Deterrence by Denial: How to Prevent China From Using Force

The United States doesn't need to threaten blockades or attacks on the Chinese mainland—it merely must keep Beijing from pushing out into new areas.

In contrast to ongoing limitations, shared interests, and even opportunities for increasingly-robust cooperation far away, China’s navy and other services are achieving formidable anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities closer to shore. Beijing is prioritizing an “anti-Navy” to deter U.S. intervention in the Western Pacific over a blue-water, power-projection navy. The Chinese have identified, and are exploiting, limitations in U.S. weapons systems that stem from fundamental physical principles. For example, quiet diesel submarines will always be difficult to detect, track and kill. Fixed targets like airbases will always be difficult to defend against ballistic missiles.

Beijing seeks to wield this growing might to pursue outstanding territorial and maritime claims and to carve outin the Yellow, East and South China Seas and airspace above them a “zone of exceptionalism” within which existing global security, legal, and resource management norms are subordinated to its parochial national interests. This can only weaken the global system on which all nations’ security and prosperity depends, and will continue to destabilize a vital but vulnerable region that remains haunted by history. If not addressed properly, China’s rise as a major A2/AD military power could give it unprecedented capacity to deny sanctuary and communications to U.S. forces, and thereby challenge the type of military operations for which the U.S. has equipped and prepared. While the Soviet Union posed significant challenges to the U.S. Army and Air Force based in continental Europe in the Cold War, the precision-weapons revolution and the maritime geography of the Asia-Pacific theater enable Chinese A2/AD to render U.S. forces, largely naval and island-based air forces, far more vulnerable.

While conflict with China should be avoided, China must also be prevented from significantly coercing its neighbors or unilaterally altering the region’s status quo in ways that are inimical to the interests of the U.S. and its allies, as well as to regional stability in general. Failure to emphasize this point as well risks making the U.S. appear weak and acquiescent to mounting Chinese assertiveness, both to Beijing and to regional allies, friends, and partners. This risks miscalculation on Beijing’s part. It also makes taxpayers and their representatives question why significant U.S. military investments are needed in a time of austerity. This should be framed in terms of ensuring the continued functioning of the existing international system. Washington should clarify, as necessary, that it is not trying to contain Beijing per se, but rather to resist any Chinese actions that would harm the existing system. Conversely, positive Chinese behavior—such as providing international public security goods in the Gulfs of Aden or Guinea, or helping to stabilize the North Korean border if the barbaric Kim Jong-un regime collapses, should be encouraged and applauded.