questions concerning the ability of the U.S. to maintain the status quo in the Western Pacific, but also to assure allies as well as defend U.S. territory in the region from attack. If over the next five to 15 years, U.S. and PLA forces continue on approximately current trajectories, “Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of U.S. dominance,” one RAND Corporation report concludes. To shift the balance back in its favor, the U.S. must take measures to restore its historic advantages in power projection. To do so, it will have to develop not only more innovative alliance strategies that exploit both their growing capabilities and their weariness of China, but the U.S. will also need to develop innovative military capabilities to restore its dominance.
John Gennace holds a Bachelors degree in international relations from Harvard University and a Masters in international public policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is currently exploring career opportunities in public policy.