China and its Discontents

AirSea Battle Concept Lacks Strategy and Political Purpose

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Writing in The National Interest website, James Holmes gives a characteristically excellent explication of the still officially-undefined AirSea Battle Concept, the theory behind A2/AD, and U.S. and Chinese naval deficiencies. From a military perspective, Holmes is completely on point. I gripe, however, with some of the implications of his article if taken from a political perspective:

1) The title is “Preparing for a War with China” (subtle)

2) The off-handed throw-away line “From a political standpoint, war with China is neither inevitable nor all that likely.”

3) Holmes’ assumption that the PLAN wants or needs to operate in the far seas at the same level of the USN.

I gripe because at some point tactics have to be constrained by some sense of strategy and political purpose. I don’t see that happening with the developing AirSea Battle Concept. DoD should absolutely prepare for the worst-case scenario–to do otherwise would be folly. But don’t political considerations deserve more than a one-sentence dismissal?

According to the Defense Strategic Guidance released in January, U.S. interests lie in maintaining a “rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defense cooperation,” and protecting access to the global commons.

The official rhetoric coming from China is hardly that different. According to China’s most recent National Defense whitepaper published in 2010, China seeks to promote “economic development and regional stability” in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, the paper identifies China’s main national security interests as “preserving China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests…” and “safeguarding national sovereignty.” Far-flung military excursions or humanitarian interventions are explicitly left off the table.

Should we put any stock in what the Chinese government says? We have to on some level. We can’t complain in the Defense Strategic Guidance that “the growth of China’’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region,” and then ignore when China attempts to clarify its strategic intentions.

Ultimately, China fighting a war with the U.S. is not in Chinese interests and would be completely counterproductive, undermining their economy and growth. China currently relies on the U.S. Navy to preserve its access to oil and commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, and its economy would crumble without international trade. Economic warfare between China and the U.S. would leave both hobbled; the resulting “mutually assured destruction” of this era would be nearly as bad as the M.A.D. of the nuclear era.

It is also hard to believe that the Chinese have an interest in operating in the far seas anywhere near the capability of the USN. They have very little to gain from it. First, it currently has zero capability to engage in wars outside of its periphery. Second, such an aspiration contradicts the prime aspect of their foreign policy: non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs. The wars it has fought in the 20th century and will continue to fight in the future are about stability, integrity, and sovereignty (as the 2010 National Defense whitepaper acknowledges), fought close to China’s borders (historically, Korea, India, Vietnam, and in the future, countries around its maritime claims). The A2/AD strategy is to win a war in the South China Sea, not in the far seas. As even James Holmes notes, Chinese A2/AD capability is premised on China’s ability to whittle away at USN forces before they get close to China, using naval assets close to shore and numerous land-based jets, missiles, and other assets. The PLAN has conducted some operations away from the near seas recently (evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya and participation in an international taskforce hunting Somali pirates), but it is not credible to assert that China has the desire or capabilities to move more aggressively into the far seas.

As Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal note in their Brookings report “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” “[AirSea Battle/JOAC and China’s ‘securing the near seas’ concept] are increasingly being couched in terms that can easily justify escalating military expenditures as both militaries attempt to achieve basically unattainable levels of certainty.” They conclude that both sides will have to ask the uncomfortable question of “what array of military deployments and normal operations will permit China to defend its core security interests and at the same time allow America to continue to meet fully its obligations to its allies and friends in the region?” The primary solution to this deadlock, the two authors say, is “mutual restraint on new capabilities,”–involving new dialogues and direct governmental and military exchanges designed to prevent an arms race.

On the U.S. side, the rhetoric surrounding the AirSea Battle concept seems untempered by these very basic political and strategic considerations raised by Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal. Echoing Thoreau, our rapidly developing military capabilities seem only to be “improved means to an unimproved end.” It is certainly not practical for the U.S. to restrain itself unilaterally–but DoD and State should be actively clarifying its intentions and working with the Chinese to restrain the potential for conflict, just as we demand that the PLA and MFA do the same.

The Chinese have also at times acted belligerently: the current situation in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands—China pushing for complete territorial control against a number of states friendly to the U.S.—does not advance the stability China prioritizes. China’s strategic necessity to secure domestic sources of oil and natural gas to hedge against their current dependence on the Middle East is butting up against their other priority to maintain stability. This confused strategy must also be clarified.

The U.S. should, however, continue the rest of our “Pivot to Asia” agenda, including engagement in multilateral institutions and diplomatic, security, and economic partnerships, and other parts of the Defense Strategic Guidance, such as, “develop[ing] innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.” These kinds of initiatives are less-threatening and appropriate measures in an era of fiscal restraint.

The PLA is developing PLAN, 2nd Artillery Corps, and space-based capabilities that should and do worry the U.S. government. In addition, the DoD should develop the requisite capabilities to secure our interests. But before this rising competition gets out of hand and evolves into something neither side wants, political leadership on both sides of the Pacific need to work out each country’s future position in relation to one another.

In another time and against a different competitor, George Kennan once said: “[the US-Soviet arms race] has no foundation in real interests–no foundation, in fact, but in fear, and in an essentially irrational fear at that. It is carried not by any reason to believe that the other side would, but only by a hypnotic fascination with the fact that it could. It is simply an institutionalized force of habit. If someone could suddenly make the two sides realize that it has no purpose and if they were then to desist, the world would presumably go on, in all important respects, just as it is going on today.” (ital original) What a country says ultimately determines how they act, and vice versa, how a country acts inevitably shapes the political discourse and constrains political choice. Preparing for a future war with China without clarifying our fundamentally peaceful aims makes war more inevitable. The U.S. needs to break that “inevitable cycle.”