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The Realistic Path to Deterring China
Ships belonging to the Chinese naval fleet pass through a naval mine threat area during the Joint Sea-2021 China-Russia military drill near Vladivostok, Russia on October 15, 2021. (Photo by Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)
Ships belonging to the Chinese naval fleet pass through a naval mine threat area during the Joint Sea-2021 China-Russia military drill near Vladivostok, Russia on October 15, 2021. (Photo by Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)

The Realistic Path to Deterring China

Bryan Clark & Dan Patt

China’s accelerating military modernization has spurred a growing fatalism among some defense experts, maintaining that Taiwan is undefendable and the United States should save face by competing elsewhere with Beijing. Strategists on the other side argue that the deteriorating cross-strait military balance demands a near-wartime mobilization to prevent an invasion of Taiwan and subsequent collapse of U.S.-led alliances. Unfortunately, both approaches are likely to fail due to the changing character of military confrontations, and focusing on them will divert resources away from a realistic path to deter China that stokes uncertainty and nullifies the benefits of aggression.

The autocracy that enables the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to prioritize security spending and fuse civil and military action also makes the regime brittle. Unfortunately, the main approaches to deterrence taken in recent U.S. defense strategies — punishment and denial — do not exploit this vulnerability.

Threats of punishment ring hollow when they would entail new disruptions and casualties, as evidenced by the lack of response following Russia’s annexation of Crimea or China’s provocations and island-building in the South China Sea. But completely denying Chinese aggression against Taiwan will require permanent increases in military posture by the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies that are likely unsustainable due to industrial-base constraints, inflation, and demands for forces in other regions. Even if the U.S. and allied forces did sustain a “ring of steel” around Taiwan, China could pressure Taipei with gray-zone or hybrid tactics and economic warfare.

The blurred line between peace and war exemplified by gray-zone operations renders the Pentagon’s traditional planning constructs obsolete. Military competitions are now a continuous game in which participants seek local or temporary advantage and deterrence becomes a matter of convincing opponents that the costs of aggression will exceed its expected benefits. As the Pentagon completes its new defense strategy, it should ensure that the U.S. military focuses more on reducing Chinese confidence and less on building a wall across the Taiwan Strait.

Invest in Surprise

Authoritarian governments benefit from their ability to mobilize national resources behind their leaders’ goals, but they also face the prospect of regime collapse, rather than an electoral setback, in response to economic or military failure. These higher stakes make uncertainty more of a problem for China compared to the United States and create an opportunity for deterrence. The U.S. should use its operations, posture, and capability development to elevate the likelihood of failure in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and CCP assessments of potential military actions. This would require a campaign of continual surprise, rather than repetitive international exercises or freedom of navigation operations.

Developing surprise requires understanding what PLA or CCP leaders are likely to expect. Information from U.S. and allied intelligence communities should be assessed alongside the growing mountains of data revealed by open-source and commercial surveillance. Identifying patterns and predicting responses and behavior, as U.S. forces did in Iraq and Afghanistan, will depend on computerized tools, many of which are already available. Most importantly, however, insights will need to be automatically generated and sent to operational commanders instead of slowly making their way through intelligence and policy channels.

Armed with the knowledge of what is expected, commanders need the ability to create surprise through changing force compositions, not large static mobilizations that are unsustainable and will eventually be countered by an opponent like China with home-field advantage. Investments across Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) should prioritize operational infrastructure such as logistics, pre-positioned munitions, and relocatable missile defenses that afford more force-packaging options by relieving individual aircraft, ships, and ground units of some self-protection and sustainment burdens. And to integrate new force packages in theater, the U.S. military will need to accelerate tools for advancing decision support, interoperability, and dynamic network configuration through its Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative.

U.S. forces will need greater range and resilience to afford commanders a wider range of options. Giving carrier aircraft, bombers, and missiles longer reach through aerial refueling or by trading warhead size for fuel expands options for basing and targets. Farther forward, inside forces at sea and ashore exploiting distribution, electromagnetic warfare, and deception could constrain the choices and increase the uncertainty for Chinese planners.

Instead of the Pentagon’s decades-long acquisition process, INDOPACOM leaders and Pentagon officials should collaborate to promptly address key operational problems that will prevent successful defense of Taiwan or other allies. For example, without the ability to sustain air operations from Guam or send submarines into the East China Sea, INDOPACOM’s decision space becomes narrow and its operations predictable. By more widely adopting the combined development-and-operations model currently used by rapid-capability offices and commercial software creators, the U.S. military could sustain its ability to present surprises to Chinese decision-makers.

Poison the Prize

Deterring Beijing requires reducing the benefits of aggression in addition to raising the uncertainty of success. U.S. demonstrations and troop presence on defended territory such as Taiwan or Japan’s Southwest Islands can increase the risks for CCP leaders of multilateral entanglement and stiffen the resolve of allies, which could threaten to turn a fait accompli invasion into a protracted insurgency.

A potentially more consequential form of entanglement is commercial. The U.S. government should incentivize Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC to continue expanding its American fabrication facilities and establish regular technical exchanges, including rotations of personnel, between Taiwan and the United States. By reducing China’s ability to corner high-end microprocessor production, U.S. policymakers could withhold from Beijing some of its potential post-invasion spoils and leverage.

Engage Persistently

The approach of persistent engagement pioneered by U.S. Cyber Command provides a model that American forces could use to create surprise and reinforce the likely repercussions of aggression. By continuously probing and testing an opponent’s defenses, persistent engagement can reveal an adversary’s planned responses or potential vulnerabilities. In the continuous game of modern military competitions, the ability to adapt more quickly than an opponent will be a crucial advantage.

Pentagon leaders need to address the threat posed by China in ways that are sustainable and likely to deter aggression. The threats of nuclear escalation, as used against the Soviets, or of certain conventional defeat, as used against Iran, may not work against China. The U.S. military will need to mount a campaign of creating uncertainty, lowering the benefits of aggression, and continuous adaptation to accomplish what a ring of steel is unlikely to do.

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