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Amid all the uncertainty about the world that will follow the pandemic, one thing is almost sure to be true: tensions between the United States and China will be even sharper than they were before the coronavirus outbreak. The resurgence of U.S.-Chinese competition poses a host of challenges for policymakers—related to trade and economics, technology, global influence, and more—but none is more consequential than reducing the risk of war. Unfortunately, thanks to today’s uniquely dangerous mix of growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding U.S. deterrence, that risk is higher than it has been for decades, and it is growing.
Neither Washington nor Beijing seeks a military conflict with the other. Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump both undoubtedly understand that a war would be disastrous. Yet the United States and China could all too easily stumble into conflict, sparked by a Chinese miscalculation of the United States’ willingness or capability to respond to provocations in disputed areas such as the South China Sea or to outright aggression against Taiwan or another U.S. security partner in the region.
For the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been growing in size, capability, and confidence. China is also emerging as a serious competitor in a number of technological areas that will ultimately determine military advantage. At the same time, the credibility of U.S. deterrence has been declining. For Beijing, the 2008–9 financial crisis gave rise to an enduring narrative of U.S. decline and Chinese superiority that has been reinforced by perceptions of U.S. withdrawal from the world—as well as, more recently, by its perception of bungled U.S. management of the pandemic and societal upheaval over systemic racism.
What’s more, Washington has not delivered on its promised “pivot” to Asia. U.S. troop levels in the region remain similar to what they were a decade ago. The current administration discarded the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement its predecessor had so painstakingly negotiated. Senior diplomatic positions in the region remain empty, and the United States is often underrepresented or entirely AWOL from the region’s major diplomatic forums. There has been no U.S. answer to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, even as its influence expands through Asia and well beyond. And Chinese activities in the “gray zone,” below the level of conflict—such as building militarized “islands” and using coercive measures to enforce disputed sovereignty claims in the South China Sea—have gone largely unanswered by the United States beyond the occasional diplomatic démarche or freedom-of-navigation operation.
All of this spells trouble for deterrence. The more confident China’s leaders are in their own capabilities and the more they doubt the capabilities and resolve of the United States, the greater the chance of miscalculation—a breakdown in deterrence that could bring direct conflict between two nuclear powers. As tensions continue to rise and Chinese assertiveness in the region grows, it will take a concerted effort to rebuild the credibility of U.S. deterrence in order to reduce the risk of a war that neither side seeks.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, the PLA has gone to school on the American way of war and developed an expanding set of asymmetric approaches to undermine U.S. military strengths and exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. Of greatest concern is the substantial investment Beijing has made in “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. Ranging from persistent precision strikes on U.S. logistics, forces, and bases to electronic, kinetic, and cyber attacks on digital connections and systems inside U.S. battle management networks, these capabilities are designed to prevent the United States from projecting military power into East Asia in order to defend its interests or allies. As a result, in the event that conflict starts, the United States can no longer expect to quickly achieve air, space, or maritime superiority; the U.S. military would need to fight to gain advantage, and then to keep it, in the face of continuous efforts to disrupt and degrade its battle management networks.
The Chinese military has also made rapid advances in cyber- and artificial intelligence—thanks to China’s massive theft of Western technology, state support for its leading technology companies, and doctrine of “civil-military fusion,” which requires that any commercial or academic technological advancement with military implications be shared with the PLA. Technological investments have come along with doctrinal innovations. Chinese military doctrine now holds that the side that can make and execute battlefield decisions most quickly will gain a decisive advantage in any conflict. China’s theory of victory increasingly relies on “system destruction warfare”—crippling an adversary at the outset of conflict, by deploying sophisticated electronic warfare, counterspace, and cyber-capabilities to disrupt what are known as C4ISR networks (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and thereby thwarting its power projection and undermining its resolve. Among other things, this means that the United States can no longer assume that its satellites—essential for navigation, communications, early warning, targeting, and much more—would escape attack during a conflict. Given China’s ability to interfere with, spoof, damage, or destroy U.S. satellites, Washington can no longer take space for granted as an uncontested domain during war.
Deterrence could break down owing to either strategic or tactical miscalculation.
The upshot of the developments is dangerous new uncertainty about the U.S. ability to check various Chinese moves, which could invite risk-taking by Chinese leaders. Deterrence could break down owing to either strategic or tactical miscalculation. A strategic miscalculation might involve Chinese leaders choosing to blockade or attack Taiwan in the near term or midterm based on a set of strongly held beliefs about the United States as a declining power—one racked by internal political divisions, preoccupied with domestic crises, no longer showing up in the region diplomatically, lacking the military capabilities that might be effective in the face of A2/AD, and with an uncertain commitment to defending Taiwan. They could conclude that China should move on Taiwan sooner rather than later, a fait accompli that a weakened and distracted United States would have to accept.
Alternatively, a tactical miscalculation could have strategic consequences. For example, Chinese military planning for taking Taiwan by force envisions early cyberattacks against the electric power grids around key military bases in the United States, to prevent the deployment of U.S. forces to the region. But these same power grids also support the surrounding civilian population, including hospitals, emergency services, and other functions critical to public safety. Any such attack would have a high risk of killing American citizens. So rather than deter U.S. action, the envisioned cyberattacks could actually increase the U.S. determination to respond.
To reestablish credible deterrence of China, the United States must be able to prevent the success of any act of military aggression by Beijing, either by denying the PLA’s ability to achieve its aims or by imposing costs so great that Chinese leaders ultimately decide that the act is not in their interest. And Xi and his advisers must believe that the United States has not just the capability but also the resolve to carry through on any deterrent threat it makes.
Given China’s A2/AD networks and ability to field a far larger force in its own backyard than the United States can, U.S. policymakers need to start thinking more creatively about how to shape Beijing’s calculus. For example, if the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.
In part, the United States can develop such approaches to deterrence by using existing capabilities in new ways. Yet new capabilities will also be necessary, and here especially, the Pentagon’s current efforts are lagging, notwithstanding some promising exceptions. The Defense Department continues to overinvest in legacy platforms and weapons systems while underinvesting in emerging technologies that will determine who has the advantage in the future. Although the Defense Innovation Unit, Special Operations Command, and various military service organizations are doing a good job of scouting for new, transformative technologies, there is a “valley of death” between demonstrating a prototype of a new capability and getting it produced at scale and into the hands of deployed operators. And the Pentagon still lacks the tech talent it needs—at all levels, civilian and military—and has failed to give its acquisition workforce the right incentives to adopt cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence and unmanned systems, rapidly and at scale.
The Defense Department continues to underinvest in technologies that will determine who has the advantage in the future.
There are several steps that the Defense Department can take to accelerate innovation in service of deterrence. In the wake of the pandemic, there will be substantial downward pressure on defense spending, as other priorities compete for funding. A flat or declining defense budget will require making tough tradeoffs between legacy programs, which alone are insufficient to maintain the U.S. military’s edge, and the new capabilities that will ultimately determine military success—such as resilient battlefield networks, artificial intelligence to support faster decision-making, fleets of unmanned systems, and hypersonic and long-range precision missiles. Continuing to underinvest in these emerging capabilities will ultimately have dire costs for U.S. deterrence. For every existing major program, both defense officials and Congress need to ask whether buying one additional unit or platform is really worth forgoing investment in the new technologies and capabilities that are key to making U.S. forces effective in a far more contested and lethal environment. The secretary of defense should press each service chief to recommend tough choices, and Congress should back up the Pentagon when it makes those choices.
The U.S. military also needs to adapt its own overseas posture while shoring up the capabilities of allies and partners. It should expect that China will try to disrupt the U.S. ability to reenforce forward forces from the outset of a conflict, in all domains—air, sea, undersea, space, cyberspace. Accordingly, U.S. forces, bases, logistics networks, and C4ISR networks must be made more survivable and resilient. This will require investments in stronger cyber- and missile defenses; more geographically dispersed bases and forces; more unmanned systems to augment manned platforms; and resilient networks that can continue to function under attack.
China’s A2/AD capabilities can be thought of as having different rings of threat intensity that generally correspond to the first island chain (the first arc of archipelagos east of the East Asian continent, stretching from the Kuril Islands, to Japan and Taiwan, and then to the northern Philippines and Borneo) and the second island chain (further to the east, formed by the Bonin Islands, the Volcano Islands of Japan, and the Mariana Islands)—with anything inside the inner ring highly vulnerable to Chinese attack, and anything within and beyond the outer ring less so. Beyond the outer ring, the United States will likely want to maintain bases, fortified against threats, for staging and logistics. But the overall operating principle should be based on “places, not bases”: within the inner ring, the military should increasingly rely on smaller, more agile force packages such as submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles, expeditionary air units, and highly mobile marine or army units able to move between austere, temporary bases in order to complicate Chinese planning. Also essential will be taking a more strategic approach to security cooperation, assessing what each U.S. ally and partner can contribute to deterrence and developing multiyear security cooperation plans for each.
The Pentagon will also need to implement a series of acquisition, investment, and workforce-development reforms. Acquisition officials must be trained on best practices for acquiring software and emerging technologies. There must be more funding for turning successful prototypes into successful programs. And to bolster its tech workforce, the department should work with Congress to expand programs that offer scholarships or debt relief to students in a broad array of tech fields in return for government service and to recruit mid- and senior-level talent by expanding fellowships for private-sector technologists. For employees at all levels, it needs to create opportunities for skill development and viable career paths for technical talent that allow for both promotion and continued technical development, including through rotations in the private sector.
Finally, defense officials need to accelerate efforts to develop new operational concepts—new ways in which the military will fight—in order to clarify which capabilities will be essential, or even game changing, and to accelerate their acquisition and delivery into the hands of service members in the field. There are ongoing efforts to develop and test “joint” (that is, applicable across the different military services) operational concepts, such as Multi-Domain Operations, as well as service-specific operational concepts, which aim to erode the adversary’s advantage in various ways. Determining which technologies will be essential to these will require iterative, ongoing development and experimentation—with dedicated funding from Congress.
Effective deterrence does not depend just on Chinese leaders believing the United States has the capability to thwart any act of aggression; they must also believe it has the will to do so. Today, Beijing has doubts on both scores. Accordingly, along with investments in military capabilities, Washington needs to clarify—and consistently demonstrate—its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, making clear who and what it is willing to defend. It must deploy more senior officials and additional military forces to the region, to underscore its enduring presence, strengthen its relationships, and counterbalance China’s influence. It should conduct more regular military exercises with allies and partners in the region, both to demonstrate capabilities it has already and to accelerate the development of new ones.
Ultimately, competition with China is far more than a military one, and its economic, technological, political, and ideological elements cannot be neglected. The most consequential thing the United States can do is to invest in the drivers of competitiveness at home—especially as it emerges from the current crisis. It is a time for investments in everything from STEM and higher education to critical technology and twenty-first-century infrastructure, such as 5G. It is also a time for restoring a smart immigration policy, welcoming foreign-born talent that poses no risks to national security and encouraging it to stay and build innovative enterprises in the United States.
Competition with China is far more than a military one.
The United States should also leverage its unique advantage of having an unrivaled network of allies and partners around the world. The best way to deal with the challenges China poses, be they unfair trade practices or orchestrated disinformation campaigns, is by making common cause with allies and partners whenever possible, confronting violations of the rules-based order as a coalition of like-minded states committed to a shared set of norms. The United States should work closely with its allies and partners to make a clear-eyed assessment of what each country can contribute to stabilizing the region and deterring increasingly aggressive behavior. This will also require reassuring them in words and deeds that they can count on the United States to have their backs in disputes with Beijing and ultimately to help defend them against gray-zone coercion or outright attacks.
Washington should spell out to countries in the region the stark contrast between what international rules and norms shaped by Beijing would look like and those the region has enjoyed to date—especially when it comes to enduring norms such as the freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. In an Asia dominated by an authoritarian, revisionist China, ships that today can freely navigate the seas would be vulnerable to possible harassment. Decisions taken today by independent governments could increasingly fall prey to coercion. And failure to resist these coercive measures would, in turn, limit the collective ability of the United States and its allies to deter aggression or, if aggression takes place, to reverse it.
Yet even as it strengthens its capacity to deter China, Washington must also reopen a sustained high-level strategic dialogue with Beijing—a practice that every administration since Richard Nixon’s has adopted, until the current one. Reestablishing a forum in which China and the United States could regularly discuss their respective interests and perspectives, identify areas of potential cooperation (such as nonproliferation and climate change), and manage their differences short of conflict is essential; tactical discussions on trade issues are simply not enough. After all, deterrence depends on the clear and consistent communication of interests and intent in order to minimize the risk of miscalculation. Given Beijing’s assumption that the United States is preoccupied and in decline, Chinese leaders’ propensity to test the limits in areas such as Taiwan or the South China Sea, and the faulty, potentially escalatory assumptions embedded in Chinese military doctrine, such a dialogue cannot come too soon.
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