Military competition with china

By Jacqueline Deal

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), while taking care not to cross the line into outright war, is on the march. During the Obama Administration the Chinese regime has deployed and tested impressive new platforms and weapons, from an aircraft carrier to hypersonic boost glide missiles; conducted exercises deep in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and engaged in alarming cyber attacks on U.S. national security targets, from private defense firms to the Office of Personnel Management. Meanwhile, to seize control of island territories claimed by Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Beijing has been moving into contested waters with commercial or paramilitary ships, backed up by naval forces. In the South China Sea, it has even dredged up tons of sand to construct 2,000 acres of artificial land around reefs occupied by China, to enable them to host military facilities. When Japan and the Philippines, U.S. treaty allies, have tried to resist Chinese pressure, Beijing has responded with economic punishment such as the suspension of critical exports from, or imports to, the mainland.

Taken together, these actions show that, notwithstanding the cooperative dimensions of U.S.-China relations, China has become a strategic rival of the United States. It is regularly and systematically challenging American influence, partners, and norms in the Asia-Pacific through its build-up of military capabilities, among other tools.

Until now, U.S.-China military competition has centered on the maritime zones surrounding the mainland, from the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea, but the PLA has recently begun to pursue power projection at greater distances, so the field of contestation is moving into the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Given the importance of these waterways and the other countries that surround them for global commerce and security, the next Administration has a responsibility to ensure that the United States prevails in the competition. At stake is nothing less than the future of free trade, freedom of navigation, and the policy autonomy of American allies and friends in the world’s fastest-growing economic region.

Fortunately, in many respects, the easy part of China’s road to military influence lies behind it now, and the challenges ahead offer opportunities for whoever wins the White House in November 2016 to develop “competitive strategies” to counter the PLA’s build-up, impose costs, and direct the competition into areas that favor the United States. Specifically, the next President should invest more in U.S. penetrating strike assets, in naval and other forces that strengthen American influence over critical sea lines of communication, and in augmenting or supporting the capabilities of China’s neighbors.

The geostrategic competition that has only recently become apparent in Washington has already been underway for several decades from Beijing’s point of view. The Chinese military owes its position today to decisions made in the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping opted to reject the destructive legacy of Mao Zedong and pursue instead “reform and opening” to the West. Deng was no liberal; he viewed this policy purely as a means to ensure the Chinese Communist Party’s survival at a time when the old Soviet model was troubled, domestic instability loomed in China, and U.S. techno-military power posed a formidable challenge. The idea was that, by allowing in foreign money and know-how, China would grow economically and, eventually, be able to modernize militarily. A precondition was Deng’s diagnosis of a favorable external security environment. While the United States was far ahead of China and a clear long-term threat, Deng saw that it harbored no aggressive intentions in the near term.

China has become a strategic rival of the United States. It is regularly and systematically challenging American influence, partners, and norms in the Asia-Pacific through its build-up of military capabilities, among other tools. 

In aiming to build the PLA into a force to rival the U.S. military, Deng and his contemporaries were quite ambitious. The Chinese army was not even mechanized in the 1980s; its strategy was to lure enemies deep into Chinese territory and then launch guerrilla attacks. The PLA Navy (PLAN) was struggling with coastal defense. The Air Force had largely sat out the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, as its planes lacked the range to fly into Vietnamese airspace from their bases. Nonetheless, a leading Chinese admiral, Liu Huaqing, already envisioned a Chinese navy that would control the areas within the “first island chain”—from Japan and Taiwan to the Philippines and Indonesia—by 2010, and the “second island chain” out to Guam by 2020. Meanwhile, to close the technological gap with American and other advanced forces, planners in Beijing adopted in 1986 the “High Technology Research and Development Plan,” better known as the “863 Program” (standing for 1986, March), which yielded the space weapons and high-powered lasers that the PLA has acquired over the past decade.

After the world condemned the CCP for its crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Deng reiterated the need to be strategically patient, or, in his words, to “hide capabilities and bide time.” This impulse was reinforced by the relatively easy American victory over Iraq in 1990-91, and by the U.S. campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, culminating in the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999—experiences that demonstrated the potency of the American military’s penetrating, highly accurate weapons. The threat was particularly apparent in 1996, when, in the wake of a series of Chinese missile firings over the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. government deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to demonstrate its commitment to Taipei.

Chinese planners responded by accelerating work on an array of missiles capable of striking U.S. bases and forces operating in the Asia-Pacific region, with an eye toward challenging or even precluding such deployments in the future. By 2000, China’s GDP was already the fifth largest in the world, so Beijing could afford to invest not just in the ballistic and cruise missiles themselves, but also in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets that facilitate locating and tracking targets, as well as guiding weapons to hit them. The PLA thus acquired the means to hold at risk nearby American infrastructure and platforms, the obvious aim being to force the United States to think twice about intervening in a conflict between China and Taiwan or one of its other neighbors.

Doubt about the willingness of U.S. forces to operate in China’s vicinity—within range of Chinese missiles—has emboldened Chinese assertiveness. American analysts have described the modernized PLA as an “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) force charged with, first, preventing U.S. troops from reaching the theater (anti-access), and then, if they somehow manage to penetrate, denying them freedom of maneuver around the mainland (“area denial”). But this was not enough. Already in the early 2000s leading Chinese strategists were advocating that the PLA push out of its A2/AD umbrella as far as possible. For instance, Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian wrote in 2001 that the Chinese term that most closely approximates A2/AD—“active strategic counter attacks on exterior lines” (ASCEL)—means:

Do not… passively wait… in China’s border regions, near seas, coastal areas and associated airspace to meet the enemy’s strike, but instead strive to strike the enemy at the greatest distance possible after war breaks out. To the greatest extent possible, the war should be brought to the enemy’s bases, war-fighting platforms and the enemy’s war-fighting places of origin, actively striking all the forces which make up the enemy’s war-fighting system.[42]

In other words, more than a decade ago the PLA was contemplating not just attacks on U.S. bases and forces in the Asia Pacific, consistent with the A2/AD notion, but also strikes on critical ports and other targets extending all the way back to the U.S. homeland. They were arguing for such strikes purely on the basis of the logic of modern warfare, but over the next decade China’s overseas interests grew to the point where long-range capabilities also began to seem necessary to protect Beijing’s far-flung economic interests.

Now fast forward to May 2015, when Beijing issued its first “Chinese Military Strategy” white paper. The text states that China will revise its strategy to emphasize preparation for maritime conflict and that the PLA has been tasked with “work[ing] harder to create a favorable strategic posture, with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means.” The sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier in 2011 were an early indicator, as was Hu Jintao’s calling China a “maritime power” in 2012, but now the PLAN’s evolution from its previous “near seas” or “offshore” defense roles to blue-water status has been confirmed. The white paper is also notable for its repeated emphasis on the PLA’s requirement to protect China’s “sovereignty, security, and development interests.” As China is today engaged in trade globally, its “development interests” could reasonably be interpreted to cover the map from Asia to Africa, the Americas, and Europe. In other words, the PLA must strive to become a global force.

The next President should invest more in U.S. penetrating strike assets, in naval and other forces that strengthen American influence over critical sea lines of communications, and in augmenting or supporting the capabilities of China’s neighbors.

The rationale for this transition is laid out in another authoritative publication out of Beijing, the 2013 edition of the PLA Science of Military Strategy (SMS) textbook, which is taught at Chinese military graduate schools to mid-career officers.[43] The SMS inventories China’s considerable overseas interests, most of which were acquired only in the past decade. More than 60 percent of China’s GDP now comes from trade, and 90 percent of China’s imports and exports travel by sea, according to the text. International waterways and straits are thus “lifelines” of the mainland’s development, and yet, the SMS states, “They are… not owned by us, nor are they controlled by us,” which means that in a war, “our sea transport could be cut off.” This means, in turn, that China could be deprived of critical energy resources such as uranium and iron ore, for which China’s “foreign dependence… exceeds 50 percent.” To redress this vulnerability, in an apparent reversal of Beijing’s longstanding stated opposition to overseas bases, the textbook emphasizes the acquisition of overseas “supply points,” “branch points,” and “bases” that will facilitate the deployment of Chinese forces to protect vital transportation routes.

Mainland-based A2/AD is thus not sufficient. Rather, the PLA must be able to operate at extended distances from the mainland, and the SMS indicates that the new global requirements are not derived simply from the need to protect China’s overseas interests. They also reflect the fact that Beijing is not worried just about the United States. Other dangerous developments highlighted by the SMS include the growing interest of Japan and India in the South China Sea, the increasing cooperation of Japan and Australia in the Western Pacific, and Russian transfers of weapons to China’s traditional rivals, Mongolia, India, and Vietnam. Beijing may therefore see a global force as a way to outflank potential hostile coalitions on its periphery.

Finally, both the white paper and the SMS lay out concrete steps that the Chinese military must take to become proficient in ocean-going maritime and aerospace operations. Fulfilling this guidance will take years, considerable investment, and the development of a new set of skills. The strategy in the white paper is therefore predicated on an assessment that “in the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful.”

The SMS clarifies the basis of this assessment when it describes the pattern of U.S.-China interactions as a cycle of “ease—intensify—ease,” while struggles of “containment and counter-containment, extrusion and counter-extrusion” unfold. In other words, though tensions may flare at times, Beijing does not need to worry about a major war with the United States. Chinese strategists are therefore confident that the PLA will enjoy the time it needs to develop the capabilities to address its new missions.

With Beijing having ruled out major-power war, and with the Chinese military currently unable to fulfill the missions with which it has been tasked, the United States enjoys an opportunity to shape the military competition in a favorable direction during peacetime. Specifically, the next Administration should make defense investments and authorize U.S. operational behavior designed to exploit the PLA’s acknowledged vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The rationale for such a “competitive strategies” approach is that, in the absence of it, Chinese strategists are likely to build on their strengths and pursue capabilities they have decided are optimal for the competition with the United States. But by targeting Beijing’s sensitive points, Washington may be able to channel Chinese investment in other directions, so that the focus is on defensive capabilities that are relatively less threatening to the United States, or in areas where lots of Chinese spending is unlikely to pay off anytime soon.

The next Administration should make defense investments and authorize U.S. operational behavior designed to exploit the PLA’s acknowledged vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

To execute such an approach, the winner in November 2016 must devote more attention to the competition with Beijing than has been allocated over the past decade and a half. Whatever its initial impulses toward East Asia, the George W. Bush Administration ended up focusing mostly on the Middle East and Southwest Asia. That focus has lingered for most of the past 14 years. Together with China’s economic growth, the diversion of U.S. resources to the “Global War on Terror” ensured that the CCP could implement Deng’s “hide and bide” mantra without much difficulty. Instead of identifying Beijing as a determined rival, Washington credited it for contributing constructively to the war on terror. The 2013 SMS notes with approval that China has benefited from being perceived as cooperating with the established major powers to address global challenges. Meanwhile, the capabilities that the United States built up to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda were not conceived with China in mind and are mostly irrelevant from a “competitive strategies” perspective.

In recognition of the troubling trends with respect to the Asia-Pacific balance of power, the Obama Administration in 2011 announced that the United States would “pivot” to the region. This would have been a positive development if the rollout had not been bungled, and if the Administration had actually followed through on the idea. Instead, the choice of the term “pivot” led many American friends and allies to wonder about our constancy, and they were subsequently disappointed to observe very little in the way of new U.S. forces deployed or other commitments to the region. More recently, the Defense Department has talked about a “Third Offset” and a “Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program,” but the language is vague, and it is difficult to tell how seriously American strengths are being pitted against Chinese weaknesses.

A credible effort to employ “competitive strategies” in the competition with China would require a deeper understanding of these weaknesses or sensitivities, and of Chinese decision-making in general, than seems to be available in the U.S. government. As Andrew Marshall, who pioneered the “competitive strategies” approach as part of his work on the U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War, has written:

One is trying, in designing competitive strategies, to shape the overall allocation of the opponent’s resources over the course of the next decade or more, having him spend more than he otherwise would in those areas where you would prefer to have him spend. Easily stated, but complex as well as difficult to deal with analytically.[44]

Acknowledging the difficulty and complexity of the task, in general, as noted in chapter 5.3 just below, the U.S. government should be looking to induce Chinese defense planners to sub-optimize their allocation of resources and to focus their investment in areas where the United States enjoys a comparative advantage. It would be helpful to direct the military competition into domains or balance areas where the PLA has to spend extra to cover its shortcomings, or at least spend more than the United States expends on countermeasures that neutralize China’s investment.

Up to this point, Beijing’s investments have put the United States on the wrong side of the cost-exchange ratio, as the PLA’s A2/AD weapons have generally been cheaper than the U.S. platforms and facilities they put at risk, and the cost of defending against these weapons exceeds their production costs. But the business of power projection into which the PLA is now entering is more expensive than the business of anti-access and area denial, and it will now be Chinese platforms and systems that will be operating within range of other countries A2/AD weapons. Moreover, China is entering a period of slower economic growth, compounded by demographic trends that will see it “get old before it gets rich.” Slower growth will eventually increase China’s military burden—that is, the share of national resources going to defense—meaning that Beijing will face more difficult tradeoffs about what capabilities to pursue.

Meanwhile, China’s behavior around territorial disputes has generated substantial concern from Japan to Vietnam, the Philippines, and other South China Sea states. These countries are eager to arm themselves better and to work more closely with the United States. The next Administration should embrace this opportunity more fully than has the Obama Administration.

While additional research into Chinese decision-making is required before we can be confident in our efforts to shape future Chinese behavior, some clues about where to begin in January 2017 already exist. Beijing has already telegraphed its sensitivities around U.S. penetrating strike assets, the security of its seaborne imports, and the rise of hostile coalitions on its flank. If the next Administration wants to ensure that Asia remains friendly to free trade, freedom of navigation, and states with policy autonomy, it would be wise to develop capabilities aimed at reinforcing these circumstances and assets. Augmenting U.S. penetrating strike assets (for example, long-range bombers), forces that contribute to U.S. influence over critical sea routes (including sub-surface assets, air forces, and potentially expeditionary ground forces in addition to surface ships), and the capabilities of allies and friends in the region would seem to be a good place to start.

(42) Peng Guangqian, “The New Expansion of the Connotations of Active Defense Thought,” in Research on China Military Strategy Issues [in Chinese], (PLA Press, 2006), cited in Anton Lee Wishik II, “An Anti-Access Approximation: The PLA’s Active Strategic Counterattacks on Exterior Lines,” China Security, Issue 19, pp. 37-48.

(43) This and subsequent points about the SMS are drawn from Jacqueline Deal, “PLA Strategy and Doctrine: A Close Reading of the 2013 Science of Military Strategy,” paper presented at the National Bureau of Asia Research, U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Army War College conference, March 2015, Carlisle, PA.

(44) Andrew W. Marshall, “Competitive Strategies—History and Background,” unpublished lecture, 1988.


Top