The United States today suffers from a critical deficit in strategic thinking about the most consequential challenge of the current era: the rise of China and the threat it poses to U.S. interests in the western Pacific and beyond. Addressing that deficit is a matter of the utmost importance and urgency.
The prospect of 21st-century great power war is terra incognita. The vast majority of officers in the U.S. armed forces and civil servants in the U.S. government entered service after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For them, the notion of great power competition is at best a theoretical and historical matter; it is certainly not one of personal experience. The novelty of the current situation is compounded by the emergence of new technologies, concepts of operations, and organizations that presage wars that will look very different from past conflicts.
It is the professional obligation of U.S. military leaders to ensure the U.S. armed forces are prepared to fight and win the nation’s wars, including developing strategies and supporting joint operational concepts to do so. As Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner noted during his first convocation address at the Naval War College in 1972, the military “profession can only retain its vitality so long as we ourselves are pushing the frontiers of knowledge in our field.”1 It is the role of civilian leaders to hold the military accountable for developing approaches to meet the challenges the nation faces, not wish them away. Similarly, it is the responsibility of civilian leaders to define the parameters within which strategy and concepts are developed, to include the political constraints and operational assumptions that are necessary to ensure new ways of war are politically useful and strategically relevant.
Thinking About Strategy
Strategy is about how to array limited resources in space and time to achieve one’s aims against a competitor. Its essential elements are rationality (the existence of political objectives and a plan to achieve them) and interaction with a competitor who seeks, at the very least, to achieve different objectives—if not thwart one’s ability to achieve one’s aims.2 Strategy is situational: One develops a strategy against a particular adversary. Moreover, a sound net assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of a competitor is foundational to any successful strategy.For the foreseeable future, developing a strategy to compete with China should have the highest priority. Any strategy for competing with China in the western Pacific and beyond will, by definition, be a maritime strategy: Actions in, through, and from the seas will play a central role.
Strategy is meant to influence an adversary’s decision-making calculus. In the case of China, strategy will succeed or fail to the extent it influences the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (Xi Jinping in particular), so it is critically important to have a theory of victory: an understanding of how tactical and operational actions will influence the adversary in such a way as to achieve the desired result.
Bradford A. Lee describes four families of strategy, each of which embodies a distinct theory of victory.3 First, a strategy of denial seeks to convince an adversary that it is impossible to achieve his objectives. By contrast, a strategy of cost imposition seeks to convince an adversary’s leadership that it would be unprofitable (though not impossible) to achieve their desired aims because the costs of doing so would be disproportionately high. A third approach is to attack a rival’s strategy by calling into question the assumptions guiding his strategy and forcing him to reassess. Lee’s fourth and final approach is to exploit and influence factions to attack a competitor’s political systems to achieve a favorable outcome.
Aims of a Maritime Strategy to Compete with China
A maritime strategy for China should seek to address the four elements of Chinese behavior that are of greatest concern to the United States and its allies.4 The first involves the CCP’s approach to external affairs, which is often predatory and corrosive to U.S. interests. It is axiomatic that any country’s political leaders pay greater attention to domestic matters than to international affairs. That is certainly true of CCP leaders, who are highly attentive to domestic stability. Nevertheless, in recent years China has become increasingly active on the international stage. It has exerted its weight not only in its neighborhood, but also in areas far removed from the Asian continent, including the Persian Gulf and Africa.
The second concern involves China’s geopolitical orientation. Whereas the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) long focused on the Asian continent, in recent decades it has increasingly adopted a maritime orientation, with a goal to negate the traditional U.S. strength of projecting military power from afar. It is thus the buildup of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF), as well as other antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) (or, in Chinese parlance, counterintervention) capabilities such as missiles and antisatellite weapons, that have stimulated U.S. and allied responses, not Chinese military spending in the abstract.
A third concern, related to the previous two, stems from the CCP’s increasing dissatisfaction with the international status quo. China’s leaders have challenged the status quo rhetorically and, increasingly, through action. Nothing illustrates this more tangibly than China’s building and militarizing new land features in the South China Sea as a means of bolstering its claim of ownership. Other Chinese actions have also undermined the rules upheld by the United States since World War II, including launching cyberattacks against critical civilian infrastructure, pressuring foreign companies to ignore political oppression, stealing intellectual property, and using corruption networks to undermine governments.5
A final concern revolves around China’s domestic political system. China’s authoritarian government and disregard for human rights and personal freedom have caused tension with the United States, its allies, and others in the region and beyond. Whatever U.S. leaders say, the CCP firmly believes that the United States wants to overthrow it.6 Under Xi Jinping, the CCP has set about making the world safe for authoritarianism and establishing a Sino-centric alternative to the liberal international order. In this model, the hallmark of U.S. global leadership—an open system of free trade and cooperative security, buttressed by alliances, institutions, and rules—would succumb to a closed system in which transactional dealings with Beijing determine the fates of nations.
If, however, these four features were to change—if China were to focus more internally, emphasize the Asian continent over its maritime periphery, accept the status quo, and become more pluralistic—then the United States and its allies would worry less about China’s rise. Indeed, under those circumstances China might resemble today’s India, a rising power with growing economic strength that does not threaten U.S. interests or the international order. The question that strategists must address is: To what extent can U.S. military power influence these four features?
Maritime Pressure: A Strategy for the Western Pacific and Beyond7
Just as strategy must focus on a particular adversary, it must be attentive to geography. China’s primary territorial concerns—Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea—are far closer to it than to the United States. While the United States has territory, allies, and interests in the western Pacific, it must traverse the expanse of the Pacific Ocean to defend them.
A maritime strategy should seek to turn geography to the United States’ advantage by using the geography of the western Pacific to constrain China’s access to the open oceans in crisis or war. Viewed from Beijing, the First Island Chain—the barrier formed by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and maritime and peninsular Southeast Asia—limits Chinese entry to the greater Pacific and Indian Oceans, through just a handful of narrow straits. Chinese literature reveals a deeply felt insecurity about these near seas and an urgent desire to control them. The PLA seeks to dictate military operations within this island chain, an area that holds deep symbolic value for China’s leaders.8
Like the Fulda Gap along the inter-German border during the Cold War, the First Island Chain today should be considered key terrain the United States must, in concert with allies and friends, defend. Indeed, geography and technology make it easier to defend in this century than the Fulda Gap was in the 20th. The pressure exerted by combined U.S. and allied land-based, expeditionary, naval, and air forces, backed by space and cyber capabilities, would represent a challenge China’s leaders would be hard-pressed to ignore. Such a strategy would create uncertainty, complicate Chinese operational planning, call into question the assumptions of the PLA’s operational concepts, and force China to expend costs to counter it.
Scope, Scale, Duration
Past assessments often portrayed a conflict with China as a “short, sharp war” that would be over in days.9 Under some circumstances, this could prove to be correct. It is, of course, possible that the United States and its allies could achieve a quick, decisive victory over China. Conversely, if the Chinese can achieve strategic and operational surprise, they could achieve a quick, decisive victory.
It is, however, increasingly possible that a war with China could be protracted. In particular, the growth and spread of precision-strike systems, to include China’s large-scale investment in them, appears to herald an era of protracted war, since these weapons allow states such as China to deny the United States the theater buildup it needs to achieve a quick victory. Moreover, the possibility of nuclear escalation in a Sino-U.S. conflict also could yield a protracted war, since steps taken to mitigate the risk of nuclear escalation perversely reduce the incentive for the other party to come to the table without first gaining a decisive conventional advantage.10 In such a situation, any overall strategy will need to incorporate not only elements of denial, but also cost imposition and efforts to attack the adversary’s strategy and—potentially—its political system.
In a protracted war, other dimensions of power may be increasingly important, to include the ability to mobilize technological and societal resources; gather and support allies and partners; and open up new geographic or functional theaters of operations. Such a conflict could easily spread beyond the western Pacific, threatening not only U.S. territory in the region, such as Guam, but also Hawaii and even the West Coast of the United States. Furthermore, in a protracted war, the economic dimension comes to the fore, with the economic weight of the belligerents and their access to strategic resources playing an important role. This suggests a very different set of planning considerations than those that have governed force structure and operational planning since the end of the Cold War.
A maritime pressure strategy would consist of two mutually supporting elements: an inside force and an outside force.11 U.S. forces postured forward in the western Pacific would provide a combat-credible signal of U.S. commitment and resolve, which should give Chinese leaders pause by complicating their decision-making calculus and undermining confidence in their military plans. These inside forces could also challenge Chinese coercive actions below the level of armed conflict. In particular, inside forces employing a network of persistent air, maritime, and ground sensors could enhance situational awareness and help expose Chinese malign activities. Moreover, a persistent sensor network could also improve indications and warning of Chinese aggression, thereby reducing China’s time–distance advantage.12
In the event of war, inside forces would exploit the region’s maritime geography to form an initial defensive barrier that could immediately challenge Chinese military operations. These forces would contest Chinese air superiority, sea control, and information dominance; delay and deny the ability of Chinese power projection forces to achieve their objectives, such as seizing the territory of U.S. allies or partners, while blocking China from projecting power beyond the First Island Chain; and degrade key Chinese systems to create gaps in A2/AD networks.
Mobile and dispersed ground and expeditionary forces would form the backbone of these inside forces. The inherent survivability of mobile, hard-to-find ground forces, augmented with camouflage, concealment, and deception, would transform the First Island Chain’s archipelagos into defensive bastions bristling with multidomain capabilities such as sensors, missiles, and electronic warfare systems. Subsurface platforms, both manned and unmanned, could operate within or near the East and South China Seas to augment island bastions as part of the inside forces.
Expeditionary forces can force an adversary to contend with geographic and temporal uncertainty. As a result, the ability to seize and hold territory may prove particularly valuable. Marine Corps forces could employ sensors to act as coast watchers and strike systems to operate as coastal artillery. A key topic for future analysis and experimentation will be the relative importance of sensing and striking for expeditionary forces. It will be similarly important to determine the necessary size, range, and composition of Marine Corps strike assets.
Army forces are likely to possess greater striking power, but with reduced mobility and greater logistical requirements. As a result, it will be important to determine situations in which Marines can make the greatest contribution to a maritime pressure strategy and those in which Army forces offer the best set of capabilities.
Attempts to find, fix, target, and strike dispersed, ground-based forces operating in complex terrain will prove challenging for the PLA.13 Such forces, once lodged in the First Island Chain, would be difficult to root out. Even the possible introduction of such forces into the First Island Chain will produce uncertainty. Once such uncertainty has been introduced, it will be difficult to eliminate. Even a massive effort to find and destroy dispersed units in the First Island Chain is unlikely to convince leaders in Beijing that the threat posed by such forces has been eliminated. Trying to circumvent dispersed ground forces, as the United States did against Japan during World War II, would also prove difficult, especially if U.S. ground-based missiles had long range and were backed up by air and naval forces. Assuming Chinese advancements do not negate the survivability of dispersed U.S. strike forces, the resulting competitive dynamic would benefit the United States. Every yuan spent on Chinese A2/AD improvements that do not appreciably alter the balance of power is a yuan not spent on power projection, nuclear weapons, or other capabilities that more seriously threaten U.S. and allied interests.
A second potential response to a maritime pressure strategy would be for Beijing to refocus its attention away from its maritime flanks and toward the Asian continent, accelerating a trend that is already apparent in the Belt and Road Initiative. Facing greater pushback in the Asian littoral, Chinese leaders might seek to redouble efforts to build economic, political, and military influence in Central Asia and beyond, a development that would be less threatening to the United States and its allies. It is also possible that perceived failure on the maritime front, complete with public criticism of Chinese A2/AD investments, could cause the CCP to worry about regime stability, premised as it is on nationalism and foreign policy success. The CCP might then be compelled to devote more resources toward inward-looking activities, including internal security and related efforts.
Third, because the deployment of U.S. mobile ground-based forces likely poses such a nettlesome problem, China will devote considerable effort to preventing it. Perhaps the best option for China would be a mixture of political and economic pressure and inducements to dissuade allies and partners in the region from cooperating with the United States. Beijing could harness its considerable political warfare capabilities to slow or stop such a strategy by, for example, portraying U.S. and allied capabilities as offensive and destabilizing. Political action would prove attractive to China because, if conducted prudently, it would avoid some of the escalatory risks inherent in responding militarily. China might impose economic or trade sanctions against countries, such as Japan, that joined a U.S. strategy. It might also pursue a messaging campaign to portray the United States and its allies as aggressors, hoping to win sympathy in the court of international public opinion. The United States must thus stand ready to compete with China across the wide spectrum of grand strategy if it chooses to implement a strategy of maritime pressure.
Primarily consisting of air and naval surface forces, outside forces would provide a flexible and agile element to support the inside forces along the First Island Chain. The overwhelming mass of U.S. combat power would reside in these outside forces. Air and naval forces would be free to exploit one of their greatest strategic attributes—mobility—to challenge Chinese forces at times and places of their choosing to maximize their effectiveness. During peacetime, outside forces could augment inside forces with additional presence in the western Pacific. In the event of conflict, air and naval forces would bring the sustained firepower needed to reinforce inside forces. They would also possess the ability to threaten China from multiple axes. They would, for example, back up the defensive barrier established by the inside forces and provide defense-in-depth in the Second Island Chain. If necessary, outside forces could surge forward to plug any gaps in the inside forces’ defensive barrier. Inside forces would likely canalize PLA operations, causing them to unfold in predictable directions and create vulnerabilities that outside forces could exploit for counteroffensive operations.
Outside forces, employing standoff or penetrating capabilities, could exploit gaps in Chinese A2/AD created by inside forces to augment defensive operations with additional mass and conduct offensive operations, including strikes against targets on the Chinese mainland. Outside forces could also exploit their greater freedom of maneuver to conduct other priority missions, such as holding Chinese overseas assets at risk, interdicting maritime commerce, or safeguarding U.S. and allied sea lines of communication.
Together, inside and outside forces should allow the U.S. military, in conjunction with allies and partners, to create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration. That is, arraying forces across the geographic breadth and depth of the theater in a way that balances lethality and survivability, and knitting them together into an effective battle network, would allow the United States to build combat power within the First Island Chain without having to physically concentrate on large, close-in bases that are highly vulnerable to China’s precision-strike regime.
Because deterrence succeeds or fails inside leaders’ minds, a successful strategy must target beliefs held by Chinese leaders. Specifically, a maritime pressure strategy would attempt to deny Chinese leaders the conditions they view as essential to military victory, including sea control, air superiority, and information dominance.14 It would also attack China’s strategy by reducing Beijing’s confidence in its ability to control the course and outcome of a conflict, thus bolstering deterrence. It would deny PLA leaders the type of war they have planned for decades, forcing them either to double-down on investing in antiaccess capabilities or to seek another approach, such as circumventing ground-based U.S. forces and weapons, which would take more time, require longer-range platforms, and result in losses along the way. Either way, changing the PLA’s doctrine will cost China money and time and give the United States momentum in the ongoing competition with China.
1. VADM Stansfield Turner, “Convocation Address,” Naval War College Review 51, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 3. (Originally published in the November–December 1972 issue.)
2. See the discussion by Thomas G. Mahnken, “Strategic Theory,” in John Baylis, James J. Wirtz, and Jeannie L. Johnson, eds., Strategy in the Contemporary World, 7th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 58.
3. Bradford A. Lee, “Strategic Interaction: Theory and History for Practitioners” in Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 28–43.
4. See the discussion by Thomas G. Mahnken, “The Australia-U.S. Alliance in U.S. Strategic Policy,” in Peter J. Dean, Stephan Frühling, and Brendan Taylor, eds., Australia’s American Alliance (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2016).
5. Thomas Wright, “The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable,” The Atlantic, 12 September 2018.
6. Thomas G. Mahnken, Ross Babbage, and Toshi Yoshihara, Countering Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies against Authoritarian Political Warfare (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2018), 43–50.
7. Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabian, and Peter Kouretsos, Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific (Washington, D.C: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2019).
8. Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific ‘Island Chains,’” The China Quarterly 225, March 2016, pp. 1–22.
9. David C. Gompert, Astrid Stuth Cevallos, and Cristina L. Garafola, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016).
10. Joshua Rovner, “Two Kinds of Catastrophe: Nuclear Escalation and Protracted War in Asia,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 5 (August 2017): 706.
11. Mahnken et al; Tightening the Chain, 27–45.
12. Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, and Grace B. Kim, Deterrence by Detection: A Key Role for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Great-Power Competition (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020).
13. Mahnken et al; Tightening the Chain, 57–58.
14. James C. Mulvenon et al., Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Transformation and Implications for the Department of Defense (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2006).