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China Is Threatening Its Neighbors—But US Can Put a Stop to It
Chinese and Russian warship formations sail through the Tsugaru Strait during the naval exercise Joint Sea-2021 on October 18, 2021 in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)
Chinese and Russian warship formations sail through the Tsugaru Strait during the naval exercise Joint Sea-2021 on October 18, 2021 in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)

China Is Threatening Its Neighbors—But US Can Put a Stop to It

Bryan Clark

NATO leaders were united last week in their support for Ukraine’s military and pursuit of new ways to economically punish Russia for its unprovoked invasion. President Vladimir Putin shows no sign of stopping, but his commanders hint they may downsize their objectives in response to Kyiv’s stiff ­resistance.

US and allied leaders in the Indo-Pacific should apply lessons from Ukraine or they could find themselves facing a resurgent China empowered by a decade of gray-zone belligerence.

The Russian military is consolidating its gains in southeast Ukraine around Crimea and the Donbas region — two ­areas Moscow gained through an insurgency led by mercenaries and paramilitary troops. China is lifting a page from Moscow’s playbook in the South China Sea, where it has built and armed artificial islands along international shipping lanes and flight paths, and within the economic exclusion zones of multiple Southeast Asian nations.

By extending the reach of its air defenses and anti-ship missiles to the edges of its neighbors’ airspace and territorial waters, Beijing could keep its opponents’ ships in port and aircraft on the ground, giving China an advantage in any confrontation. And like Russia in eastern Ukraine, China uses its long-range weapons to protect its maritime militia and coast guard in the South and East China Sea as they harass rivals’ navies, fishing fleets and shipping vessels.

US and allied militaries have done little to confront or resist China’s gray-zone campaign. Freedom-of-navigation operations have failed to stop Beijing’s growing control and influence in the region. The increased frequency of friendly-carrier operations may be reassuring to US allies, but China’s behavior is unchanged and when the carriers leave, allies are once again on their own.

The Pentagon released its new defense strategy this week, which highlights “campaigning” as one of its three main actions. Although the ­unclassified fact sheet is short on details, campaigning entails operations to undermine coercion of US allies, complicate adversary decision-making, and develop US and partner capabilities.

Deterrence Needed

Campaigning should be the centerpiece of US operations and deterrence. But as the Ukraine invasion shows, China is unlikely to be deterred by threats. The formidable Chinese military is close enough to targets like Taiwan that leaders in Beijing could be convinced they will succeed. And economic sanctions, while potentially damaging, will not hurt China like they do against Russia.

The US military could more effectively deter China by mounting sustained operations that demonstrate US resolve, gauge Chinese responses, and refine US military capabilities and tactics. This approach to campaigning would tap into US advantages in areas that can impose reversible and deniable actions on China’s gray-zone efforts, such as electronic warfare and undersea warfare.

The US military could use unmanned aircraft like the MQ-9B Reaper to conduct electronic warfare against China’s South China Sea islands and maritime militia ships, jamming and deceiving their radars and radios, and gathering electronic intelligence for use in later confrontations. By using an unmanned aircraft, US commanders could accept the risk that an aircraft could be attacked, like the several MQ-9s lost in the Middle East to enemy fire.

Undersea warfare offers ways for the US military to create deniable impacts against Chinese forces, and was used throughout the Cold War to send messages to Moscow regarding US resolve. In the South China Sea, US unmanned undersea vehicles could cut communication cables connecting China’s islands to the mainland, foul dredges used to build and artificial features, and entangle or damage the propulsion systems of coast guard and militia ships. And if vehicles are captured, they would be an acceptable loss and US leaders could choose to claim or deny the operation.

To prevent a replay of Ukraine in the Western Pacific, the United States and its allies will need to take a new approach to deterrence that prioritizes engagement and confrontation against hybrid aggression, rather than a goal-line defense that adversaries don’t find credible. The new defense strategy may be a good step in that direction.

Read in New York Post

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