Meanwhile, the United States has shown signs of retrenchment from Asia. The Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy could well serve as a basis for rallying like-minded countries to stand up to unilateral changes to the status quo and threatening to settle disputes through military force. However, as with the efforts of the Obama administration before it, and the George W. Bush administration before that, a real pivot to Asia requires a sustained focus on the region, backed by an ability to find sufficient resources to preserve a favorable balance of power. As elites in Asia increasingly see China as supplanting U.S. power, the U.S. Navy faces a welter of challenges to maintain current readiness for increasingly contested environments while simultaneously investing in future capabilities.
As the United States struggles to maintain and adapt a legacy naval force, China is closing the qualitative gap in its major combat ships and aircraft. China is gaining sea denial and sea control through a formidable array of missiles that threaten America’s aircraft carrier strike groups and critical bases throughout the region. China is also leveraging the world’s best-armed coast guard and largest paramilitary force to achieve its expansive goals through gray-zone operations.
Importantly, the erosion of U.S. military and naval supremacy is also being accelerated by China’s successful political warfare strategy and America’s sluggish response. Beijing is waging a whole-of-society “total competition.” The techno-nationalist approach seeks to achieve economic preeminence on the back of emerging information-centric technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D manufacturing, and quantum computing. All these technologies have both civilian and military value.
While naval competition is vital, there is another competition worth considering. Political and irregular warfare is making a resurgence. Major and regional powers bent on revising the post-World War II global order, in whole or in part, are seeking to achieve their aims without triggering major conflict. Through shadow and covert warfare, as well as a variety of means designed to achieve success with little or no use of kinetic force, revisionist powers are eroding rules, coercing states, and weaponizing information.
In a new report, Total Competition: China’s Challenge in the South China Sea, Ryan Neuhard and I have attempted to outline Beijing’s variant of political warfare, especially as it applies to a critical regional flashpoint: the South China Sea. Understanding China’s total competition approach is essential to thinking about the naval balance in the Pacific. “Total competition” is in contrast to the concept of “total warfare,” and it is better than “political warfare” because all wars are political, and the main idea is an indirect approach of winning without fighting. The CCP is interested more in what H. R. McMaster calls “cooption, coercion, and concealment,” than it is in “lethality” (to pick a term central to DoD strategy). Total competition comprises five dimensions: economic, legal, psychological, military (especially maritime), and informational. But information cuts across all the aspects of the strategy and all activities. The growing importance of big data, narrative, cyber warfare, A.I., quantum, and other issues explains why Beijing’s total competition is, at its core, a desire for information dominance.
Augmenting the U.S. Response
In short, the United States does not merely face a rising competitor for primacy in the Pacific; it does so at a time when it is also having difficulty finding strategic coherence and adequate resources. It does so at a time when it is crucial to place conventional military power in a broader context of political warfare in the digital age, or total competition. With that in mind, the United States should consider making several strategic priorities and adjustments.
First, the United States and its allies and partners must prepare for a range of contingencies. Beyond a possible North Korean missile attack, the principal concerns are a possible Taiwan invasion, and maritime coercion or naval conflict in the East or South China Seas. In short, more must be done to shore up deterrence by denial, counter maritime coercion, and prepare for a possible, short, sharp “informationized” clash.
Second, the United States needs to strengthen rather than weaken its alliance network, building out a broader and more capable constellation of security partners.
Third, the U.S. needs to reinforce and defend the rules-based order, rather than calling into question the basic multilateral framework of regional cooperation.
Fourth, the United States needs to push back on China’s total competition, adding military means that help to preserve deterrence by denial, but at a sustainable cost.
Fifth, in the context of the Pacific naval balance, the United States needs to garner more resources and spend it far more wisely to protect the desired balance of current and future capabilities. The administration’s latest proposed budget would cut shipbuilding but invest more in the competition over future information-based technologies and capabilities. A balance is needed.
Three crucial questions require further deliberation and research. For one thing, how can the United States and allies maintain deterrence, prevent it from slipping, or restore it? Presumably, conventional deterrence by denial capabilities and networked security with partners are essential, but policymakers should consider the full toolkit.
Next, how can the United States reassure allies and partners while bolstering deterrence against major power adversaries? For instance, the U.S. Navy has begun its first submarine patrol with low-yield nuclear weapons designed to preserve deterrence. Similarly, the interest in deploying mobile, long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles is also sincere, even though the process of trying to deploy them will create an inevitable political backlash from some quarters.
Finally, how can the United States and its allies and partners win the total competition with China, given that winning means avoiding major war while denying China or any single power exclusive control over the Western Pacific and maritime Asia? A winning approach requires the adoption of a similar total competition strategy, albeit one suited to democracies. It also requires a positive slate of activities to bolster the prevailing rules, institutions, and partnerships to preserve a sustainable Indo-Pacific order for all.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Fellow and Chair for Asia-Pacific Security at Hudson Institute and is available at [email protected].
This originally appeared on CIMSEC in 2020. Image: Reuters.