The Real Challenge in the Pacific

A Response to “How to 
Deter China”

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, January 2013. Reuters / Quang Le

In past years, Andrew Krepinevich, Jr., has argued for a U.S. military operational concept in the Pacific theater called “Air-Sea Battle.” This concept relies heavily on preemptive deep strikes in the early stages of a conflict and would have been highly escalatory. Perhaps implicitly recognizing the costs and risks of such an approach, Krepinevich now offers up a replacement he calls “Archipelagic Defense” (“How to Deter China,” March/April 2015). This approach would “deny China the ability to control the air and the sea around the first island chain,” largely through the deployment of U.S. and allied ground forces and supporting military assets, including antiaircraft, antimissile, and antisubmarine capabilities. Arrayed in areas from Japan to the Philippines, these measures are necessary, he argues, because Beijing is committed to a strategy of coercion and intimidation designed to exclude the United States from the western Pacific and eventually lead to China’s dominating the region.

Krepinevich is correct that some sort of denial strategy directed against Chinese provocations and attacks on vital allied territory in the first island chain makes sense as a deterrent against worst-case contingencies. He is unclear, however, about how this strategy should relate to the overall U.S. security posture in the region. And he fails to address the truly critical strategic issue confronting Washington, which is the near-inexorable relative decline of U.S. military and economic predominance along the Asian littoral.

For analysts such as Krepinevich, it is axiomatic that rising powers such as China seek hard power dominance and that the central challenge for currently dominant powers such as the United States is how to prevent them from doing so. This sort of zero-sum thinking—which is increasingly common on both sides of the Pacific—polarizes the region and undermines the goals of continued peace and prosperity toward which all strive. Both sides would benefit from a different approach, one that moved from a growing contest over U.S. predominance in the region to a genuine,

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