America's Ultimate Strategy in a Clash with China
The rise of China, attended by a more muscular military posture and economic status, has altered the international system in ways that directly challenge America’s traditional role in the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to 2000, the United States enjoyed unrivaled status as the guarantor of stability in the region. Today, the picture is very different. America’s persistent budgetary woes, two inconclusive military conflicts, and a bitterly divided U.S. political system give off the impression that America is declining.
Yet China may have overplayed its hand and provided the United States with an opportunity to reinforce its position in the Pacific. In fact, China’s actions since 2007 have moved Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea closer to the United States. China has also stimulated the nations of ASEAN to question China’s assertion of a peaceful rise. The Obama administration’s principal response, the “Rebalance to Asia,” is intended both to reassure allies and partners in the region and communicate America’s enduring interests and role as a Pacific power. For obvious reasons, the administration has been careful not to identify China explicitly as a security threat. Both sides are well aware that historically, rising and dominant powers often clash. Yet history also suggests that confrontation with China is far from inevitable. The United States and its allies will not provoke, and would certainly go to extreme lengths to avoid, armed conflict with China. The U.S. National Security Strategy makes that an explicit goal. While no set of actions can guarantee continued peace between China and the United States, carefully considered national and military strategies can reduce the probability of a conflict and, should conflict occur, limit and constrain its fallout and consequences.
Tom Donilon, then the National Security Advisor, clarified and reinforced the administration’s determination to continue its rebalance to Asia in 2012:
To pursue this vision, the United States is implementing a comprehensive, multidimensional strategy: strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.
The United States has clearly articulated the carrots it will use to encourage peaceful growth in the region. While there is an ongoing argument over how well the Obama administration has executed the diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of its rebalance, the intent is clear.
Unfortunately, to date, the United States has been much less forthcoming in describing how its military forces will contribute to this vision of prosperity and continued security. In particular, what does it use as a stick to deter China from using force to intimidate its neighbors? So far, the United States has not yet expressed a coherent military strategy that will deter China and reassure U.S. allies and friends in the region.
We believe a major conflict between a rising China and the United States, Japan or India is highly unlikely. Yet the First World War painfully demonstrated that even countries that are closely integrated economically can fight. It is important that the United States and its friends in Asia work hard to ensure that does not happen again. Further, the U.S.-USSR experience indicates that conflict is in fact a choice and can be deterred. A key part of avoiding that conflict was the deterrent value of NATO’s military forces and a clearly stated military strategy for resisting Soviet aggression.
ASB as a source of confusion
For this reason, the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” should deeply concern serious observers. Rolled out in 2010 by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept postulated that in the “unthinkable” case of a war with China, U.S. forces should attack Chinese surveillance systems and its integrated air defense system, followed by a weighted campaign to bomb Chinese land-based ballistic and antiship missile systems to “seize and sustain the initiative in air, sea, space and cyber domains.” Proposed as an operational concept and not a strategy, CSBA also provided a blueprint for the development of a new generation of naval and air weapons systems.
AirSea Battle created immediate controversy. Critics fell into two major categories—those who saw it as needlessly provocative, and those who believed it was simply a justification for the Navy and Air Force to gain a greater portion of the Defense budget in a time of fierce competition for declining military funding.