Tale of the Tape: Comparing Chinese and American Strategies in Asia
What does President Obama hope to achieve during his trip to Beijing for the APEC summit? How does he assess his ability to accomplish his China agenda?
There is no shortage of issues to discuss with Xi Jinping. The two countries ostensibly share concerns about an unstable nuclear North Korea, Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, and the failing old order in the Middle East. But little progress has been made. While Xi talks about a “new-type of great power relationship,” he seems to mean the U.S. should come to China as a supplicant, as National Security Advisor Rice did recently, asking for China’s help on the Middle East—now of equal importance to Beijing and Washington.
The presidential visit comes at a perilous time for Sino-American relations. Washington has not adequately answered China’s continued aggression toward Japan and Southeast Asian nations. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army is continuing to harass the U.S. military operating in Asian seas.
U.S. Asia policy is not progressing because both Washington and Beijing are now overestimating China’s rise and underestimating the sustainability of American power. This is a dangerous trend in perceptions with some grounding in reality. From Washington’s perspective, the Sino-American relationship will be unproductive if both sides think the balance of power now favors China.
Better policy outcomes require a reassessment of the balance of power that goes beyond straight counts of military forces and capabilities. Trends in the military balance must be viewed in the context of each country’s preferred approach to the region as well as an accounting of the internal political obstacles hindering each side’s strategy. The key questions are: What is each country trying to accomplish? What is each country’s strategy? How well is each side implementing its strategy and what are the obstacles in the way of the outcomes for each country?
Competing Strategic Visions: America’s Strategy
Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has pursued a strategy of primacy. Successive U.S. presidents have found that a “preponderance of power” best served its Asian interests, which have included:
1. Defending the U.S. homeland far forward. In the post-Pacific war period, the U.S. created what used to be called the “defense perimeter,” now referred to as the First Island Chain. The forward U.S. defense posture begins along the island chains and territories from Korea through Japan and the Ryukus, and the Luzon Strait down through the Philippines;
2. Preserving a favorable balance of power in Eurasia, so that no power can dominate the continent;
3. Ensuring free military and commercial access to maritime and continental Asia;
4. Maintaining and continuing to refine the liberal international order consistent with the “U.S. way of life,” as the framers of the U.S. Cold War strategy put it;
5. Supporting a network of allies who assist in reinforcing that order.
America’s grand strategy of primacy has been a success. It has tamed security competitions between historic Asian rivals and created the conditions for economic growth and peaceful transitions to democracy throughout Asia. Countries that had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons were persuaded not to do so. Asia’s rising wealth and power is not a coincidence. Rather it is the result of wise decisions by Asian elites, the hard work of Asians to better their lives, and U.S. primacy. It is no wonder that successive presidents have stuck with primacy.
The Military Structure of Primacy
U.S. primacy in Asia has required a forward basing posture for combat aircraft, large numbers of SSN and SSBN submarines, and carrier strike-groups to project power in Asia. These assets provide a continual deterrent against conflict. U.S. “boomer” submarines, armed with ICBMs, lurk underwater ready to act should the U.S. face an existential threat. Carrier strike groups serve as highly visible symbols of U.S power to deter would-be aggressors. Depending upon the global security situation, the Navy can have up to five carriers strike groups base in Japan and along the U.S. Pacific coast.
These air-sea forces allow the U.S. to control the commons when necessary.  The ability to take command of the air, sea, and space has allowed the U.S. military to summon overwhelming force anywhere and anytime it needs. For the U.S. to continue to be the prime player in Asia, it must retain the ability to command Asia’s commons. This requires that alliances are maintained, new partnerships are cemented and the “infrastructure” of command— the tankers, airlift, and large surface ships necessary for the quick deployment of U.S. forces—is modernized and ready.
As China’s wealth and power increase, its influence and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific expand. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) march towards achieving regional hegemony is driven by the CCP’s paramount goal of maintaining its grip on power. That does not mean an inward turn, as many misinterpret. While Beijing faces “internal” challenges such an increasingly dynamic and wealthy populace, and a restive empire that includes Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, keeping a grip on power requires far more:
1. Ensuring that the world remains “safe” for autocracies. At the very least it must stop any attempts by the U.S. to press for Chinese liberalization, and prevent the formation of democratic groupings in Asia;
2. Pursuing national rejuvenation. The CCP argues that it is the vanguard of the Chinese project to regain prime status atop the political hierarchy in Asia, and reverse the “century of national humiliation” that it endured. The CCP pours salt on this national wound in order to bolster its case to the Chinese public for a continued monopoly on power;
3. Continuing China’s economic growth, which now means defending China’s growing international economic interests. The PRC’s coastal areas house a large percentage of the country’s manufacturing and financial sectors. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the removal of a major threat to China’s land border, the PLA has been freed up to extend China’s southeastern maritime perimeter. The PRC wants greater maritime strategic depth, as well as an outlet into the Pacific and Indian oceans in order to protect its far-flung economic interests.
Military Strategy of the Aspiring Hegemon: Coercion and Counter-intervention
The CCP military strategy for regional hegemony has been the deployment of coercive combat power and counter-intervention (also known as A2/AD) capabilities in maritime East Asia.
U.S. military campaigns during the 1990s and early 2000s played a profound role in shaping the PLA’s regional security strategy. In the two Gulf wars, the U.S. military displayed its unmatched precision strike regime. The U.S. could deploy massive force to the region on its own timeline, because the U.S. military commanded the commons and American forces gained access to the states bordering Iraq through effective diplomacy.
During the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the CCP was horrified by its inability to contest the U.S.’s offshore military presence. President Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier groups off of Taiwan’s coasts in what must have been a haunting reminder of Western powers’ 19th century gunboat diplomacy against China.
Later in 1999 Chinese military officials warily observed the U.S. launch a 78-day air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic from carriers and land-bases.
The CCP realized that, even as it carried out a long-term naval modernization plan, it also needed to develop counter-intervention capabilities to prevent the U.S. from repeating its actions in the Gulf and the Balkans off of China’s seaboard.
The PLA has created contested zones in its “near seas,” allowing it to deny the U.S. access to the parts of the commons closest to China. The PLA can now threaten the U.S’s logistical supply lines and the use of bases in Japan. It can also contest space and cyberspace. China’s military build-up includes a precision guided-missile force, undersea warfare, integrated air defense, counter-space and cyber capabilities, and bombers and aircraft that could deliver additional firepower against U.S. and allied assets.
Learning from the past two decades of U.S. wars, this military strategy is meant to exact a serious cost on U.S. military forces attempting to project power in the first island chain or the mainland. For example, in the event of conflict, carrier strike groups, the iconic symbol of U.S. power projection, could face swarms of Chinese hypersonic cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles (or what are called in the press “carrier-killers”), and packs of diesel electric submarines. The PLA air force’s increasingly modern aircraft provides China with additional range in striking U.S. bases and carrier groups. This strategy has undermined the foundations of U.S. primacy.
China’s same “counter-intervention” forces are also employed for a regional coercion strategy. The CCP’s main target for possible military action remains Taiwan. Its own precision strike regime – cruise and ballistic missiles launched from land, air and sea knit together with an increasingly sophisticated C4ISR system – could inflict the kind of pain on the island that NATO forces exacted on Serbian forces in Kosovo. The China that bemoans the gunboat diplomacy once practiced by the Western powers is now employing the same strategy against its neighbors.
Assessing the Balance: Command of the Commons Vs. Aspiring Hegemony
The military strategy supporting China’s bid for regional hegemony is now well developed. The PLA can contest U.S. command of the commons and deliver a decisive first strike against U.S. forward bases and surface ships with missile salvos and air sorties. Following a first strike, China may be able to consolidate a defense perimeter in the first island chain, daring the U.S. to fight its way back in. Within that perimeter, China can use coercive force against its neighbors to achieve desired military objectives, such as the unification of Taiwan or the seizure of disputed maritime territory.
In a global context, the U.S. military clearly possesses greater capabilities. But total military power outside the context of specific political goals misses the point. Since the U.S has global interests, its military strategy in Asia relies upon command of the commons to mobilize forces into theater across long air and oceanic expanses. China has raised the costs of this strategy.
Primacy Challenged: The U.S. Response
China’s challenge to American primacy in Asia prompted the U.S. to move additional forces into the Pacific and strengthen its alliances in the early parts of last decade. In 2011, the U.S. announced the continuation of this long-standing process to bolster its military posture in the Pacific. With much fanfare, the Obama Administration placed its own imprimatur on this process as the “pivot” or also called the rebalance.
Building upon the upgraded Japan alliance that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush began, a trilateral security relationship among Japan, Australia, and the U.S., a closer security partnership with Taiwan, and force reposting in South Korea, the administration announced several additional military cooperation initiatives. The U.S. plans to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia and encourage Australia to participate in an Asia missile ballistic shield it is developing with Japan.
The U.S. will station four U.S. littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore on a rotational basis. Additionally, the U.S. and the Philippines may expand the U.S. military presence in the country. The building blocks are now in place for a tighter network of alliances and partnerships in the region, which is key to continued U.S. primacy.
Air-Sea Battle: The Operational Concept for Primacy?
The U.S. military is beginning to respond to China’s coercive and counter-intervention strategy. The February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) made overcoming area-denial an essential part of U.S. strategy. In August 2011, CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenhert and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton formed the Air-Sea Battle office at the DOD in order to develop the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept, which requires close cooperation between the Air force and Navy to “overcome the challenges posed by emerging threats to access like ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced submarines and fighters, electronic warfare and mines.”
The basic idea behind the ASB concept is to foster greater air-sea cooperation, allowing the U.S. military to operate in China’s contested zones, and regain the ability to command the commons. The surface fleet will be equipped with countermeasures against cruise and ballistic missiles. U.S. stealth fighter-bombers will be able to thin out precision-guided strikes by targeting command and control nodes and air bases. ASB requires the development of more long-range bombing capabilities, harden forward bases to withstand missile salvos, and continue investment in advanced SSNs.
ASB is a means to bolster a grand strategy of primacy. If implemented, U.S. forces will be able to operate in contested zones, and still bring overwhelming power to bear on Chinese forces. A peacetime presence is just as important, as it acts as a formidable deterrent. The more U.S. equipment, airman, soldiers, sailors and marines that are deployed forward in Asia, the riskier it becomes for China to attack allies and friends.
Absent from the current debate about how to retain U.S. primacy, is the future of U.S. nuclear forces. The uncomfortable fact is that deterrence, reassurance and war fighting all require a nuclear strategy accompanying conventional forces. China must be reminded that U.S. has provided nuclear guarantees to its allies, that attacks on carriers would kill thousands of Americans and that what China calls the second island chain—a potential Chinese outer defense perimeter—includes U.S. territory.
The U.S. must remember that its preferred military strategy includes attacks on mainland-based forces and that China also is a nuclear power with mobile missile launchers and SSBN submarines capable of providing a secure second-strike. It follows that a U.S. strategy of primacy requires nuclear primacy – an upgrading of U.S nuclear forces in very close coordination with allies on nuclear issues. It also follows that alongside such moves the Sino-American military relationship must move beyond the niceties of “building confidence” and discuss issues of escalation control and crisis stability.
Obstacles to the US Strategy: Funding Primacy
The “rebalance” to Asia is a resource intensive endeavor. Yet the U.S. military is faced with deep budget cuts. That leaves a dangerous gap between U.S. military’s resources and stated objectives.
Sequestration-level budgets threaten to hollow out the U.S. Navy, which traditionally provides a lion’s share of the power projection needed to sustain U.S. primacy. According to the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 QDR, the navy is on “a budgetary path to 260 ships or less” under current defense spending levels. By comparison, various internal naval reviews have stated that an effective fleet should field between 323 and 346 vessels.
Admiral Greenert is attempting to reorganize his service in line with the administration’s “pivot,” but sequestration has handcuffed his efforts. The Navy had planned to increase its Pacific Fleet from 50 ships to about 65 ships by 2019. However, the Navy has admitted that this plan is untenable under sequestration-level budgets. The service is left with a grim choice. It can under-resource U.S. forces in Asia, or cannibalize its other fleets to boost the number of ships deployed to the Pacific. With Putin’s Russia on the move, ISIS threatening to take over Iraq, and China’s aggression in maritime East Asia, neither option is tenable.
Obstacles to a Strategy of Regional Hegemony
The CCP faces three main roadblocks to its own strategic vision. First, China must confront the inherent instability of its political-economic system. China’s investment-based, export-led growth strategy is coming to an end. But, the CCP is failing to implement comprehensive reforms that would help move it toward a consumption-driven economy. Second, China has grown increasingly dependent on overseas economic interests, and it wants to secure its maritime supply lines. If the U.S. successfully responds to China’s regional coercive strategy and China’s economy continues to slow, the CCP will face very tough choices about what kind of military it can afford. Third, the CCP must deal with a host of internal challenges to its legitimacy, including from its restive empire.
The Future of Chinese Growth and China’ Maritime Interests
China’s current seven or eight percent annual growth is unsustainable The Chinese economy has depended on large-scale investment and exports. Today, global demand is stagnant, China is highly indebted and investment is drying up. China’s needs a new model of consumption led growth but has not implemented the liberal reforms required to restructure its economy. Without badly needed reform, China risks slipping into the middle-income trap.
The IMF recently reported that China has passed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy on the basis of purchasing parity. But for purposes of assessing the balance of power these numbers are useless. GDP is a picture of yearly production, including wasteful production.
A better measure of economic size is comparative wealth. Credit Suisse just released an updated comparison of private wealth: American private wealth stands at $83 trillion dollars compared to China’s $21 trillion. Even when public debt is factored in, the U.S. remains around $40 trillion wealthier than China. It is that wealth that can be translated into national power.
If China faces slowing growth rates while lagging behind the U.S. in national wealth, then China will face real dilemmas it protecting its far-flung economic interests. In 2004, President Hu Jintao introduced the concept of “New Historic Missions” for the PLA. Since Hu’s policy announcement, the critical new mission is the defense of China’s sea lines of communication (SLOC). China is now a maritime trading nation, and its imports and exports—including increasing energy imports—must pass through critical chokepoints that it does not control, including the Straits of Malacca. China is growing its fleet of nuclear submarines and flowing them into the Indian Ocean. But to really project maritime power at longer distances China would have to make substantial investments in larger surface ships, global C4ISR, and logistical hubs and fueling stations along the Indian Ocean. This could prove both too expensive, too risky, as China exposes itself to threats from terrorism, piracy and hostile nations, and too difficult to accomplish diplomatically, particularly if India resists. The CCP has a real problem with one pillar of its strategy—continued economic growth and defense of economic interests.
China’s Internal Unrest
The CCP continues to devote enormous resources to maintain internal stability. China’s heavy-handed tactics in Xinjiang have provoked further violence against China. Recent attacks include a market bombing and several knife attacks. Now China is at risk of further violence from jihadists returning from the ISIS campaign.
Regarding Tibet, China remains highly sensitive to other nation’s interactions with the exiled Dalai Lama, and Tibetans are resisting China’s imperial policies. Taiwan’s de facto independence continues to present a contradiction for Beijing’s “One China” principle. Beijing reneged on its agreement to allow free 2017 elections in Hong Kong, sparking large-scale protests. The CCP’s imperial control is more challenging. At the same time, middle class cynicism about corruption is growing and wealth is leaving China.
Conclusions: What does the balance of power look like?
China has made great strides in its coercive regional strategy and its counter-intervention strategy. It is forcing a response by the United States to regain its primacy. But the U.S. has not demonstrated the political wherewithal to resource its response.
However, China’s gains and the U.S. slow-footed response is not the whole story. The CCP’s grand strategy also includes continued economic growth that is increasingly reliant upon maritime trade. Becoming a true maritime power is very expensive, and China faces hostile powers along its periphery. Finally, China’s main weakness is its tenuous political legitimacy. It is ruling over an increasingly restive empire with aspirational citizens demanding more liberty and justice. The CCP has to spend enormous resources on imperial control and domestic security.
The U.S. has structural advantages over China such as greater wealth and a system of partners and allies. But can the president lead a bipartisan coalition at home ready to translate the nation’s advantages into a well-resourced strategy that retains U.S. primacy? The CCP would have a tough time competing with a U.S. that once again takes primacy in Asia seriously. Indeed, if Washington locks in a favorable balance of power it may even start to see some cooperation from Beijing.
 The article borrows from Barry Posen’s “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Primacy” (International Security, Summer 2003) and Dan Blumenthal’s “The U.S. Response to China’s Military Modernization,” published in Strategic Asia 2012-2013.
Eddie Linczer is an Asian Studies Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.