Cronin reviews a new RAND report on the possibility of a U.S. conflict with China
It is always nice to see a RAND document that actually come to some conclusions, however tentative. Maybe they are outgrowing the motto, "RAND — Providing an intellectual hospice for the conventional wisdom." By Patrick Cronin President, Best Defense Academy of Frenemy-American Relations China appears well on its way to becoming America’s next peer competitor. ...
It is always nice to see a RAND document that actually come to some conclusions, however tentative. Maybe they are outgrowing the motto, "RAND -- Providing an intellectual hospice for the conventional wisdom."
It is always nice to see a RAND document that actually come to some conclusions, however tentative. Maybe they are outgrowing the motto, "RAND — Providing an intellectual hospice for the conventional wisdom."
By Patrick Cronin
President, Best Defense Academy of Frenemy-American Relations
China appears well on its way to becoming America’s next peer competitor. Over the next twenty years, a modernizing People’s Liberation Army will challenge regional militaries and better keep foreign powers out of its near seas. As a result, according to a new RAND report, the U.S. Armed Forces will "become increasingly dependent on escalatory options for defense and retaliatory capabilities for deterrence."
In "Conflict with China: Conflict, Consequences and Strategies for Deterrence," James Dobbins, David Gompert, David Shlapak, and Andrew Scobell consider triggers for U.S.-China conflict and their operational and strategic implications.
The paper first examines "occasions for conflict" and includes situations involving the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, cyberspace, the South China Sea, Japan, and India. The scenarios, all judged to be plausible if unlikely, are listed in descending order of probability, with conflict over North Korea thought to contain "significant potential" for escalation.
Similar hazards entail the other potential confrontations considered by the authors. Thus, the discussion on cyberspace suggests how China’s putative success in stealing others’ electrons could precipitate kinetic action. For instance, a Chinese attempt to disrupt U.S. communications and intelligence could catalyze attacks on satellites and a blockade on China’s vital sea lines of communication. The latter refers to an abiding Chinese concern over its so-called "Malacca dilemma," a reference to how closure of the critical Malacca Strait joining the Indian and Pacific oceans might cripple resource-dependent China. Such a scenario could well be casualty-free and yet bring about monumental economic loss and regional upheaval.
The 25-page report’s sheer economy of verbiage is one of its strengths. While the authors no doubt could have amplified on the scenarios — from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean or Iran to Pakistan — an exhaustive review of potential conflicts would have added little to the conclusions. Their main interest is to think through operational implications of current trends.
And the impact on future military operations is sobering. A reduced ability to project power to defend allies and partners in East Asia would drive our military procurement in the direction of "enhanced weapons, ranges, geography, and targets" to ensure the survivability of our platforms and bases. Further, we would need improved means of eliminating critical "Chinese forces, launchers, sensors, and other capabilities," even eventually "Chinese satellites and computer networks."
Chinese military gains appear to target the Achilles’ heel of U.S. modern networked battle systems, and it is a logical deduction to assume a comparable set of Chinese capabilities could be similarly put at risk. But looking ahead that may be as good as it gets, as the authors assume an almost inexorable Chinese ability to further close the qualitative military gap with America. "Barring unforeseen technological developments that assure survivability for U.S. forces and C4ISR," they write, "it will not be possible or affordable for the United States to buck these trends."
This will leave the United States with a bleak choice between escalation (and deterrence based on Chinese fear of escalation) and acquiescence to a rising China. Escalation is inherently risky and could lead to nuclear war, and the latter cedes American power and hands to China precisely what it may wish to achieve with its growing military might.
The throwback to bipolar strategic logic will seem anachronistic to some but is arguably a helpful refresher on just what a rising China will mean with respect to our military preponderance in the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, especially without a renewal of the American economy in the years ahead, the United States’ options for dealing with these challenges are somewhat underwhelming.
The authors focus on three ideas: economic interdependence, building partnership capacity, and drawing China into more cooperative security endeavors. All of these are unobjectionable and sound general activities to be undertaken. The high degree of economic interdependence is certainly a barrier to conflict. As one leading Chinese scholar recently told me, "We are not worried about military tensions provided China stays on track to become your largest trading power." But it would have been useful if authors had also considered how such strong economic ties could make it seem safer to conduct a balance of power competition, as geopolitics and globalization coexist.
The second notion of building partnership capacity is worthwhile. However, it also has serious limits, because every nation in the region wishes to avoid offending a rising China that is also its largest or second largest trading partner. It is easier for Vietnam to buy Russian Kilo-class submarines than front-line American hardware. Similarly, note that U.S. military transfers to the Philippines have thus far been limited to a 1960s-era Hamilton class Coast Guard cutter). As with pressure on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China may well believe that over time it can demand reduced U.S. military cooperation with its neighbors.
The authors also call for modifying the U.S.-China strategic relationship. That is fine, too, but before one does that, it’s worth reflecting on whether any coherent framework exists and, if so, whether that framework is genuinely shared across policy elites even within the current administration. It is here that the authors’ call for persuading China to buy-into a more cooperative relationship in the region is sensible if not all that compelling (and ultimately the test is whether such reasoning is compelling to the Chinese, not other Americans). At a minimum, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that China will embrace our pivot to Asia if only we invite China to join in more multilateral security ventures. Chinese leaders are simply apt to see any strengthening of America’s role in the region as antithetical to their national interests. As my colleague Robert Kaplan has written, the Indo-Pacific region is witnessing a triumph of realism.
In sum, the idea of mutual economic assured destruction, investing in partners, and cooperative security are at best necessary but insufficient elements of a strategy. They hardly seem a substitute for the kinds of new forces and operational adaptations implied in the report’s analysis. Economic cooperation alone is insufficient to bar the outbreak of hostilities. So, we can agree with the authors that while the likelihood of conflict between the United States and China should not be exaggerated, neither should it be summarily dismissed. The distillation of the authors’ thinking incorporated into this useful paper should be a starting point for deeper analysis.
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