Worry less about China’s rise than its fall
Current U.S. security policy and the “strategic pivot” toward Asia are rooted in the premise that China’s rise to economic and military power threatens U.S security. This pivot elevates Beijing from strategic competitor to likely adversary. It also justifies the Defense Department’s nascent Air-Sea Battle strategy, whose stated aim is to ensure that the U.S. has the military means to counter a growing Chinese threat, maintain access to the commons and promote regional security.
Expectations of China’s rise may prove accurate. Nothing is certain, however, and like any good business analysis, sound security policy must consider and hedge against a broad range of plausible outcomes. From this perspective, current security policy toward China reflects misplaced priorities and is woefully incomplete. It fails to draw sufficiently on nonmilitary tools of national power. Likewise, the evolving military strategy is immature; it fails to consider China in the context of competing priorities and the most likely threats.
In this context, Air-Sea Battle strategy appears myopic in its overreliance on kinetic solutions and tacitly fails to balance joint capabilities. But its real problem is more fundamental: Air-Sea Battle is flawed because it is based on the prospect of direct military confrontation with China.
One has only to consider the deeply intertwined and dependent nature of the U.S. and Chinese economies to understand that this prospect, while possible, is highly improbable. It certainly does not warrant DoD’s lopsided investment in naval and air capabilities in this fiscal environment, and it distracts from the more likely conflicts in which the U.S. might find itself. (The most likely future threats to U.S. interests will emanate from nongoverned spaces and collapsing states, and there is also the distant possibility of fights against Chinese proxies in developing nations over access to and control of resources.)
In fact, current U.S. policy and military strategy are likely to turn China into an adversary. The Air-Sea Battle strategy serves only to increase the prospects of direct conflict with Beijing. This may be of use to the Air Force and Navy, which now have a Soviet-like bogeyman to support budget arguments.
Sensible policy should recognize that failing to change U.S. policy and implementing this military strategy increases U.S., Chinese and global economic risk. Conflict with China would certainly interrupt or even end world trade as we understand it. The catastrophic effects on the U.S., Chinese and global economies in this scenario are easy to envision; economic suicide is not a sound basis on which to build responsible security strategy.
The Likelier Threats
Those who would focus national security strategy on the rise of an adversarial China are missing a perhaps more compelling threat: the prospect of a failing China.
Numerous authoritative assessments reveal disturbing indicators of internal instability that could manifest in undesirable ways. The challenge for the Chinese Communist Party is immense and growing steadily. The current transition of power to new CCP leaders and growing regional embrace of the U.S. further complicate this challenge. A massive human migration continues from rural to urban areas, yet the population remains polarized between very poor, disadvantaged rural citizens and better-off urban Chinese. The government’s repressive methods, a sign of a regime struggling for legitimacy, conflicts with an expanding and educated middle class that expects the rapid growth of capitalism and free enterprise to continue. Demand for constrained resources is still rising, even as two decades of torrid economic growth begin to cool. Pollution is pervasive.
These internal pressures are already provoking the CCP to act aggressively beyond China’s borders in an attempt to distract its population. The likely targets of Chinese aggression are relatively easy to identify: Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The regional and economic security implications of an unstable Chinese regime that lashes out at neighbors or competitors requires a well-developed security strategy. Elements of Air-Sea Battle strategy would certainly play a key role.
However, a complete military strategy must consider more than military power. Moreover, any military planning must consider that land power, of which little is made by Air-Sea Battle, will inevitably play a critical role in any enduring security solution. On a continent of billions, there is potential for humanitarian issues on an incomprehensible scale: mass movements of refugees into neighboring nations, unimaginable numbers of internally displaced persons and more. These are not problems that can be effectively addressed by air or sea power.
A more constructive security policy would not provoke an adversarial relationship. Rather, it would attempt to promote further Chinese integration into the global economy while using diplomatic, informational, military and economic power to limit malign Chinese influence outside its borders. Comprehensive policy should begin with a holistic assessment of potential threats to regional security interests and economic co-prosperity. Such an assessment would look beyond China’s improving military capabilities and consider the nature and scope of its internal challenges. It would note that these issues could destabilize China and its industrial production and that the global economy is so interdependent that instability in one major partner has dire consequences for all. Turning the lens on the U.S. for a moment, such an assessment would conclude that the most compelling security risk to U.S. prosperity — indeed, its Achilles’ heel — is its economic dependency on a highly vulnerable Chinese political and domestic system.
Planning against such contingencies is a national imperative. Policymakers must consider all available instruments of national power to mitigate adverse outcomes. It demands a balance of strong economic and industrial policy with a supporting and more realistic military strategy. One intent of such a policy must be to develop alternative industrial capacity elsewhere in the world while reducing stakes in China to a manageable level. Industrial and economic policy must be shaped to develop regional security through economic and security cooperation. The Marshall Plan offers one economic-centric model that was fundamentally a strategy to bolster European security and economies while delimiting Soviet influence. Hugely expensive, foreign investment on this scale would be a challenge in an economically challenging time. However, it would be a prudent hedge against interrupted or dramatically reduced Chinese production.
Such a policy requires DoD to put the growing Chinese threat in context and prioritize joint strategy toward preparation for the most likely future conflicts. Moreover, it would require balance of the military with other instruments of national power. DoD should be the strongest advocate for such a China policy. No one understands the implications of poor policy better than the armed services, which are too often the instrument of choice to address failed policy. AFJ
COL. JOHN A. MAUK directs the Analysis, Models and Simulations division of the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership and Development. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not reflect official policy or position of the Army War College, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or any other U.S. government agency.