Are China’s Near Seas “Anti-Navy” capabilities aimed directly at the United States?
Yes, but it’s more complicated than that. In the military realm, Washington and Beijing face a situation that is complex both in concept and in policy implications. In contrast to its mostly-settled land borders , China’s island and maritime zone claims in the “Near Seas” remain mostly unresolved.
To further its still-contested claims in these “Three Seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas), China is developing increasingly-sophisticated capabilities to hold at risk forces of the U.S. and its allies and friends in that region and its immediate approaches. While some of these anti-access/area denial (A2/AD)—or, from Beijing’s perspective, “counter-intervention”—capabilities are naval in nature, land-based missiles controlled by the Second Artillery Force and land-based aircraft constitute many of the most potent and potentially effective ones. Thus, merely comparing the two nations’ navies as a whole, whatever allowances are made for the fact that the globally-distributed and -tasked U.S. Navy could not divert the majority of its platforms to the Near Seas even in wartime, fails to capture the true extent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s emerging challenge to the U.S. Navy. For this reason, some U.S. government analysts refer to China’s A2/AD forces as an “Anti-Navy .”
Chinese policymakers by no means desire war with the U.S., which would be ruinous to both sides, as well as to the region more generally; and would completely derail China’s domestic development, which remains a priority of China’s leadership second only to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power. Rather, their goal is to deter U.S. forces from intervening in regional disputes in which Beijing is involved in the first place. For instance, the cross-Strait military balance has shifted dramatically over the past decade. While the U.S. military retains great capabilities vis-à-vis mainland China, Taiwan has no major areas of superiority left with which to resist coercion—save for the substantial natural defenses that have been conferred on it by geography and which could be enhanced significantly should Taipei pursue a “Porcupine Strategy ” more robustly. Likewise, in all major bilateral scenarios, China enjoys substantial military advantages over each of its neighbors in the South China Sea. Moreover, Chinese policymakers believe that their nation has far stronger, more enduring interests in the Near Seas than does the U.S. So it’s readily apparent why Chinese military planners view developing credible capacity to deter American military intervention as essential to realizing their major strategic objectives, and are optimistic about their long-term prospects in this regard.
Despite these undeniable challenges, however, the U.S. retains significant advantages that are likely to persist in many respects, even as the world changes significantly in coming years. Moreover, beyond the Near Seas, Sino-American strategic dynamics are very different. With no claims to inflame Chinese sensitivities, and with sea lanes on which both nations rely for their economic lifeblood but which are threatened by non-state actors such as Somali pirates, the “Far Seas” of the Indian Ocean and beyond offer a zone of potential cooperation for the U.S., China, and a host of other nations that can play a constructive role in sustaining and defending the global system.
Near Seas dynamics are important, then, but must be viewed in larger perspective. Several pronounced trends are shaping a world in which the U.S. is moving beyond its “unipolar moment,” yet appears poised to remain the world’s sole superpower for years to come.
- First, the world is witnessing the rapid ascension of several developing regional powers—namely China, India, and Brazil—of potentially pivotal importance geostrategically and economically, particularly because of their strategic locations, vibrant populations, productive societies, and governmental ambitions. Second, diffusion of knowledge and the education of talented individuals are dispersing technological development around an increasingly “flat” (interconnected) world. For a long time to come, the U.S. will remain the only nation capable of operating militarily in the vast majority of the global commons, thanks to continued superiority in long-range precision strike, power projection, and non-military operations support capabilities. But the rise of irregular tactics and cyber warfare may prove increasingly difficult to address decisively.
- Third, the world is entering an unprecedented, likely irreversible, demographic transformation. Henceforth, the developing world will produce the majority of population growth, thereby increasing its influence; but within the developed world, the U.S. will experience similarly disproportionate growth. The result is that some of the societies with which the U.S. shares the most common values and closest alliances are aging to the point that their populations are likely to suffer from constrained economic growth and reduced willingness to expend resources for military purposes.
- Fourth, a vast global middle class is emerging that desires “Western” living standards. Coupled with overall population growth, stressing the global environment, and in particular on water, energy, food, commodities, and other strategic resources.
- Fifth, the interconnected nature of the post-Cold-War twenty-first-century world, while yielding unprecedented prosperity and life possibilities, has also unleashed unprecedented potential for their disruption.
- Finally, while non-state and transnational factors may provide potent rationale for states to cooperate, differences in national interest may complicate matters even here. Furthermore, there is a potential collective action problem as more great powers and regional powers active in international organizations mean more difficulty in reaching consensus, and more vetoes over potential courses of collective action. At the same time, the rise of so many developing powers with low per capita resources means that they are likely to want increased status and influence, yet be reluctant to commit major resources to global public goods provision.
Asia-Pacific: Key Region
As the world’s most economically dynamic region, its greatest source of climate-changing pollution, and the one most militarily dynamic—the most at risk for high-intensity conflict as well as perhaps the most vulnerable to non-traditional security threats—the Asia-Pacific is the most critical area for Washington to understand the aforementioned trends and act accordingly. The world is witnessing an unprecedented transfer of wealth and influence from West to East. The Asia-Pacific is emerging not only as the twenty-first century’s most critical arena of world affairs, but also as a bellwether and microcosm of key trends that are already beginning to define the emerging international system.
China: Center of a Rising Asia
China in particular is enjoying remarkable growth that is funding robust civil and military development, and greatly increasing its diplomatic and environmental influence. To understand key world energy and resource trends over the next two decades, one must look to Asia—particularly China. China’s tremendous appetite for natural resources in particular will remain a key influence behind economic and security policies in the East Asian region and abroad. Possessing the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, a formidable yet opaque sovereign wealth fund, and recent investment overseas further enhance Beijing’s leverage.
China’s rise offers many positive opportunities for all Asia-Pacific nations, including the U.S. China shares national interests in development, trade, and security from sub-state and transnational threats with nations throughout the region and around the globe. Unfortunately, however, it also poses increasing challenges to other nations’ interests and key elements of the existing order.
A fundamental question, then, is how China envisions the future role of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific. The coincidence of America’s rise on the world stage with China’s more than a century of withdrawal from it means that China and the U.S. have never been powerful simultaneously. This unprecedented situation will require considerable adjustment in thinking on all sides, and here again the Asia-Pacific region is bearing witness to the evolution of key trends well before they characterize the world as a whole.
While it has been noticeably flexible and positive in other areas, with respect to its present territorial and maritime claims, China is unyielding. Aided by the fact that the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing is attempting to lead a small minority of 23 of 192 UN member states in promoting revisionist and inconsistent interpretations of the convention in order to prohibit undesired operation of foreign military platforms in its claimed EEZ and the airspace above it . Chinese prohibition of military operations in virtually the entire South China Sea would threaten freedom of navigation in some of the world’s most important shipping and energy lanes, as well as set a precedent for 38% of the world’s oceans potentially claimed as EEZ areas to be similarly restricted—even by nations that lacked the capacity to maintain order there in the face of sub-state threats. The U.S. is therefore working with interested members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), not to adjudicate regional maritime claim disputes—which as a matter of policy it does not do—but rather to ensure that these nations are not unfairly pressured by China.
Given China’s increasingly assertive rhetoric, reliance on nationalism as a source of CCP legitimacy amid possible economic and social challenges, and preoccupation with bureaucratic politics leading up to the transition to fifth-generation leadership this year, it is unlikely that China’s approach will become more positive or conciliatory in the near future. Where many of China’s neighbors were recently attracted by its impressive soft power approach, they are now increasingly concerned and seek U.S. support as a hedge against Chinese irredentism. The U.S. thus remains critical to maintaining a stable balance of power, and thereby preserving peace, in the Asia-Pacific.
Since World War II, the U.S. has helped to secure and maintain the global commons—key mediums used by all but owned by none. Initially, this involved the sea and air; more recently, it has come to include the space and cyber dimensions. In order to further its parochial interests, Beijing wishes to impose antiquated territorial notions on the portions of these commons that adjoin its territory, and to do so it is developing A2/AD capabilities designed specifically to prevent U.S. and allied military intervention in any related scenarios. Like other lesser potential military competitors, it purposely avoids matching U.S. forces directly, and instead privileges operations optimized for a relatively narrow range of contingencies and missions.
To avoid excessive vulnerability to Chinese coercion, the U.S. and its allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific should therefore pursue force structures and operational approaches that are less susceptible to asymmetric challenges while not so escalatory in nature as to be difficult or problematic to use, and hence not credible deterrents in many scenarios.
The U.S. must understand challenges inherent in its alliances and partnerships themselves, and work closely with its counterparts to address them. Washington must be sensitive to historical grievances and symbolism, and maintain robust connections and dialogue with actors across the political spectrum in each of its allies and friends.
People matter, and so too do population trends: by 2025-30, China and India will trade places demographically, when India will achieve the world’s largest population and will be growing rapidly as China’s population peaks and begins to decline slightly. China is thus emulating its Northeast Asian neighbors Japan and South Korea in rapid aging, the U.S. is holding steady, and India is in demographic ascendance. Exceptional demographics will increase the proportion of American population, wealth, and influence in the developed world, maintaining Washington’s appeal as an alliance partner. The U.S. and its allies must work with India and other more youthful powers to further international norms and the rule of law in a changing world.
As for mainland China, its current trajectory with respect to economic development and military growth is impressive, and is likely to remain so for at least another decade. But ca. 2030-35 by even the most optimistic estimates, China will start aging to such a degree as to call any straight-line projections of these trends into serious doubt. More likely, China’s accretion of comprehensive national power will resemble an “S-curved ” pattern, in which a great power in its early years of modernization can exploit low labor costs and initial infrastructure investment to grow rapidly, but ultimately assumes social welfare and international burdens that progressively slow its growth, and may even check its rise in the international system.
Cooperation against Common Threats
Overall, there is reason for considerable optimism: all East, Northeast, and Southeast Asian states are opposed to terrorism and other illegal and disruptive activities by non-state actors. Even North Korea, while still engaging in limited lethal military actions and criminal activities to obtain hard currency, does not currently support sub-state terrorist activities—unlike Iran, for example. Despite their differences regarding appropriate definitions of, and policies toward, terrorism, the U.S., India, China, and other nations have all suffered severely from it and are working hard to prevent it.
These shared threats—which reveal shared interests in economic development, trade, and the security of the global commons—offer a compelling rationale for further cooperation among regional nations. This is particularly true as globalization generates further nontraditional security threats, and nations develop better military and non-military means to address them—thereby furnishing more capabilities and expertise to share and compare. The potential for this approach is demonstrated even in the volatile U.S.-China relationship. The tragic events of 11 September 2001 helped to “reset” relations between Washington and Beijing temporarily, with the latter offering significant assistance. More recently, China has developed military capabilities to provide public goods that it lacked utterly a decade ago.
Ultimately, America’s position in the international system is a question of its power, purpose, and provision of goods that benefit allies and other nations, as well as such component systems as the global commons. The U.S. now faces a world in which some of its weightiest historical missions of previous years have been largely accomplished. But it remains preeminent and indispensable, the only power with the ability and willingness to accomplish certain things that are vitally necessary for the continued function of the international system.
In today’s “unipolar” or “uni-multipolar” world, being a good global citizen for the U.S. will increasingly entail assembling and working with coalitions, and even to encourage other nations to engage in positive leadership of their own. The former is the very essence of the U.S. Maritime Strategy ; the latter is the essence of Washington’s encouraging Beijing to act as a “responsible stakeholder.” Recognizing that China is an increasingly powerful state that desires to build great power status and play an important role on the world stage, Washington rightly suggests that the U.S. and other nations will recognize China in this regard in proportion to the contributions that it makes to the public good. Or, as the concept is expressed in the popular American movie ‘Spiderman’, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As we move further into the twenty-first century, it will increasingly be an Asia-Pacific century. Several trends seem likely to define the emerging international system, and America’s role within it. China is clearly poised to play an important role in the region and the world even as the U.S. does as well; Washington and Beijing must come to terms with their unprecedented coexistence as great powers. Fortunately, Washington is well-placed to turn these challenges into opportunities, provided that it pursues intelligent, pragmatic policies and works well with a growing network of allies, friends, and partners—including, in many areas, China.
For the foreseeable future, then, a key question is to what extent the U.S. and China will be willing to cooperate in the Far Seas, even as their relationship suffers from profound strategic distrust and they experience strategic friction in the Near Seas. Washington seems open to such a bifurcated approach, but it remains uncertain whether Beijing will embrace it given historical sensitivities, nationalism, and possible erosion of economic growth as a source of CCP legitimacy. China, for its part, lacks aspirations or capability to dominate the Far Seas for the foreseeable future, but appears already to be seeking influence in the Near Seas and the East Asian region sufficient to achieve veto power over major activities there that it believes inimical to its core interests and security. The U.S., meanwhile, is a status quo power that is strongly committed to maintaining the existing global system, which could not be sustained in its present form if China carved out a zone of exceptionalism in the Near Seas. Current trends suggest that Beijing’s growth in capabilities, while extremely dynamic of late, will slow; while Washington’s strengths, while not unchallenged as before, will endure to a considerable extent. The two great Asia-Pacific powers must thus continue to manage a difficult relationship in the Near Seas, even as they enjoy significant prospects for achieving competitive coexistence more generally.