China is implementing a well-designed cost-imposing strategy in the Western Pacific that is inexorably undermining the position of the United States and its partners in the region. We need a competitive response if we are to maintain peace and stability in an area the Obama administration has made a top priority for U.S. security planning.1
Policymakers faced with an emerging and perhaps ambiguous threat must make two assessments. First, what military capacity might the potential adversary eventually develop? And second, what are the potential adversary’s intentions? Is it at least plausible that the opponent could put at risk the United States’ goals and interests? Policymakers are wise to keep their attention focused first on the adversary’s future capacity for military action for the simple reason that intentions can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Benign intentions today can become malign actions tomorrow. But those actions only become a problem if the adversary has the military capacity to carry them out.
China’s intentions of late remain ambiguous but are increasingly disturbing. Top officials in the Chinese government have repeatedly asserted their territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are under Japan’s administration, along with a vast majority of the South China Sea, denoted by China’s “Nine-Dash Line” claim.2 Further, China appears to be employing “salami slicing”—small actions calibrated to be too minor to be a casus belli but that can gradually accumulate over time into a substantial geostrategic change.3
Recent examples of such action in East Asia include China’s June 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal near Luzon—immediately after defaulting on a deal former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell believed he had negotiated between China and the Philippines for both sides to simultaneously withdraw their vessels during a dispute over the shoal.4 Later, in the spring of 2014, Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard and naval vessels engaged in a standoff involving water cannons and boat collisions after a Chinese oil company temporarily installed a large offshore oil-exploration rig inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.5 Presently, at Second Thomas Shoal (also called Ayungin Shoal) in the South China Sea, Chinese maritime paramilitary forces continue a siege of the small garrison of Filipino marines attempting to maintain possession of the reef. A Chinese major general termed the tactic “the cabbage strategy,” which he described as the deployment of layers of Chinese civilian enforcement and paramilitary vessels around disputed islands in the South China Sea in an effort to isolate, blockade, and force the withdrawal of non-Chinese residents and garrisons.6 Finally, China’s legally dubious air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, declared suddenly in November 2013, overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ and the Senkaku Islands, increasing the risk of accidents and miscalculation.7
Policymakers in Washington and in the region seemed flummoxed on how to respond to China’s salami slicing. Complaints are registered but so far don’t seem to be altering Chinese behavior.8 These actions are troubling and raise questions about the country’s future intentions. But what should matter most to U.S. planners is China’s prospective military capacity. China is implementing a well-designed and cost-imposing military modernization program that by the next decade will deliver highly effective capabilities to its leaders.
A Military Strategy with a Competitive Advantage
China’s military modernization program began two decades ago, after Chinese officials witnessed the technical proficiency displayed by U.S. and allied forces in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign. In addition, the March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis exposed how little capacity China possessed at that time to counter the two aircraft carrier strike groups the United States sent to the region during the crisis.9 Since then, China’s modernization program has made careful use of its continental position, the revolution in precision missile and sensor technology, and the fact that China’s land-based missile forces are not constrained (as are the United States’) by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. China has thus been able to develop an effective cost-imposing strategy on the United States. This has forced U.S. military planners into expensive and questionably effective concepts and programs in response to relatively modest investments by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
One of China’s most significant and enduring competitive advantages is its continental position. It can project air power over the Western Pacific from dozens of hardened bases on and near its coast.10 These bases are protected by what the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) terms “one of the largest forces of advanced [surface-to-air missile] systems in the world.”11
China has made a substantial investment in variants of the Su-27/30 Flanker strike fighter, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle. China’s Flanker variants have a combat radius of nearly 1,000 miles, exceeding the close to 700-mile unrefueled combat radius of the U.S. Navy’s F-35C and F/A-18 E/F strike-fighters.12 China has produced the J-11B, an indigenous version of the Flanker, and the PLA’s inventory of Flanker variants could number over 400 aircraft by the next decade.13 These and other strike aircraft (in 2014 the DOD estimated China’s total air defense and strike aircraft inventory at 2,100) will be armed with a variety of land-attack and antiship cruise missiles, some with supersonic speed and ranges up to 250 miles.14 By the end of this decade China is expected to begin forming squadrons of the J-20 strike-fighter, a stealthy aircraft with a possible combat radius of up to 1,200 miles.15
According to the DOD, China has up to 1,800 theater-range land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, most of which are mounted on road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers and are thus capable of hiding and relocating in China’s complex terrain.16 The revolution in missile and sensor technology has greatly increased the accuracy of ballistic and cruise missiles and lowered the relative cost of these munitions. Finally, China is assembling a multidimensional sensor, command, and communications network that in the next decade should allow it to effectively employ the platforms and munitions in its inventory.17 It is unsurprising that China is exploiting its continental position and the missile and sensor revolution to craft a cost-imposing strategy on the United States in the Western Pacific.
In contrast to China’s continental position and its wide-ranging missile forces, the United States faces the burden of operating largely as an expeditionary power, which increases its costs and thus makes it harder to compete with the expansion of China’s forces. Further, the INF treaty prohibits the United States from matching China’s comparatively economical land-based theater missile strategy.
The U.S. Air Force operates from just six main bases in the theater. The U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded that five of these bases (located in Japan and South Korea) are highly vulnerable to suppression by China’s missiles.18 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps naval and air bases in Japan are similarly vulnerable to attack.19 Although at a greater distance from Chinese land-based forces, the growing complex of bases on Guam will become increasingly vulnerable to suppression as China’s land-attack missiles spread to more platforms (such as China’s growing fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines) and increase in range and numbers.20
There is increasing concern that U.S. surface warships, including aircraft carrier strike groups, will become vulnerable to multi-axis saturation cruise-missile attacks, an operation we should assume Chinese strike-fighter regiments and perhaps its submarines should be able to execute before the end of this decade. Indeed, the first eight issues of Proceedings in 2014 displayed at least five articles that discussed the growing missile threat to U.S. surface warships.21 In addition, the recent debate over whether the Navy should require the future unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike aircraft to be able to autonomously search for and attack targets at very long range in defended airspace is an acknowledgment that the Navy’s carrier strike groups may one day not be able to safely conduct persistent operations inside an adversary’s missile threat zones.22
The Navy is moving forward on plans to bolster the air and missile defenses of its surface ships.23 But the economics of the missile and sensor revolution will likely allow China to persist with its cost-imposing strategy; it will be less expensive for China to add more Flankers, J-20s, and cheap, but smart, missiles than it will be for the U.S. Navy to add additional ships, radars, and defensive missiles. In the longer-run, many are hoping that ship-mounted directed-energy weapons will be able to swing the advantage back to missile defense. But according to the Congressional Research Service, reliably defending against high-end supersonic cruise missiles will require megawatt-class free-electron lasers, which at the earliest won’t be available until the second half of the next decade.24
The Operational Concepts Debate
Salami slicing appears to be working for China, and therefore we should expect it to continue. Resisting China’s actions could require a willingness to risk a confrontation involving fishing boats, oil rigs, coast guard vessels, and perhaps military forces. Whether a confrontation results in armed conflict will depend on many factors, most particularly the calculation each side makes regarding its prospects for tactical success. In the past, U.S. policymakers and commanders have been reasonably confident in their tactical superiority, especially in the Western Pacific. But that assumption is now becoming questionable as China steadily enhances its capacity to suppress U.S. bases in the region and threaten U.S. and allied surface warships. Increasing ambiguity, or even worse, both sides assuming they possess “escalation dominance,” is a recipe for disaster during a crisis.
Strategists examining the increasingly hazardous security situation in East Asia have proposed both direct and indirect responses to China’s growing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The Air-Sea Battle concept represents the direct approach and calls for greater cooperation and coordination among the services to enable U.S. forces to disrupt a high-end adversary’s targeting and command networks, destroy their platforms before they can launch their missiles, and, finally, defeat enemy missiles before they hit their targets.25 The DOD’s capstone Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) discusses the risks and barriers U.S. military planners and commanders should address in order to make a direct approach against an adversary’s A2/AD forces a feasible course of action. JOAC asserted that it may be technically infeasible or unaffordable to acquire the systems and capabilities needed to implement the “disrupt, destroy, defeat” lines of effort. In addition, the JOAC stated that policymakers may be unwilling to implement some of these lines of effort because they may conclude that the escalation risks attached to them would be unacceptable in particular circumstances.26
The direct approach also suffers from the fact that it would likely be uncompetitive. In the case of China, it would have the United States directing its defense resources against the PLA’s main strengths rather than its vulnerabilities. As one example, the “disrupt” component—attacks against China’s targeting and command network—would very likely be met by Chinese retaliation against U.S. space-based imagery and communication networks. As the expeditionary player, the United States would be the loser from such an exchange because it will be cheaper and easier for China, the continental power and “home team,” to re-establish terrestrial-based substitutes in place of its lost space-based networks for coverage of a conflict in the East China and South China seas.
The indirect approach, featuring a distant blockade and applying economic leverage against China, targets what seems to be a particular Chinese vulnerability and does so in a way that appears to avoid dangerous escalation risks. As a substitute for the direct Air-Sea Battle approach, its advocates note that employing U.S. and coalition naval power against China’s economy will avoid uncompetitive investments in platforms and support systems designed to attack China’s comparative advantages in diversified basing, mobile missiles, and redundant targeting and command systems.27
However, a blockade strategy suffers from some serious political shortcomings that would make it untenable. A blockade against China would be an economic declaration of war by the United States against the global economy, which would include the vast majority of countries that would begin such a conflict as neutral non-belligerents. The United States would immediately make enemies of these non-belligerents, which would most likely make the strategy unsustainable for very long. In addition, a blockader must anticipate enforcing the blockade for a very long time to hold out the prospect of changing an adversary’s behavior. It is questionable whether the American public’s patience for a strategy that explicitly imposes global economic ruin would run longer than that of an authoritarian and nationalistic China.
As U.S. strategists struggle to fashion a response to China’s salami slicing and its competitive military modernization, the interim solution will be to display U.S. commitment to the region by deploying even more short-range aircraft and surface warships to already crowded and vulnerable bases in the Western Pacific. Regrettably, this stop-gap measure will only further increase crisis instability. For China, the temptation of a disarming first strike during a crisis would rise as the opportunity to destroy even more forward-deployed U.S. platforms presents itself. For U.S. decision-makers, the necessity of attacking China’s targeting and command systems first will become even more imperative, while the logic of “use it, or lose it” will increasingly apply to U.S. forward-based forces.28 Thus, paradoxically, deploying even more vulnerable U.S. forces at forward positions will likely only increase risk in the region.
A Toolbox for the Western Pacific
If the United States is to maintain the credibility of its alliances in East Asia and freedom in the region’s commons, the United States and its partners will very likely have to take greater risks to resist China’s salami-slicing strategy. For that resistance to succeed, the United States and its partners will need forces and operational concepts that enhance crisis stability, convince China’s leaders that they will not benefit from escalation, and threaten to impose costs on Chinese decision-makers in response to actions that place burdens on U.S. and partner interests. As we have seen, ambiguity is increasing about whether these conditions will exist by the next decade.
To enhance crisis stability, the United States needs to rebalance its portfolio of strike platforms away from vulnerable and short-range systems, forward-based within easy range of China’s missile forces. For the U.S. Air Force, that will mean less investment in tactical fighters and more on bombers and long-range air-to-surface missiles based outside the range of Chinese systems. For the Navy, it will mean reconsidering the centrality of the carrier strike group and revisiting whether a long-term goal of 48 attack submarines will be sufficient if surface forces will struggle to persist inside missile-threat zones.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps should play leading roles bolstering the capabilities of allies and partners—America’s most important strategic asset in the region. A greatly expanded security-force assistance mission for U.S. ground forces can make progress establishing trust among America’s partners, expanding their capacities to collect and share intelligence, building partners’ conventional access-denial military capabilities, and preparing for all forms of irregular and unconventional warfare. The Army and Marine Corps should prepare to execute this critical line of effort.
More generally, these steps should be part of a comprehensive approach that assembles political, diplomatic, economic, and conventional and unconventional military techniques into a broad toolbox available to policymakers. China has vulnerabilities, its leaders have anxieties, and the United States and its partners can use such a toolbox to create persuasive and dissuasive leverage that can influence Chinese behavior in mutually beneficial ways.29 The capacity to impose a distant blockade, along with the capability to threaten direct attacks on assets and conditions highly valued by China’s leaders, should be included. These and other military and non-military tools could be developed to complicate Chinese planning, impose costs during a peacetime competition, and hold at risk Chinese interests in ways that enhance deterrence and sustain regional stability.
China is employing salami slicing and using the missile and sensor technical revolution to execute a cost-imposing strategy on the United States and its partners in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States currently lacks an effective response, but it better find one if it is to maintain stability in this vital region. A competitive strategy would greatly expand the security force assistance effort in the region, rebalance U.S. striking power toward long-range air power and submarines, prepare for the full range of irregular and unconventional warfare missions, and assemble a broad portfolio of military and non-military tools that could provide persuasive and dissuasive leverage against China’s vulnerabilities. Many of these ideas are controversial and disruptive to established routines, which explains why thus far they generally haven’t been implemented. But, if the Asia-Pacific region is to maintain the peaceful stability that has benefited all, including China, the United States and its partners will need to steer a new course, and soon.
2. U.S. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Press Briefing with Secretary Hagel and Gen. Chang from the Pentagon,” 19 August 2013, www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5289. Foreign Ministry of the Government of China, “China strongly opposes US State Department’s statement on South China Sea: FM spokesman,” www.gov.cn/misc/2012-08/04/content_2198497.htm.
3. Robert Haddick, “Salami Slicing in the South China Sea,” Foreign Policy, 3 August 2012, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/03/salami_slicing_in_the_south_china_sea.
4. Geoff Dyer and Demetri Sevastapulo, “US strategists face dilemma over Beijing claim in South China Sea,” Financial Times, 9 July 2014, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b2176dea-0732-11e4-81c6-00144feab7de.html%23axzz3AkKMjTAs.
5. Austin Ramzy, “A View From the Sea, as China Flexes Muscle,” The New York Times, 9 August 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/world/asia/a-view-from-the-sea-as-china-flexes-muscle.html?_r=2.
6. Jeff Himmelman, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times Magazine, 27 October 2013, www.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2013/10/27/south-china-sea/.
7. Peter A. Dutton, “China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas,” Naval War College Review, (Summer 2014), 13–5, www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/9edbcea9-8425-4b96-aa14-aac1f81532c2/China-s-Maritime-Disputes-in-the-East-and-South-Ch.aspx.
8. Dyer and Sevastapulo, “US strategists face dilemma over Beijing claim in South China Sea.”
9. Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 192–4.
10. Eric Stephen Gons, “Access Challenges and Implications for Airpower in the Western Pacific,” (PhD dissertation, Pardee RAND Graduate School, 2010), 217, www.rand.org/pubs/rgs_dissertations/RGSD267.html.
11. U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013,” May 2013, 8, www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2013_CMPR_Final.pdf.
12. J-11 [Su-27 FLANKER] Su-27UBK / Su-30MKK/ Su-30MK2,” GlobalSecurity.org, www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/j-11.htm. See “F-35C Carrier Variant,” Lockheed Martin F-35C Fact Sheet, http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/f35/f-35c-carrier-variant.html. “F/A-18 Hornet Strike Fighter,” U.S. Navy Fact File, www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=1100&tid=1200&ct=1.
13. Gons, “Access Challenges and Implications for Airpower in the Western Pacific,” 85.
14. U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2014,” May 2014, 78, www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2014_CMPR_Final.pdf. Vitaliy O. Pradun, “From Bottle Rockets to Lightening Bolts: China’s Missile Revolution and PLA Strategy against US Military Intervention,” Naval War College Review, (Spring 2011), 12–4, www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/23a01071-5dac-433a-8452-09c542163ae8/From-Bottle-Rockets-to-Lightning-Bolts--China-s-Mi.
15. “2012 Report to Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission,” November 2012, 129, www.uscc.gov/annual_report/2012/2012-Report-to-Congress.pdf.
16. U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012,” May 2012, 29, www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2012_CMPR_Final.pdf.
17. Pradun, “From Bottle Rockets to Lightening Bolts,” 17–8.
18. “2010 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission,” November 2010, 89–90, www.uscc.gov/annual_report/2010/annual_report_full_10.pdf. See also Gons, “Access Challenges and Implications for Airpower in the Western Pacific,” 70–80.
19. Toshi Yoshihara, “Japanese Bases and Chinese Missiles,” Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific, Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, editors, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 38–9.
20. Andrew S. Erickson and Justin D. Mikolay, “Guam and American Security in the Pacific,” Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific, Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, editors, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 27–9.
21. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), “Single Purpose Warships for the Littorals,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 6 (June 2014), 26–32, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-06/single-purpose-warships-littorals. RADM Walter E. Carter, Jr., “Sea Power in the Precision Missile Age,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 5 (May 2014), 30–34. J. Randy Forbes, “Revitalize American Sea Power,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 3 (March 2014), 16–20. Lt Col Jason Cooper, USAF, and LtCol Mike Jernigan, USMC, “A2/AD: The New Death Knell for Amphibious Operations?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 2 (February 2014), 22–27, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-02/a2ad-new-death-knell-amphibious-operations. Robert Crumplar and Peter Morrison, “Beware the Anti-ship Cruise Missile,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 1 (January 2014), 34–38. www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-01/beware-antiship-cruise-missile.
22. “HASC Seapower and Power Projection Forces Sub-committee: UCLASS Hearing,” Information Dissemination Blog, 16 July 2014, www.informationdissemination.net/2014/07/hasc-seapower-and-projection-forces-sub.html.
23. CAPT Jim Kilby, USN, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Integrated Air/Missile Defense,” Center for International Maritime Security, 4 April 2014, http://cimsec.org/surface-warfare-lynchpin-naval-integrated-airmissile-defense.
24. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 24 April 2013, 12–3, www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R41526.pdf.
25. GEN Norton A. Schwartz, USAF, and ADM Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, “Air-Sea Battle: Promoting Stability in an Era of Uncertainty,” The American Interest, 20 February 2012, www.the-american-interest.com/2012/02/20/air-sea-battle/.
26. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0, (Arlington, VA: Department of Defense, 2011), 36–8, www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/JOAC_Jan%202012_Signed.pdf.
27. Col T. X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.) “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” National Defense University Strategic Forum, (June 2012,) www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a577602.pdf28. David C. Gompert and Martin Libi. cki, “Cyber Warfare and Sino-American Crisis Instability, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, (August–September 2014), vol. 56, no. 4, 8–10.
29. Michael Pillsbury, “The Sixteen Fears: China’s Strategic Psychology,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, vol. 54, no. 5 (October–November 2012), 149–182, www.michaelpillsbury.net/articles/Michael-Pillsbury_The_Sixteen_Fears_Chinas_Strategic_Psychology_10–03–12.pdf.