How Congress Can Get Deterrence Right in the Asia-Pacific

 In COVID-19, Defense, Indo-Pacific, Australian Capital Territory

Amid leg­isla­tive grid­lock sur­round­ing a new COVID-19 relief bill and the ongo­ing elec­tion season, one could be for­giv­en if they missed an impor­tant point of bipar­ti­san agree­ment found in the House and Senate ver­sions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021.  Both cham­bers have includ­ed funds for an “Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative” and “Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” each modeled after the European Defense Initiative adopt­ed last year.  Although impor­tant distinctions between each piece of leg­is­la­tion exist, this con­sen­sus high­lights the leg­isla­tive sup­port behind meet­ing U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders’ stated needs to ade­quate­ly deter the threat posed by China.  It also under­scores the impor­tance of deter­rence as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for U.S. defense strat­e­gy.  This con­cept deserves fur­ther atten­tion given its sup­port through­out Capitol Hill and its asso­ci­at­ed impli­ca­tions on the util­i­ty of American mil­i­tary forces in the region.      

The Department of Defense defines deter­rence as the “pre­ven­tion of action by the exis­tence of a cred­i­ble threat of unac­cept­able coun­ter­ac­tion and/or belief that the cost of action out­weighs the per­ceived ben­e­fits.” China’s deter­rence strat­e­gy is strik­ing­ly dif­fer­ent.  Beijing defines deter­rence as “the dis­play of mil­i­tary power or the threat of use of mil­i­tary power in order to compel an oppo­nent to submit.”  Chinese mil­i­tary writ­ing emphasizes that deter­rence has two impor­tant func­tions: “one is to dis­suade the oppo­nent from doing some­thing through deter­rence, the other is to per­suade the oppo­nent what ought to be done through deter­rence, and both demand the oppo­nent submit to the deter­rer’s voli­tion.”  China’s lead­er­ship pur­sues deter­rence to dis­suade rival chal­lenges to its core inter­ests and to compel other coun­tries to aban­don their nation­al inter­ests.  The U.S., by con­trast, uses deter­rence to dis­suade aggres­sive action that will alter the status quo.

The dis­tinc­tion found between U.S. and Chinese deter­rence prac­tices raises two impor­tant policy con­sid­er­a­tions.  First, it high­lights how China will chal­lenge the inter­na­tion­al status quo and pursue revan­chist claims in Taiwan and through­out the South China Sea.  While repeat­ed Chinese belligerence and encroach­ment in the region have most notably result­ed in inter­na­tion­al condemnation or rais­ing tensions with the U.S., it would be naïve to think such behav­ior rep­re­sents a fail­ure of policy.  Beijing deters by com­pelling the target of its aggres­sion to aban­don offen­sive inten­tions or forc­ing states to con­clude that the cost of resis­tance remains too high.  Chinese lead­er­ship sub­se­quent­ly views crisis as an avenue to achieve favor­able polit­i­cal out­comes.  No amount of money appro­pri­at­ed for deter­ring China or an increase of U.S. forces in the region will likely change Beijing’s approach.  America, there­fore, must devel­op a deter­rence strat­e­gy that mit­i­gates the util­i­ty of such efforts and not on ensur­ing they never occur.

Second, U.S. defense lead­ers need to re-exam­ine how U.S. con­ven­tion­al forces can deter China across the spec­trum of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.  Much of the pub­lic’s atten­tion to this issue focus­es on the anti-access/area-denial capa­bil­i­ties of Chinese forces and their asso­ci­at­ed chal­lenges for U.S. mil­i­tary forces in a high-end con­flict.  These con­cerns inform the Marine Corps’ cur­rent force design overhaul and the navy’s evolv­ing force realignment.  Beijing’s deter­rent meth­ods, how­ev­er, encom­pass more than the coer­cion asso­ci­at­ed with high-end con­flict.  China uses lim­it­ed con­ven­tion­al aggres­sion and irreg­u­lar forces, which com­bine para­mil­i­tary and con­ven­tion­al units, to pursue its deter­rent objec­tives in the region.  Examples of such behav­ior include efforts to estab­lish air defense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zones in the East and South China Seas, Chinese air encir­clement drills around Taiwan, and ongo­ing arti­fi­cial island construction in the South China Sea.  These and relat­ed acts of Chinese deter­rent behav­ior pose seri­ous ques­tions for U.S. mil­i­tary plan­ners because they nei­ther meet the thresh­old nec­es­sary for a large scale American mil­i­tary response nor indi­vid­u­al­ly seem that threat­en­ing.  Yet, China relies on these tac­tics because they remain dif­fi­cult to con­sis­tent­ly deter, erode faith in the American secu­ri­ty com­mit­ment to the region, and pro­vide Beijing the abil­i­ty to advance its inter­ests with­out resort­ing to con­flict.    

Although no single piece of leg­is­la­tion will lead Beijing to aban­don its malign behav­ior, this should not stop leg­is­la­tors from miss­ing the bipar­ti­san moment to help rethink and reshape a con­ven­tion­al deter­rence pos­ture in the region.  Congress’ cur­rent efforts rep­re­sent a com­mend­able start, but it must do more.  Undoubtedly, future con­ver­sa­tions will ensue that may lead many to ques­tion whether the cur­rent bipar­ti­san “counter China” head­winds are sus­tain­able.  If, how­ev­er, this debate rec­og­nizes the dif­fer­ences found between U.S. and Chinese approach­es to deter­rence and the need to com­pete with Beijing’s forces in sce­nar­ios short of war, then com­pet­ing par­ti­san strate­gies may advance this con­ver­sa­tion in a mean­ing­ful­ly impor­tant manner.

Adam Taylor recent­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the Marine Corps where he served as an avi­a­tion com­mand and con­trol offi­cer.  He is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing his M.A. in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions from American University’s School of International Service.  The opin­ions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any insti­tu­tion­al posi­tion of the Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

This arti­cle first appeared on RealClearDefense.

Image: U.S. Navy / Flickr

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