The “carrier killer” strikes again. This week the Pentagon released its latest annual report on Chinese military power, warning that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has accumulated “staggering amounts of new military hardware.” Among its new panoply are DF-21D and DF-26B medium-range ballistic missiles, each of which comes in a ship killing variant. The report estimates the firing range of the DF-21D at over 900 miles. Meanwhile, the DF-26 can reputedly target moving ships nearly 2,500 miles distant.
That’s a lot of sea space. All of Southeast Asia—and far beyond—now lies within missile reach.
As though to preface and punctuate the Pentagon report, PLA rocketeers lofted a DF-21D and a DF-26 into the South China Sea in the days prior to its release. The missile tests came shortly after two U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier expeditionary forces cruised the embattled sea to dispute China’s claim to sovereignty over most of it. Commentators widely—and accurately—interpreted the tests as a reply to the U.S. deployment.
Almost as an aside, reports on the missile tests indicated that the DF-26 launch came out of Qinghai, deep in the backcountry of northwestern China. This is significant. It puts Washington and the region on notice that the PLA can target hostile shipping with rocket forces that are virtually invulnerable to counterattack. DF-21D and DF-26 missiles are fired from trucks, making them hard to detect, engage, and destroy. But positioning them in the continental interior adds an extra layer of political difficulty. PLA overseers are evidently defying potential adversaries to strike into the Chinese homeland and infuriate the Chinese people to Beijing’s benefit. Giving the order to hit coastal sites would be hard enough for any foreign commander. Giving the order to venture far inland strains credulity to its breaking point. That’s deterrence.
Message: Fortress China now spans all of China.
Think of these military movements as statements and rebuttals in an armed debate. That’s really what “great-power competition,” the latest buzz phrase within the U.S. national-security community, really boils down to. (It even has its own acronym now, GPC. Ugh.) Peacetime strategic competition bears some resemblance to trash-talking in boxing and other sports. During the run-up to a fight, each pugilist portrays himself as the sure victor, touting his fighting prowess during press events. The goal is to cow the opponent, amassing a psychological edge before the bout; to enrage and demoralize the opponent’s fans, and to rally supporters to his own corner. And of course, sports is a business. Talking trash is a good theater. Hype sells tickets and merchandise.
Great-power competition may sound more elevated than sports pugilism, but it’s really not. Think of it as an armed debate about who is stronger and who is weaker. Each debater builds and flourishes weaponry, holds exercises and maneuvers to show off its military forces’ proficiency, and issues statements of purpose to demonstrate that policymakers are resolute about keeping their promises to foreign governments and executing their threats. Each tries to shape rivals’ views in its interest, deterring them from the behavior it deems unacceptable or coercing them into taking actions they prefer not to take. At the same time, displays of power and purpose give heart to allies and friends while enticing spectators to join the cause. They project the image of an ally that will be there when the chips are down.
To put a theoretical gloss on strategic competition, look no further than grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz depicts war as “a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter.” He puts the accent on “moral strength,” or morale. All the physical power in the world means nothing in the hands of a dejected wielder. Morale “must not be excluded, for psychological forces exert a decisive influence on the elements involved in war.” Now, the point of peacetime strategic competition is to get what a society wants without resort to open war. Rejiggering Clausewitz’s formula slightly reveals that peacetime competition is a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of moral—not physical—forces. Implements of war are for heartening friends and disheartening potential foes.
In the case of America and China, the resolution under debate is who would prevail in a Pacific war. U.S. carrier deployments announce to China and the region that the U.S. military will defend freedom of the sea in the face of Chinese lawlessness. Firing anti-ship ballistic missiles is PLA commanders’ retort. It is their way of announcing that China now rules South China Sea waters and skies and could expel the U.S. Navy should Xi Jinping and his advisers so ordain.
Who’s right? It’s tough to say without battle, the supreme referee of martial fitness. That being the case, just as judges decide who won a debate in a debating society, observers will judge who presents the more convincing case in the ongoing armed debate. The outcome is far from certain. China has certainly upped its game over the past quarter-century, as the Pentagon report documents, while the United States has started to don its game face in recent years. Whoever wins the contest for perceptions will find its antagonist, Asian powers, and outsiders with an interest in the region more pliant. It will find it easier to get its way without resort to arms. The reciprocal: the apparent loser will face an emboldened antagonist. Allies and friends will distance themselves from the loser if not desert its cause altogether.
But no victory is permanent. The key difference between great-power strategic competition and sports is that no one wants to hold a bout in world politics. The parties prefer to win without fighting, prevailing in what Clausewitz calls a “war by algebra”—warlike competition in which observers take the measure of the contenders by numbers of ships, planes, and weapons, the technical characteristics of hardware, the proficiency and élan of crews, and kindred metrics. Whoever appears stronger comes out ahead. As long as the strategic competition remains nonviolent, each contender has an opportunity to reclaim its standing as the superior power in the eyes of audiences who matter. It can burnish its image for future rounds of competition.
So think of military deployments in Asia as an armed debate and you won’t go far wrong. Let’s talk some trash.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author most recently of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, due out this month in Japanese translation. The views voiced here are his alone.