China’s growing sea services and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities pose complex challenges. Senior U.S. Navy leaders are working with industry to provide surface warriors the tools needed for “offensive sea control” in a contested environment. But simultaneously, policy-makers maintain that building a constructive relationship with China ultimately “delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world,” the White House said in its February 2015 National Security Strategy.
Instead, the two lines of approach should be part of the same conversation. Cooperation with China and an offense-based resourcing initiative to offset a formidable network of naval and other A2/AD capabilities can and should exist in the same scheme for stability within an “engage, interact, deter” policy framework, and the U.S. Navy surface fleet plays a key role.
The fleet’s experience, leadership, and adaptive capabilities can serve as an extension of international political cooperation and as an instrument to fulfill U.S. policy objectives of promoting security and prosperity in Asia. Regional exercises should focus on common interests where China can play a more responsible regional role in the future, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism and counterpiracy, and search and rescue.
Meanwhile, increased lethality on U.S. Navy surface combatants can help deter Beijing and foil its perception that China’s policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific can be achieved through maritime coercion. Some may argue that building advanced offensive capabilities on U.S. surface combatants might “rock the boat” with China and precipitate an arms race and escalation, prompting calls for more diplomacy to calm tensions. Others may argue that further engaging with China is too great a gamble given Beijing’s anti-Western sentiments, escalatory behavior in the South China and East China Sea,s and substantial anti-access and naval investments. Both arguments have valid underlining notions, and an all-inclusive “engage, interact, deter” policy can have several key benefits:
• Engagement and interaction manages military inertia in the region through mutual exercise of shared interests, improved communication, and a stronger enterprise for preventing miscalculations at sea.
• Increasing offensive capabilities applies friction against the perceived benefits of using A2/AD weapons and shrinks politico-military space in Beijing for choosing force or coercion on the seas as an extension of any grand vision or “national rejuvenation.”
There are recognizable barriers to this framework. One such challenge is determining whether China even wants to cooperate. Many experts point out Beijing’s long-standing suspicion toward U.S. sea power, which manifests itself through deep anxiety about U.S. interdiction capabilities on the sea routes and involvement in regional affairs. And, with Beijing’s “terraforming” of underwater reefs into island bases and excessive sovereignty claims, it seems that peaceful interaction is antithetical to its grand vision—perhaps even an illusion. But external pressure on Beijing to play a responsible leadership role in the region cannot be abandoned.
Another barrier resides in the existing zero-sum environment in the Asia-Pacific. China’s leadership has expressed in open forum the desire to “transcend” Cold War zero-sum thinking, but the numerous actions the country has taken to intimidate nations and assert its influence are more indicative of zero-sum antics. The resulting counterweights are apparent. Allies and partners in the region are getting edgy about China’s opaque military spending and provocations in the South China and East China Seas. Therefore, increasing lethality on U.S. surface combatants and instituting innovative doctrine to deal with such hazardous signaling makes sense as tensions in the region continue to grow. The former action could help discourage the perception by Beijing of its A2/AD dominance with the realization that “its objectives could be thwarted in force-on-force engagement,” Sam J. Tangredi argues in his book Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies (Naval Institute Press, 2013). In this way, the United States can signal a clear response to future actions aimed at its core national interests.
But this is only one part of the holistic construct. While engagement is a difficult national policy choice, it also makes sense, as policy frameworks should deliver stabilizing mechanisms that not only protect vital U.S. interests and reassure allies of our resolve, but also forge opportunities to maintain an open dialogue and promote mutual goals.
Lieutenant Commander Sandomir is a surface warfare officer assigned as a Federal Executive Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.