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Debating Military Strategy in the Western Pacific: A Dialogue

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The following debate did not occur.  Nevertheless, the dialogue below, between fictitious protagonists, was inspired by real discussions in the recent past.  Employing some poetic license -- and with the caveat that the views expressed below do not necessarily reflect in their entirety those of any particular person -- NPF offers this exchange in order to stimulate discussion and feedback, which should be sent to Dr. Ford at


The last year or so has been a fascinating one in the Western Pacific (WESTPAC).  Tensions flared up over disputed Chinese claims in the South China Sea (SCS) in the summer of 2010, with People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) forces harassing other countries’ fishing vessels and China attempting to apply pressure to companies negotiating with neighboring countries over offshore development there.  This prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tell China’s nervous neighbors at the ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi that America had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the area.  She also offered to help facilitate international talks on resolving the conflicting territorial claims there.

[Editor’s note: China claims a series of very small but strategically located islands in the SCS, insisting that the entire region – which extends south past Vietnam and the Philippines to the northern tip of Malaysia – belongs to it.  Not surprisingly, other countries surrounding the SCS vehemently disagree.  (China and Vietnam, in fact, actually fought over some of these outcroppings in 1974 and 1988.)  The United States has not taken a position on who has the strongest territorial claims in the SCS, but under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, whomever does get this area as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) can both develop its undersea energy resources and prohibit foreign naval exercises there.]

[Back to Archie:] Since then – coincidentally or not – there’s been a lot of news coverage of Beijing’s developing military capabilities, which seem designed for an “anti-access” strategy of denying U.S. forces (principally the U.S. Navy) the ability to operate in WESTPAC in the event of a future conflict.

While then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Beijing in January 2011, for instance, the Chinese military conducted the first test flight of a new “stealthy” fighter at Chengdu, dubbed the J-20.  Press reports in the last year have also frequently referred to a new model of Chinese ballistic missile, the DF-21D, which is described as being designed to hit moving aircraft carriers at sea, and which U.S. officials describe as having reached “initial operational capability.”  Just last month, moreover, China conducted sea trials of its own aircraft carrier – the Soviet-built ship formerly known as the Varyag, a vessel of the old Kuznetsov class which seems now to have been extensively refitted with modern equipment. The latest version of the Pentagon’s annual report to the U.S. Congress on Chinese military power stresses the impact of China’s ongoing military buildup and modernization program, noting that as a result of a “period of ambitious acquisition” over the last decade, “[m]any modern systems have reached maturity and others will become operational in the next few years.”

If you couple all this with ongoing reports of China-based cyber operations against a wide range of Western computer networks – including what appears to be Beijing’s first admission (albeit perhaps an accidental one) of engaging in cyber attacks – you have what even the casual observer might find to be a depressing picture for the United States military.  And that’s not even counting the fact that the current mood in Washington is one in which it would not be surprising to see defense spending severely cut back in order to help reduce the towering budget deficits created over the past couple of years by President Obama’s “stimulus” spending and the fiscal unsustainability of U.S. entitlement programs.

Does this sound as grim to you as it does to me?


Well all this is certainly not good news for the United States or China’s neighbors.  It’s not surprising that those neighbors are worried, nor that they seem increasingly to be interested in such things as improved maritime patrol capabilities, advanced long-range strike technology, missile defense, and anti-submarine warfare.  This is also why U.S. officials have gone to some pains to give reassurances of America’s commitment to the security of friends in the region who feel threatened by a rising China that seems very keen to reclaim the regional and global “birthright” of which it claims to have been deprived by a “century of humiliation” at Western hands.

To this end, the U.S. and Vietnam even conducted joint naval exercises in the South China Sea a year ago, which will surely sound pretty remarkable to anyone old enough to remember the Vietnam War.  These weren’t very dramatic exercises – they just concerned things like maritime search and rescue – but the symbolism is very important.  Washington is also expanding training cooperation with other countries in the region, including Cambodia and Malaysia.  It conducted some limited exercises with the Philippines and sent some smaller naval vessels to visit Singapore, too.

Both Beijing and Washington thus seem to be trying to send strategic signals here.  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) clearly wants to deter U.S. involvement in a future regional dust-up.   But there’s a sort of counter-narrative coming out of Washington, too.  As Secretary Clinton herself put it in January 2010, the U.S. message is that “the United States is back in Asia … back to stay.”   It’s not precisely clear what that means, since I don’t remember U.S. forces leaving the region, but one shouldn’t quibble.  Making allowances for sloppy sloganeering by the Obama Administration, the general message of regional commitment is clear enough.  American officials declare themselves determined to prevent China from impeding not just the U.S. Navy’s access to WESTPAC but also freedom of navigation there and the security and autonomy of China’s neighbors – particularly our democratic friends in the region.


That’s meant to sound reassuring, but do you think those U.S. reassurances are really sound?  An intention to be “back” in Asia is worth something, but to deter anything, it’s got to be coupled with a capability to act.  The signaling out of Beijing seems to be designed to persuade Americans, and our allies, that in time of conflict, WESTPAC operations would be just too darn dangerous to be feasible – and that, implicitly, we should give up planning to get involved if anything happens.

And some are getting this message.  I saw a piece in Aviation Week recently that declared that “[t]here is no doubt about it – the Pentagon will have to think thrice before again sending carrier groups to help out Taiwan.”  According to that author, PRC area denial is becoming a fait accompli, and the only real question now is how much of a threat China’s growing naval power is “in farther-flung parts of the world.”

[Editor’s note: This reference is to Michael Fabey, “Sea Watch,” Aviation Week & Space Technology (August 29/September 5, 2011) at 31.]

[Back to Archie:]  For the sake of argument, let me jump on that bandwagon and play devil’s advocate here.  The competitive discourse in WESTPAC between Beijing and Washington is a game of “anti-access” versus “anti-anti-access” strategies – or perhaps we should say “area-denial” versus “counter-area-denial,” since that produces more pronounceable acronyms in the form of “AD” versus “CAD.”  The United States is trying to retain military freedom of maneuver in the region, and Beijing is trying to establish and expand what U.S. forces would consider a “no-go” zone, displacing the longstanding American security presence and signaling to China’s neighbors that Washington won’t be able to stand by them in a pinch.

With all of this focus upon new capabilities – stealthy aircraft, cyber attacks, and “carrier killer” missiles, for instance – I wonder whether an AD/CAD competition is a losing game for Washington.  AD/CAD is a technology-heavy contest, played on the U.S. side with expensive and scarce platforms at extreme range that stresses communications and logistics connectivity.  Yet this game is to be played against a potential adversary that would be fighting in its own backyard, which now has lots of money to spend, and which in the foreseeable future might also cease to be a military-technological inferior.  Can America continue to play a winning AD/CAD hand, especially at a time when domestic spending seems to be bankrupting the country and even “Tea Party” conservatives – no friends of China, I would imagine – seem willing to slash military spending?

Don’t get me wrong.  I assume Beijing is trying very hard to “spin” us about the impossibility of maintaining a successful CAD strategy over the medium term, and we should be wary of manipulation by the PRC’s strategic perception management campaign.  But maybe there really is something to the implicit Chinese argument that CAD is becoming untenable.


Something perhaps, but don’t overestimate how prepared China is for the challenges of turning WESTPAC into a Sinocentric lake.   Scaring U.S. forces out of the area will probably require being able to do a lot more than just produce some modern military equipment.  One has to be able to use it well, and many observers seems to assume that there’s a straighter line between the “having” and the “using” than is really the case.

Take the J-20 fighter, for instance.  In the first place, according to public Pentagon estimates, the new Chinese plane isn’t expected to be operational in a significant way until 2018.  The more important thing to remember, however, is that successfully operating low-observable (LO, a.k.a. “stealthy”) platforms against a sophisticated adversary – and I think the United States counts as one of those – is exceedingly complicated.  Today, nothing can be considered wholly stealthy, and the future of the stealth-versus-counter-stealth game in future great power conflicts is unlikely to involve the kind of seemingly magical impunity apparently enjoyed by U.S. F-117 bombers over Baghdad in 1991, by B-2s over Belgrade in 1999, or B-2s over Baghdad again in 2003.

Instead, successful stealth operations in the future against a serious adversary is likely to require the coordination of lots of players and capabilities far beyond merely the LO platform itself, including: jamming and other electronic warfare (EW) or electronic attack (EA) methods; cyber operations to degrade or manipulate air defense coordination and battle management; the acquisition of high-quality and near-real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), perhaps with drone aircraft operating in conjunction (and sharing data) with manned LO assets; space-facilitated communications connectivity that also has to be of a “low observable” nature; and perhaps long-range precision “kinetic” strikes (e.g., with cruise missiles or other weaponry) against some of the adversary’s air defense and command-and-control (C2) facilities.

Mid-21st Century stealth thus isn’t going to be like pulling a magical invisibility cloak over your head.  It will probably be more like conducting a group of musicians the size of a symphony orchestra, but who are all doing a degree of jazz improvisation in addition to just reading the same music together from a pre-set score.  When such a bravura performance works, one can probably still penetrate sophisticated defenses, but it’s hard.  Just having an aircraft with some LO geometry doesn’t say much about the degree to which one is prepared for that game.  Maybe the PRC is, but I’ve not seen much evidence of it.

Or take the DF-21D – the “carrier-killing” ballistic missile.  Nobody I know pretends that this isn’t a major development, but defending against such a weapon doesn’t just involve having to shoot it down.  For the DF-21D to be able to hit a carrier, its user must be able to find the ship, keep up-to-date-targeting information on its movements, get this data back to some C2 node and into a missile – which then must launch and travel intact to the proper location.  If it is expected directly to hit the carrier, it probably needs some kind of terminal guidance; if the desire is merely to sweep the flight deck with fragments, a proximity fuse is presumably involved.  All of these stages, however, are vulnerable to various types of countermeasures.

I’ve heard U.S. Navy folks privately compare this challenge to the “old days” of the Cold War, in which we feared the swarms of Soviet anti-shipping missiles (ASM) that Moscow’s naval aviation assets could launch at our carrier battle groups at sea.  Rather than put all their hope in terminal defenses against these formidable weapons, however, U.S. naval planners aimed to break the adversary “kill chain” by degrading the aggregate performance of the system that uses the missile and attacking that system “upstream” – that is, by hiding our battle groups, disrupting Soviet ISR, target acquisition, battle-management, and communications, shooting down the aircraft capable of launching ASMs, or simply hitting these planes (or pitting their runways) before they left the ground.   (The navy only anticipated having to shoot down with shipboard terminal defenses the presumably much smaller number of ASMs the Russians managed to get on target despite all of this.)  One side’s acquisition of fancy missiles greatly complicates the game, in other words, but it’s not necessarily a showstopper.

You also shouldn’t necessarily assume that China will quickly become usefully proficient at carrier operations.  The Varyag looks intimidating, but carrier operations are fiendishly difficult on a good day – and that ship has a relatively small airwing, with performance (e.g., range and payload capabilities) limited by the carrier’s lack of a catapult.  And in a serious war, even the much larger and more capable U.S. nuclear-powered carriers, moreover, would spend a remarkable amount of time and energy – and a big proportion of their embarked aerial assets – simply in self-protection, setting up concentric circles of defenses around the battle group.  U.S. carriers also travel in large battle groups with numerous other vessels, many of which have protection of the carrier itself as their principal mission.

When it comes to toe-to-toe conflict between sophisticated navies, in fact, some analysts these days see carriers as much as juicy “targets” as invaluable “assets,” which is how the attack submarine community claims to have viewed them for years.  (With its own anti-access strategy revolving so much around the idea that our carrier battlegroups can be put at risk, how long could Beijing expect its own carrier to survive in the heat of battle against the entire U.S. Navy?)  I know some people in Washington, in fact, who are happy to see China burning wads of cash on an aircraft carrier program rather than trying to do things we consider more threatening.  Don’t exaggerate how worrisome the Varyag really is.


OK, maybe.  But you should be careful not to fall for the counter-spin either.

Take the DF-21D as an example.  Maybe you’re right that the United States knows how to disrupt the Chinese “kill chain” as a way of coping with the missile challenge.  But would it really be willing to take the steps that are necessary in this regard?  The countermeasures you described would ensure that the fight does not remain merely a duel between high-technology forces in the middle of the Pacific.  You describe what is instead a grave great-power conflict, with U.S. forces – facing the need to counter the DF-21D by fighting “upstream” in its “kill chain” – undertaking direct strikes upon the Chinese mainland.

Politically and strategically, that’s feels like a whole different kettle of fish.  In strategic deterrence terms, this could change the AD/CAD game dramatically, because it requires the CAD player to take a step up the “escalation ladder” if it wishes to defeat the approach adopted by the AD side.   Perhaps the Americans would be willing to take this step in order to defend Taiwan, for instance, but Beijing would seem to be doing a good job of stacking the political deck against this being considered a saleable choice.

And on the subject of defending Taiwan, by the way, one could make a similar point.  No matter how much the United States helped Taipei, the Taiwanese couldn’t possibly shoot down more than a fraction of the thousands of short-range ballistic missiles the PRC has arrayed against them across the Taiwan Straits.  The way to counter this threat is surely also to move “up the kill chain” and attack PRC command-and-control assets and missile launch sites.  Militarily, that might perhaps work.  But it presents the same problem I mentioned with regard to the DF-21D: the best countermeasures that exist seem likely to represent a major step up the escalation ladder, in the form of attacking the mainland directly.  It would be quite reasonable for Taiwan to take such a step itself if it could – after all, in such a scenario its own “homeland” would be under attack – but Beijing clearly wants Taipei’s potential American defenders to think twice.

All in all, China’s military buildup is dramatically raising the stakes in the regional military balance.  One could look at this as Beijing presumably does – that is, as a shrewd strategy to dissuade Washington’s involvement in defending U.S. friends from intimidation or attack.  Alternatively, one could simply conclude that China is dangerously, and perhaps foolishly, imperiling regional stability by increasing the likely speed with which a regional military spark would escalate into a terrible quasi-strategic conflict.  Either way, however, you shouldn’t be blasé about the Americans’ ability to handle Beijing’s new capabilities.

I also think you’re downplaying the Varyag too much.  After all, it may not be the Americans who are the most likely target of China’s emerging aircraft carrier-based naval power-projection program.  I’m sure you’re right that the U.S. Navy and/or Air Force are more than capable of quickly sending the Varyag to the bottom of the sea.  But who says the PRC’s carriers – for they do seem to be interested in having more than one – will be used principally against U.S. forces?

There are those who argue that Beijing’s real motivation for the carrier program is just prestige – namely, that the PRC treats carriers as some kind of status symbol to demonstrate that China has been “restored” to the first rank of global powers and is not “behind” anyone else in possessing these icons of modern military prowess.  There may be something to this “status” reading, but I’m also confident that this is not the whole of it.  If you were a planner in Hanoi or Manila, for instance, you’d have to be insane not to worry that such carrier-based power-projection capabilities will prove irresistibly handy in enforcing China’s sweeping claims to the SCS, or in conducting modern “gunboat diplomacy” further afield in the very same way that PRC officials have for decades accused Washington of doing with its carriers.  Maybe the Varyag isn’t intended to worry the Americans at all; its likely target audience lives much closer.

“Carrier-killing” DF-21Ds, after all, don’t help China overawe its small neighbors, at least not directly.  But aircraft carriers themselves, even second-rate ones, are presumably pretty good at threatening small states.  While one would imagine that carrier-based Chinese threats against Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan might bring a U.S. response, moreover – and indeed those states may have some ability to cope with something like the Varyag on their own – how much could Vietnam or Malaysia hope to rely on Washington’s intervention in a scrap with a PRC carrier battlegroup?  However sanguine the U.S. Navy may itself be about the new Chinese carrier, in other words, I’d be willing to bet that others in the region – or around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean, for that matter – are justifiably more concerned.


I agree with you that China’s neighbors seem worried – and in exactly the ways your analysis predicts.  Traditional U.S. allies in Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei are worried about China’s anti-access capabilities, which threaten them indirectly by raising the possibility that American carriers wouldn’t show up to help them in a pinch.  (Did you notice, by the way, how the Varyag’s sea trials were met by the display, in a Taiwanese defense exhibition, of a so-called “carrier-killing” cruise missile?  AD/CAD competition is a game that can apparently be played along multiple axes, and officials in Taipei are now signaling that the Varyag needs to think twice before getting too close to Taiwan!)  At the same time, other regional players with less firm U.S. defense ties seem more directly worried about the Varyag.  Even India seems quietly concerned at the possibility of blue-water Chinese power projection – a worry hardly likely to be lessened by Pakistan’s reported desire for a Chinese naval base.

I don’t think there’s an obvious “silver bullet” answer to these challenges: there’s no miraculous strategy on either side that will “solve” anybody’s strategic dilemma.  These are deterrent relationships that will simply have to be managed carefully in the years ahead.  China’s military buildup is indeed raising both regional tensions and the stakes involved should some flashpoint materialize, but it’s not clear that its neighbors have much alternative but to do what they’re already starting to do – namely, strengthen regional defense ties and work with Washington to underscore the salience of U.S. commitments in the region.

They’re also presumably working to persuade Beijing that it has a powerful stake in not creating tensions – which it does.  In fact, I’d imagine that this is the most powerful deterrent of all, for both sides.  There are indeed security issues that create a sort of AD/CAD standoff, but there’s also a parallel axis of interaction – powerful relationships of regional and trans-Pacific economic interdependence – that may make conflict seem foolish to all concerned.


Well let’s pursue that.  I would agree that however viscerally satisfying Beijing may find its newfound muscularity, the PRC really does have interdependence-based reasons not to continue to destabilize the region through its military buildup.  But neither is it slowing that buildup.  In that Chinese dependence upon foreign economic relationships, however, may lie the germ of a counter-strategy for the United States and Beijing’s nervous neighbors.

It’s hard to overestimate how much the Communist Party of China (CCP) has staked on being able to continue to provide economic growth.  After the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the Party seems to have made an all but explicit bargain with the Chinese people: “we get to remain in power and you must not demand democratic political rights, but in return for this we’ll let you get rich.”  The CCP has grounded the legitimacy of its rule in this bargain, as well as in the axiomatic telos of the Party’s claimed role in guiding the development of China back into being the kind of politico-economic colossus it once felt itself to be – but which it stopped being with the decay of the late Qing Dynasty, the painful encounter with Western imperialism, the domestic corruption and warlordism of the early 20th Century, and the economic madness and political convulsions of the Maoist period.  Without being able to point to the successful provision of growth and development, in other words, the modern CCP would be hard pressed to claim any legitimacy for itself at all.

But that all-important growth and development depends upon some highly contingent international circumstances – not least among which is peace in the region and continued access to energy resources and foreign markets.  I agree that this should give Beijing a powerful stake in not provoking its neighbors or the Americans, but if this point doesn’t seem clear enough, perhaps the Americans could do more to emphasize it.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists surely realize that while they might at some point be able to push U.S. power out of WESTPAC, they have very little capability to defend their country’s far-flung (and growing) economic interests and dependencies around the world – the very things upon which the CCP’s legitimacy system depends so hugely, because they are essential to China’s continued growth and development.  For years now, China has relied hugely upon export-led development, it is extraordinarily thirsty for foreign energy supplies, and it has yet to make a transition to domestically-driven growth.   These factors make it extremely vulnerable.

I’d imagine, in fact, that the realization of how far Beijing’s economic dependence on foreign markets and resources outstrips its ability to defend continued access to them is part of the reason for the emergence of an aircraft carrier program.  Nor is it probably a coincidence that in September of last year China undertook an apparently unprecedented long-range bombing training mission into Kazakhstan, a country through which a new pipeline passes on its way to supply China with 40 billion cubic meters a year of natural gas from Turkmenistan.

But even with such exploratory power-projection, Beijing is very far from being able to protect the global networks upon which its growth and development depend.  Last spring, in Libya, PRC officials seemed very proud of themselves for organizing a hasty evacuation of Chinese nationals – in part through the use of Russian-made long-range transport aircraft – as revolutionary violence spread there.  With Chinese resource-extractive economic involvement deepening throughout the developing world, however, the successful Libyan extraction merely serves to underscore China’s overall, and increasing, vulnerability.  I’d imagine that no military, at any price – even today’s huge American one – could really protect China’s sprawling global economic lifeline against any serious adversary who really wanted to disrupt it.

So here’s my suggestion.  Why not expand the AD/CAD competition, so that U.S. forces wouldn’t be stuck only in the long-term losing game of playing resource-sucking technological “whack-a-mole” against an expanding suite of Chinese anti-access capabilities?  It would surely be very easy to threaten China’s global lifeline, so why not present an “economic denial” counter-strategy as an answering option to Beijing’s regional “area denial”?  In effect, U.S. commanders might confront China with a choice: “in the event of conflict, you might be able to deny us WESTPAC, but we can deny you your economy.”  If Western China-watchers are right about the centrality of growth and development to the CCP’s hold on power in China’s brittle socio-political system, this could be a tremendous deterrent.

In military terms, such a strategy would be pretty straightforward.  Indeed, the capabilities and force posture it would require look simple, amounting to little more than a capability for modern-style maritime blockade and commerce raiding, perhaps coupled with some long-range strike operations and special operations forces (SOF) to interdict overland supply routes to China.  This strategy would be well within the capabilities even of a much smaller, resource-starved U.S. military of the possible debt-hobbled American future, and could presumably even be added to Pentagon planning fairly easily with present force levels.


Color me skeptical.  I see a number of problems with your idea of “economic denial.”  First of all, I worry about the message that reliance upon it would send to our friends and allies in East Asia.  I don’t just mean the obvious problem that such economic warfare could hurt them tremendously too, because of their considerable economic interdependence with China.  More acutely, I worry that “economic denial” would take some time to work – time which a threatened friend (e.g., a Taiwan being reduced to rubble by short-range ballistic missiles) might not have.  Maybe U.S. forces could indeed destroy the economic growth in China upon which the CCP has staked its legitimacy, but this would seem unlikely to occur before our allies were overwhelmed.  A pure “economic denial” strategy might thus amount to announcing, in advance, our intention to throw our friends to the wolves in militarily terms.  That doesn’t sound very attractive.

My second concern has to do with how the prospect of “economic denial” would be perceived in Beijing.  I understand that your idea is to confront the CCP with the prospect of a conflict so painful that it would feel a strong incentive not to provoke trouble.  (That’s what deterrence is about, after all.)  But I worry that your proposal might be perhaps too effective in threatening the Chinese government with domestic upheaval and collapse.

History suggests that the threat of economic strangulation can easily be seen as a strategic threat of existential proportions, especially in assertively nationalist polities of the sort that China seems in some ways increasingly to be becoming.  Recall Japan in 1941, for instance.  The prospect of resource starvation by a foreign embargo undertaken in response to Tokyo’s aggressions in East Asia by many accounts had the paradoxical effect of encouraging Japan into new and bolder aggression – specifically, into picking a fight with the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on the assumption that gambling on a surprise attack now was a better bet than a guarantee of slow starvation later.  (As it turned out, of course, that gamble proved catastrophic for the Empire anyway, but that’s not my point here.)  The line between deterrence and provocation is sometimes quite a fine one.  How sure are you that an “economic denial” strategy would not similarly provoke further escalation rather than deter conflict in the first place?


I don’t suppose one can be entirely sure.  Unfortunately, deterrence is like that: it’s perilously hard to predict in advance precisely what will deter and what will fail to do so, or what might provoke.  I don’t deny this.

But I still think “economic denial” – if not, perhaps, as the centerpiece of a U.S. strategy, then at least as an increasingly explicit possibility on top of more conventional CAD approaches – is intriguing in the way it puts the shoe on the other foot.  A few minutes ago I noted the degree to which China’s AD strategies and its  bombardment of Taiwan would put the United States in a tough position because they require countermeasures that would represent a significant step up the escalation ladder (i.e., striking mainland targets).  This, I worried, might dissuade the Americans from offering a response to some act of Chinese aggression that was seen as being “limited” to force-on-force duels at sea, not involving harm to anyone’s homeland.

An “anti-economic” strategy, however, could to some extent put China in an analogously stymied position, because while it would present real threats to the Chinese government, it need not necessarily involve actually attacking China directly at all. Facing moves only against far-flung overseas economic interests, trans-continental trade routes, pipeline routes across foreign soil, and maritime connections, it would be China that confronted the unhappy escalatory choice.  Maybe this would indeed be deterring.

But I take your point about U.S. allies.  If this hypothetical conflict were to break out over direct Chinese threats or moves against them, they certainly might not feel that they had the luxury of waiting around for Beijing to suffer economically.  If we, in effect, made clear our intention not to defend them militarily, I wouldn’t be surprised if our more technologically sophisticated friends started getting interested in extreme “self-help” remedies such as nuclear weapons development.  (In technical terms, this wouldn’t be very difficult for Tokyo or Seoul.)

So perhaps all I’m really suggesting is a sort of “CAD Plus” – namely, the more explicit integration of “economic denial” elements into U.S. contingency planning, as a way of focusing Beijing more upon its dramatic vulnerability in the event of conflict.


But that’s already at least implicitly the case, isn’t it?  It is often said that the biggest deterrent to trans-Pacific conflict is in fact the economic interdependence of both sides.  Reading between the lines, that sounds to me like an assessment that China’s export-led and foreign-resource-dependent growth would collapse in the event of war – as well as that such a conflict would inflict terrible harm upon a U.S. economy dependent upon Chinese exports of goods and capital.

And nobody surely doubts the ability of the U.S. military to disrupt China’s global economic network if it wanted to, right?  I don’t know why you would really need to point all this out, or to do any explicit posturing to that effect.  Since I can’t imagine planners in Beijing haven’t thought of these things, why roil the political waters by speaking what is surely already understood?


You have a lot of faith in the power of the unstated implication in perception management.  I’m more skeptical, and inclined to be more direct.  Why not – somehow – actually raise the issue openly?

And don’t be too sure that there exists some dusty Pentagon contingency plan along these lines either.  You’d think this is the kind of thing someone would have thought of, but never underestimate the ability of the U.S. policy community to miss an opportunity.  One hears leaks from time to time about China-related contingency planning, but I’ve never heard of anything like an “economic denial” addendum.  If the United States wants others to understand the costs it could impose on China in time of conflict, it needs to start by making clear it understands them itself.  Keeping absolutely mum about the whole issue might defeat the purpose.


This isn’t just about deterrence scare tactics, Archie.  Risk-manipulation and a degree of candor about threats can sometimes serve useful purposes, because the Sino-American relationship clearly does have a military-competitive component.  But that’s not the whole of it.  This isn’t the Cold War, and in parallel with managing deterrence with China, we also have to manage the considerable non-military aspects of this relationship – such as the economic interdependence we’ve been discussing, as well as “normal” political dealings with China and its neighbors in a complex international environment.  The challenge of Sino-American relations is that it involves both military-competitive and broad politico-economic interdependencies; it’s got both “zero sum” and “positive sum” aspects.  We’ve got to manage both of these axes at the same time.


That’s true enough.  But I would think it’s as wrong to ignore or neglect the military side of the equation as it would be to ignore the positive-sum aspects.  There are many social scientists in the West who think that there’s some kind of “law” of human society that democracies don’t go to war against each other.  That may or may not be true.  But to say this is not the same thing as saying that any countries with developed and interdependent market economies will not do so, especially when their political systems differ hugely and one sees itself as trying to reclaim a historical position of global centrality that the other currently possesses.  This may well happen from time to time, depending upon the circumstances.

Whether you take a realist perspective (e.g., focusing upon tensions between a rising power and a status quo power), adopt the idealist prism (e.g., focusing upon tensions between Leninist politics and the ideals of democratic pluralism), or look at things through a more constructivist lens (e.g., focusing upon conflicting perceptions of global-systemic role and identity), there is certainly at least the potential for more than just trivial Sino-American problems ahead.  You can’t just casually assume that economic growth and interdependence will easily or automatically bring peace.  I hope they will, and indeed they might.  But unless you’re quite positive of this – and I sense that neither of us can claim to be utterly certain – you can’t ignore the military-competitive axis.  Managed wisely, it sets a baseline for strategic stability, determining the parameters within which nonmilitary interactions, and hopefully mostly positive-sum ones, can take place.


My guess is that unless one side or the other overplays its hand – and here I would agree with you that China is playing a perilous game by raising the military stakes at a time when its regional and global future looks rosier than ever without the need for such provocative steps – the future of the Pacific Rim will more likely be decided by economic and political dynamics than by military ones.

But we’ve gone on too long already.  The future of the complex Sino-American relationship, my argumentative friend, will have to be a topic for another day.


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