Can Cooler Heads Prevail in U.S.-China Military Relations?

All is not right in U.S.-China relations. From Washington’s perspective, Beijing isn’t following the liberal internationalist script. For one thing, China’s “peaceful development” seems to have morphed into a full-throated, and ever expanding, assertion of the PRC’s sovereignty rights in the South China Sea. Moreover, the recent release of the People’s Liberation Army white paper confirms what has long been suspected: American hegemony is little appreciated in Beijing. Rather than being content to rely on the U.S. Navy to ensure regional and maritime security, China is bound and determined to compete with the U.S. on the high seas.

The view from PRC looks grim too. According to Beijing, anyone with an ounce of sense should know that China was and is the heavyweight in the Asia-Pacific, the rightful owner of its coastal seas. With China’s economic and military rise clear to all, it is only natural the “smaller countries” make way for the “larger country.” That goes for America as well, the source of dangerous “hegemonism” and “neo-interventionism” in the world. The dust-up over America’s aerial surveilling of Chinese island building on the Fiery Cross Reef(and elsewhere in the South China Sea) is but the most recent manifestation of the brewing tensions between the two nations.

Conflict between the United States and China, however, is not guaranteed, despite the assertion by Chinese state media that war between the United States and China “may be inevitable.”

The ideological rivalry that animated the Cold War is fortunately absent in Sino-American relations. Moreover, extensive interdependence between the Chinese and American economies acts as a powerful incentive for both sides to cooperate. So intertwined are the two economies that a war-induced contraction in trade would pose substantial costs to China, the U.S., and the international political economy as a whole. In short, both nations have good reasons to work through their differences and keep disagreements below the threshold of war. Can the United States as the defender of the regional status quo honor its security commitments to its allies, maintain freedom of navigation by its continued naval presence, and devise approaches that can effectively manage crises with the PRC that are likely to occur in the future?

In answering this question, pessimists can find a great deal of evidence in the military strategies adopted by the U.S. and China. Over the past few years, both sides have developed operational and strategic schemes that are clearly at odds. China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) approach aspires to guarantee its security and sovereignty claims by preventing the U.S. military from entering China’s coastal seas, and denying it the ability to move unhindered in those areas. In response, the U.S. Navy and Air Force have designed an operational concept to ensure America’s continued access to the region. Air-Sea Battle (ASB, but now officially termed the “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons,” or JAM-GC) seeks to deter closure, and if necessary, force open sea lanes should the PRC try to deny the U.S. access to the waters within the first island chain. Toward that end, ASB requires the United States to deploy forces capable of blinding Chinese intelligence and surveillance and destroying the PRC’s longer-range anti-ship weapons, most of which are located on mainland China.

The debate is ongoing as to whether or not ASB is an appropriate response to China’s anti-access/area denial strategy. A number of analysts have concluded that while not wholly flawed, ASB poses more problems than it solves. In particular, some have noted that the operational concept contains the potential to transform a localized conflict into a major war, even to thenuclear level. Others have warned of the instability that would result at the highest levels of escalation due to the types of targets that the U.S. would engage (for example, C4ISR assets on the mainland). For the most part, these criticisms focus on ASB’s front-end; that is, on the likely consequences stemming from a militarized conflict. Relatively little has been said about ASB’s back-end, or how the concept’s force requirements would likely affect Washington’s ability to handle crises and engage in coercive diplomacy at levels below the threshold of war.

The Military Logic of Air-Sea Battle

According to the DOD’s Air-Sea Battle Office (which was folded into the Pentagon’s Joint Staff at the beginning of the year), ASB requires tightly integrated, mission-organized air and naval forces able to operate without being locked into service-specific procedures, tactics, and weapons systems. The requirement here is the capacity for each service to play roles that have until now been the purview of other services. In other words: integration on steroids.

The missions envisioned by the Air-Sea Battle concept are designed to counter China’s A2/AD capabilities through attack-in-depth employing, “both kinetic and non-kinetic means to address adversary critical vulnerabilities without requiring systematic destruction of the enemy’s defenses.” Attacks-in-depth are designed to immediately neutralize Chinese A2/AD in a way that avoids prolonged military engagements. The way that’s done is by crippling China’s ability to process information, thereby degrading the PLA’s ability to respond to U.S. forces entering the contested space.

More specifically, ASB’s attack-in-depth scheme proceeds along three tightly sequenced lines. The first is the immediate “disruption” of the opponent’s C4ISR capabilities, much of which are based on the mainland. The second is the follow-on “destruction” of particular A2/AD weapons systems and platforms. The final line is the “defeat” of the employed munitions post-launch. The ultimate theater strategic objective is “the ability to attack and defend through the entire depth of the desired battlespace, in all interdependent warfighting domains…” so that freedom of movement is ensured. In sum, mission-oriented and tightly-integrated joint forces are prerequisites for ASB’s effectiveness. “Such forces will provide the strategic deterrence assurance and stabilizing effects [sic] of a force in being and be ready at the outset of a contingency to avoid delays or buildups or extensive mission rehearsal.”

One Thing and One Thing Only

It is worth thinking through potential foreign policy implications of ASB’s service integration requirements. Traditionally, integration and mission tasking has been the purview of a combatant commander once he receives force packages from the different services. Mission tasking in times of conflict, moreover, has been the subject of civil-military negotiation, even at thehighest levels. What’s different about ASB is that it pushes service integration back much further, to a point prior to their entering a theater. The only way for the services to operate in such a highly integrated way is for predetermined military missions to be the focal point for joint training. Because of its singular focus on waging and winning the high-end kinetic fight, ASB stands to produce a coordinated, focused, and highly effective force capable of doing one thing and one thing only.

ASB’s sole focus on waging and winning the high-end fight is the result of two assumptions underpinning the operational concept. The first is that there is a bright line separating peacetime and wartime. During peacetime, the U.S. is free to engage China politically, diplomatically, and economically. In wartime, however, military calculations will dominate. Nowhere in the Air-Sea Battle Office document is the role of diplomacy mentioned in either crises or war. There is also no apparent recognition that civilian policy makers might require tailoring military missions to serve non-military aspects of American policy. The second is that irrespective of how a crisis emerges, the United States must be willing to immediately escalate to an extraordinarily high-level of tension. The necessity of an attack-in-depth on the mainland to degrade China’s C4ISR and destroy its A2/AD infrastructure and munitions is stated clearly. Delay would expose American and allied forces to an unacceptable level of military risk.

The essence of strategy is the alignment of ends, ways, and means in combinations that maximize opportunities and mitigate risks. On the opportunities side, Air-Sea Battle offers the U.S. escalation dominance which can enhance the credibility of deterrence. Because ASB’s broad contours are in the public domain, Chinese strategists are aware that immediate attack-in-depth by the U.S. in a conflict is possible, a consideration likely to induce some caution in their decision-making. But the risks of ASB weigh heavier, especially if the U.S. wants to assert its interests short of war, or if it should seek to avoid escalation in the event of conflict.

No Room for Diplomacy, No Time for Politics

The United States is the defender of the status quo in the Western Pacific, and its overriding objective is strategic stability in the region. Coercive diplomacy, rather than war-fighting, will thus be the primary form of American statecraft for years to come. The centerpiece of coercive diplomacy is the simultaneous sending of signals of deterrence (“If you do X, I will hurt you”) and assurance (“If you don’t do X, I won’t take advantage of you”). A key ingredient in this mixture is that of time. Signals of accommodation require persistent restraint, especially when confronted with military-strategic opportunities. In the majority of future conflict scenarios, Washington will need to demonstrate through its actions that while it has vital interests at stake and is willing to secure them, it is nevertheless willing to find ways of avoiding escalation to extreme levels. In deterring North Korean aggression against South Korea, countering temptations for a forceful takeover of Taiwan, and ensuring peaceful resolutions over disputed islands and sea lanes, patient diplomacy backed by force will be essential to U.S. foreign policy going forward.

No matter how determined American policy makers may be in the future to ensure strategic stability in the region, ASB’s inflexibility will make it exceedingly difficult for Washington to conduct effective coercive diplomacy. In particular, Washington will find military-diplomatic coordination difficult for two reasons.

First, ASB’s effectiveness depends on the rapid transition through the phases of an attack: counter-C4ISR attacks, followed by attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy, and defeat China’s A2/AD systems, and then deployed munitions. Under these conditions, there will be little room for diplomatic maneuvers in a future conflict with China. Civilian leaders will face a choice: whether signaling restraint will be worth the costs to operational effectiveness should war break-out, or whether dangerous levels of international tension are a cost worth paying to maintain ASB’s operational integrity.

Second, if policymakers were to insist on restraint, they are likely to confront an additional challenge: the inability of American forces to do anything other than the high-end fight. Because ASB requires the integration of air and naval forces around predetermined missions, the national command authority will find it almost impossible to adopt and craft creative crisis management options. “Military necessity,” not political flexibility, is the heart and soul of ASB. As a result, the American military risks undermining its political utility in ways that will poorly serve policymakers who will be looking to conduct statecraft below war’s threshold.

Offensively-oriented, escalatory, and inflexible war plans have poorly servedstates in the past. This is particularly so when civilian authorities were ill-informed as to intricacies of those war plans. In its earliest inception, Air-Sea Battle took shape without much in the way of civilian guidance and oversight. It is high-time for a thorough review of U.S. military strategy toward China. Such a review should begin by recognizing that a zone exists between war and peace, that the U.S. must be able to conduct many different types of missions within that zone, and that strategic patience will be essential to American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Spencer Bakich is a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond and the author of “Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars.”

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