The Ambiguous “China Threat”

SINGAPORE – For more than a decade, China’s geopolitical ambitions, backed by the People’s Liberation Army’s ongoing modernization, have fueled a debate about whether regional security dilemmas and competition – particularly with the United States – will escalate. While most policy analysts agree that China’s expanding role in global economic and security affairs will shape the Asia-Pacific region’s strategic environment, no clear consensus has emerged on the form that this influence will take.

A closer look at the debate reveals why. Interpretations of the “China threat” reflect diverse perspectives and opposing viewpoints in Europe, the US, and Asian. As a result, the potential consequences of China’s rise remain ambiguous.

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On the one hand, China’s economic-growth trajectory has strengthened regional cooperation through increased trade, better economic incentives, and closer commercial ties. On the other hand, China’s geopolitical and strategic assertiveness, coupled with its military modernization, is creating new security dilemmas and exacerbating existing problems.

In fact, China plays a role in every security issue – traditional or unconventional – facing the Asia-Pacific region. While it is difficult to determine China’s long-term strategic intentions, it is clear that the country’s efforts over the last decade to acquire advanced weapons systems, platforms, and technologies are gradually shifting regional security paradigms and challenging US strategic primacy.

Since the late 1990’s, China’s strategic priorities and the PLA’s defense doctrine have increasingly focused on “diversified missions.” This includes “active defense” operations, which aim to deter, delay, or prevent encroachment by other countries, specifically the US, into certain areas – such as Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, and the South China Sea – in the event of regional conflict.

To this end, China has been developing anti-satellite weapons, conventional ballistic missiles, long-range precision cruise missiles, electronic and cyber-warfare capabilities, submarines, surface combat vessels, multi-role combat aircraft, and advanced integrated air, missile, and early-warning defense systems.

In the long term, depending on the trajectory and modalities of China’s strategy and capabilities, the US might need to adjust the scope of its military involvement in the region, limiting its operational conduct and freedom of action, particularly with regard to aircraft-carrier group deployments. For example, if China took measures in a future crisis scenario to disrupt the buildup of American combat power in certain places and at certain times, the US would need to create alternative points of entry for its reinforcements, delaying its initial and follow-on responses.

America’s political and military establishment understands the increasing importance and complexity of East Asia’s security challenges, including the strategic and operational dilemmas that China’s ongoing defense transformation is generating. As a result, in 2009, the US Navy and Air Force signed a classified memo to initiate an inter-service effort to develop a new joint operational concept – the AirSea Battle.

While the ASB does not specifically target China as an adversary, it is designed to limit China’s incipient systems and capabilities. The ASB centers on a “networked, integrated attack-in-depth” (a preemptive precision strike), aimed at “disrupting, destroying, and defeating” threats.

The ASB would be conducted in three distinct phases. First, the US would strike the PLA’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets from afar through a “blinding campaign,” in order to deny Chinese situational awareness and enable American forces to access the battleground.

The US would then execute a “missile suppression campaign,” which would disrupt the PLA’s air-defense and missile networks by stealthy long-range platforms, supported by submarine-launched weapons and sensors. Finally, American forces would conduct diverse follow-on operations, such as “distant blockades,” in order to seize the operational initiative and ensure protracted US freedom of action in the region.

But strategic ambiguity and uncertain operational consequences have hindered the ASB since its inception. For example, US allies in the region question whether and to what extent the ASB foresees active allied participation in the envisioned deep-strike missions targeting China’s surveillance systems and long-range missiles. Critics also point to the high risk of escalation resulting from such operations, including the possibility of a nuclear response.

To be sure, the ASB concept is still in its early stages of development. It will be tested and calibrated to account for changing strategic realities, available defense resources, inter-service debates, and American forces’ operational experience.

It is increasingly clear that both China and the US are gradually adopting a portfolio of defense doctrines, operational concepts, and capabilities that will enable their militaries to offset, deny, delimit, and interfere with each other’s strategic engagement in the region. In order to mitigate security risks, military diplomacy and dialogue between China and the US must be enhanced. Effective confidence-building measures are crucial to diminishing the threat of confrontation in the region.