Shadow Government

A Sino-American Proxy War?

A public debate about a U.S. military strategy for China is most welcome. While the debate’s particulars are important, it is equally significant that the U.S. national security community is now openly discussing ways to deter Chinese aggression and defeat it should deterrence fail. This was hardly the case just a decade ago. Most in ...

Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

A public debate about a U.S. military strategy for China is most welcome. While the debate’s particulars are important, it is equally significant that the U.S. national security community is now openly discussing ways to deter Chinese aggression and defeat it should deterrence fail.

This was hardly the case just a decade ago. Most in the U.S. national security elite were dismissive of China’s military capabilities and believed that even talking about possibilities of conflict with China was provocative. Not only was this line of argument misguided — taking seriously the possibility of conflict with China should lead to more robust deterrence and reassurance — but it also wished away the fact that the Chinese security elite had been thinking about war with the United States for a long time.

If Washington is now more or less settled on a policy of engaging China while balancing its power and hedging against greater aggression, it is incumbent upon national security leaders to think as much about the balance and hedge part of the equation as they do the engage side. In an attempt to fill this gap, the Defense Department has developed a new concept, Air-Sea Battle (ASB). While much of ASB is classified, enough has been said to piece together its various moving parts. The operational concept requires that the U.S. military position itself to: 1) operate in an environment in which Chinese cyber-, anti-satellite, and electronic forces are seeking to degrade the C4ISR network upon which U.S. military effectiveness has become so reliant; 2) create better synergies between naval and air forces so they can effectively combat "anti-access" forces; and 3) hit targets on China’s mainland to end Chinese salvos against U.S. allies and interests.

ASB is a direct descendent of the Cold War’s AirLand Battle concept. Then, defense planners were worried that Soviet forces could quickly overrun allied forces at the central front of the Cold War — Western Europe. AirLand Battle took a more offensive approach against the Soviet Union, using joint air and army forces to attack the Warsaw Pact states and targeting forces deep in Soviet- held territories before they had a chance to stage mass sweeps into Europe.

ASB is also a response to an operational problem: The Chinese have built anti-access capacities that seek to deny U.S. forces entry into its traditional defense perimeter in East Asia and use its coercive power to force its political objectives upon its neighbors.

The difficulty that analysts, proponents, antagonists, and defense planners all have with ASB is that, unlike AirLand Battle, which was developed after years of U.S. forces operating under the framework of a containment strategy, ASB is an operational concept without a strategy. The United States has a policy of engaging, balancing, and hedging against China, with some vague notion that doing so will nudge it into becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. But is U.S. military planning supposed to force it to become this kind of world actor? That sounds far-fetched. So what are U.S. military goals in a conflict with China?

Enter respected analysts T.X. Hammes and Elbridge Colby into the defense-planning debate. Hammes opposes the ASB concept, correctly pointing out that striking the Chinese mainland could lead to nuclear escalation. He also highlights its absence of a strategic concept. China’s changing nuclear posture and doctrine is a key unknown, adding to the uncertainty of defense planning and the need for a strategic framework. Thanks to the work of Phil Karber, there is a growing consensus that China’s warheads are more numerous than publicized. And why wouldn’t they be? The U.S. government is cutting its nuclear posture (creating incentives for parity), and with the release of some details about ASB, American leaders are talking more openly about striking the Chinese homeland (not that they shouldn’t as part of a healthy debate). What would you make of all this if you were a Chinese defense planner? You would probably err on the side of more nukes.

Hammes instead puts forth the idea of offshore control (OC), which would use a distant blockade to cut off the Chinese economy from maritime trade and create maritime exclusion zones against Chinese ships closer to Chinese shores. His "center of gravity" is the Chinese economy, the source of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party.

Colby supports ASB. He believes that a "war of economic attrition" could be too costly for the United States and would be unlikely to retain the traditional Chinese defense posture that supports U.S. primacy.

James Holmes has also pointed out the deficiencies of the offshore control strategy. China’s sea power is also land-based; mobile missiles can strike moving ships and ports in Japan and elsewhere. Taking the option of striking mainland targets off the table would give China’s sea power a sanctuary from which to carry out attacks.

I would add to this critique: Why would economic strangulation be less escalatory than targeted strikes? Both ASB and OC can be regime-threatening, and the Chinese Communist Party will do whatever is necessary to survive.  

In addition, nowhere is land power mentioned in either case. It is wise to remember how much land power was needed to defeat the island nation of Japan during World War II. China is a continental power, which provides tremendous strategic depth and, for a time, autarky.

But China also has vulnerabilities along its borders. The United States will not want to send land troops into China, but it may want to work closely with surrounding nations that can threaten such incursions. Asia’s militaries are land-power dominated; it would be strategically sound to use this to U.S. advantage. And even along the maritime periphery, the Marine Corps will almost certainly need to seize and build airfields and staging areas around China’s periphery.

I argued in a chapter for Strategic Asia last year that the foremost goal for the United States should be re-establishing command of the commons upon which U.S. primacy rests. (Colby seems to agree on the need to retain this primacy.) This would provide a president with many options and the ability to amass much more power than is currently assumed: There is little doubt that any conflict with China will be a force-intensive endeavor. Once command of the commons is re-established, the U.S. goal should be to defeat China such that any threat to U.S. primacy in the future would be unthinkable.

If the endgame is re-establishing U.S. primacy, then U.S. forces need to be able to punish China as well as defeat Chinese forces. Those objectives require dominating escalation through nuclear primacy. The ability to credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons will be key to any victory over China.

Recently Gen. H.R. McMaster, one of the most respected scholar-soldiers in the U.S. military, weighed in indirectly on the debate by reminding us that the intangibles of warfare — the role of emotion, politics, irrationality — remain regardless of technological development or the nature of the conflict. Any conflict with China will be long and bloody and will not be decided by sea or air power alone. As McMaster writes, it is dangerous to refetishize technology as we did before Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Chinese ruling class has been through the Cultural Revolution and can withstand pain; there is no air-power target set that, if wiped out, would have China crying uncle. Likewise, if relations have deteriorated to the point where the United States is in a shooting war with China, a "limited war" becomes difficult to imagine.

But the increasingly dangerous path of the Sino-American competition may lead somewhere else altogether. It is possible that China and the United States will decide that it is too risky to get into a direct conflict and will continue their competition through proxy wars. If that happens, the quality of America’s allies will be just as important as the quantity of the U.S. force structure.

The implications for strategy and investment today are that "building partnership capacity" needs a far more serious dose of attention than it is getting. In East Asia this means helping allies develop their own anti-access capabilities to deny Chinese access into their waters and airspace. But it also means helping build forces that can act as proxies to keep a land threat alive and to keep open the East and South China seas to maritime vessels. Finally we must think about how the United States can impose costs on China, and China on the United States, outside of Asia without engaging in a direct fight.

In this scenario, a true strategic discontinuity would be a full-blown Chinese alliance with a powerful country, like Iran, that can fight U.S. proxies and advance Chinese interests. It may be cheaper for China to have allies in the Middle East or Africa that can secure its interests than for China to invest fully in a global power-projection military. For the United States, thinking more seriously about the role global allies can play in checking Chinese ambitions could reduce the chance of an escalatory war.   

This is all very unpleasant to think about, but Colby and Hammes have begun a necessary debate. Failing to think seriously about horrific scenarios will not make them disappear.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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