Why the China Military Strategy Debate Matters

The China strategy debate enters a new phase.

In a January 6 article “AirSea Battle vs. Blockade: A False Debate?” Zachary Keck makes the valid point -- that open conflict between the United States and China is highly unlikely. He concludes that the most difficult challenge China presents is not open conflict but creeping expansionism as seen in Scarborough Shoal and that the United States does not have a coherent strategic response. Unfortunately, he then makes a huge and erroneous jump to the idea that the current debate on an appropriate military strategy has no value. This demonstrates a lack of awareness of the functions of a military strategy.

Military strategies are conceived for a specific enemy at a specific time in a specific region. A good one provides several critical services for a nation. First, and most important, an effective military strategy that is openly demonstrated can act as a strong deterrent to aggression. As Keck notes the gradual expansion of the Chinese cannot be met solely by resort to military force. However, a well-articulated strategy, backed by effective forces, is essential to preventing it from coming to military conflict. Certainly keeping the competition in the non-military realm has value. Thus it is essential the United States develop a military strategy for the unlikely event of a conflict with China. It is a key component in deterring Chinese aggression as well as reassuring our allies in the region. Failure to achieve either goal severely complicates our ability to manage ongoing Chinese expansionism. The Chinese and our allies need to see autthat if China pushes to the point of open conflict, it will be defeated.

There are other reasons this debate is significant. As Keck notes, we cannot rule out the possibility of conflict with China. Because of worst-case planning, the possibility of conflict with China is driving our military procurement and force structure. The absence of a military strategy removes a critical yardstick we should be using in measuring the value of the expensive weapons systems we are procuring. In a time of limited national resources, the allocation of scarce dollars to defense rather than national infrastructure has national security implications. If those defense dollars are used on very expensive systems that do not support a strategy or create a sustained advantage, the investment may actually reduce U.S. national security.

Keck’s fundamental point is that we need a regional strategy to deal with Chinese expansionism short of conflict. We clearly need one, and several think tanks as well as the Pentagon are exploring options. Such a strategy must include a subordinate military strategy as part of the effort to insure the conflict does not escalate. But the military strategy is only the supporting element. The regional strategy requires diplomatic, political, economic, and information components in a unified campaign. As Keck notes, the regional strategy should be a focus of discussion. But he complete missed the point that a supporting military strategy is an absolute requirement for an effective regional strategy.

Further, the discussion of military strategy should force the deeper and more important a discussion of whether or not the United States can afford/accomplish the strategy of dominance we have used in maritime affairs in Asia since WWII. While the United States clearly desires dominance, China’s increasing capabilities combined with falling U.S. budgets and ever more expensive U.S. weapons systems mean U.S. decision makers need to consider if dominance is still feasible. If we cannot afford it, what other approaches should the U.S. examine – and how would it execute them?

Finally, as the author of Offshore Control, I feel obligated to correct a factual mistake in Keck’s paper. He states blockade proponents concede the 1st Island Chain. This is incorrect, as the geography of the region is one of several selling points of Offshore Control. In fact, defense of the 1st Island Chain is an essential and explicit element of the proposed strategy. Offshore Control denies China the use of the sea inside the 1st Island Chain, defends the 1st Island Chain, and dominates outside the chain.

T. X. Hammes is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy.