The U.S. Army has a storied history of preparing for the wrong wars. In the post-WWII era, the U.S. has usually fielded an army trained to harness America’s superior technologies to defeat similarly organized nation-state armies in conventional conflicts. In places like Vietnam and Iraq, the army has found itself in messy contingencies fighting ragtag groups of insurgents where its training and capabilities were at best useless and at worst counterproductive. Despite some admirable efforts at adaption, the U.S. Army has usually found it difficult to overcome these initial disadvantages enough to achieve a favorable, lasting outcome in such conflicts.
The U.S. military should keep this history in mind as it seeks to counter China’s growing capabilities and assertive diplomatic posture in the Western Pacific. Although China is the type of nation-state peer competitor that the U.S. military prefers to deal with, this fact by no means ensures that Beijing will engage the U.S. on America’s terms. The old adage that the enemy gets a say in the fight is as true of the People’s Liberation Army as it was of Iraqi insurgents. Any U.S. strategies for winning the “contest for supremacy” against China must grapple with this reality.
To date, the U.S. has failed to do so. So far, the U.S. defense community has put forth two competing concepts to deal with China’s emerging Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The first, Air-Sea Battle (ASB), calls for the close integration of the different services in an unified effort to dismantle the system of systems China would require to deny the U.S. military access to the first island chain.
Opponents of ASB, most of whom argue that it’s too escalatory to attempt against a nuclear-armed adversary, have instead coalesced around options centered on a U.S. blockade. These approaches basically call for ceding the first island chain to China while exploiting its heavy reliance on sea-borne trade in a war of attrition. The goal would be to cause enough economic pain with the blockade that Chinese leaders would agree to return to the initial status quo.
The ASB vs. blockade debate has undoubtedly been fascinating and sufficiently robust to sharpen the thinking of proponents of both approaches. Yet it’s increasingly difficult to ignore that the entire debate is taking place inside a strategic vacuum; that is, as U.S. defense circles have been debating these options for the past few years, China has been expanding its presence and influence in places like the Scarborough Shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, and the East China Sea. In each of these instances, both ASB and a blockade would be wildly inappropriate for dealing with China’s actions.
This highlights the often-overlooked fact that for all the differences between ASB and a blockade approach, they share one crucial similarity: both rest on the assumption that there will be a decisive moment when the U.S. and China transition from a tense peace to a state of open hostilities. In the context of U.S.-China relations, this means that both approaches basically are designed to respond to China launching an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Should a decisive turning point like an invasion of Taiwan fail to materialize, it’s inconceivable that a U.S. president would order an option as escalatory as ASB or a blockade.
The assumption that there will be a decisive moment where the U.S. and China transition into a state of open hostilities is not unfounded. After all, most modern powers who have sought regional dominance have presented their adversaries with such a moment in their bid for hegemony. For example, when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor as a prelude to storming Southeast Asia, U.S. leaders were presented with a stark, unavoidable choice: accept Japanese dominance over the Western Pacific or go to war to prevent this outcome. Like the opponents of Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, and Nazi Germany, the U.S. chose the latter option and eventually succeeded. Should China pursue this decisive model of hegemony, responses like ASB or a blockade approach will be entirely appropriate.
However, China has an entirely different model to follow in seeking regional hegemony; namely, the one the U.S. followed successfully in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast to the European and Asian models, the U.S. consciously sought to avoid presenting its opponents with a pivotal “stand your ground” moment. Instead, it spent the 19th century gradually strengthening itself internally while making incremental gains externally when it could do so on the cheap. It also laid out general principles like the Monroe Doctrine that provided the intellectual groundwork for U.S. hegemony even as they avoided a clash in the near term. By the end of the 19th century, the United States’ culminated gains had made it so powerful that American hegemony became a fait accompli for the European powers. Only Spain put up any resistance at all, and this quickly proved to be futile. Should China base its hegemonic bid on the U.S. model, the ASB/blockade debate will have been proven completely irrelevant.
Whether China’s bid for hegemony more closely resembles the decisive or gradualist model is of course unknowable with any certainty—even by China itself. The most that can be said about the ASB/blockade debate, then, is that it may be necessary but insufficient. However, there are compelling reasons to think that China’s hegemonic bid will be far more similar to the gradualist model of the United States than to the decisive model of France, Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.
The first and most obvious reason is that the gradualist model was the only one to prove successful. China is nothing if not a serious student of history (save for a few moments of Chinese history that the Communist Party of China (CCP) would prefer the nation forgets). Indeed, China recently conducted an exhaustive study of the histories of rising powers (with both CCP and public versions) in search of lessons it can apply to its own experience. Determining which of the modern hegemonic models was more successful is hardly subjective. In the European and Japanese cases, the hegemonic seeker squandered enormous blood and treasure in an ultimately unsuccessful effort. Equally ominous for leaders in Beijing, the governments in all these cases were toppled as a result of their bids for hegemony. By contrast, the U.S. model required virtually no American blood and treasure and succeeded in its objective.
Secondly, most of the powers pursuing the decisive model did so as much out of desperation as of opportunity. Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany launched their onslaught on the status quo in no small part because they saw it as the only way for Berlin to maintain its then-dominant position in the face of a rising Russia. Japan, on the other hand, launched its attacks on Pearl Harbor and Southeast Asia after the U.S. enacted a near total trade embargo against it that would gradually deplete its stockpiles of crucial warfighting resources like oil. While many Japanese leaders realized how risky provoking the U.S. was, they either had to take this large but distant risk or acquiesce to America’s demands that they abandon a mission Tokyo had been pursuing with a near single-minded focus for decades. Upon deciding on the former option, it was far better to act sooner rather than later, as Japan’s strategic stockpiles would only become more depleted over time.
Thirdly, the gradualist approach is consistent with Chinese culture. The most difficult aspect of pursuing the gradualist approach is having enough patience to exercise restraint over the course of many decades. Yet China, more so than any other country, is positioned to act with such restraint given its long-term view of events. This outlook is largely rooted in the fact that,
Fourthly and relatedly, the gradualist approach is consistent with China’s strategic doctrine. Again, Kissinger’s writings on China are instructive. Although hardly alone in making this observation, Kissinger has
Finally, it seems more likely that China will pursue the gradualist model because this is the approach it has been following—and it’s working. As noted earlier, China has been expanding its influence in various parts of its near seas in recent years, while the U.S. defense community has continued to debate the best approach for the decisive clash of forces it assumes will come if China is to establish hegemony over the Western Pacific.