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A Strategy to Contest Beijing

The United States should craft a strategy aimed at altering the calculus of Beijing’s decision-makers.

Thomas G. Mahnken

In consideration of The Elements of the China Challenge, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State

Recent years have seen growing concern over the multidimensional challenge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) poses to the United States, its allies, and the established world order. The Elements of the China Challenge provides a keen diagnosis of the sources, motivations, and characteristics of the CCP’s conduct. Four features of China’s rise are of particular concern to the United States and its allies. An understanding of these features should serve as the basis of a long-term strategy to contest the CCP’s efforts, one that takes advantage of enduring American and allied strengths as well as enduring Chinese weaknesses.

The first point of concern involves the CCP’s approach to external affairs, which often appears both predatory and corrosive to American interests. While it is certainly true that the CCP leadership is highly attentive to threats to domestic stability, in recent years China has nevertheless become increasingly active on the international stage. It has exerted its weight not only in its neighborhood, but also in areas far removed from the Asian continent, including the Persian Gulf and Africa.

The second worrisome aspect of China’s rise involves Beijing’s geopolitical orientation. Whereas the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) long focused on the Asian continent, in recent decades it has increasingly adopted a maritime orientation. China intends its maritime orientation to negate the traditional American strength of projecting military power from afar. It is thus the build-up of the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force, as well as other anti-access/area denial (or, in Chinese parlance, counter-intervention) capabilities such as missiles and anti-satellite weapons, that have stimulated U.S. and allied responses, not Chinese military spending in the abstract. Moreover, Beijing has increasingly set its sights beyond the Western Pacific and is developing a military and support infrastructure with extra-regional reach.

A third concern, related to the previous two, stems from the CCP’s increasing dissatisfaction with the international status quo. China’s leadership has challenged the status quo both rhetorically and, increasingly, through action. Nothing illustrates this more tangibly than Beijing’s campaign of building and then militarizing new land features in the South China Sea as a means of bolstering its claim of ownership. Other Chinese actions, if less dramatic, have also undermined the rules upheld by the United States since World War II: launching cyberattacks against critical civilian infrastructure, pressuring foreign companies to ignore political oppression, stealing intellectual property, and using corruption networks to undermine governments.

A final concern revolves around China’s domestic political system. China’s authoritarian government and disregard for human rights and personal freedom have caused tension with the United States, its allies, and others nations. The CCP leadership firmly believes that the United States wants to overthrow it. In the interest of self-preservation, the CCP under Xi Jinping has set about making the world safe for authoritarianism by establishing a Sino-centric alternative to the liberal international order. Under this model, the hallmark of American global leadership—an open system of free trade and cooperative security buttressed by alliances, institutions, and rules—would succumb to a closed system in which transactional dealings with Beijing determine the fates of nations.

If these four features were to change—if China were to become more internally focused, emphasize the Asian continent over its maritime periphery, accept the status quo, and become more pluralistic—then the United States and its allies would worry less about China’s rise. Indeed, under those circumstances China might resemble today’s India, a rising power with growing economic strength that does not threaten American interests or the international order. The question that strategists concerned with the challenge China poses must address is: To what extent is it within the ability of the United States and its allies to influence these four features?

A strategy to contest Beijing should yield an expanded set of U.S. options while constraining those available to the CCP; it should give the United States momentum in the competition with China, forcing Beijing to respond to U.S. actions; and it should impose considerable costs on the CCP as it responds.

Targeting geography, alliances, technology, and doctrine has the potential to alter China’s calculus and, ultimately, its behavior. The United States should seek to use Asia’s geography—in particular, the barrier formed by Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines—to constrain China’s access to the Western Pacific in times of crisis or war. This could be accomplished by working with U.S. allies to deploy sensor networks and strike systems along China’s maritime flanks to deter aggression and generate a collective response should deterrence fail. The proliferation of unmanned strike systems and anti-aircraft weapons along China’s maritime flanks could pose a particularly nettlesome challenge to the PLA in light of their demonstrated effectiveness in Ukraine.

With regard to alliances, the United States should deepen its interoperability with allies to bolster their capabilities and strengthen their will. As the war in Ukraine demonstrates, the ability to gather and share information widely can be a powerful instrument of both diplomacy and war. Washington should consider building on current bilateral information-sharing agreements by establishing an open-architecture intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network in the Western Pacific. Support for broad information sharing in the region is likely to grow in the face of Chinese encroachment. Given the increasing quality and declining cost of both commercial imagery and the sensors that produce it, such arrangements will be feasible for a growing number of states.

The United States should also redouble efforts to deny China access to strategic technologies, both to safeguard its technological edge and also to impose costs. China has proved adept at pursuing a fast-follower strategy of acquisition, buying or stealing technology and the underlying intellectual property from both the United States and Russia. Efforts to deny China easy access to U.S. military technology and intellectual property will, at the least, delay such acquisition and make it more costly. In some cases, such efforts may force China to seek less capable substitutes to U.S. technology, and in other cases they may prevent Beijing from accessing critical technologies altogether.

Information security forms the first line of defense for U.S. technology, and far too often China has been able to steal critical information because of poor information security practices. Both government and private industry should strengthen measures to secure information. Restrictions on technology transfer also should be updated, both to reflect the current international technology market and to maximize their effectiveness. Moreover, it is in the national interest for the U.S. government and private industry to work cooperatively to develop best practices and share threat information. To be effective, such measures should prioritize technologies that are likely to provide the greatest battlefield edge in the future. These include space and cyber capabilities, unmanned systems, high-speed propulsion, advanced aeronautics, autonomous systems, electromagnetic railguns, and directed-energy systems.

In terms of doctrine, the United States should exploit the weaknesses inherent in China’s centralized approach to warfare, including the need to gather and process large volumes of information. Chinese military doctrine encompasses a strong belief that strategy is a science rather than an art and maintains great confidence in its ability to predict the outcome of conflicts. In order to bolster deterrence, the United States and its allies should work to reduce the confidence Chinese leaders have in their ability to control the course and outcome of a future conflict.

A strategy that touches on these four elements—geography, alliances, technology, and doctrine—if implemented consistently over time, holds the promise of influencing Chinese actions. Tactically, it would erode the effectiveness of Chinese counter-intervention systems. Operationally, it would deny the leadership of the PLA the type of war it has been planning for decades, forcing it to either double down on its investment in anti-access capabilities or seek a new approach.

But its greatest promise is likely to be strategic: Such an approach holds the potential to alter the decision-making calculus of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. A strategy of this type could markedly increase the costs to Beijing of pursuing a strategy of maritime expansion and potentially rechannel Chinese attention away from its maritime flanks and toward the Asian continent. A recognition of significantly higher costs to its global ambitions would hopefully give the Chinese leadership greater incentive to accept fundamental elements of the existing international order.

Such an approach holds the best hope of perpetuating a military strategy approximating the one that has supported U.S. interests for the better part of a century, one based on forward-stationed forces backed by power projection. Absent such efforts, the rise of China and the spread of precision-strike capabilities will increasingly put the United States in an unfavorable position in a series of regional military balances, which could ultimately threaten its global primacy.

Thomas G. Mahnken is a senior research professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning from 2006 to 2009.

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