China, in contrast, as both the Trump and now Biden administrations have asserted, is the “pacing threat” that the United States must respond to and deter. A strong case can be made that Beijing has engaged in a concerted effort to alter both the existing institutions and norms of the international order in recent decades while enhancing its military capabilities relative to that of the United States through a rapid military build-up. This includes the expansion of Chinese missile and nuclear forces, blue-water naval capabilities and efforts to militarize its claims in the South China Sea.
Some of the rhetoric of the Biden administration posits China as a global challenge. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, for instance, has remarked that “the Chinese are everywhere: they’re down the Pacific coast of Central and South America, they’re down the West Coast of Africa.”
Yet Beijing’s actions should provide focus regarding the where, what, and how of American efforts to deter it. China’s primary security and strategic interests remain East Asia-focused, especially over Taiwan and combating American maritime dominance along the East Asian littorals. It is here that China has engaged in its clearest challenges to both the existing order and American power through its militarization of the South China Sea and serial violations of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Here, Beijing has employed classic grey zone approaches of information operations and lawfare to enhance its claims in the South China Sea along with the development of anti-access/area-denial capabilities. It has also attempted to erode Taiwanese resolve through violations of its ADIZ, “amphibious landing exercises, naval patrols, cyber-attacks and diplomatic isolation.”
Central to both of these challenges is Beijing’s manipulation of deterrence ambiguity through salami-slicing tactics that attempt “to break deterrence bit by bit, through repeated demonstrations of its insolvency in small, hard-to-counter crises.” China’s success to date here has relied on the United States and its allies being reactive and risk-averse and an assumption that “the US will either establish clear escalation thresholds” or “will try and defuse lower-level provocations from becoming larger conflicts it would rather avoid.”
Beijing’s apparent achievement of “escalation control”—the “ability to dictate the tempo crises take and lock adversaries into responding to moves”—should therefore be a core focus of U.S. efforts as it develops the concept of integrated deterrence.
How to combat this remains the unanswered question. The risk here—and one which Beijing has arguably manipulated—is that renewed efforts to deter it, for example, through stepping up in theatre deployment of conventional capabilities in the South China Sea could result in rapid escalation to a major Sino-American war including threatened use of nuclear weapons. To date, however, Beijing has calculated American interest in combating Chinese actions here “are not so vital that threats to use nuclear weapons in their defense are either desirable or likely to be credible.”
Therefore, conventional deterrence needs to be a core component of any response to China’s challenges.
However, reliance on conventional capabilities creates problems of “contestable costs,” time and credibility. The threat of costs imposed on the adversary by conventional means are inherently contestable because their effectiveness depends on the specific quality of the capabilities in the first place, how skillfully they are deployed, and how effectively an adversary can use counter-capabilities to blunt them. Deterrent effects here also rely on the relative destructiveness of conventional capabilities, meaning that the types of costs that they can impose on an adversary will only be felt over time. Therefore, although the threshold for using conventional capabilities might be lower and more politically palatable than that of nuclear weapons, it is often unclear how effective conventional capabilities are in imposing costs, impinging on the credibility of such threats in the first place.
To overcome these challenges the United States will have to be prepared to not only demonstrate it has the necessary capabilities and intent to impose costs on China but be prepared to do so consistently over time.
The insoluble dilemma of flexible response was that while it offered protection against the potential for incremental threats to become “challenges to the balance of power” by presenting “multiple levels of response . . . wider than those of escalation or humiliation” it simultaneously permitted adversaries to “select the nature and location of competition” and “required virtually unlimited resources.”
Given ongoing concerns about stretched military resources, budgetary constraints, and domestic debate about the costs and benefits of American extension abroad, a determined focus on the where, what, and how of deterrence is necessary to provide the requisite discipline to successfully implement the Biden administration’s new posture.
Dr. Michael Clarke is a senior fellow at the Centre for Defence Research, Australian Defence College, and a Visiting Fellow at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney. He is the author of American Grand Strategy and National Security: The Dilemmas of Primacy and Decline from the Founders to Trump (Palgrave 2021) and editor (with Matthew Sussex and Nick Bisley) of The Belt and Road Initiative and the Future of Regional Order in the Indo-Pacific (Lexington Books 2020).