AirSea Battle vs. Blockade: A False Debate?

Why America's defense community has it all wrong.

The U.S. Army has a storied history of preparing for the wrong wars. In the post-WWII era, the U.S. has usually fielded an army trained to harness America’s superior technologies to defeat similarly organized nation-state armies in conventional conflicts. In places like Vietnam and Iraq, the army has found itself in messy contingencies fighting ragtag groups of insurgents where its training and capabilities were at best useless and at worst counterproductive. Despite some admirable efforts at adaption, the U.S. Army has usually found it difficult to overcome these initial disadvantages enough to achieve a favorable, lasting outcome in such conflicts.

The U.S. military should keep this history in mind as it seeks to counter China’s growing capabilities and assertive diplomatic posture in the Western Pacific. Although China is the type of nation-state peer competitor that the U.S. military prefers to deal with, this fact by no means ensures that Beijing will engage the U.S. on America’s terms. The old adage that the enemy gets a say in the fight is as true of the People’s Liberation Army as it was of Iraqi insurgents. Any U.S. strategies for winning the “contest for supremacy” against China must grapple with this reality.

To date, the U.S. has failed to do so. So far, the U.S. defense community has put forth two competing concepts to deal with China’s emerging Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The first, Air-Sea Battle (ASB), calls for the close integration of the different services in an unified effort to dismantle the system of systems China would require to deny the U.S. military access to the first island chain.

Opponents of ASB, most of whom argue that it’s too escalatory to attempt against a nuclear-armed adversary, have instead coalesced around options centered on a U.S. blockade. These approaches basically call for ceding the first island chain to China while exploiting its heavy reliance on sea-borne trade in a war of attrition. The goal would be to cause enough economic pain with the blockade that Chinese leaders would agree to return to the initial status quo.

The ASB vs. blockade debate has undoubtedly been fascinating and sufficiently robust to sharpen the thinking of proponents of both approaches. Yet it’s increasingly difficult to ignore that the entire debate is taking place inside a strategic vacuum; that is, as U.S. defense circles have been debating these options for the past few years, China has been expanding its presence and influence in places like the Scarborough Shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, and the East China Sea. In each of these instances, both ASB and a blockade would be wildly inappropriate for dealing with China’s actions.

This highlights the often-overlooked fact that for all the differences between ASB and a blockade approach, they share one crucial similarity: both rest on the assumption that there will be a decisive moment when the U.S. and China transition from a tense peace to a state of open hostilities. In the context of U.S.-China relations, this means that both approaches basically are designed to respond to China launching an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Should a decisive turning point like an invasion of Taiwan fail to materialize, it’s inconceivable that a U.S. president would order an option as escalatory as ASB or a blockade.

The assumption that there will be a decisive moment where the U.S. and China transition into a state of open hostilities is not unfounded. After all, most modern powers who have sought regional dominance have presented their adversaries with such a moment in their bid for hegemony. For example, when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor as a prelude to storming Southeast Asia, U.S. leaders were presented with a stark, unavoidable choice: accept Japanese dominance over the Western Pacific or go to war to prevent this outcome. Like the opponents of Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, and Nazi Germany, the U.S. chose the latter option and eventually succeeded. Should China pursue this decisive model of hegemony, responses like ASB or a blockade approach will be entirely appropriate.

However, China has an entirely different model to follow in seeking regional hegemony; namely, the one the U.S. followed successfully in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast to the European and Asian models, the U.S. consciously sought to avoid presenting its opponents with a pivotal “stand your ground” moment. Instead, it spent the 19th century gradually strengthening itself internally while making incremental gains externally when it could do so on the cheap. It also laid out general principles like the Monroe Doctrine that provided the intellectual groundwork for U.S. hegemony even as they avoided a clash in the near term. By the end of the 19th century, the United States’ culminated gains had made it so powerful that American hegemony became a fait accompli for the European powers. Only Spain put up any resistance at all, and this quickly proved to be futile. Should China base its hegemonic bid on the U.S. model, the ASB/blockade debate will have been proven completely irrelevant.