Peaceful U.S.-China relations depend not merely on Chinese decisions, but on how they interact with the American national-security strategy. Like China, the United States has a menu of strategic options; unlike China, however, the United States has a well-established grand strategy, which includes longstanding alliances in East Asia.
Since the end of the Cold War, across four successive administrations, the United States has pursued a strikingly consistent national-security strategy—variously called “hegemony,” “global leadership,” or “deep engagement.” While the specifics fluctuate, the core principles—exercising leadership and promoting stability through a global network of alliances—have remained constant.
To be sure, disagreements about implementation arise regularly. Liberals tend to favor humanitarian intervention, value broad international coalitions, and prefer to work through international institutions. Conservatives are more inclined to use force to prevent the spread of WMD, and worry less about passing a “global test” (as Secretary of State John Kerry famously commented as a presidential candidate) when they contemplate using force. But tactical disagreements should not obscure the underlying bipartisan consensus: the United States will exercise global leadership, and ensure stability, through a network of alliances and powerful military presence in critical regions.
To implement this strategy in East Asia, the United States pursues three benign-sounding objectives. First, assurance: the United States seeks to assure its friends that it will protect them in time of crisis or war, and that it can do so effectively. The goal of assurance is to convince U.S. allies to forego independent steps to protect themselves (e.g., building powerful conventional military forces or nuclear weapons)—because such steps could trigger arms races and upset the region’s political and economic order.
A second American objective is deterrence. The United States seeks to dissuade potential adversaries from turning disagreements into crises, and to deter them from turning crises into wars.
Finally, the United States seeks to promote political and economic cooperation—thereby turning allies and potential adversaries into stakeholders in a mutually beneficial, peaceful and prosperous region.
None of these goals sound provocative—who would argue against promoting stability and cooperation? The potential for trouble lies in the strategy’s military requirements.
Because of the structure of the U.S. alliance system, and the nature of modern naval warfare, the benign-sounding U.S. policy toward Asia requires not merely U.S. military presence in the region, it requires a substantial degree of military dominance. Depending on China’s future national-security choices, U.S. military dominance may cause considerable friction with Beijing.
Two pillars of the U.S. strategy—assuring allies, and deterring potential adversaries—rest upon U.S. military dominance in the Western Pacific. Allies can only feel safe outsourcing their security to the United States if they are confident that in time of crisis or war, Washington will be able to defend them effectively. This means that U.S. allies must be sure that the U.S. military will be able to cross five thousand miles of ocean with enough military power to decisively defeat whoever is menacing them. If allies begin to doubt U.S. power projection capabilities, they will, quite reasonably, feel compelled to develop more military power of their own. Similarly, the U.S. strategy requires that adversaries have no practical means for keeping American power projection at bay. If adversaries believe that they can keep U.S. reinforcements out of the region, deterrence will be undermined. The cornerstone of the U.S. strategy in East Asia is thus the ability to bring decisive force to bear if needed.
The changing nature of warfare makes power projection across vast oceans increasingly difficult. Modern sensors—satellite-based, ground-based, on unmanned aerial vehicles, and underwater—make tracking ships at sea easier than ever before. Furthermore, long-range strike systems, such as ballistic missiles and antiship cruise missiles, make it easier to destroy lumbering ships once they’ve been located. The United States has other means of projecting power into East Asia—for example, using forward air bases—but those bases are also easy targets for missile strikes, and increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems threaten to keep U.S. aircraft far from enemy coasts. The central role of power projection in U.S. national-security strategy—and the growing threat to ships and forward bases—explains the U.S. Defense Department’s focus over the past decade on the “antiaccess” threat, especially China’s growing capabilities.
The U.S. military’s answer to this problem (known as “AirSea Battle”) is straightforward: be prepared to defeat antiaccess forces by blinding enemy sensors, degrading their command and control systems, and destroying their most capable conventional strike systems (e.g., those that target U.S. ships and airfields). The point is that in the age of advanced sensors and lethal long-range missiles, projecting overwhelming power across an ocean requires the ability to blind, disrupt, and disarm one’s enemies at the opening stages of conflict.
Critics accuse the U.S. military of exaggerating the China threat. These critics protest that China has only a fraction of U.S. military power, and they decry expensive new weapons to defeat antiaccess capabilities as provocative and unnecessary. But regardless of the aggregate balance of military power between the United States and China, the U.S. Navy and Air Force are correct that U.S. strategy in Asia hinges on the promise to bring overwhelming force to bear—despite the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the growing threat to power-projection forces. If China can substantially impede U.S. access during a war, the U.S. strategy toward the region will unravel.
WINTER IS COMING
Given Washington’s national-security strategy, the only Chinese policy that will not conflict with U.S. national-security goals is the most docile option—the strategy of “rich nation, weak army.” If China pursues any of the other options—including the more defensive ones—U.S.-China relations are likely to grow much more conflictual. Even if Beijing merely wants to be Washington's peer in China's own backyard, that would threaten the U.S. ability to move military forces to and around East Asia, undermining the core of Washington's regional strategy. Those analysts who argue that a status-quo China need not conflict with the United States underestimate the extent to which Chinese and American grand strategies are on trajectories that collide.
The best hope for amicable U.S.-China relations rests on Beijing adopting a highly restrained grand strategy, but it would be historically unprecedented if it did so. China would be choosing to live within a security order managed by another great power—one with whom it has tense relations. While some countries have pursued docile grand strategies (one thinks of Australia, Canada and Japan), they have done so under the protection of a friendly, like-minded ally, the United States. In fact, two of America’s closest cold war allies, West Germany and Japan, took docility only so far. They built potent conventional military forces and, in Japan’s case, a nuclear hedge in the form of a giant stockpile of plutonium. Great powers have not entrusted their security to this degree to another great power unless they had little choice or unusually warm relations.
Indeed, a look at China’s national-security policy—its pursuit of antiaccess capabilities, its territorial claims, and discussions of claims to “second island chains”—suggests that it is (at a minimum) aspiring to be a regional great power. The remaining questions are the extent to which Beijing will confine its ambitions to East Asia (as opposed to pursuing a global strategy), and the extent to which it will tolerate U.S. global leadership or seek to undermine U.S. influence.
And the United States? In theory, Washington, like Beijing, has a number of strategic alternatives and could choose to adopt a strategy (such as “offshore balancing”) that would not require U.S. military dominance in the Pacific. But this appears unlikely. There is little support for this move within the American foreign-policy establishment, the U.S. military or the globalized American economic elite. Offshore balancing would be a radical departure from the way that the United States currently operates in East Asia; from how it plans to operate in the region in coming decades; and from how it has organized U.S. security in the region for the past sixty years.
Some might argue that by demonstrating greater humility and modesty the United States can continue its current strategy while still reassuring China. Summits can be held; regional institutions can be strengthened; Beijing can be empowered with leadership roles. Liberals criticized George W. Bush for aggressive policies that were offensive to U.S. allies and adversaries alike. They argue that more diplomatically savvy, consensus-building leaders can reassure allies and soothe others that We Come In Peace.
But evidence from the past five years does not support this view. American grand strategy under a Democratic administration has not noticeably changed—if anything, U.S. policy is even more assertive in East Asia. Though a supporter of the policy, Asia scholar Michael Green characterizes the Obama administration's rebalancing effort as aimed at China’s “soft underbelly” in Southeast Asia—deepening military ties with the Philippines and Singapore; stationing 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia; and even flirting with America’s Cold War adversary Vietnam (which dwells on the Chinese border). The very dynamics we describe—China fearing the United States and acting to counter it; the United States fearing those countermeasures and then responding in turn—have not only occurred but have accelerated during the Obama administration.