Deterrence by Denial: How to Prevent China From Using Force

Deterrence by Denial: How to Prevent China From Using Force

The United States doesn't need to threaten blockades or attacks on the Chinese mainland—it merely must keep Beijing from pushing out into new areas.

In contrast to ongoing limitations, shared interests, and even opportunities for increasingly-robust cooperation far away , China’s navy and other services are achieving formidable anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities closer to shore . Beijing is prioritizing an “ anti-Navy” to deter U.S. intervention in the Western Pacific over a blue-water, power-projection navy. The Chinese have identified, and are exploiting, limitations in U.S. weapons systems that stem from fundamental physical principles. For example, quiet diesel submarines will always be difficult to detect, track and kill. Fixed targets like airbases will always be difficult to defend against ballistic missiles.

Beijing seeks to wield this growing might to pursue outstanding territorial and maritime claims and to carve out in the Yellow, East and South China Seas and airspace above them a “zone of exceptionalism” within which existing global security, legal, and resource management norms are subordinated to its parochial national interests. This can only weaken the global system on which all nations’ security and prosperity depends, and will continue to destabilize a vital but vulnerable region that remains haunted by history. If not addressed properly, China’s rise as a major A2/AD military power could give it unprecedented capacity to deny sanctuary and communications to U.S. forces, and thereby challenge the type of military operations for which the U.S. has equipped and prepared. While the Soviet Union posed significant challenges to the U.S. Army and Air Force based in continental Europe in the Cold War, the precision-weapons revolution and the maritime geography of the Asia-Pacific theater enable Chinese A2/AD to render U.S. forces, largely naval and island-based air forces, far more vulnerable.

While conflict with China should be avoided, China must also be prevented from significantly coercing its neighbors or unilaterally altering the region’s status quo in ways that are inimical to the interests of the U.S. and its allies, as well as to regional stability in general. Failure to emphasize this point as well risks making the U.S. appear weak and acquiescent to mounting Chinese assertiveness, both to Beijing and to regional allies, friends, and partners. This risks miscalculation on Beijing’s part. It also makes taxpayers and their representatives question why significant U.S. military investments are needed in a time of austerity. This should be framed in terms of ensuring the continued functioning of the existing international system. Washington should clarify, as necessary, that it is not trying to contain Beijing per se , but rather to resist any Chinese actions that would harm the existing system. Conversely, positive Chinese behavior—such as providing international public security goods in the Gulfs of Aden or Guinea, or helping to stabilize the North Korean border if the barbaric Kim Jong-un regime collapses, should be encouraged and applauded.

To ensure that Beijing cannot use force—or the threat of force—to change the status quo in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. must maintain military capabilities that will deter any threatening or aggressive actions by China—even as they cooperate in areas of shared interest. At a minimum, the U.S. must continue to prevent force from being used to resolve Asia-Pacific disputes and cooperate where it can until Beijing embraces the mutual efforts required for the two Pacific powers to achieve durable, if frequently or even continuously competitive, coexistence . To ensure this, the U.S. should demonstrate the capability to deny China the ability to seize and hold disputed territories. Given the inherent defensiveness of the U.S. approach, it should be possible to meet core objectives at an affordable price through the most critical timeframe— likely over the coming decade —with a bottom-line strategy of deterrence by denial .

Washington must be careful not to compete with Beijing in excessively expensive and ultimately ineffective arms competitions. It should not counter China’s A2/AD weapons by attempting to acquire a more sophisticated counter in each and every instance . It must also avoid the temptation to embrace approaches such as mainland strikes that would be unduly escalatory or counterproductive —and lack the credibility to deter Beijing through their threatened use over issues in the East and South China Seas, given a disparity of national interests. A distant blockade , which some argue as an effective alternative, is also escalatory and probably unfeasible for a number of reasons . Further, neither mainland strikes or a blockade offers a convincing case for conflict resolution over a matter China is willing to go to war over.

Instead, as China works to deny U.S. forces an ability to operate close to the mainland, the U.S. aim at a minimum should be to deny China the ability to resolve territorial and maritime disputes by the use of force. To resolve disputes conclusively, China would have seize and hold territory as well as resupply its forces. This is inherently difficult on small islands, where geography imposes vulnerability . To demonstrate that China cannot achieve this, and thereby deter it from ever trying, the U.S. and its allies should maximize disruption capabilities—their own form of A2/AD. The U.S. should therefore develop, deploy and demonstrate in a measured, targeted fashion the capability to deny China the ability to seize and hold offshore territories.

Here,some pages can be taken from China’s own playbook. Modern military capabilities are based on a complex system of hardware and software. Amid this, certain platforms and weapons offer disproportionate benefits, including submarines, and advanced surface-to-surface, air-to-surface, and surface-to-air missiles, as well as naval mines .

The tight fiscal environment and threat timeline places a premium on deploying and maintaining existing platforms and weapons systems with proven technologies in limited numbers as rapidly and effectively as possible. The most promising approach is to hold and build on formidable U.S. undersea advantages , to which China lacks effective countermeasures—and would have to invest vastly-disproportionate resources in a slow, likely futile effort to close the gap.

It is therefore essential to ensure the present two-a-year construction rate of Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) —ideal for denying China the ability to hold and resupply any forcefully seized islands. The Virginia Payload Module allows for useful increases in missile capacity. Given China’s ongoing limitations in anti-submarine warfare, and the inherent difficulty of progressing in this field, China could spend many times the cost of these SSNs and still not be able to counter them effectively.

Additionally, more can be done to better equip U.S. platforms, such as submarines. The U.S. should do far more with missiles, particularly anti-ship cruise missiles. Recent tests of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) represent a step in the right direction, but more ought to be done in this regard. Offensive naval mine warfare is another underexploited area that offers maximum bang for the buck.

U.S. submarines can oppose any Chinese naval forces engaged in invasion, resupply, and protection. Long-range air or missile delivery can blow any lodgment off disputed islands or rocks. To be sure, both U.S. and Chinese A2 /AD forces could achieve denial effects. Long-range surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles from both sides might hold air operations over the features in question at risk, prevent continuous operations, or even fully create a “No Man’s Land.” U.S. forces, other than SSNs, might not be able to operate without assuming great risk, and hence be denied continuous access and presence.


But Chinese forces would also not have access—and would thereby be denied their objective of seizing and holding disputed territory. Demonstrating this to China would be an effective deterrent: Beijing could not afford to risk the likelihood of not achieving its objective.

By adopting this deterrence-by-denial strategy, the U.S. can continue to preserve the peace in the Asia-Pacific , which has prospered during nearly seven decades of American protection. No other nation has the capability and lack of territorial claims necessary to play this still-vital role.

This article draws on testimony that Dr. Erickson delivered on 11 December 2013 before the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee hearing “U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategic Considerations Related to PLA Naval Forces .” Erickson testified as an individual, not as a representative of the U.S. Navy; these are solely his personal views.